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There are several kinds of Gamboge known in commerce, differing in quality and even in nature, as well as in their place of origin. The finest sorts are generally supposed to come from the kingdom of Siam, and are imported into England from China by way of Singapore. A kind of Gamboge is also obtained from the island of Borneo ; it is conveyed by the Malay coasters to Singapore, and is then bought by the Chinese to be purified and made up for the European market. Three kinds are known to commerce: the first, and the most valuable, is known by the name of pipe Gamboge; the second is of a little less value, cake Gamboge; the third, almost worthless, is coarse Gamboge.
For some time Ceylon was supposed to be one of the places from which Gamboge was imported, it having been long known to botanists that many trees in that island produced a substance very like the Singapore Gamboge, though inferior in quality. This, however, is erroneous ; no shipments of such an article are made from Ceylon, all that we use coming, as has been before stated, from China, by way of Singapore. There are indeed, in tropical countries, many trees which yield a yellow juice so nearly resembling Gamboge, not only in colour but in medicinal properties also, that they have each obtained in their respective countries the name of Gamboge plant.
During the residence of Mrs. Colonel Walker in Ceylon, she paid great attention to the botany of that interesting island, and particularly to the plants which produced the substance in question, with a view of clearing up the doubts and difficulties which existed about it. That lady discovered that a kind of Gamboge was obtained from different trees, but of the same genus. The fruit of two of these were used by the natives, one as an ingredient in their curries, the other as an eatable fruit. 6. The substance is obtained from an incision made in the bark, from which it issues in a thickish liquid state, and is of a light yellow colour : it soon hardens when exposed to the air, and becomes of a much deeper hue, and is then as perfectly fit for use in water colour-drawings as any prepared and sold in the London colourshops.
From a very intelligent native Mrs. Walker ascertained that Gamboge is used by the Cingalese both as a pigment and a medicine. In the former case, when wanted as a yellow dye, it undergoes no preparation; with the addition of a little lime juice, they make a deep orange colour: both these tints are much used in the decoration of their temples, and Boodh himself is always represented in yellow garments. As a medicine the Gamboge is ground into a fine powder, and, being then mixed with the juice expressed from the leaves of the tamarind tree, is taken with a little water. This is the common mode of administering it, but when mixed with other ingredients it is considered by native practitioners to be beneficial in many diseases.
The Gamboge is collected by cutting pieces of the bark completely from the tree, about the size of the palm of the hand, and early in the morning. The Gamboge oozes out from the pores of the bark in a semi-liquid state, but soon thickens, and is scraped off by the collectors the next morning without injury to the tree, the wounds in the bark readily healing, and becoming fit to undergo the operation again.
This is all that is at present known of the Ceylon Gamboge, which has, however, been lately introduced by the native Madras practitioners, and is now an article of sale in the bazaars on the Coromandel Coast, and there seems little reason to doubt, that, if sufficient care is taken with the Gamboge of Ceylon, it will be a perfectly sufficient substitute for that which is now procured through Siam, by the Chinese ; and even the very plant from which the Gamboge is obtained may be the same, or at least a kindred one, as no European botanist hitherto has seen the Siam tree, or even specimens from it. The very imperfect account given by Koenig was founded on a description communicated to him by a priest who was no botanist, and partly on the supposition, that, as the Boodhist religion is believed to have passed from Siam to Ceylon, and along with it the practice of painting the temple and holy dresses with Gamboge, the tree which yields Gamboge may have passed from one country to another at the same time.