The Bean that Weighs Beads

If one tries to jog his memory to his childhood days he could come across the agony that his kith and kin in his neighborhood faced, when a child dies by swallowing unknowingly the red berry of the Abrus found grown in the garden hedge around his house. Its raw seeds contain abrin, a ribosome inactivating protein similar to ricin, one of the known deadliest plant toxins. Swallowing just a few seeds can be deadly. Children, attracted by its color, swallow it, causing unpleasantness in the family. The shiny bright scarlet with one jet-black end Abrus,is attractive. Chewing of even one seed is fatal for the child, while three can kill an adult. The first version of the movie "The Blue Lagoon," ends with such an agony when the child of 'circumstances' died after it swallows the seed. The shocked parents did the same to embrace death. This episode is afresh in the minds of the humanity reminding them of the toxic nature of the Abrus seed. All parts of the plant are toxic, but the seeds contain the highest concentration of toxins, including the deadly protein abrin, contributing to the toxicity of this plant. Poison, absorbed through a prick on the finger when stringing for beads too can be a killer.[1]


Though poisonous its leaves and roots are used as medicine. In India they have been used as an agent in poisoning cattle and other livestock. In the days when bow and arrows were the only weapons arrows might have been daubed with the paste of this seed to kill the enemies.


Instead of preventing the children from playing with the seeds, just the contrary is done, when they are asked to uproot the kunni as a school punishment. Perhaps this may be to conscientious them on the wickedness of the bean. In Guruvayoor temple, mischievous children are asked to shift handful of kunnikkuru seed heaved up in a cauldron and deposit in the vessel kept in front of the deepasthambhamthrice, as a device to change their attitude. Kunnikkuruvaral, an offering to God, is supposed to develop the intelligence of the children. We can see this ritual observed in several other temples.



Pallankuzhi, a playing board for young and old, is a household name in traditional houses, even today. This wooden board, one foot long and ' feet wide and 2 inches thickness, where in 14 small pits around two slightly big pits are dug out to store manjadi seeds, to play. The kids learn to count while playing and olden people of the house can pass time in the company of the young. But when kunni is played in this plank board in lieu of manjadi in a slightly different game, the game is known as paandikkali in South Travancore.


Kunni in Literature


Kunni took a honourable place in the parable, illustrating virtues. The Panchatantra,a Sanskrit collection of fables based on folklore; prevalent in ancient India belonged to a period between 100 BC and AD 500. In the story narrated by a crocodile named Karala Mukhan to the monkey named Raktha Mukhan, the character of the women are likened to kunnikkuru for their outwardly beautiful and inwardly poisonous nature. It speaks about woman, just contrary to that of Arundhati.Tirukkural written in the 2nd Century AD has compared sanyasins with the blackness of the kunnikkuru.[2] Outwardly they seemed pure and perfect, but inwardly they have black spot like the blackness of the kunnikkuru. Outwardly they are perfect sanyasins with kamandalu. But inwardly they have other desires. There are people in the world who are outwardly fair as the Abrus seed, but are in their inside black as the nose of that berry.[3] It is apt to cite here the Latin proverb "Every bean has its black" means "everyone has his faults". The Tamil proverb 'even a coondrimany has a black spot on it' is same as 'no rose without a thorn'. Mani in coondrimany (kunrimony) means seed, Kunni in Malayalam,Kunjimuthu in Southern Travancore.  This plant has found mentioned inSooshrutham.[4] Kunnimanikal is the title of the anthology of Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon. Several film and drama songs have glorified kunnikkuru in its lyrics.


There are several proverbs in Malayalam to highlight the smallness ofkunnikkuru.[5] Plethora of synonyms for this plant includes Abrus aaculatus, Abrus minor, Abrus pauciflorus, Abrus squamulosus, Jequirity, Indian liquorice.


Indian Licorice


Liquorice/ Licorice, a perennial herb of the genus Glycyrrhiza, in the family Leguminosae is a tall shrub (4'5 feet). This tender, twining plant, woody at the base is native of Asia and Mediterranean region and grows in subtropical climates. Glycyrrhiza glabra is its scientific name.


