Medieval Culinary Texts From Central India

March 31, 2013

The period between the sixth through the third centuries BC witnessed the rise of many ambitious monarchs in India. In the northern half of India they successfully established four great kingdoms, or the Mahajanapadas - the kingdoms of Avanti, Vatsa, Kausala and Magadha. King Chandra Pradyota Mahasena ruled the kingdom of Avanti, with his capital at Ujjaini (Ujjain in in modern day Madhya Pradesh). In ancient times Ujjayini, one of the seven holy cities of the Hindus, was renowned for its beauty and wealth.

Avanti kingdom was on the overland trade routes between northern and southern India and to the port of Bharukaccha (modern Bharuch) on the Arabian Sea. As it was a key political and trade center, Avanti was defeated and conquered by various dynasties through the centuries. In the 4th century BC Chandragupta of Maurya dynasty conquered and annexed Avanti to his dominions. In the mid third century BC his grandson Asoka became the Governor of Avanti. Asoka ruled his domain with an iron hand and used ruthless means to annex neighboring areas. Asoka became an ardent follower of Buddhism by 257 BC and later dedicated his life to the propagation of Buddhism across Asia.

With Ashoka’s death in 232 BC his empire started falling apart, making way for Indo-Greek and Scythian rule to Indian soil. The second century BC saw the Sakas entering Madhya Pradesh and founding the line of the Kshatrapa princes in Ujjaini.  In the 2nd century AD the city was known to Ptolemy as Ozene, the capital of the western satraps—the Greek, Scythian, and Parthian rulers of western India. Chandragupta Vikramaditya (patron of Kalidasa), the legendary Gupta king conquered Avanti and held court at Ujjayini. In the fourth and fifth centuries AD Ujjaini was an important part of the Gupta Empire.

After the Guptas, rival groups ruled this area. From the seventh century onwards, the Rajputs became politically active. Avanti gradually began to be referred to as Malwa, after the name of the Malwa (Malava) tribe. The Paramaras, a Rajput clan, ruled from 800 to 1200 AD from their capital at Ujjaini. The Paramaras gained prominence in the 11th century, until the Sultans of Mandu defeated and captured their last ruler. The Plateau was overrun by Muslim invasions from the twelfth century onwards the territory was the bone of contention between the local Rajput rulers, the Malwa Sultans and the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. For a short while, Ujjain was ruled by the Afghan Sur Dynasty. They were defeated by Akbar in 1562 AD. Akbar succeeded in subduing most of the regional rulers and took charge, while his grandson Aurangzeb contributed financially to preserve the glory of Ujjaini’s ancient temples. The Marathas entered Malwa in 1724 and Ujjain became a part of the Maratha Empire. In 1817 the region came under the rule of the British Empire. 

Two Culinary works from Medieval Ujjaini
The Ni'matnama Manuscript of the Sultan Ghiyath Shahi of Mandu (1469 AD to 1500 AD) and Kshemakuthuhalam by Kshema Sarma are two wonderful medieval culinary manuscripts of this region.  


The Ni'matnama or Book of Delights consists of recipes for food and drink, for the distillation and preparation of perfumes and essences, and also for aphrodisiacs and remedies for illnesses. Written in a mix of Urdu and Farsi the book also contains fifty miniature paintings depicting Sultan Ghiyath Shahi, his companions, slaves, cooks, and attendants either preparing a dish or betel leaves or perfumes or going hunting. After Akbar’s defeat of Sultan of Mandu the manuscript was in the possion of the Mughal library (indicated by an inscription on one folio and a Mughal period seal) and later at the library of Tippoo Sultan of Mysore before reaching the India office collection of the British Library.

Kshemakuthuhalam, curiosity about wellbeing, is an important sixteenth century text in Sanskrit by Kshema Sarma, a poet scholar in the court of King Vikramasena. Virkamasena perhaps was one of the Rajput rulers of the sixteenth century. The book named after its author is a work on ayurvedic dietetics and well-being. Like other ancient texts it is a compilation of information available on the subject from ancient ayurvedic texts through the medieval texts available at that time.

 Recipes and culinary techniques described in in these two texts will follow in upcoming segments.

Titley Norah M. (Tran) The Ni'matnama Manuscript of the Sultan of Mandu, RoutledgeCurzon Studies in South Asia 2004

Lolimbaraja, Pammi Satyanarayana Sastry, and Kshema Sarma, Vaidyāvatamsah : an adornment to ayurveda, the science of life of Lōlimbarāja : with excerpts of ancient cuisine from Kṣhēma kutūhalam Kṣhēma Śarmā, Chowkamba Sanskrit Series, Varanasi 2006

Kshema Sarma, Kshemakuthuhalam, FRLHT Bangalore, Karnataka 2009


Map of Ujjaini 
Haros based on map created by w:user:Nichalp & w:user:Planemad [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons