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Science And Technology In Pre-Colonial India: Part 2

…Continued from part 1

In the first part, we saw the Indian achievements in varied fields of science and technology. Drawing heavily on the work of Dharampal, Michel Danino, and Subhash Kak, we shall see some of the other achievements in the fields of civil engineering, biological sciences, and linguistics. The section ends with some references for further exploration.

Some British Accounts Noted by Dharampal

In 1792, Dr Helenus Scott wrote to the President of the Royal Society of London ruing neglect of important Indian substances and wrongly focusing on diamonds, pepper, and pearls. He details various unique Indian products of important use to the English in the fields of medicine and surgery; dyeing; building construction; and methods of making soap, gun powder, indigo, ink, cinnabar, vitriol, iron, and copper, alum, and so on. He sends samples with exquisite details regarding their production.

He mentions dammer ‘dissolved in oil by heat and employed for covering the bottoms of ships… an excellent substitute for pitch and tar and for many purposes much superior to them…’. He also mentions hemp, a glutinous vegetable substance for securing the ropes in an improved manner from the effects of the weather. He writes about the impressive dyeing methods for their cotton clothes and complains that Indians do not communicate their knowledge readily. He writes, ‘I have sent you in the box that contains the machines for cleaning cotton a piece of the cinnabar of this country which is made in masses sometime of 100 lb weight at a single sublimation. I have very frequently tried to make cinnabar by the methods recommended in Europe but I have never been able to procure any so far, as the Indian at one operation.’

He describes the special lime or chunam extensively used for binding large stones, buildings, terraces, aqueducts, works below the surface of water and for the bottoms of ships where it answers the purposes of copper. One of the chief ingredients in this chunam was a kind of unrefined sugar. He notes that no country had yet practiced this unique method. In later letters, he mentions and sends samples of the extraordinary paper for putting on noses on those who have lost them; Indian cement for uniting animal parts; wootz steel of a harder temper than known to the English; and so on. The British sense of awe and wonderment gradually morphed into painting a primitive and barbaric civilization later. Dharampal’s books extensively documents what the British thought of India in the initial phases. We never studied him, unfortunately.

The Indus-Saraswati Civilization: Lessons in Town Planning, Sanitation, Water Systems

Harappan civilization discovery shows a continuous unbroken Indic civilization from almost 7500 BCE. A gloriously flowing Saraswati of the Rigvedic times dried up sometime between 2000 and 3000 BCE. Michel Danino (The Lost River) collects all the evidence from the texts, satellite imagery, and geological plate tectonics to show this rich civilization. Saraswati is the Ghaggar-Hakra river system of today. Archaeology shows a densely populated area of the Saraswati plain between the fourth and the second millennium BCE. More than 60% of the 1140 identified Mature Harappan sites (between 1900 BC to 2600 BC) are in the Saraswati basin (the dried-up region of Gujarat). It is more appropriate to call it the Indus-Saraswati civilization rather than Indus civilization.

The mature urban phase covered an area of approximately one million kilometers of North West India. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan; Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, and Lothal in India have yielded a wealth of information about the technological and scientific achievements of that age. Brick houses were obviously the most important.

Wide areas show commonality suggesting either some centralisation or a confederation; there were unique features of each place too. Town and house planning, streets normalised to standard widths, and sanitation systems show remarkable similarity across a wide area. Archaeological evidence and the presence of seals and artifacts clearly point towards a vibrant trading contact with Bronze Age civilizations (Persian and Mesopotamian) and the Arab world. Harappan weights at the entrances suggest a trade control of some sort. Bead making, drilling, bronze metallurgy, agriculture, weights, and measures laid the basis of a modern and specific culture of India. Uniquely, it did not show the presence of any controlling huge authorities, wars, and destructions. Eventually, by 1900 BC, the civilization moved east with the drying up of the Saraswati river presumably.