The medicinally active sweet juice contained in its root, abounds with a constituent, much used in demulcent compositions. The inspissated juice is used as a confection and for medicinal purposes.  Acrid resins, however, render the root irritant and poisonous. The word licorice derives from Greek glykeia rhiza "sweet root" - glykys the modern Greek name means sweet and rhiza means root. This herb known in Malayalam as At(t)i madhuram, Iratti madhuram, can be purchased from angadikkada, the shop in the street Ati madhuram/ Iratti madhuram which means excessively sweet (or extremely charming/ beautiful) is a sugar ally.

Eratti/ iratti means doubling. But Eratti/ iratti madhuram, doesn't mean doubling of the sweetness. Iratti is transformed into eratti. The characteristic sweet taste of liquorice is also reflected in the Indian names. In Sanskrit, madhu means sweet, pleasant. This element is found in names for licorice not only in Sanskrit (madhukaand yashtimadhu from yashti  "stem, stalk", but also in modern names of both South and North India, e.g., jestamadha (Marathi), yashthimodhu (Bengali), yashti madhukam, madhu yashti(ka), madhukam, yashti madhuram, yashti, yashtee madhu, madhusrava, yashteekam, kleethakam (Sanskrit), jathi-madh, jethi-madh, mulathi (Hindi), ati-madhura, yashti-madhuka (Kannada), ati-maduram (Tamil), ati-madhuramu, yashti-madhukam (Telugu).


Kunni and atimadhuram are different plants. The roots of Abrus Linn under the native names of Gunga or Goonteh have been used as a demulcent. Since it contains Glycyrrhizin, the Europeans have named it Indian licorice and used it as a substitute for true Liquorice. This attribute of the plant has confused at least some authors to think that Itratti madhuram and kunni are one and the same plant. The plant kunni is known as rat(t)i or Gunchi in some Indian regions. The origin of this name can be attributed to this unique dual nature of this plant.


Its other common names are Abrus a chapelet (France, Quebec); Ain toxins, Aivoeiro, Arraccu-mitim, Carat Seed, Carolina muida, Colorine (Mexico).

While the brightly coloured seeds attracted the children to play with them, the rosaries made are tourist/ ornamental souvenirs. It is a bead for decoration in Africa. The seeds are not used for ornamental purposes only. The bright coloration of the kunni seeds gave it an important place in the native jewelry. No wonder, the attractive hard, red and black seeds are strung into necklaces and rosaries in India in spite of the fact that they are highly poisonous.


The scarlet and black seeds of Abrus precatorius (Linn.) are called black-eyed Susans. The term Abrus means graceful and it refers to its beautiful flowers. The word precatorius expresses entreaty or supplication and is prayerful. During the days of Linnaeus, Carolus (1707- 1778), the seeds were imported from India for use in Europe for rosaries. A string of beads help keep the count of the prayers recited. The nearly globular, hard, red, glossy seed with a large, black spot at one end, used to make the rosary came to be known as Prayer Beads, or Jequirity seeds, are found largely used as ornamental beans in rosaries meant for prayers. Buddhist's rosary/ prayer, Hung Tou, Jequerite (Colombia), Jequirity Bead, Jequirity bean (Canada), Jequirity, Jumble bead, Juquiriti, lady bug bean, lady bug seed (California), Liane Reglisse, Lucky Bean Prayer Beads, Ma Liao, Tou, Ojo de cangrejo (Panama), Olho-de-cabraParatella, Paternoster, Peonia De St Tomas, Peronilla (Colombia), Pois Rouge, Prayer beads, Prayer bean (Great Britain), Precatory bean, Precatory pea (Great Britain, Canada), Red Bead, Reglisse, Rosary beads, Rosary bean, rosary pea (U.S.), Tentos da America, Tentos dos mundos, To-Azuki, Weather lant Weesboontje, are its other names earned in different countries and remind one of the importance it gained as a prayer bead.

