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Science And Technology In Pre-Colonial India : Part 1


The history of science is a largely ignored discipline in India. We have a legitimate heritage to be truly proud of without requiring outside validation. How did it happen that everything in Indian traditions by way of science gets a denial despite authorities talking about 30 million manuscripts in Indian repositories related to science and technology? Simultaneously, critics have a field day at the extreme claims of head transplantation, flying aeroplanes, and cloning in the Indian past. Ancient Indian science had an interface with the ordinary world (loka parampara) in the best of Indian traditions. For example, Indian mathematics showing little interest in axiomatic laws unlike the Greeks, was keener for pragmatic methods and good algorithms. Interestingly, the Brahmi script of numerals went to the Arab world and then to Europe. It came back to India as the Arabic numerals.

Macaulay said famously about Indian knowledge systems in 1835 that it was a public waste for printing books with ‘less value than blank paper’ and ‘for giving artificial encouragement to absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology’. Similar observations over centuries shaped all the writing and teaching about India resulting in ignorance, apathy, and confusion amongst Indians about its past. Beginning as a grudging admiration for Indian science and technology, especially in astronomy and agriculture, the colonial writings in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressively made sure that non-European societies had nothing in comparison to the superior European thought. Rarely, there were some like Voltaire who thought that everything good by way of arts and sciences originated in India (La civilisation la plus antique: Voltaire’s Images of India; Jyoti Mohan, Journal of World History). Voltaire’s views were on selective readings of the Orientalists and based heavily on enlightenment values critical of the Catholic Church. Of course, he never visited India but he firmly and influentially wrote that India predated Chinese civilization and that Christianity derived its philosophy and practices from the religion of India.

It is a misfortune of our education system that few have heard of Dharampal (The Beautiful Tree; Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century). The colossal work of Dharampal in deconstructing the discourses that we were primitive before the colonials came is vital to shake off our persisting colonial consciousness. Beginning in 1964-65, over a decade, Dharampal went into the deepest corners of archives and records in various libraries of India and England. He meticulously reconstructed from the archives what the British discovered and thought about the Indian society. The conclusions seriously undermine the legitimacy of colonial dominated perceptions about Indian society. The archival material includes the colonial descriptions of Indian sciences and technologies.

Dharampal concludes that, from the very beginning, the East India Company had the full support of British state military and naval forces in its expansion drive. Importantly, contrary to the standard teaching, Indian society was functioning well and extremely competent in the arts and sciences of its day when the British started its rule. Its interactive grasp over its immediate natural environment was undisputed; in fact, it demanded praise. For example, Reuben Burrow in 1790 (A Proof That the Hindoos Had the Binomial Theorem) says that the ‘Hindoo religion probably spread over the whole earth: there are signs of it in every northern country, and in almost every system of worship.’ He thought that the Stonehenge, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Astrology, Holidays, Games, names of the Stars and figures of the Constellations, the ancient Monuments, Laws, languages, and the Druids of Britain clearly descended from the Hindoo world! Studied neglect, contempt, and the economic breakdown uprooted and eliminated indigenous sciences and technologies not only from society but from Indian memory itself, says Dharampal. Did we have something for the world? Yes, there was plenty.


John Playfair, professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, in 1790, said: ‘… that observations made in India, when all Europe was barbarous or uninhabited, and investigations made in Europe, near five thousand years afterwards, should thus come in mutual support of one another, is perhaps the most striking example of the progress and vicissitude of science…’.Playfair concludes Indian astronomical observations to the period 3,102 BCE and even 1200 years further back based on every conceivable test. This was either through complex astronomical calculations or by direct observation. It became intellectually easier for him to concede this astronomy’s antiquity to the latter. The conservative date for the Vedas is 3000 BCE, but the evidence of solstices and equinoxes points to a much older date. For example, the consistent conjunction of Jupiter with Tisya Nakshatra (Delta Cancri star system) in the Vedas places them at 4000 BCE.

The four major mathematically significant Shulba Sutras (Baudhayana, Manava, Apastamba and Katyayana), dated to at least 1700 BCE, laid deep geometric principles in designing the Vedic fire-altars of unique shapes. Baudhayana Shulba sutra describes the Pythagorean theorem, a few centuries before Pythagoras, and there is a small movement to rename it as Baudhayana-Pythagoras theorem. The architectures of temples, forts, and monuments of ancient and medieval India are based on the Shulba Sutra principles. Metrology like angula, arigula, hastha, and so on for length and weight measurements was in use till as late as the 20th century.

