CASSIA, a genus of shrubs and trees of the family Leguminosae (or Caesalpiniaceae in some classifications). This article deals only with the fruit of the species C. fistula L. ( = Cathartocarpus fistula Pers.), variously called drumstick tree, Indian laburnum, purging cassia, etc.
The fruit of this tree (also called cassia fistula) is a long (30-60 cm) cylindrical pod (2-3 cm in diameter) with a blackish brown pericarp, internally divided into numerous compartments (25-100) by thin woody transverse partitions (in Arabic, called folūs, plur. of fals “fish scale, disc”). Each compartment contains a soft black viscid pulp with a mawkish sweet taste and enclosing a single seed (Dymock et al., I, pp. 511-15: Zargarī, II, pp. 111-13). The principal part used medicinally is the pulp.
The elongated pod is called ḵīār(-e) šanbar in classical medico-pharmacological Arabic texts of the Islamic period—a name arabicized from Persian ḵīār(-e) čanbar, lit. “hoop[-like] cucumber,” which originally designates a kind of cucumber (ḵīār) or, more precisely, a kind of melon (Cucumis melo var. flexuosus, “snake/serpent cucumber”) which has a flexuous body looking like a čanbar “hoop, clavicle” (see Ṭabāṭabāʾī, I, pp. 913, 925; see also cucumber). The name ḵīār(-e) čanbar is no longer used for the cassia fistula in Persia; it has been replaced by folūs, standing for folūs-e ḵīār(-e) čanbar “the septa of the cassia fistula” and then, by metonymy, for the fruit itself (the earliest mention of folūs alone for the purging cassia in our sources is by Schlimmer , who records folūs for the pod [p. 113], and maḡz-e folūs “the pith of folūs” for its pulp [p. 476]). Other, less commonly used, Arabic names for this pod are qeṯṯāʾ hendī “Indian cucumber” and ḵornūb/ḵarrūb hendī “Indian carob” (e.g., in Ebn Maymūn, Ar. text, p. 41, no. 387). Bīrūnī also reports (Ṣaydana I, p. 280) the arabicized form ḵīār ṣanbar and the Sejzī (i.e., Sīstānī) name ney[-e] hendū “Indian reed.” Another name, of uncertain form and origin, is bakbar, recorded, e.g., in the Borhān-e qāṭeʿ (ed. Moʿīn, I, s.v.) where, however, an Indian origin of the word is not excluded. Tonokābonī (pp. 176, 369) has bakīr (?) as the Indian name of the ḵīār-šanbar, and Anṭākī (I, p. 129) provides the Arabic synonym al-baktar [?] al-hendī for it.
Cassia fistula grows wild in Malay Archipelago, India (where it is cultivated, too), Ceylon, Egypt, and tropical Africa. It does not occur in Persia (Zargarī, loc. cit., is wrong on this point), where the genus is represented only by the native C. oboyata Coll., the senna (tree), called kowsen in Bandar-e ʿAbbās, and styled sanā(-ye) makkī “Meccan senna” in classical sources (see Ṯābetī, pp. 202-03). However, the linguistic evidence (cf. the Persian and Arabic names above) would indicate that, at least in the earliest times, the purging cassia in Islamic countries was of Indian provenience. The statement by Ebn Māsūya (d. 243/857) that, “of the two kinds of ḵīār-šanbar, one is imported from Kabul and the other from Basra region” (apud Bīrūnī, Ketāb al-ṣaydana, Ar. text, p. 173) indicates two points on the westward export routes of the Indian or Malayan product. Therefore, Laufer’s statements (pp. 422-23) that “the Persians received [this] fruit from the Arabs on the one hand, and from northwestern India on the other,” and that “they adopted the Arabic word xiyār-šanbar [sic] in the form xiyār-čambar (compare also Armenian xiar-šamb . . . )” are not plausible. Further, his tentative restoration of a Middle Persian prototype for the New Persian ḵīār(-e) čanbar, i.e., *xaryadẓambax [sic], runs counter to his assertion that ḵīār-čanbar is persianized from Arabic.
The earliest comprehensive description in Persian of the medicinal properties of the cassia fistula pulp is by Mowaffaq Heravī (4th/10th cent.; pp. 132-33): “The ḵīār-šanbar [also recorded as ḵīār(-e) čanbar on pp. 234 and 333] is moderate as to hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. The best is the one with a thinner peel, and a thicker, darker, and glossier pod. It purges gently, cleanses the stomach and bowels from bile, black bile, and humor, and evacuates dried feces. Taken with turbith it enhances the effectiveness of the latter in evacuating the bilious humor. Taken with chicory water or with nightshade (ʿenab al-ṯaʿlab) it is beneficial for fever [of choleric origin], arthralgia, hepatitis, and jaundice, especially if dodder water is added to [the mixture]. Gargling with ḵīār-šanbar, coriander water, or nightshade water will cure the āmās-e galū (“swelling in the throat”; laryngitis, angina). [Taken internally] it will heal abdominal dobayla ([suppurating] abscess/tumor), deobstruate the colic, brighten the complexion, and increase the discharge of urine. Before use it should be kept in its capsule.” Jorjānī (d. 531/1136) had hardly anything new to add to Heravī’s account, except that “the ḵīār(-e) čanbaṛ . . . with badian is a proven remedy for articular inflammation and pains” (pp. 635-36). As in the case of most other Galenic drugs, the use of the purging cassia has narrowed with time. In 1865 the Austrian Dr. J. E. Polak, a one-time chief physician to the Qajar shah Nāṣer-al-Dīn, reported only that the fūlūs (Cassia fistulosa [sic]) was used by native physicians as a drastic adjuvant to the ingredients of purgative enemas (e.g., castor oil, “Meccan senna,” šīrḵešt manna)—an admixture that could cause great harm, even death, if used inopportunely (II, p. 218; Pers. tr., p. 413)—and that it was prescribed indiscriminately in all gastric and intestinal ailments “maybe because of its bowel-like appearance” (II, p. 220; Pers. tr., p. 414). Nowadays in Persia, the folūs is sometimes used only as a laxative with antibilious action, and suitable to all “temperamental” conditions.
Dāʾūd Anṭākī, Taḏkeratūli’l-albāb wa’l-jāmeʿ le’l-ʿajab al-ʿojāb, 2 vols., Cairo, 1308-09/1890-91.
Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Ketāb al-ṣaydana, ed. and tr. M. Said and R. E. Elahie, Karachi, 1973; idem, Ṣaydana, Pers. adaptation by Abū Bakr b. ʿAlī Kāšānī, ed. M. Sotūda and Ī. Afšār, 2 vols., Tehran, 1358 Š./1979.
W. Dymock et al., Pharmacographia Indica . . ., 3 vols., London, etc., 1890-93.
Ebn Maymūn, Šarḥ asmāʾ al-ʿoqqār, ed. and tr. M. Meyerhof, Cairo, 1940.
Abū Manṣūr Mowaffaq Heravī, Ketāb al-abnīa ʿan ḥaqāyeq al-adwīa, ed. A. Bahmanyār and H. Maḥbūbī Ardakānī, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967-68.
Sayyed Esmāʿīl Jorjānī, Ketāb al-aḡrāż al-ṭebbīya wa’l-mabāḥeṯ al-ʿalāʾīya, facsim. of a ms. in the Central Library, Tehran University, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966.
J. E. Polak, Persien, das Land und seine Bewohneṛ . . ., 2 vols., Leipzig, 1865; Pers. tr. K. Jahāndārī, Safar-nāma-ye Polāk . . ., Tehran, 1361 Š./1982.
M. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, Gīāhšenāsī-e kārbordī . . . I: Gīāhān-e zerāʿathā-ye bozorg, Tehran, 1365 Š./1986-87.
H. Ṯābetī, Jangalhā, deraḵtān o deraḵṭčahā-ye Īrān, Tehran, 1976.
Moḥammad-Moʾmen Tonokābonī (Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Toḥfat al-moʾmenīn (Toḥfa-ye Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Tehran, n.d. [1360 Š./1981?].
ʿA. Zargarī, Gīāhān-e dārūʾī, 4th ed., Tehran, II, 1367 Š./1988.
Originally Published: December 15, 1990
Last Updated: December 15, 1990
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Vol. V, Fasc. 1, pp. 62-63