The red seed with small black jet spot at base, at the point of attachment surrounding hilum earned it names such as Coral seed/ Crab's eyes, Crab's eye vine  (Southeastern U.S.). Other names of the Indian bead/ bean, are kunni(Malayalam), Gunga, Goonteh, Kakachinjia; Kakanandi(ka); Kakadanee; Kakavallari; Kakacheelu; Rakthika; Kakani, Kakatiktha, Kakapeelu(ka) (White kunni), Kakatiktha, Kaakanaasika, Kaka (Sanskrit),  Rati, Ghungchi (Hindi), Coondrimany (Tamil), Guriginja (Telugu), Galaganji (Kannada), Kunch (Bengali), Gunj (Marathi).


Abrus precatorius (LINN.) (Kunni), belongs to Fabaceae (Pea or Legume Family)[6]and found in tropical regions. This deciduous creeper native to tropical Asia is commonly found all over India, in land up to 1,000 meters high. It is also cultivated in countrysides.  However it grows in most warm, humid climates all over the world such as in the Caribbean islands and Florida. This plant is regularly cultivated in Egypt. Its many toxicological effects are well known, unlike its medicinal properties.


While toxicity of the plant, lingers in as unpleasant memories in one's mind, the root of the plant sweetens one's tongue. Though the seed kiss a child to death, it was seldom abandoned, but adorned one's neck in the shape of a necklace. On a personal interview in South Travancore, an old man with lot of experience in life recollecting his childhood days said that he ate the kunjimuthu while as a child. Perhaps he might have eaten the seed before it ripened. This highlights the possibility that during famine periods these seeds might have been boiled and eaten. He recollects that the stringed necklace seeds worn for a particular kind of fever were turned black in colour and the fever subsiding, after two days.  All these show that the medical properties of this plant still remain to be documented.

The seeds were also used for the treatment of diabetes and chronic nephritis. The juice of the Abrus plant irritates the mucous membranes.[7] Despite their toxicity, the boiled seeds are ingested as a contraceptive and an aphrodisiac (as are the chewed roots). Perhaps in this peculiarity one can find the raison d'etre for its Indian name rati. An infusion and a paste of the seeds are included in the British Pharmacopoeia. It has a strongly irritating effect upon the eyes and has been used both to produce and to allay certain ophthalmic diseases. It also took a honorable place in the materia medica and the medical dictionary.


Plants To Weigh Beads


Seeds were used in ancient times, to weigh small, but costly things like beads, precious stones, gold or silver. Tola, masha and ratti refer to the terms denoting ancient Indian weights. A single ratti[8] seed is fairly constant in weight; on average it weighs about 105 mg. This made it the standard weight in the ancient Indian system of measurements. Two other seeds considered consistent enough in size, used for this purpose are beans like black gram and manjadi.


The leguminous plants as peas, beans etc or their edible seeds are collectively called pulse whose seeds contained in pods or legumes are kaayadhaanyam.[9]Chickpea (phaseolus mungo), cow gram, horse gram, green gram, white gram are all known together as gram. Gramun is seed in Latin. Maasha(ka)m refers to the kidney bean,  ulundu in Malayalam. It forms an important ingredient in idly anddosai, the popular daily food and various curries and diets in south India. Maashadiis a prescription whereas taptamaashakam is an ordeal.


Gram is the basic unit of mass or weight in the metric system. In the context of using black gram for measuring the weight of gold, the basic unit of mass came to be referred, as gram is only logical. Like wise the word measure rhymes withmaasha(ka)m. Weight of eight maasham is one kunni. Adya maashakam is the weight of five kunni.


The seed of the bead tree Adenanthera pavonina Mimosaceae, is manjadi in Malayalam. As its name carat bean indicates, it is a measure of weight. Along withkunnikkuru it is used as goldsmith's weight, equal to four grains. OneManjadithookkam is 2 kunniManjadi ida is for weighing diamonds.