After an apparent black-hole period, the next significant period for astronomy was from 5th century CE with mathematician-astronomers like Aryabhata (476 CE), Bhaskara, Varahamira, and Brahmagupta. Aryabhatta gave the sidereal period of the Earth by using nadis or ghatikas as units which comes to 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds. Aryabhata spoke of infinite time periods, pulsating creations, and destructions of cosmos. Aryabhata’s cosmology described Mahayugas of 4,320,000 years with 4 equal parts of 1,080, 000 years. All this apart from his theory of Earth’s rotation. Later scientific studies (Billard) showed an astonishing precision of Aryabhata’s planetary positions. Bhaskara 1 of the Aryabhata school replaced geometry with algebraic equations and studied spherical astronomy without spherical trigonometry. Carl Sagan (Cosmos) thought highly of the Hindu mind which talked about the age of cosmos in billions of years while the Europeans persisted with a few thousands of years for a long time.However, though these ‘lovely’ cosmic ideas were central to ancient Hindu beliefs, he says that there “are kind of premonition of modern astronomical ideas.” He did think that Hindu ideas on cosmos involved mysticism rather than science!

Panchanga (calendars with auspicious times and eclipses) is a continuing tradition since great antiquity where the best of mathematical and astronomical skills come to use. Astronomical tables instead of trigonometric calculations simplified the Panchanga calculations. Ganesha Devangya in the 15th century simplified the astronomy for Panchanga makers. Vakya Karana table of Kerala, a mnemonical system known by heart, where each letter represents a number, gives amazingly the true positions of heavenly bodies on any given day by degree, position, and center.

At its core, the Vedic system connects the astronomical, the terrestrial, and the physiological, as Subhash Kak says (The Astronomical Code of the Rigveda). Initially, the Biblical periods (beginning of the world in 4004 BCE), and later, the Aryan 1500 BCE invasions into India seriously compromised the acceptance of astronomical observations.Gradually, most of Indian astronomy became either fake or borrowed from the Greeks, Babylonians, or the Arabs.

Mathematical Sciences

The Siddhantic period of mathematician-astronomers started with Aryabhata with significant contributions from Jain and Buddhist savants. Aryabhata dealt with pi value, extraction of square and cube roots, and tables of sines accurate up to the 4th or 5th decimal place. Trigonometry had a central place in astronomy. Aryabhata said that, ‘Space is limitless; and time has no beginning or end.’ Brahmagupta, known for Algebra, developed formulae for second order indeterminate equations and an algorithm-based method for mathematical derivations called Bhavana. Brahmagupta spoke of iterative processes (successive approximation) to calculate the solar eclipses until the solutions are convergent. The same iterative process persists even today for astronomical calculations. Bhaskaracharya (12th century), improving the Bhavana method, developed the ‘cyclic method’ or chakravata, described as the finest thing discovered in the theory of numbers before Lagrange.

Rules of zero came about out in 1st to 3rd century CE and indeed a unique contribution of India. Mesopotamians and Chinese had zero as a place holder unequivocally but India clearly was the first to work out the numerical rules for zero and to integrate the zero in a positional system. India started the decimal-place-value numeral system. Indian science had a huge fascination for numbers big and small, especially the Buddhist and Jain savants. Rigveda spoke in multiples of 10 up to 100,000 and Yajurveda up to 1012. Anuyogadvara Sutra (a Buddhist Text) contemplates on an infinite and eternal universe and numbers like 10250. Lalitavistara Sutra, a Jain text gives names to numbers of multiples of 10 up to 10145 and speaks about a number 10421. Indians conceptualized also the infinitesimal. Bhaskara defines the unit of time as truti-2,916,000,000 part of the day or 30 milliseconds.Indian savants determined the pi value up to 10 decimal places using these Katapayadi notations of associating mathematical numbers with Sanskrit language.

The Islamic invasions of the 11th century did cause a disruption as the intellectual outputs moved South. The most famous was the Kerala school of mathematics and astronomy starting 14th century and maintained vigorously till as late as the 17th century. Starting with Madhava, the later members included Parameshvara, Neelakanta Somayaji, Jyeshta deva, Achyuta Panikkar, and Narayana Bhattathiri. Their important contributions were series expansion for trigonometric functions, power series, infinite series of Madhava, and the value of pi. Calculus concepts were in place as Manjulacharya of the 10th century spoke about instantaneous angular velocity. The work related to calculus was two centuries before Newton and Leibnitz. Some scholars feel that there could have been a knowledge transfer of the Kerala school through trade routes by traders and Jesuit missionaries to China, Arab world, and Europe.

