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John Martin Honigberger - Maharajah Ranjit Singh's Doctor

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The maharajah’s European doctor


John Martin Honigberger, a native of Kronstadt in Transylvania (no Dracula jokes please!), was a medical man. He spent 15 years at Lahore, as a physician and a Director of a gunpowder mill in the service of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. He was at Lahore at the British ‘annexation’, after which he was made to relinquish his former position on receipt of a pension.

His published work, Thirty-Five Years In The East, was released in two volumes with part 1 being an autobiographical narrative and volume 2 concentrating on medical matters. That being said, in volume 1 the author frequently refers to the medicine he used and encountered during his travels.

The work is a fascinating one, for many reasons. In addition to the references to both traditional eastern and early western practices in combating disease, there are also brief but interesting accounts of some of the religious behaviour he witnessed. His thoughts towards the then emerging field of pharmacology are also documented and he often contrasts eastern and western practice.

Honigberger’s status meant he was also privy to or at least in close proximity to the bloody political intrigues that took place after the death of the popular monarch. Here too he provides his own version of events.

I will be posting extracts purely out of itihaasik interest which should hopefully make the work more accessible to any interested brothers and sisters, especially the younger generation. I hope some of you enjoy. Personally I love these glimpses into our past.


Shia-Sunni animosity at Urugurd [somewhere in Middle East]

We saw fakirs and dervishes, with tiger-skins round their bodies, their long black hair hanging down and covering their faces and backs, beating themselves with iron- headed clubs, till the blood flowed down their bodies. They ran like savage beasts, or

maniacs, through the streets and bazaars, howling, " Ya Ali !"

One of our friends, a native of Bagdad, told us, that if any of the Sunits [sunnis], to which sect he belonged, should

venture that day to acknowledge his religion, he would run the risk of being immolated by the fanatical Persians ; so

inveterate is the hatred between these two sects, though they are both Mahomedan ; and this is not the case in

Persia alone, but in every place where Shias and Sunits are living together. Great animosity prevails between these two*

sects in India, also on the day on which the Shias expose the Tabut ( coffin ) in procession. In Cashmere, on these

occasions, the Mahomedans burn each others' houses and shawl manufactories.

Honigberger's desire to reach Lahore and witnessing the selling of children in Bagdad due to famine

I received some good news from Lahore, through a Persian who had been in the service of General Avitabile, which induced me again to attempt going there at the commencement of the favourable season, i, e.,

the early part of the winter ( 1829 ). I felt the more inclined to do so, as the plague was already raging at Mosul, and the

inhabitants of Bagdad were fearful that it might extend as far as their own city, a thing which occurred soon after.

In the year 1828, there had been at Mosul and its environs, a famine, in consequence of the crops failing, and numerous

families went down the Tigris to settle at Bagdad, selling, their children for a mere trifle, owing to the want of means

to support them. I myself saw a beautiful Christian girl purchased for twenty grush ( four shillings ).

Travelling disguised as Muslims and staying at a mosque.

Our camel driver advised us to lodge in the mosques, in order to be taken for Mahomedans. By so doing, we were provided

with food gratis, by the hospitable Musselmans. I and my servant were dressed in the costume of the inhabitants of

Bagdad ; we could speak the Persian, Arabic, and Turkish languages, had long beards, and addressed each other as

Hajee, i. e., pilgrim. Our carpets, which constituted our beds, were quite similar, and were placed close to one an-

other. We ate together, according to the eastern custom, using our fingers instead of knives and forks ; in fact, we

played our parts so well, that none recognised us as Christians. Having our quarters in the mosque, it was very

annoying for us to see the Musselmans come five times in twenty-four hours, to offer up their prayers. They thought it

strange that we, as pilgrims and their guests, did not join in their devotions. It is true, we could easily have done so, but

knowing how to excuse ourselves, we did not like to push our dissimulation any further. We had only to whisper into

the ear of one of them that we were unclean. From that expression they inferred that we had the gonorrhoea, which excuse became a public secret ; and we thus got out of the difficulty.


Honigberger in native dress

Edited by dalsingh101
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Reaching Lahore

From Mooltan to Lahore we went on horseback. The journey from Bagdad to Lahore occupied four months ;

i.e., two by water, and two by land. On my arrival at Lahore, I found that the king, Runjeet Sing, with his army

and the four French officers, was absent, having gone towards Peshawur.