Ida which means entirely, is a measure, interstice of the size of the grain etc. 8nellida is equal to 1 angulam.[10] Ida of 12 white custards (venkaduk) is 1yavam.[11] It is a standard weight of a gram of rice etc.




Karappasa/ kunni pasa is a kind of 'jeweler's glue,' prepared from the berries of Abrus. The goldsmiths used this glue to bond two pieces of metal temporarily until it is fused. It did not remain to blend metal alone. Goldsmiths used them as a unit/ standard of weight for gold grain. The weight of a kunni iskunniyida/ kunnithookkamRatti--bhar, the weight of Abrus seed is average 1 5/16 troy grains or 2 3/16 grains. Smallness of kunni has attributed to expressions like the 'size of the kunni seed.' Of the weight of a ratti-, is as much as a ratti-, figuratively it means very little.[12] It is used as a weight, equal to eight barleycorns.Leelavathi says that it is the weight of 2 or 3 yavams.[13] Three yavam constitutes one gunja says Rasa Raja Tarangini.[14] Four rice seeds are equal to onecoondrimany. 2 coondrimany is equal to one manjadi. Actual value of onecoondrimany is approximately 1 5/8 grains.


Like Circassian seeds, Goldsmiths of East Asia used this seeds as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. Each seed has a remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram. Carat, a unit of weight for gems is four-grain weight. The seeds, weighing about 1 carat each, have been used in India from very ancient times as goldsmith's weight under the name of rati. The weight of the famous Koh-i-noor diamond was ascertained using these seeds.[15]


Like India, Arabs used the seed of the Abrus precatorius as a unit for weighing gold, diamond etc. Kunni is 'Kir't' in Arab. Its weight is two to three (English) grains; its length is one fingerbreadth; 24 being the total. It is equal to four Kamhahs or wheat grains and about 3 grs. avoir.; and being the twenty fourth of a miskal, it is applied to that proportion of everything. The Moslem system is evidently borrowed from the Roman "as" and "uncia."[16] The Arabic word q(u)iratrepresented the ratio 1/24.


Carat/ karat/ q(u)irat seems to be related, and spring from the same source. The Arabic word for bean pod is q(u)irat. We all love beans. But not many of us would go so far as to equate the finest jewels and gold with these lowly little legumes. How did we come up with "carat" and "karat"? When jewels began to be used as a means of exchange and payment, the need to measure the relative weight and consequent value was felt. Traders discovered that the smallest jewels weighed about the same as one bean- the bean being Abrus / Carat in Arabic. Karat came from qirat.


Venom, injected to blood directly acts as poison leading to death. If the same is consumed in small doses, it acts as amruth/ food. Likewise the seed of the kunnihas two faces, poisonous as well as medicinal. The punishment given to the schoolboys to uproot the plant failed to uproot the plant completely. Instead, its colourful seed found a place of honour in her neck. The children learned to count in using the beads.  In the hands of a devotee it helped him to count the name of the Lord, he utters. The goldsmith used the glue made out of the seed to blend the metals. The trade in gems blended distant countries and enabled migration of words. The seed coat is smooth and glossy and becomes hard on maturity.   Perhaps, this coating prevented moisture to enter the seed and alter its weight, helped it to retain its weight intact for a long time. This gave it a honourable place in the balance of the goldsmith to weigh costly gems and gold in India since ancient times. Kerala's unique place in the trade in the ancient world helped flourish a trade with the Rome and the Arabian countries. In the course of the tradekunjimuthu attained and recognized as a standard measure to weigh precious gems.


The name kunjam rhymes with kunjimuthu an indigenous name found in usage in South Travancore, where it means little 'gem'. But this name is conspicuous by its absence in Malayalam dictionaries. According toVrikshayurvedam gunjaphalam is kunnikkuru.[17] In Sanskrit it is Gunja(m)/ Ganjika, Hindi retty, Malayalam coonry cooroo. This Sanskrit word might be fromkunjumuth. Malayalam kunni rhymes with KunjuKunju is a household name for men and women irrespective of caste and hierarchy. But situating the word carat in its proper place in history is a requisite to trace the global trotting of words and determine their place in history.

