A Valuable Contribution to History of Technology in India

D.P. Agrawal, Lok Vigyan Kendra, Almora 263601, dpalmora@gmail.com

Habib, Irfan. 2008. Technology in Medieval India. Delhi: Tulika Books. Pp. 139, Figures 41, Tables 3, Maps 2. Price Rs. 275/-.

D.P. Agrawal, Lok Vigyan Kendra, Almora 263601, dpalmora@gmail.com

Habib, Irfan. 2008. Technology in Medieval India. Delhi: Tulika Books. Pp. 139, Figures 41, Tables 3, Maps 2. Price Rs. 275/-.

For a long time History of Science and Technology in India was a neglected field of study, except for some pioneering efforts by Debiprasad Chattopadhyay (History of Science and Technology in Ancient India, 1982, 1986). The jingoists on the other hand found everything – from rockets to hydrogen bombs to aeroplanes – in ancient India. In recent years Indian National Science Academy contributed greatly to this field through the efforts of B.V. Subbarayappa and A.K. Bag, though the short essays on different technologies proved a bit sketchy. Inspired by the monumental series on Chinese science and civilisation by Joseph Needham, D.P. Chattopdhyaya (not to be confused with Debiprasad!) brought out a gigantic series under the Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture. It’s a vast and ambitious project of 75 volumes, out of which 16 volumes (about 70 books) have already come out. But its huge encyclopaedic sweep covers everything and thus History of Science and Technology loses focus. In the last few years Infinity Foundation has brought out several volumes (edited by D.P. Agrawal and O.C. Handa) on Harappan architecture, technology and its legacy, iron, copper and zinc technologies, traditional technologies of domestic architecture, hydraulics, medicine, etc. In this series the main emphasis is on material (archaeological, metallurgical, etc) evidence rather than on literary sources. As most of these books deal with ancient India, Irfan Habib’s book on medieval technology is a very welcome addition.

Irfan Habib is one of our best known historians who are greatly interested in History of Science and Technology. Unlike many other historians his writings are marked by a remarkable lucidity, scientific precision and a lot of hard evidence, and of course a Marxist approach. Though his specialization is in the medieval period, he has also written/edited books on prehistory and Indus civilization. He always studies the field covered by his books in great detail and comes up with very significant insights. I was a bit surprised when I saw his book on Indus civilization as the period was far removed from his specialization, but I could find not only some rare information in the book, but also some valuable insights. In the book on Indus civilization, unlike others, Habib gives due importance to all levels of the Indus trade: local village-town trade; long-distance trade within the territory of the civilisation and commerce with other regions.

In the present book he has divided the theme in four main chapters dealing with agriculture, crafts, military technology and the social and cultural environment of the medieval Indian technology. He has added supplementary information in extracts and bibliographic details in notes.

Habib makes some very significant observations on the character of Indian Technology (Chapter 4). He points out that there was over-specialization in India. Quoting Pelshart, Habib informs us that he found in Agra goldsmiths, calico painters, embroiderers, carpet makers, cotton weavers, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, tailors, masons, builders, stone cutters, a hundred crafts for a job. A job which one workman will do in Holland passes (here) through four men’s hands before it is finished. Of course, there was a competition which compelled an artisan to sharpen his skills rather than improve his tools, as tools were costly.

The author also explains that such specialization was brought about by a socially set division of labour which inhibited technological progress because of the hereditary caste. It is also to be noted that though artisans were employed by kings and aristocracy, the tools had to be owned by artisans. Since tools cannot be separated from the artisans, and capitalist relations had not yet developed, craft technology remained outside the scope of externally induced change. Habib, however, points out that the very formulation of the problem in this manner makes an opposite question inevitable. Why did not the classes which controlled a share in the social surplus enter the productive process by providing tools and so be able to improve technology, as happened partly in Western Europe from the sixteenth century onwards? This raises the problem of ideological orientation. How far were such classes in India at all interested in technology and its improvement?

Habib also points out that unlike Europe, in ancient India production technology was apparently not brought into any recognizable relationship with theoretical science. Habib contrasts Bhoja’s fanciful devices, often diffi cult to interpret, which were totally divorced from any association with practical technology, let alone the productive process. Habib informs us that Abu’l Fazl insists that there were innovations too in the manufacture of guns and muskets, and describes a device employed by Akbar, the ship’s ‘camel’, which was invented in Europe nearly a century later. In chemistry there was the invention of water-cooling through the use of saltpetre, which seems to be independent of any discovery made in Europe. Still, the Mugal Empire did not produce even a single worthwhile text on crafts and agriculture. Contrasting the slow progress of Indian technology, compared to Europe, Habib attributes the European progress to the growth of rationalism, the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries and the expanding volume of capital available for technological experimentation. This according to Habib explains why European technology was able to leave the rest of the world far behind by the end of the 18th century.