In a visible urbanism, Harappan towns divided into an upper and lower segment, perhaps reflecting some authority and common folk segregation. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro show thick fortifications of the upper town perhaps to protect against the intermittent floods. The planning shows a great desire to define urban spaces, symbols of authority, and trade control. The architecture never pointed to a ruler’s house like with the Egyptians. The streets in the town were wide (up to 9 meters) and aligned in the cardinal directions. The lower town streets cut at straight right angles. There were five types of master-plans for the construction of houses according to one scholar. The largest house design with a central courtyard is still in use in some traditional households of India.

Sanitation was the hallmark of Harappans. Bathrooms were common, sometimes on the upper floor of the house, and the drainage systems integrated into other aspects of town planning. Latrines of a ‘commode’ type; brick made drain systems; maintenance holes for regular inspection; individual drain systems joining into common municipal channels were other interesting features. All these show a tremendous calculation on the part of the Harappan Engineers.

Water management was important perhaps in response to the arid conditions. Thousands of efficient and low cost Gabarbands in Sindh and Baluchistan go back to the third millennium BCE diverting water and letting alluvium build up to create small, fertile, and naturally watered fields. Huge underground drains from the Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro; a series of dams at Dholavira for water storage; interconnected stepped reservoirs of the castle at Dholavira; stormwater drains; and wide network of underground drains shows the importance of water management systems of this civilization leaving the present planners to shame perhaps. Harappans expected massive rains once a year, as the constructions show. A massive reservoir at Dholavira could hold about 20,000 cubic meters of water.

Weights and measures show a high idea of proportions and binary decimal systems. The basic unit of weight appears to be 0.86 grams and the weights go up in a geometric progression 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 160, 200, 320, 640, 1600, 3200, 6400, 8000, 12800! Michel Danino concludes that the basic unit of length in today’s units seems to be 1.9 meters. Archaeologists have discovered shell compasses in Lothal for making precise angles. Town and house planning show a deeply ingrained idea of proportions (5:4 is the chief ratio).

The Harappan civilization shows some evidence of a Vedic culture in the past. Unfortunately, academicians fight strongly against the Saraswati existence as it denies the pernicious Aryan theory. The Aryan proponents insist on a break in the Harappan civilization with the invading Aryans driving the Harappans to south of Vindhyas. However, the archaeological evidence is clearly in favour of an uninterrupted and unbroken civilization from those times till now.

Medical and Biological Sciences

Ayurveda, a 5000-year-old tradition rooted in Atharva Veda, has two main schools: Charaka and Sushrutha. Denying the ancientness of Indian scriptures stays a very honourable scholarly enterprise but the medical systems were well in place at least before the Islamist invaders came. Charaka Samhita (likely 500 BCE) has 120 chapters divided into eight sections of surgery, paediatrics, head and eyes, mental diseases, reproductive systems, pharmacology, therapeutics, and toxicology. It mentions plant products (from the root, bark, pith, exudation, stalk, juice, sprouts, fruit, flower, ash, oils, thorns, and so on); 165 types of animal products; and 64 minerals for therapeutic purposes. This book had Persian, Arabic, and Latin translations; the Arabic translation was Al-Beruni’s chief source of medicine.

Sushrutha Samhita has 192 chapters; the first nine for only surgical instruments. The colonials rediscovered Sushrutha’s plastic surgery techniques of rotating forehead skin flaps for amputated noses much to their surprise when a potter in Pune performed this operation following the ancient texts. Sushrutha described eight types of surgeries: extracting solid bodies, excision, incision, probing, scarification, puncturing, evacuating fluids, and suturing. Records from 6th century BCE show that limb amputations, fracture settings, haemorrhoid excisions, tonsillectomies, caesarean sections, craniotomies, abdominal operations, and stone removals were routine in India.

Dr Helenus Scott, in one communication, praising Indian medical sciences says, ‘…they practice with great success the operation of depressing the crystalline lens when it becomes opaque and from time immemorial, they have cut for the stone at the same place which they now do in Europe.’ A deep knowledge of wines and intoxicating substances was also known for anaesthesia purposes. These ancients spoke about medical ethics, sanitation measures, and vaccinations too.