Kunjarath is Gujarat.[18]  No one seems to have traced the origin of the place name Gujarat with Abrus seed, which is also known as kuncham in Malayalam. In Kunjarath we have kuncham and rati. Perhaps the key position that Gujarat held in the trade between the Rome in the past might have earned it the name Kunjarath. In that event the Arabic q(u)irat can be associated with this place name.


Carat is exotic


Anything of foreign origin; something not of native growth, as a plant, a word, a custom is exotic says Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913). A plant that is native to another part of the world but has been introduced here is known as exotic. While the plant Abrus is indigenous the word Carat is exotic. The saga of an indigenous name becoming an exotic is hidden in the unwritten history. 


To the Arabs, a perfect man is of four-and- twenty Kir't i.e. pure gold.[19]  C(K)arat is the name of a unit denoting proportionate purity of gold. It refers to the fineness of the gold and not to its weight. Karat is the unit of measurement for the proportion of gold in an alloy. Pure, unalloyed gold is 24 karat; 12-karat gold is 50% gold, and so on. [20] Alloying with copper or silver can dilute the purity of gold. This reduces the karat. In 18 K, 12 K, gold content is 75%, 50% respectively.  A ring, made of 18-karat gold alloy is to improve performance and not to save on the cost of materials. Pure gold is quite soft. Alloys below 14 karat, however, are liable to crack and are not suitable for objects like rings. In these circumstances kunjimuthuis 100% pure and the word carat, which holds the ground, is an alloy of different tongues.


The Antigua connection ' a postscript


V. Gangdhar made a momentous discovery of Pallankuzhi link with the distant Antigua, when he glanced a photograph appeared on the sports page of Times of India, of Harbhajan Singh at Antigua Cricket ground playing the game 'warri'with a local spectator. Gangadhar who identified the wooden frame as none other than Pallankuzhi, a traditional game played in Tamilnadu considers this finding as 'the scoop of the tour', recalled his boyhood days, when he played with one of his grand mothers using plenty of chozhis and some tamarind seeds to fill the holes. 

He assumed that Pallankuzhi played in Trinidad, Tobago or Guyana had a link with the sizeable Indian population living there. The game could have travelled these islands through the ancestors of these players of Indian origin. But he was puzzled at the Pallankuzhi link with Antigua. Gangadhar calls the 'warri' andPallankuzhi as symbols of the traditional links between India and Antigua[21] where the material with which the warri is played is chozhies (shells).


The small shell cowries are kavati in Malayalam, which was also used for counting and as a coin. Jumping play of children is kavati paayum, kavati paaduka.Calculation with cowries on decimal system is kavatikkanakku. Astrologer iskavatikkaran.  His calculations by means of cowry are kavati kriya[22] Sooth saying begins with kavati paratthuka or nirathuka. Spread round is parathuka.Level and equalize is nirathuka. It means vaari vaykkuka. Astrologers do this before telling fortunes. To scoop up with both hands is vaaruka. One who collects handful is vaari.


Pallankuzhi means several cavities or pits. True to this, two big cavities in the middle of a plank, surrounded with 14 small pits, constitutes the playing board. The two contenders who play this game are expected to equalize all the 14 pits spread around the middle pits with handful of beans scooped from one of the two big middle pits.  To gather in handful, collect, store up is vaaruka. Hence the name of the game is Pallankuzhi vaaruka. The ritual of scooping Abrus seeds held in temples is known as kunnikkuru vaaruka. In Antigua the game is known as warrithe same Malayalam word vaari. In this context how the game migrated to Antigua from Kerala remains to be explored.