Below we will highlight some of his important observations on different medieval technologies and their dates.

In Chapter 1, Habib discusses technology related to agriculture, crops, irrigation, processing, etc. We are told that a signifi cant device, the draw-bar, which enabled the draught animal to walk round in a circle and so carry out threshing and turn rotary mills, appeared only at the dawn of early medieval times. Animals could be used for milling only when the mortar-and-pestle hand-mill became completely rotary. Habib dates the use of the draw-bar and the consequential circular track of the oxen for threshing and milling spread to different parts of India between the fifth and the tenth centuries. 

Habib points out that no fundamental change in the structure of the oxdrawn plough seems to have occurred; ploughs however varied a great deal even within adjacent regions in India, largely according to soil. During medieval times the Indian plough acquired the seed rill, which might possibly have diffused from China, which knew of it as early as the first century BCE.

Though in ancient India the two humped Bactrian camel, a hardy animal of colder climes, was known, the introduction of the dromedary (one humped camel) was quite late. The dromedary has great tractate power and exceptional stamina for work in warm, dry zones, and was thus eminently suited for use as an all-purpose draught animal in the Indus basin.

About the crops, Habib informs us that by the end of the sixteenth century, the Indian peasant was familiar with an exceptionally large number of crops. In Abu’l Fazl’s list the number of rabi crops ranges from 16 to 21, and of kharif crops, from 17 to 29. In the Agra province the number is 19 for rabi crops and 28 for kharif. Such a large number of crops made Indian agriculture especially rich in the variety of its products.

Opium and henna were early medieval introductions from the Islamic world. After the Portuguese intrusion in the Indian seas, a new set of plants began to be added to the already long list of Indian crops. Tobacco and maize were cultivated in Gujarat by 1613 and its cultivation spread rapidly to all parts of India thereafter. Other New-World natives, like groundnut, ordinary and sweet potato, tomato and okra were acclimatized still later.

We learn that the first reference to sericulture in India occurs in the report of Ma Huan, the Chinese navigator who visited Bengal in 1422. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Bengal became one of the great mulberry silk-producing regions of the world. The worm here was multivoltine, enabling six crops to be gathered in the year.

We are told that grafting, as a means of extending the cultivation of particular varieties of fruit or developing new varieties, does not seem to have been employed in India before the Mughal times. The Mughal kings introduced the grafting of the sweet cherry in Kashmir, oranges, mulberry, etc. Quite a few New World fruits were introduced by the Portuguese in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as pineapple, papaya, cashew nut and guava.

In India the first definite reference to the noria (a vertical wheel that has water containers on its rim) occurs in an early version of the Panchatantra (c. 300 CE). The earliest allusion to this ‘pot-garland’ occurs in the Mandasor inscription of 532 CE. The first express statement about the use of gears is from Babur when he gives his classic description of the ‘Persian wheel’. This geared saqiya or ‘Persian wheel’ was crucial for the relatively dry Indus basin because it could give a constant flow.

In this chapter Habib describes the large irrigation works constructed in the south in the eleventh century, for example, the Grand Anicut, a dam over 300 metres long, up to 5.5 metres high and up to 18 metres thick, over the Kaveri river. With the coming into use of lime and gypsum mortar and other techniques, Delhi saw, in the fourteenth century, fairly sophisticated waterworks. Firoz Tughluq built long and large canals in the north Indian plains. He created a veritable network of canals taking off from the Satluj and Yamuna, besides other smaller rivers.

As far as processing of grains is concerned, the appearance in India of both the rotary mill and the vertical peg-handle goes back to the fifth century. It seems that the rotary oil mill is also of the same date. Habib thinks that not only the ox-driven oil-mill, but the draw-bar too must have arrived in Himachal by c. 800 CE.

The archaeological evidence from Taxila and Charsadda shows that alcohol distillation may have been invented in India in c. 150 BCE. In the twelfth century cooling of the still was improved to obtain pure alcohol. As we know, in Zawar (Rajasthan) pure zinc distillation was achieved through the use of clay retorts in the 12th century.

Chapter 2 discusses textile technology. Habib tells us that the earliest depictions in India of the crank-handle belong to the seventeenth century in relation to the spinning wheel, and the crank-handle appears on the cotton gin only in a Kangra painting of c. 1750. The scutch-bow (to loosen cotton fibre) was very probably an ancient Indian invention, alluded to in the Jatakas and more explicitly mentioned in Sanskrit dictionaries of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Habib puts the limits of the diffusion of the spinning wheel within India to the first half of the fourteenth century. The earliest evidence for the loom in India, however, belongs to the fifteenth century.

Dyeing was achieved through several techniques. The tie-and-dye method (now called bandhna, English: ‘bandana’) has been traced back to Bana’s Harshacharita, which means that it was already practiced in the early seventh century. Habib thinks that there can be no finality here, but the likelihood is that cloth-printing had become an established craft in India by the fourteenth century.