Indians were very good at the most difficult predictions of eclipses involving both deep calculations and meticulous observations. Nilakantha, one of the greatest in the Kerala school, predicting two solar eclipses in Gokarna (Karnataka), travelled there to confirm the eclipse falling on the exact date. Kerala astronomers used Kali Days (days after Kali Yuga passed) to predict eclipses without an error of a single day.

Logic and Physics: The Vaisheshika-Nyaya School of Philosophy

Indian physics starts with sage Kanada’s (6th century BCE) Vaisheshika, closely associated with the Nyaya school of logic. With an exhaustive exposition of logic, this school spectacularly conceived of atoms (paramanus) as the ultimate, eternal, uncaused constituents of a world with three types of reals: matter, living bodies, and sense organs. Kanada also described seven classes of substances: ether, space, and time, which are continuous; and four kinds of atoms- two with mass and two without. The atoms are eternal only under normal conditions; but during creation and destruction, they arise in a sequence starting with akasa and absorb in reverse sequence at the end of the world cycle. The spherical atom appears the same from all directions. The atoms combine to form different kinds of molecules and break up under heat.

Paka, the earliest available evidence for chemistry, is the application of external heat to earth matter resulting in change of properties. Vaisheshika school has important contributions in the fields of theory of metals, theory of motion, physiology of dreams, nature of sound, theory of numbers, and many other scientific areas. A dream was a mental cognition which arises from previous impressions but is different from memory. Kanada also distinguishes between mind and consciousness.

Amazingly, Kanada theorized that Gurutva (gravity) was responsible for the falling of objects on the Earth. There was an exhaustive study of motion by the Vaisheshika school and most impressive perhaps would be the three sutras proposed 1800 years before Newton’s laws.

  • वेगःनिमित्तविशेषातकर्मणोजायते | (Change of motion is due to impressed force)
  • वेगःनिमित्तापेक्षातकर्मणोजायतेनियतदिकक्रियाप्रबन्धहेतु | (Change of motion is proportional to the impressed force and is in the direction of the force)
  • वेगःसंयोगविशेषविरोधी | (Action and reaction are equal and opposite)

The non-mystical, secular, analytical, and scientific potential of the Nyaya-Vaisheshika school has convinced many scholars like Ballantyne that it provides the basic framework for the introduction of modern western science.


If metal usage measures the progress of civilization ancient India places itself high. The common metals were gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, zinc, and mercury. Mohenjo-Daro (3000 BCE), the Maski region of Karnataka and the Aravalli region (first millennium BCE) has shown presence of gold and silver ornaments. With some referencespointing to earlier times, there is firm evidence for metallic zinc production in the 13th century CE at Zawar in Rajasthan. This was a unique technology of downward distillation of zinc vapour and specially designed condensers to solidify the zinc metal. This had no antecedent, successor, and no contemporaries. The Rasaratnakara (7th or 8th century CE) describes this method. William Champion first established the commercial zinc smelting process in 1740 at Bristol which had marked resemblances to the Zawar process with some suspicion of a transfer of ideas through the East India Company officials.

Some of the earliest literary references to the use of mercury distillation comes from Indian treatises like Arthashastra. Vermilion or cinnabar (mercuric sulphide) has always had great ritual significance typically to make the red bindi. The mineral-rich Aravalli region was one of the important early lead mining regions in antiquity. There is evidence of copper artifacts (6th millennium BCE from Baluchistan) and copper mines (Khetri region of Rajasthan, 3rd -2nd millennium BCE). The Bronze Age cultures used tin-copper alloy for making weapons prior to the use of iron. The famous statue of a dancing girl from Mohenjo-Daro (2300-1750 BCE) is the earliest bronze castings of the world executed by the lost wax technique. The Chola period in the Tanjavur area (10th century CE) show arguably the most beautiful bronze castings in the world.

Iron and Steel

There is evidence of Iron artefacts from the early second millennium BCE in Central Ganga Plain and Eastern Vindhyas. South Indian cultures of second millennium BCE also show evidence of iron. Wrought iron reached its peak in India in the first millennium CE. The famous Iron Pillar in New Delhi, a testimony to the high skill of ancient Indians, manufactured by the forge welding of wrought iron pieces dates to Gupta period (3rd century CE). The 6 tonnes and 7 meters tall pillar has an extremely high resistance to corrosion- a result of its composition, the high purity of wrought iron, the phosphorus content, and the distribution of slag.