Ayurveda states firmly that nature causes diseases and nature has the cure too. Ayurveda bases on the Tridosha theory of human disease which postulates an imbalance of Vatta (air and space), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (water and gross matter) elements of the human body. Interventions of any kind seek to restore the balance. A different paradigm, perhaps difficult to understand by the modern mind, but as a system of medicine, it went deep into physiology, anatomy, and observational studies of diseases. Health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being has been the principle of Ayurveda for thousands of years. The principles of Sattvic diet, Yoga, Pranayama, and meditation form a crucial component of preventive medicine. Meditation and deep breathing are vital in the mental and emotional well-being and solutions to many psycho-somatic illnesses.

Breathing techniques or Pranayama is a powerful tool for health since centuries. S N Balagangadhara says that there are different configurations of learning for each culture. The West asks ‘why;’ and the East focussed on the ‘how,’ the explanations many times coming later. The theories will come; but the physical and mental health benefits of Pranayama are for every person to experience. Dean Ornish (Reversal of Heart Disease) makes a compelling evidence-based argument for his program of integrating Indian Yogic exercises, breathing techniques, meditation, and diet to reverse heart disease. Most interventions-aspirin, medicines, stents, and surgery, at best halt the progression of disease, rarely do they reverse. This does not mean that a person having a heart attack needs to do meditation or deep breathing; exactly the counter-narratives preventing discussions for integration or holistic care. The either/ or approach is a modern scientific philosophy which either calls for either complete acceptance or a complete rejection. Extreme claims also give an unbalanced view and unfortunately tend to make light of the strengths of Ayurveda.

The atomic theory is the basis of modern medicine. The ancient Vaisheshika speak of atoms and molecules but contemporary Ayurveda is a systems approach. Maybe for medical treatments, a pure chemical sometimes may not work unless in the presence of other identified and unidentified substances. Regarding surgery, the operations were clearly on well-organised anatomical, physiological, and surgical principles standing the test of time. It is unfortunate that Ayurveda despite being the most ancient, scientific, and thriving tradition of India, worthy of respect, takes a secondary place in Indian medical systems.

Ancient India had many concepts of living organisms too. The Mahabharata spoke that Ahimsa was impossible in a world where the air and water are swarming with organisms. Ahtangahrudaya Samhita refers to the red blood corpuscles that are circular, legless, invisible, and coppery in colour. Swami Vivekananda was surprised at the resistance to evolution in the Western world. He thought it was a given according to Vedantic thought. The Dashavatara at a certain notional level gives an intuitive picture of human evolution. The ancient Jain texts mention 8.4 million species in the world, which confirms amazingly with the modern figure of 8.74 million species.


Dharampal notes that inoculation with material from diseased humans against smallpox was almost universal in large parts of Northern and Southern India, till its banning in many places under the Bengal Presidency from around 1802-1803. Ro. Coult (1731) writes: ‘The operation of inoculation called by the natives tikah has been known at least for 150 years… Their method of performing this operation is by taking a little of the pus and dipping these in the point of a pretty large sharp needle…they make several punctures in the hollow under the deltoid muscle…if the punctures do suppurate, and no fever or eruption ensues, then they are no longer subject to the infection…’

Holwell, for the College of Physicians in London in 1767, gave the most detailed account of inoculation practices in India covering the timing, methodology, dietary restrictions, and other pre- and post-inoculation care. He thought one in a million had a chance of contracting small-pox after the inoculation. Phenomenally impressed, he wanted a deeper analysis of the procedure for application to the western world. Importantly, Holwell’s account relates to the prevalence of some theory of bacterial infection. He said Indians thought smallpox and other epidemical diseases were because of ‘imperceptible animalculae’. When taken in through food, they pass into the blood ‘where, in a certain time, their malignant juices excite a fermentation and end in an eruption on the skin.