Nihangs and corporal punishment under Ranjit Singh

I introduced to our distinguished guests. Col. Wade and Dr. Murray, an Akalee or Nahung, whose nose, ears and

hands had been cut off by order of Runjeet Sing (he had even deserved the gallows ), and whose nose had been so

well restored in the mountains that we were all surprised,and confessed it could not have been better done in Europe.

As we know, from history, this operation was even in the remotest antiquity, practised by the Hindoos ; and they

fermed the nose out of the cuticle of the forehead, which proceeding is now, and always will be the same. In Europe,

where cutting off of noses is only in use, in exceptional cases — as when ulceration or other circumstances make it

requisite — this operation is usually performed with the cuticle of the arm, and judiciously too, as, according to our

custom, the head mostly is uncovered, and a scar on one's forehead, with a new nose on the face, makes rather an ugly

appearance ; whilst, in the East, the scar remains hidden beneath the turban.

In time of peace, the Nahungs gave a great deal of trouble to Runjeet Sing. On one occasion, he was even

forced to place two pieces of cannon outside the Delhi Gate of Lahore, in the vicinity of Seidgenj, where the robbers

congregate, because this band dared to intercept the communication of that city. They shut themselves up in Meea-

Meer, five miles distant from Lahore, thence they made their appearance as rebels, but they were defeated, and

forced to depart, and from the town also, to Umritsir.

The individual just alluded to as deserving the gallows, had cut off the arm of a sentinel, for having prevented

him from entering the tent of the king by a private entrance. The Nahung had a servant with him, who

underwent no punishment, because he did not behave in an aggressive manner ; but the offender, by the order of Runjeet Singh, lost his ears, nose, and hands, by the same sabre with which he had so skilfully cut off the arm of the soldier on royal duty.

After the sad execution, he ran to drown himself in a well, but was prevented by the people who were accidentally present. When the king was informed of the fact, the culprit was sent to me, and put under

my care and medical attendance, with strict orders to watch him, to prevent his committing suicide, and to present him,

when cured, to the king. According to his own statement, he was drunk with bhang ( hemp ) when he committed the

crime, and his only intention for intruding on the king had been to ask a gapa ( gift ). These robbers do not like to enter

military service ; they prefer begging, and living by pillage.

Will post more soon.

Edited by dalsingh101
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Food prohibitions of Sikhs and Hindus.

The spirit produced from Cabul grapes, for the use of Runjeet Sing, was distilled in that place in my presence, by his own people, because everything eatable or drinkable, destined for Sikhs and Hindoos, must be prepared by their own hands, no Christian or Musselman being permitted to touch it, lest they should pollute it.

Unflattering description of Ranjit Singh

The king of England had at this time sent five immense horses as a present to Runjeet Sing. Alex. Burnes had brought them up the Indus*, and they were much admired for their size and uncommon height. One of them was lost on the way, and another became the famous riding-horse of the Maharajah, who, being of a very low stature, appeared, when on the back of the animal, like an ape on an elephant.

*Burnes was probably spying for the English during this 'delivery'.

Avitable hangs Muslims for beef eating

General Allard told me that the Maharajah once reprimanded him for having executed some musselmans ; whom General Avitable had ordered hung because they were of opinion, that, under the protection of a European governor they might be at liberty to eat beef! The opinion of Runjeet Sing was that he ought to have imprisoned the criminals, and then allowed them to escape.


The Italian, Paolo di Avitable known as Abu Tabela (corruption of Avitable) by the Pastoons

Further description of Ranjit Singh

Runjeet Sing was a man whose talents and prudence had acquired for him a great reputation, whose memory is honoured, and whose name will long occupy a glorious place in the history of India. Although descended from a noble family, being the son of a sirdar, he could neither read nor write. He had lost one eye in his childhood, in consequence of the smallpox. His external appearance was not handsome, being remarkably short, delicate, and with indifferent features, which were, counterbalanced by his talents. He had an extraordinary memory. The prominent trait of his character was, that he rarely did what was required of him, and acted often contrary to what he said. In general, no one was informed of the place he intended to go, nor of the time appointed by the astrologers for his departure.