Regarding metallurgy, Habib seems to be a bit conservative in dating. He places wootz steel only to the 13th century whereas it could go back to the Mauryan times. Even Alexander was presented with 100 talents of such steel. From the late fifteenth century, the Indian iron industry was called upon to make hand-guns and muskets, and, later, iron guns. For those interested in the story of iron metallurgy, two recent books by Vibha Tripathi (History of Iron Technology in India 2008) and Balasubramaniam (Marvels of Indian Iron Through the Ages 2008) are very well documented and up-to-date too.

Habib describes the evidence of other metals like gold, silver, zinc. etc also. Zawar gives the evidence of pure zinc distillation in the 12th century, earlier than anywhere else, though zinc smelting can be traced back to 4th century BCE.

In this chapter Habib goes into the details of building technology, use of gypsum, mortars, etc. He says that the arcuate mode of construction that India received in the thirteenth century was a fusion not only of two mortars, but also of two distinct styles, the Byzantine and the Sassanid. The early Byzantine preference for the pointed arch and dome on drum and pendentives was combined with the Sassanid emphasis on the barrel vault and dome on squinches. By the thirteenth century, all these had become part of the ‘Saracenic’ architectural system, now imported into India.

About the paper technology, Habib informs us that with the establishment of the Sultanate, paper manufacture arrived at Delhi. Amir Khusrau, in 1289, mentions paper-making as a contemporary craft; and in a verse he alludes to the glazing of paper with a rubber or muhra. In 1452 Ma Huan, in his account of the products of Bengal, spoke of a kind of white paper which is also made from tree bark, praising it for being ‘glossy and smooth like a deer skin’.

Though glass was known to the Indians from c. 800 BCE, a new element was brought into glassware production in Iran and India by the twelfth century, namely, enamelling. As to the spectacles, they were a European invention. There are references to convex spectacles worn by a Vijayanagara minister in the first half of the sixteenth century and by Faizi, Akbar’s poet laureate, in 1593-95.

Habib describes the use of two chief instruments to measure the altitudes and positions of heavenly bodies by the Medieval Indian astronomers. One was the simple sundial, the other, the complex astrolabe. It often contained on one of its discs a list of places with their coordinates. At the raised rim of the mother disc, very fine and accurate graduation was attempted to mark each of the 360 degrees of the circle, essential for measuring altitude. The astrolabe maker was also called upon to draw circles and segments of circles, where again geometrical accuracy had to be secured.

The Mughal period saw the appearance of variolation or inoculation against small pox which was first reported from Bengal in 1731, when local tradition was quoted as putting its beginnings at about 150 years earlier. The other craft could similarly claim to be a harbinger of plastic surgery (rhinoplasty).

The third chapter we learn from him about the military technology, transport and navigation. In the seventh century CE chariots had finally given way in India to the armoured horseman. King Devaraya of Vijayanagara collected 10,000 Muslim and 60,000 Hindu horsemen ‘acquainted with the art of archery’, and successfully invaded the Bahmani dominions in 1443-44. However, the horse still lacked the three essential items: the saddle, the stirrup and the horse-shoe. At Khajuraho, a stray sculpture of the tenth century does show the stirrup, and thereafter it seems to have become common. It is distinctly shown, for example, in the famous horse at Konarak in Orissa, datable to c. 1200 CE. The Lakshmana temple at Khajuraho (tenth century) shows bow-shaped stirrups with broad fl at rests. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the stirrup is also generally of the shape of a large and broad ring, ‘apparently made of layers of leather stitched together or of wood cut into a log’. While the Delhi Sultanate cavalry thus had iron stirrups from the beginning, it is possible that their use in some parts of India, in fact, preceded the arrival of the Sultanate armies there. The history of the iron horse-shoe is apparently much shorter than that of the stirrup. Fakhr-i Mudabbir, in his work on warfare written in Iltutmish’s reign (1210-36 CE), mentions how a horse was shod with the nal, and Amir Khusrau, in 1283, tells us of the curious quality of the horse that when nails (mekh) are driven into its hooves, it runs better.

Habib also describes two fearful weapons: the first was naphtha or Greek fire; the other weapon was the mangonel or trebuchet. Apparently, the latter apparatus consisted of a wooden beam pivoted on a wooden stand. The short arm of the beam had a counterweight put on it, while the long arm had a sling suspended at its far end which carried the missile, usually a round large piece of stone. The long arm pulled down by rope by many men would raise the weighted short arm. If now the men all together released the rope, the short arm would fall, making the long arm ascend fast, and the missile would shoot forth out of the swinging sling.