The Superintendent General of Vaccine Inoculation in 1804 thought that fatalities amongst the inoculated were around 1 in 200 and 1 in 60-70 for Indians and Europeans respectively, unlike the one in million believed by Holwell. The British rule altered the situation of a universal practice. Public revenues maintained the inoculators in India. The British triggered a collapse of the fiscal system which most probably led these officials away to other occupations. A universal effective practice became ‘hazardous’ to the Europeans. The frequent smallpox epidemics in the nineteenth and early twentieth century largely traces back to the state’s indifference for universal inoculation. Despite the prohibitions the indigenous inoculation persisted till around 1870 by stealth.

Edward Jenner (1749-1823), much later, takes credit of developing the first vaccine for small-pox from the Cow Pox pustules in 1796. The well-established and highly effective Indian inoculation practice stays a blip in the history of Indian medicine and consciousness of most Indians. The response to a statement that Indians knew vaccination before Jenner would either be of disbelief or a gentle smile for an exaggeration of an Indian past. A colonial consciousness forms a hard and impenetrable concrete wall. It may be that Jenner independently discovered vaccination against small-pox and he had no clue of Indian practices (though a difficult proposition to believe since India was well within the English consciousness). However, it is important to highlight the Indian contributions in vaccinations as acknowledged by foreigners like Holwell-the only way to convince some Indian sceptics.

Sanskrit, Panini, Logic, And Computers

Rajiv Malhotra (The Battle for Sanskrit) details the malicious attempts of Western and Indian academia to make Sanskrit language ‘Brahmanical’ and exploitative to Dalits, women, and even Muslims in its language structures. There is an effort by influential coteries to push Sanskrit in the realm of ‘specialised’ studies (like Greek) despite its extensive use in many rituals of Indian society. Some like Vyaas Houston state Sanskrit as a ‘perfect language infinitely more sophisticated than any of our modern tongues.’

Panini (500 BCE), an ancient Sanskrit philologist and grammarian, likely lived in northwest India. Scholars like Rens Bod at Amsterdam believe that the history of linguistics begins not with Plato or Aristotle, but with Panini’s grammar treatise- the Astadhyaya. This treatise (in 4000 verses) on grammar containing linguistics, phonetics, syntax, and semantics is the foundational text of the Vyakarana (grammar) branch of the Vedanga. The Astadhyaya was not the first description of Sanskrit grammar, but it is the earliest that has survived in full.

Panini’s work, setting the linguistic standards for Classical Sanskrit, is generative as well as descriptive. With its complex use of metarules, transformations, and recursions, the grammar in Ashtadhyayi is like the ‘Turing machine,’ an idealized mathematical model that reduces the logical structure of any computing device to its essentials. The text takes material from lexical lists (Dhatupatha, Ganapatha) as input and describes systemic algorithms for the generation of well-formed words.

The concepts of the phoneme; the morpheme; and the root are integral to Panini’s grammar. The terse, perfect, unambiguous, and complete logical rules describing Sanskrit morphology has been extremely influential in ancient and modern linguistics. This morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the 20th century. European scholars discovered Panini in the 19th century inspiring modern linguists like Bopp, Saussure, Frits Staal, and others. Panini truly deserves the term of ‘the Father of Linguistics.’ Staal notes that the idea of formal rules in language – proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1894 and developed by Noam Chomsky in 1957 – has clear and unambiguous origins in the formal rules of Paninian grammar. The works of Panini also presage the modern field of semiotics- the study of signs and symbols for communications.

Panini’s system represents the world’s first formal universal grammatical and computing system much before the 19th century development of mathematical logic. Panini’s ‘auxiliary symbols’ technique to mark syntactic categories and control grammatical derivations, rediscovered by the logician Emil Post, became a foundation method in the design of computer programming languages. Mary Boole, wife of George Boole (inventor of modern logic), in ‘Indian Thought and Western Science in the Nineteenth Century, writes that Indian logic system was central to the development of machine theory.