The dark side of his character, was his extreme devotedness to sensuality, spirits, and opium by which he shortened his life. I was an ocular witness of the spectacle, when he was married at Umritsar, to the Goolbegoom (rose-lady). She had been for the last few years a kenchinee (dancing girl) in the service of Runjeet Sing, and she knew so well how to ingratiate herself with her patron, that he did not hesitate publicly to celebrate his nuptials, and declare his marriage a legal one ; for he cared not for public opinion, deeming that a sovereign ought to have the highest authority, and an independent will. She forsook the Mahomedan religion, continued to drink spirits, and she ate pork, just like Runjeet himself, and afterwards lived a retired life. She ruled the country, but only for a short time, and she actually caused (in concert with himself) her own husband Runjeet to be imprisoned, taking, however, advantage of that opportunity to extort money from the minister, as he was ready to ransom his lord and master at any price. The whole affair was, in fact, a plot, concocted between her and Runjeet Sing.

Edited by dalsingh101
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I did'n know there were serious conflicts between Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the Nihangs :s What were the conflicts about?

for he cared not for public opinion, deeming that a sovereign ought to have the highest authority, and an independent will.

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What do you mean dal ji?

Essentially, you were guaranteed trouble between nihungs and Ranjit Singh given their divergent agendas. Ranjit restructured the Sikh/Panjabi political scene as a monarchy, with the central head of state having absolute power, whilst nihungs (of those days not the modern ones), still clung onto the notion of an egalitarian theocracy. By theocracy here I mean a nation governed by religious authority as they saw it, probably with its roots in what preceded the monarchy and possibly going back to dasmesh pita and other earlier organisational setups? You can tell by the way Ranjit Singh cleverly did away with previous institutes such as Gurmattas that inherited religious institutes meant little to him, although it could easily be argued (and it has been) that Ranjit did rule according to a more generalised understanding of Sikhi with his secularism (the Indian version of the word). Nihang belligerence show that they still clung onto notions of independence even within the new kingdom. All contemporary accounts point at a deeply rooted anti-authority attitude on part of the nihungs. This was directed towards all, European and Sikh alike. I imagine they begrudgingly accepted Ranjit Singh's rule due to its conspicuous success and his policy of placating them. His treating their impudence lightly worked in his favour in the campaigns against the Afghans, which the nihangs swung in Sikh favour at heavy cost to themselves.

Edited by dalsingh101
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and she actually caused (in concert with himself) her own husband Runjeet to be imprisoned, taking, however, advantage of that opportunity to extort money from the minister, as he was ready to ransom his lord and master at any price. The whole affair was, in fact, a plot, concocted between her and Runjeet Sing.

any more info on this??

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I've heard that one can judge a nation by how it treats its most vulnerable and contemptible citizens. Maharajah Ranjit Singh seems to have been a truly enlightened soul in this respect. Despite the odd mutilation....

Provisions for ill prisoners in Lahore jail.

...........................................................I received an order from the Durbar to establish

an hospital in the jail of Lahore also, which was on the same spot whereon, a short time before, I had erected

the powder-mill. During the last two years of my office (1848 and 1840) out of 800 prisoners, only

twenty-one patients died in the space of twelve months and they, of severe wounds, marasmus, or, dysentery.

The jail, with its hospital, is situated outside the city, in one of the filthiest quarters, where all the wells of

the neighbourhood fountain contain briny or bitter water; and notwithstanding all my endeavours and remonstrances,

I could not obtain from the government any better nourishment for my patients, than the usual jail diet, so that

I was obliged, in several cases, to have recourse to a part of the unemployed funds of the public hospital of the

Durbar, in order to provide such comforts as were necessary. Taking these circumstances into consideration, my

management was peculiarly fortunate; for, during a period of two years from the foundation of

that hospital, not a single patient died of an acute disease — such as inflammation, fever, cholera, serpent

bites, &c. of which I had many cases ; some of them so dangerous, that I had to visit the patients three or

four times a-day. My successor was less fortunate ; for, during the first six months after the annexation (from

May till October 1849) while I was still in the country, he lost upwards of sixty patients out of 1 ,000, not to

mention those who were dismissed as incurable. I may state, with regard to the latter, that the experiments I

made on similar diseases had often been crowned with success. It was thought that the great mortality during

these six months was caused by the small and unhealthy situation of the hospital, in consequence of

which a larger was built, on the opposite side of the jail. The prisoners received better nourishment, were

not so oppressed by hard labor, and were permitted to use tobacco, opium, poppy-heads, hemp, churrus, &c.

which had been prohibited. I afterwards learned, that these changes had not been of much use ; and I believe

the mortality is still greater than that of the first two years.