Habib explains that rockets as a form of pyrotechny or fireworks pre-date the true artillery (cannon and muskets). Quoting Gode, he says that on the basis of a study of formulae for fireworks in a Sanskrit work of c. 1500, that these were transmitted from China to India about 1400 CE. It seems that the true gunpowder cannons were being used in various parts of India only by the latter half of the fifteenth century.

From Habib’s description it would appear that by the end of the sixteenth century, the heaviest guns in the world were being cast in India, the climax being reached with the famous Malik Maidan cast in bronze at Ahmadnagar, with a length of 4.06 metres, diameter at the muzzle 1.65 metres, and diameter of the bore, 0.72 metre. Habib explains the difficulties of casting large pieces of iron which prevented the casting of whole barrels in single moulds. Indian iron cannon thus generally consisted of wrought (not cast) iron bars or cylinders, held together by rings to form the barrel. It is not easy to separate the history of the cannon from that of the musket. In India the musket seems to have arrived quite early, possibly in the fifteenth century, when it appears in two Jain book illustrations. For smoothening the inside of the barrel, Akbar invented a superb device, whereby animal power could be used through pindrum-gearing to rotate drills inside the barrels of several muskets simultaneously.

During Firoz Tughluq’s times (1351-88), a variety of transport could be hired: camel, horse, cart, palanquin; the cheapest was the ox-cart. From Awadh (Ayodhya) to Delhi a journey on a camel each way took forty days. Goods or grain were transported on ox backs. The roads that radiated from Delhi, were marked with pillars displaying the distances traversed. Tughluq is said to have established a building and a hospice at the end of each day’s journey (manzil), with provision for eatables, and also planted trees on both sides of the road. As regards the river transport, quoting Afif (c. 1400 CE), Habib tells us that large and broad boats ply on the Yamuna river, some able to carry 5000 mans (44 metric tons) of grain, and some 7,000 mans (62 tons); even the smaller boats could carry 2000 mans (17.6 tons) of grain. The government maintained its means of communications through managing two distinct systems, one based on horses, the other on human relay runners. It is certain that the ekka and tonga are post-seventeenth century innovations as the Mughal India completely lacked these cheap and quick means of passenger conveyance. Bullockcarts thus constituted practically the sole form of wheeled traffic over the larger part of India. Bridges could not be built over the large rivers originating in the Himalayas, but still spanned fairly respectable rivers, like the Gomati.

We learn that the postal system was not open to the public: the couriers were usually enjoined not to convey private mail. For ordinary private persons, there were pattamars or bazaar qasids (‘bazaar couriers’), who announced in each town that they would be going to such and such a place and invited the public to entrust their letters for that place to them.

Unlike Marco Polo and others, the account of Nicolo Conti, who used these ships during 1419-44 and gave a fairly favourable description of them. Some of them, he says, were ‘much larger than ours, capable of containing two thousand butts [casks] and with five sails and as many masts’. The lower part of a ship was constructed with three planks for reinforcement; and ‘some ships are so built in compartments’ as to allow them to remain afloat even if a part of their structure got wrecked.

Habib thinks that it is most likely that Indian and other Arabian Sea navigators picked up the magnetic compass from the visiting Chinese ships, and the navigational use of it then spread to the Mediterranean, where it subsequently underwent much development. 

Though the author appreciates the advance in the Indian ship-building industry he regrets that it did not do away with the lag between European and Indian shipping. Essentially, while they succeeded in having the same kinds of ships, the Indian navigators could not acquire the skill and instruments (both of which are, of course, inseparable) of their European counterparts. An Indian lexicographer, writing in 1739, recognizes that the telescope was a pilot’s observational instrument, but no attempt seems to have been made to manufacture telescopes in India.

Habib seems to be a bit too critical of the state of technology in medieval India; in contrast, Dharampal (Indian Science & Technology in the Eighteenth Century 2000; Despoliation and Defaming of India. Vol 1, 1999) emphasises that India was far ahead of Europe in the 17th-18th centuries both in technology and trade. Dharampal (1999) informs us that by 1810, Dr. Carpue of London was able to build up the technique of a new plastic surgery derived and based on the Indian method. Dharampal also records that 73% of world manufactures were done in the Chinese and the Indian regions around 1750. Even around 1820 these two regions produced some 60% of world manufactures. One also expected from Habib a greater emphasis on the proverbial textile technology of India.

The quality of Habib’s important book could be further improved by giving references in the text itself, instead of under notes. The first few pages are erroneously arranged. The long extracts (which are often ignored by a reader) do give us a flavour of the original sources but more quotations and fuller references would have been very useful. A detailed bibliography is a very essential part of such a book which sadly is missing.

Habib has produced, in his quintessential lucid and cogent style, a very informative, critical, yet fascinating account of the medieval technology and thus the book is a must for all interested in the History of Science and Technology in India.

Dharma Pal Agrawal is a distinguished scientist.


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