She claimed that George Everest (of the Mount Everest fame) was the intermediary of the Indian ideas influencing not only her husband but the other two leading scientists in the attempt to mechanize thought: Augustus de Morgan and Charles Babbage. She further speculates that these ideas influenced the development of vector analysis and modern mathematics. Much prior to this, Mohsin Fani’s Dabistani-i Madhahib (17th Century CE) claimed that Kallisthenes, who was in Alexander’s party, took logic texts from India. The beginning of the Greek tradition of logic was in this material.

John Backus and Peter Naur introduced the formal structure of computer programming languages during 1958-60. Any book on programming languages has the notation BNF (Backus-Naur Form). T.R.N. Rao and Subhash Kak argue for changing this to Panini-Backus Form in the syntax of formal language systems by noting a correspondence by P. Z. Ingerman (1967). The latter noted Panini’s notations having many similar properties. With definite evidence of Panini being the earlier independent inventor of the notation, Ingerman wanted a name change to Panini- Backus Form.

Subhash Kak reviews the Paninian approach to Natural Language Processing (NLP) and compares it with the representation systems of Artificial Intelligence. Many contemporary developments in formal logic, linguistics, and computer science are a rediscovery of the work of the ancient logicians and grammarians of India. Computationally, grammars of natural language are as powerful as any computing machine. Subhash Kak shows that Panini’s grammar has direct parallels in computer science. Computer oriented studies on Astadhyayi would also help to introduce AI (artificial intelligence), logic, and cognitive science as complementary areas of study in the Sanskrit departments.

How did a perfect language with a perfect grammar become oppressive, exploitative, and dead? For the colonials, it came in the way of their narratives of a primitive civilization needing the help of a benign white rule. Unfortunately, post-independent India saw a Marxist ideology becoming the driving force of our educational narratives by looking at every social, political, and economic issue only in the framework of the exploiter and the exploited. Gradually, ‘cultural Marxism’ ensured that Sanskrit became Brahminical, patriarchal, oppressive, and so on.

Sanskrit, the oldest and the most refined language, is the mother of many Indian languages. It has a vibrant connection with all the vernacular languages, all equally great. A great language like Tamil may have had an independent origin in the hoary past. But one cannot deny its rich interaction with Sanskrit. Languages grow and multiply by interactions, adaptations, borrowings, and modifications. There is no need to politicise a language and create fault lines in our society which Indologists like to do. Sanskrit is a part of the great Indian cultural heritage.

Speculative science

Yoga-Vasishta (1st century CE to 13th century CE) speaks of time, space, matter, mind, and consciousness. There are stunning parallels to modern scientific concepts like the evolution of the laws of nature, multiple universes, and the extremely ancient age of Earth when there were no beings. The ‘Pushpaka Vimana’ of Ramayana is an integral part of the story. The discussion unfortunately is between the two extreme camps: one claiming aeroplanes, nuclear weapons, all of mathematics, embryonic cloning, or transplantations in our scriptures; and the other believing that nothing good can come from Indian soil.

Many ideas may have been pure speculations like science fiction. Danino says, the naysayers will only believe that Indian scientific advances can only be derivative, its imperfections alone being original contributions, while its rational elements ultimately stem from contact with the Greeks. Our colonised minds strongly believe that Indian savants knew no science, followed no proper axiomatic method, and just ended up in stagnation. This, while Europe galloped forth triumphantly.


Extraordinarily, the assessment of a 150-year colonial rule of at least a five-millennium old civilization became a benchmark for us. That a self-sufficient country stood strong for such a long time without any scientific-technological achievements is hard to believe and yet is the firm idea in many to most Indians. Everything we had was either fake or borrowed from the Greeks, Chinese, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, or the Arabs. Our achievements in science and technology remained as footnotes in our textbooks even as there was no encouragement to study the history of Indian science.