Wootz is the anglicized version of ukku, a South Indian term for steel. Europe, China, the Arab world, and the Middle East imported steel from India. In the 12th century, an Arab Idrisi says, ‘It is impossible to find anything to surpass the edge from Indian steel’. Wootz was an ultra-high carbon steel with between 1-2% carbon, and used for making Damascus blades exhibiting fascinating superplastic properties. Wootz steel played an important role in the development of metallurgy. Michael Faraday’s failed attempts to duplicate the steel by testing various alloy mixings marked the beginning of alloy steel making. British, French, and Russian metallography developed largely due to the quest to document this structure. In 1790s, a sample of wootz steel evoked immense scientific and technical interest. Experts found it to match the best steel then available in Britain. In 18 years, the Indian wootz steel was in extensive usage and considered the best.

Till well into the nineteenth century, Britain produced very little of steel and imported it mostly from Sweden and Russia. This was due to the inferior quality of its iron ore and a lack of knowledge. The British experts initially thought that ‘the wootz was made directly from the ore.’ Indian steel qualities were not because of processes employed by the Indian manufacturers; an ‘intellectual impossibility’, they said. In 1825, a British manufacturer took out a patent for converting iron into steel by exposing it to the carburetted hydrogen gas in a close vessel at a very high temperature. J.M. Heath, founder of the Indian Iron and Steel Company, conceded that the Indian process appeared similar but impossible that it could have developed through scientific reasoning.

Several British accounts during the period 1820-1855, gave detailed accounts of the design, measurements, and construction of the furnaces of Indian iron and steel manufacture. There were an estimated 10,000 iron and steel furnaces functioning throughout India in the latter part of the eighteenth century. According to British data, the production of iron per furnace amounted about 20 tons annually. One unique accessory in Indian metallurgy was the use of the Panchakki (water-mill) in the crushing of ore by the manufacturers of Kumaon and Garhwal. How did these superior and widespread manufacturing processes disappear? This was mainly from a systematic large-scale economic breakdown resulting from hostile state policy. From about 1800 onwards, India was a consumer of British manufactures combined with no state support for large-scale production of iron and steel.


Sanjeev Sanyal (The Ocean of Churn) highlights ancient and medieval India’s shipbuilding prowess and its great maritime trade. Rigveda mentions maritime trade. Yuktikalpataru (11th Century CE) deals with shipbuilding and details of various types of ships like Samanya (passenger), Madhyama (cargo) and Visesha (fishing and ferrying). Boat building goes back to the 3rd millennium BCE- the Harappan times. Dholavira and Lothal in Gujarat were thriving ports off the Arabian Sea till the Saraswati dried up. Dr. SR Rao’s immense work throws light on Indus civilization’s maritime aspects. The Harappans constructed the first tide dock of the world for berthing and servicing ships at Lothal. Lothal’s overseas trade was with both the West Coast of India and the Mesopotamian cities. The coastline from Gujarat to southern Iran was a continuum with strong economic and cultural links due to an active sea-trading route. There were also ships and boats for the sea and inland-waterways from Lothal. The Harappan ship might have carried a load up to sixty tons as supported by the size of the anchor stones.

The coastline from Bengal to Gujarat had a thriving industry for deep sea fishing and distant trade. The eastern coast had an active maritime trade during the Cholas and Pandyas (1st millennium and early second millennium CE) rule. Merchant ships from Satvahana (Andhra rulers) and Kalinga ports traded with Egypt in the west and Vietnam in the east. South East Asia has a strong impact of Indic civilization (Sanskrit, temple architecture, Mahabharata, and Ramayana) by a vibrant and active maritime link. The largest Hindu temple complex in the world is at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Rulers, dynasties, and individuals like Marthanda Varma, the Marathas, Lachit Borphukan, and Kanhoji Angre, to name the fewest, show how ship and boat building was integral to Indian history.


The British, while laying railway tracts between Lahore and Multan in the 1850s, discovered plentiful ballast coming from bricks from mounds near a village Harappa (Sahiwal district of Punjab). Alexander Cunningham, the newly appointed director of Archaeological Survey of India, visited this site in 1872 and noted to his anguish that massive ancient walls had simply disappeared in railway construction. He initially placed these ancient bricks- symmetric and strong, to 300-400 BCE, the Buddhist era. A later director, Marshall, with studies at Harappa, Taxila, and Mohenjo-Daro finally published his book ‘First Light on a Long-Forgotten Civilization’ in 1924. Later, he edited a massive three-volume excavation report called the ‘Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization’. Seals, pottery, bricks, town planning, beads, pottery, bangles, jewellery items connecting a wide area of 800 kilometers established an age-old civilization. The bricks which perhaps initiated the story traced to the urban phase of the Harappan civilization (Indus-Saraswati civilization) dated to 1900 BCE-2600 BCE! The bricks stood solid for a period of 4000 years.