Edited by dalsingh101
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Is it only me, or does anyone else feel that Avitable was a BADASS mf?

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Is it only me, or does anyone else feel that Avitable was a BADASS mf?

I don’t like him much, he seemed like an opportunist to me. Although his methods were very effective in controlling the Pathans. I think if the British had used his service or methods then maybe they would not have suffered such a humiliating defeat during the 1st anglo-afghan war.

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This is a description of him (Avitable) by Lieut. Greenwood of the HM31st regiment who fought against the Afghans. He met Avitable when passing though Peshawar. It seems a bit exaggerated but is illuminating in light of the earlier Honigberger quote:

“…Peshawaur is a fine fortified city, and when we were there was governed by an Italian general in the service of the Maharaja Shere Sing. His name was Avitabili, and he seemed just the sort of person to keep the turbulent and lawless population of Peshawur in order. At every corner of the city was erected a large treble gibbet each of which had seventeen or eighteen malefactors hanging on it, as a gentle hint to the inhabitants to be on their best behavior. I believe there was very little ceremony made with them. If a man looked sulky he was strung up at once in case he should be disaffected. Murder and robbery took place every day in the streets of the city until the General used such energetic measures. Even when we were there it was not safe to leave the camp without being well armed. From all I heard, I imagine that Peshawur contains the most villainous population in India and their Governor whose office it is to keep them in order has no sinecure.”

I'm beginning to understand that although Ranjit Singh personally never ordered people to be executed himself, the notion that executions never took place in the Sikh empire is a patently false one. The maharaja seems to have adopted a policy of not interfering with decisions made by his governors in the regions under their jurisdiction. I got the above from this website for those interested.

Edited by dalsingh101
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  • 2 weeks later...

Account of Maharajah Ranjit Singh's death and drug taking. Honigeberger believes it was the personality and presence of Ranjit Singh more than any doctrine that held the kingdom together.

The small doses of opium (every afternoon one pill of 3 grms.) which Runjeet Sing took daily, and the strong spirits he used to drink at different hours of the day, transported him into a kind of excitement, which manifested itself in the highest degree in

the evening, after the enjoyment of larger portions of spirits. Every one loved and feared him at the same time. He had an

army of 100,000 men, inspiring awe and respect, half of whom were regular and the other half irregular troops, with whom he

might have enforced his laws on all the Hindoos; nevertheless he entertained the greatest friendship with his neighbours the

English, and manifested his favour towards the French, the Italians, and other European nations, by making them governors

in his provinces. His disease was brought on by a severe cold, and by indulging somewhat too much in strong spirits. The

latter I am told was specifically the case during the winter in which the Governor-General of India, Lord Auckland, came to

Lahore to pay him a visit. In the transport of his joy, he drank more than ordinarily. Probably, if an emetic had been given at

the commencement of the disease, it would have produced a good effect; but as the native physicians did not know of any good

and effective emetic, and are fearful, also, of the effects of vomiting, they prefer using purgatives by which sometimes

the disease grows worse, as the case above related sufficiently proves.

It made a very deep impression on my feelings to have been prevented from making myself useful to the maharajah, and

restoring to health the man on whose life was depending the happiness, peace and prosperity of that country. Every one

whose forethought enabled him to throw a glance on the future must have seen with pain and sorrow that a violent crisis menaced

that country, by which a nation scarcely risen from barbarity might sink back into its former condition.

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Suttee at Ranjit Singh's funeral and an explanation of the customs around this practice.