[1] H. Panda, Handbook on Medicinal Herbs with Uses, Asia Pacific Business Press, Delhi, 2004.
[2] K.G. Chandrasekharan Nair, Thirukkural, All Kerala Tamizh Federation, 2002, Trivandrum, p.191.
[3] Rev Dr G U Pope, Rev W H Drew, Rev John Lazarus, and Mr F W Ellis, The Thirukkural, English Translation, The South India Saiva Siddhantha Works Publishing Society, Tinnevelly, India (1982).
[4] C.D. Maclean (ed.), Glossary of the Madras Presidency, Asian Educational Services, 1982.
[5]'Kunnolam ponnu koduthaalum kunniyolam sthaanam kitta' is opposite to 'kunnolam ponnu'; 'Kunnikkuruvolam arimaavu tinnal pannikkuttiyolam karuthuvaykkum'; 'Kunnikkuru kodi chernnalum kunnicha malayakumo'; 'Kunnikkuruvinnu koomparam panam'; Kunnikku chiratta kudippikaa in Tachholippattu is to make a dog to how. Kannikkuru kuppayilittaum minnum; Kunni muzhachaal manchaadi.
[6] Thayyil Kumaran Krishnan, Ayurveda Oushada Nighantu, CMS Press, Kottayam, 1906, pp. 770 & 922.
[7] Watt JM and Breyer-Brandwijk MG, The Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Being an account of their medicinal and other uses, chemical composition, pharmacological effects and toxicology in man and animal, 2nd edn. Edinburgh: E & S Livingstone, 1962.
[8] J.C. Willis, Dictionary of the Flowering Plants and Fern, 1960, p.7.
[9] H.H.Wilson, A Glossary of Judicial and Revenue Terms, W.H.Allen & co, Londn, 1855.
[10] P.K.Koru (Vyakhyatha), Leelavathi, Mathrubhumi, 1954, p.5.
[11] Cheppatt Achuytha Variar, Sarngdhar Samhita, S.T.Reddiar, Kollam, 1955, p.10.
[12] Platts, John T. (John Thompson), A dictionary of Urdu, classical Hindi, and English, London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1884.
[13] P.K.Koru (Vyakhyatha), op. cit., p.3.
[14] M. K.Govindappillai, Rasa Raja Tarangini, II, Sree Rama Vilasam, 1934, p.2.
[15] Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal, Botanical.com.
[16] Richard F. Burton, The Book of The Thousand Nights And A Night,
[17] Vrikshayurvedam, p.32.
[18] Sree Kanteswaram, Sabda Taaravali, p. 593.
[19] See Arabian Nights, vol. iii. 239.
[20] WordNet 1.7.1, Copyright 2001 by Princeton University.
[21] See The Hindu (Sunday Magazine), 18 June 2006, p. 4;
[22] R. Narayana Panikkar, Kerala Bhasha Sahitya Charitram, II, 1929, p.167.


More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair

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Views: 3454      Comments: 1

Comment This beautiful seed, which you have mentioned in this post, was used as an unit to weigh gold. They are still used in some North Indian villages. My father recalls that he has seen this seed used by goldsmiths as measuring unit. Though the variation in the size of the seed is not very much but still it not that honest unit. The goldsmith used to exploit this. There is a local poem about this in which the Gold grumbles to the goldsmith that this low cast chotli is used to weigh with me even though He belong to the highest cast.

???? ??? ????? ?? ????? ???? ??? ?
???? ??? ?? ???????, ???? ????? ??? ?
(Translation: Gold says to goldsmith that my cast is the best. This black-mouthed chitchiti (local slang for less valuable, a derogatory comment) is being weigh with me.

On, this Chotli replied,

???? ?? ??? ?????, ??? ?? ???? ????
???? ??? ?? ?? ???, ???? ??? ?? ??? ?
(Rough translation : I am the dearest among the dears and 'Red' (In Hindi, ??? (laal) means 'Red' and 'Dear' both) was my color. I became black-mouthed since I was started being weigh with this scoundrel.

Dilawar Singh
15-Nov-2011 09:16 AM

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