The well-burnt and finely textured bricks of the Harappan civilization show a scientific proportion of 1:2:4 (width: height: length) essential for strong and economical bonding. Amazingly, this brick production method remained practically unchanged in India till the turn of the 20th century. As Michel Danino says, the genius of the Harappans in brick construction is evident from the trapezoid shaped bricks in the construction of circular wells and ring wells (with radial supporting walls and above-down construction). This made the wells, extremely resistant to inner collapse from underwater seepage.


Agricultural technology involves a deeply interconnected knowledge in many areas like seasons, water sources and utilisation, soil types, crops, seeds, land treating, mechanical instruments, animal usage and maintenance, medicine, labour management, crop refining, storing of granary, and so on. Mehrgarh in Baluchistan shows the earliest evidence for agriculture in 7000-7500 BCE. Kalibangan around 2800 BCE shows an ingenious double network of perpendicular furrows for tall and short crops allowing sunlight for both without shadowing.

The colonial rule disrupted the rich agricultural traditions as Dharampal notes meticulously from the British archival records. Till around 1750, together with the Chinese, Indian areas were producing some 73% of the total world paddy, and even till 1830, this figure was around 60%. In a moderately fertile area like that of Chengalpattu (Tamilnadu), the paddy production around 1760-70 amounted to five to six tons per hectare, which equals the production of paddy per hectare in present day Japan—the current world high!

Thos Halcott, in 1795, as the first European, noted the different types of ploughs for use in agriculture in Guntoor district from time immemorial. The unique Drill plough was in universal use for most grains, tobacco, cotton, and the castor-oil plant and British authorities thought it superior in design to the patented version in England. Halcott sent diagrams and three different types of ploughs (including the Drill plough) for forwarding to the Board of Agriculture to possibly implement in England. Alexander Walker (‘Indian Agriculture,’ 1820) details how Indian agricultural principles, implements and practices compared with those elsewhere in the world. Besides widespread artificial irrigation, the practices of crop rotation, manuring, sowing, assessing the quality of soils, and using a variety of other implements were fairly known. Walker noted that European equipment failed in Indian agriculture simply due to unsuitable environments for application. He does not know what essential present the English can make to India, since it has many more kinds of grains that the English. Walker wrote about the possible political reasons for scarcity and poverty leading to a decline of agricultural instruments and techniques.

Adam Ferguson of Edinburgh, professor of moral philosophy and regarded as the founder of British sociology said in 1780 that the aim of governing India was to transfer as much as possible of the wealth of India to Europe. It would be permissible to bend and break the rules as instruments of the state cannot effectively extract or extort from the ruled. Dharampal notes high land revenues in large parts of India under British rule, sometimes more than 50% till 1855. In the Madras Presidency areas during the 1850s, about one-third of the irrigated land had gone out of cultivation as the amount of land revenue had begun to approximate the gross produce itself.

India is the longest surviving civilization with agriculture as its backbone. The English initially had admiration for agricultural practices in India. The colonial systems broke the agricultural output severely and even managed to cause droughts through their policies of maximum extraction and maximum taxation. The story degenerated to a ‘primitive agricultural practices’ despite a well-set system worthy of emulation. Today, agriculture is back to the top, a hard climb, but to a place where it always belonged.

Dyes and Pigments

India had a thriving industry of manufacturing dyes and pigments. Plant and animal products, minerals, and metals produced different dyes and pigments for mainly red, yellow, blue, and black colours. It was a well-established enterprise in Indian sub-continent with even the Atharvaveda mentioning different methods of producing dyes. Archaeological evidence shows that dyeing was a wide-spread industrial enterprise in India in the third millennium BC. As early as 500 BCE, there is evidence of Indian indigo use in Egypt for the dyeing of muslin. 13th-16th century CE texts show methods of preparing pigments from inorganic matter.

Dharampal records Dr Helenus Scott (Aspects of technology in Western India) where he recommends and sends samples of some substances as highly worthy of becoming articles in commerce and art. The colouring industry was thus very much in place, some aspects apparently unknown to the English and they were also eager to send it across to their own country.

(Note: In the next section, we will see some more scientific achievements in Indian civilization especially in civil engineering of the ancient past along with the biological sciences. We shall also see the perfection of Sanskrit as a language and how authorities with agendas attack it in various ways. The next section has the selected references for further reading at the end).

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