The first sad and cruel scene that I witnessed after the death of Runjeet Sing, was the Suttee, or burning of his eleven

wives, along with the body of the deceased. There were four ranees (legel wives), and seven female slaves, who, animated

with the superstitious hope of entering paradise with their lord and husband were the funeral pile with death defying intrepidity; they cowered round the corpse, and were covered with reed mats on which oil was poured in profusion. This done, fire was set to the funeral pile, so that the poor creatures became suffocated by the smoke and flames before they could utter a cry. In order not to give the reader a false notion of the customs and manners of the Hindoos, it is necessary to observe, that no woman is compelled to be burnt with her husband; they do it by their own free will, and it is a characteristic trait, that only those women devote themselves to that ceremony whose fate had decreed them not to be mothers. Perhaps they follow their husbands to the other world, in the hope of obtaining there what was denied them in this sublunary one. But it is not the custom for men to be burnt, either with their wives or with other men; nevertheless, the minister, Rajah Dyan Sing [Dhian Singh], insisted upon being burnt with his lord and his wives; but the welfare of the country depending at that time solely on him, he was prevented from undergoing this terrific ceremony.


Rajah Dhian Singh*

Runjeet Sing, a short time before his death, engaged this minister to assist his son, Khurrek Sing, whom he made heir to the throne, although he must have been persuaded of his incapacity ; and if Khurrek Sing had followed the prudent I advice of his father, and had not yielded to the insinuations of his tutor Sirdar Chet Sing, every thing would have proceeded in a prosperous manner.

*This 'Dyan Sing' [or Dhian Singh] was a Brahmin Dogra and was murdered along with Maharajah Sher Singh at Lahore by Sandhawalia sardars in 1842. His brother Gulab Singh, later played a big role in betraying Singhs to the Brits in the Anglo-Sikh wars. The English rewarded Gulab with Kashmir for this. We should note that three brothers of this family had joined Maharajah Ranjit Singh's army and quickly worked their way through the ranks to be given titles of rajah by Ranjit Singh.

Edited by dalsingh101
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  • 8 years later...

Found this book online for those who may be interested in further reading:


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Found this on Honigberger. This is what happened to him afterwards:


The following Latin extract is taken from the introduction of his book, Thirty five years in the East, and is inscribed on a plaque at his grave :

Nulla re homo proprius accredit ad Deum quam salute hominibus danda

“Nothing gets man closer to God than the help offered to his fellow man in the restoration of health”.


The History of Johann Martin Honigberger

Dr. Ileana Rindasu traces the history of Johann Martin Honigberger, the man who brought homeopathy to India. She honors him with a memorial plaque.

M. Honigberger, the Transylvanian Saxon who is considered to be the man who brought homeopathy to India, was born on 10th of March, 1795 in Brașov (Krohnstadt), Romania (in Transylvania or Siebenbürgen, as this region is known in German). He travelled to India in 1815, with the desire to become more familiar with the secrets of nature, as he confesses in the introduction of his book, Thirty-Five Years in the East (first ed.,1851, in German; English edition, 1852; Romanian edition, 2004) ; Thus, he began a series of journeys, five to the East (Orient), three others in Europe and one to Africa that lasted altogether more than 50 years . He died in December, 18th, 1869, at the age of 74, in his native town, Brașov and was buried in the Evangelic cemetery.



Transylvania or Siebenbürgen

Honigberger was mainly an autodidact with a great desire to constantly improve himself. This desire motivated him to research the laws of nature so he could help patients by his skills and knowledge.

The fundamental rule that every doctor should respect, said Dr. Honigberger, is: “One must, as much as possible, avoid all strong doses and administer only those that, if not beneficial, at least cannot do any harm”. This principle, in the vision of the author, can be easily respected if we know the effects of medicines, both in high doses and in small doses.

Also he states : “Only minute doses can produce a real medicinal effect. If we realize that drugs administered in minute doses possess specific qualities, it is our duty to learn the principles of their use and we are obliged to abandon our principles that nurture our prejudice”.

For many years, Dr. Honigberger was the physician of the Court in Lahore (Punjab, in nowadays Pakistan) for the Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Honigberger learned from his own experience as well. He treated himself successfully for cholera, in Vienna soon after he visited Hahnemann (when he took Ipecac and was cured) and for plague, in Pali, Hindustan, when he was on his way to Lahore, for the second time. That time, he took Ignatia, a remedy he had used before in Pera (Constantinopole) during the plague epidemics.