India has a great intellectual heritage and a huge corpus of texts (the broad five groups –Vedas, Upavedas, Vedangas, Puranas, and Darshanas) covering all fields of human activity is a testimony of the capacity of Indians to create knowledge by reflecting on their own experiences without any foreign influences. Michel Danino quotes David Pingree that India has at least 30 million surviving ancient manuscripts in Indian libraries, repositories, and private collections. They deal with every topic under the sun: philosophies, grammar, language, logic, debate, poetics, aesthetics, cosmology, mythology, ethics, literature of all genres from poetry to historical tradition, arts, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, metallurgy, botany, zoology, geology, medical systems, governance, administration, water management, town planning, civil engineering, ship making, agriculture, polity, martial arts, games, brain teasers, omens, ghosts, accounting, and much more. As a practical culture, technology came before theoretical sciences many times. However, we did develop some of the most advanced mathematical and geometrical theories; they were in the form of verses, perhaps just a step before the equational forms.

The colonial rules (Islamic and European) severely disrupted this natural blossoming of science. We also turned from creating knowledge to just protecting it from annihilation. Independence should ideally have been a break when, finally, we could have rejected the colonial discourses and adopted an Indian lens to view ourselves and the world. Sadly, it was a lost opportunity. The ideology-driven academia was intensely inimical to Indian traditions. Their view of a linear history was very clear: a primitive Indian past that needed steering to a golden future (represented by modern Europe). In a few crucial generations, our education system could deracinate most of the Indians successfully.

Why are we still full of colonial understandings about any aspect of the country? The explanation might be the ‘colonial consciousness’ of Dr S. N. Balagangadhara- a persisting violence on the colonized by a permanent altering of their intellectual frameworks. We have only put western lenses till now to view India and that has caused great damage to Indians and Indian culture. Balu insists on developing our own lenses to view ourselves and the west. India has a deep intellectual history of many ideas and technologies. It would be far better for sensitising students to this rather than blanket text book proclamations of an ‘unscientific India before the colonials came’ which the minds carry for a lifetime. The story has a better alternative.


  1. Many articles, talks and books form the basis of the chapter on Science and Technology. Michel Danino is a huge influence on this chapter. His book The Lost River: On the Trail of The Sarasvati is a phenomenal reading as it demolishes the Aryan theory and gives a wonderful description of the achievements of the Indus-Saraswati civilization.
  2. Gainsaying Ancient Indian Science in two parts by Michel Danino (
  3. Integrating India’s Heritage in Indian Education in two parts by Michel Danino (
  4. The Metrology behind Harappan Town-Planning in two parts by Michel Danino (
  5. Indian Culture and India’s Future by Michel Danino (2011)
  6. Science and Technology in Ancient Indian Texts (ed: Bal Ram Singh, Girish Nath Jha, Umesh Kumar Singh, Diwakar Mishra)
  7. The Wishing Tree: Presence and Promise in India by Subhash Kak
  8. The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda by Subhash Kak
  9. The Secret of the Veda by Subhash Kak (
  10. A Very Brief History of Indian Science by Subhash Kak (
  11. Artificial Intelligence, Consciousness and the Self by Subhash Kak (
  12. Kaṇāda, Great Physicist and Sage of Antiquity by Subhash Kak (
  13. Ancient Ship-Building & Maritime Trade by D. P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari (
  14. The origins of iron-working in India: new evidence from the Central Ganga Plain and the Eastern Vindhyas by Rakesh Tewari (
  15. If I had a way with our educational systems, I would include Dharampal’s writings as an essential part of our curriculum from kindergarten to post-graduate level. Unfortunately, very few have even heard about him. India: Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century and The Beautiful Tree are his wonderful works amongst his huge corpus of work. Essential Writings is a fantastic collection of his main writings edited by Gita Dharampal.
  16. Portrait of A Nation History of Ancient India by Kamlesh Kapur

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