Many of these aspects are well-known to the historians of medicine and of homeopathy, but usually, there is a great confusion concerning the person of Martin Johann Honigberger himself. In the literature, we find some confusion concerning his nationality. Many authors consider him to be a French doctor, while others believe he was a Hungarian. In fact, he was a Transylvanian saxon, which means he was of German origin. The Transylvanian axons (German: Siebenbürger Sachsen) are people of German ethnicity who settled in Transylvania  from the 12th century onwards). The history of Romania, the country where Dr. Honigberger was born is not well-known abroad. Transylvania, the north-western part of Romania was for many centuries a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, so many could indeed believe that Honigberger was a Hungarian. Another aspect that is unclear, is the place where Dr. Honigberger was buried. The documents (below) from the archives of the Black Church of Brasov- Kronstadt, Romania, will clarify the nationality of Dr. Honigberger and show how we discovered his grave, in the Evangelic cemetery of Brasov.

In 2013, I went to Brasov, sent by the Romanian Society of Homeopathy, to see if there were any documents concerning Dr. Honigberger in the archives of the Black Church of Brasov, as we knew that he died in Brasov in 1869.

Below, you can see the documents that I found in the records of the Black Church, where it is stated that Johann Martin Honigberger, doctor of the King of Lahore was buried on 20th of December 1869, at the age of 74 and that he died due to his old age:






The grave is placed at position number 9 and it belonged to a member of the Kamner family, Friedrich Kamner. I tried to see what connection could be found between the Kamners and doctor Honigberger. In another register of the archives, I found a person who seemed to be Dr. Honigberger’s sister, Johanna Maria, married to Georgius Traugott Kamner, in 1819; so, we can understand why Honigberger was buried by the Kamner family when he returned to Brasov at the end of his life.

After finding all this evidence that Dr. Honigberger was indeed buried in the Evangelic cemetery of the town, I went to see the place and obtained the approval of the authorities to put a memorial plaque on the grave, with an inscription in Latin, taken from the introduction of the book, Thirty five years in the East:

Nulla re homo proprius accredit ad Deum quam salute hominibus danda (“Nothing gets man closer to God than the help offered to his fellow man in the restoration of health”.)

Thus, the Romanian Society of Homeopathy – Societatea Romana de Homeopatie- has done its duty and paid its tribute to the Dr Johann Martin Honigberger, this extraordinary man who lived a life of service and brought the good news of homeopathy to India.

We hope that now, people from all over the world and also from India will be able to come and light a candle at his grave, together with a thought of admiration for this brave Transylvanian Saxon who travelled so far away from his native land to spread the light of homeopathy in the world.

May God rest Martin Johann Honigberger in peace and may our gratitude be always with him!


  1. Arion Rosu- Sur les traces du Transylvain Martin Honigberger, médecin et voyageur en Inde.
  2. Eugen Ciurtin – Către Afganistan, din Transilvania prin Johann Martin Honigberger (1795-1869); C. Silv., 2002;
  3. http://www.academia.edu/425432/M emoriile_orientale_ale_lui_Johann_ Martin_Honigberger._Posteritate_istorica_si_actualitate_fictionala_Acta _Mvsei_Porolissensis_XXVII_2005_Liv iu Bordas
  4. Johann Martin HonigbergerTreizeci si cinci de ani in Orient, ed. Polirom, Iasi, 2004
  5. http://fjhp.eu/articole/vol 2 No 1/2014.V2.N1.4.Rindasu - Honigberger 18-22.pdf



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  • 2 years later...

M. Ranjit Singh's brother-in-laws excesses with cannabis resin drives him mad:






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One of the things I'm getting from the above book is that indigenous 'hakims' were more sophisticated than I thought. They seemed to be knowledgeable about a lot of substances. Addiction must have been an issue in the past too, because the book contains various 'remedies' for them. 

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Interesting images from the work:



Various types of consumers. 





Looks like some form of distillation taking place?  Various sized bottles for storage are clearly visible. Maybe contain ingredients or the finished compounds? 




This is what an indigenous pharmacy looked like. The pharmacist appears to be Sikh. We can see bottles for storage on shelves, scales to weigh substances, and even what looks like a distillation device on the left. So presumably such pharmacists not only brought compounds/substances from the market but synthesised their own?

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