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Ancient Glass and India

Review: Ancient Glass and India. Sen, S. N. and Mamta Chaudhary. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. 1985. Pp. 201. Rs. 100/-.
by D.P. Agrawal and Manikant Shah

The term, glass, includes a wide range of products, which are characterized mainly by their desired rate of cooling from a state of fusion to a solid state in such a way that it does not undergo crystallization. Generally glass is produced by melting a mixture of silica (sand: about 10%) with the required calcium compounds (lime: about 10%), and some metallic oxides are added as colouring agents.

In this monograph the authors have discussed the occurrence and manufacture of glass in ancient India, in the backdrop of the world history of glass.

The first chapter out of the five in which the book is divided deals with the historical background of ancient glass. In addition the chapter deals extensively with the general characteristics, the properties, compositions and processes involved in the manufacture of ancient glass. The authors do not wish to evaluate or analyse the history, rather they present it as it is generally accepted, along with its unsolved questions. They tell us that glass was discovered around 1500 B.C. in Egypt as a development from faience to glaze to glass. On the other hand, glass making in the Far East may be traced back to the sixth century B.C.

The global backdrop given by the authors is however weak. The correct position is that the Egyptians and ancient Assyrians had glass-makers even in the third millennium BC. Glass beads have been found in the cemeteries of Ur III (c. 2100 BC.) and also at Assur under the Ziggurat (c. 1800 BC.) in Mesopotamia. There is archaeological evidence to indicate that there were glass-producing factories in Egypt during the XVIII Dynasty in the reign of Amenhotep II (1448-1420 BC.). At Tell el Amarna (1450-1400 BC.) the remains of a glass house and fragments of glass in several stages of manufacture have been found. There is a series of Assyrian clay tablets from the library of Assurbanipal (seventh century BC.) which provide details of glass-making at that time. But the glass industry matured only during the Graeco-Roman times, specially by the Romans who were well versed in the art of glass-blowing and sheet-making (Subbarayappa 1999).

The remaining chapters deal in glass with regard to its occurrence in India. The second chapter deals with the literary and archaeological evidence of glass in ancient India. The authors point out that mention of glass Kanch or Kacais profuse in the ancient texts going back to 1200 B.C., or perhaps even further beyond. The Vedic text, Satapatha Brahmana refers in a general way to Kaca, the Sanskrit term used for glass. Under this brief section of the literary sources the authors have only considered the ancient Sanskritic texts with a view to establish the antiquity of glass works in India. It was, however, in the three or four centuries before and after the Christian era that Indian glass industry began to gain momentum. The rest of the chapter informs us in detail about the archaeological evidence with regard to the antiquity of glass in India. The archaeological excavations in Brahmapuri and Kolhapuri in Maharastra State (second century BC – second century AD) reveal that there was also a glass noted for its drawn beads which were generally cylindrical in form. Even in the sixteenth-seventeenth century AD, the Portuguese used to trade in these glass objects with East Africa. In the Deccan, some Satavahana sites have yielded folded beads, twisted beads as well as cane-glass beads; Arikamedu, Nevasa, Ter, Prakash etc., were well known for the cane-glass beads.

We are told in the third chapter that despite the wealth of ancient archaeological specimens of glass in India the scientific studies thereof are very inadequate. In contrast, the chemical studies of Indian glass specimens have been carried out in some detail. These physical studies help in forming an idea of the processes involved in producing the glass that it is. The monograph gives due credence to Sana Ullah who was the first to carry out the chemical studies of the ancient glass objects in India after Neumann took up to study the chemical composition of the glass objects in Europe. The detailed results of such study in India are reproduced in the monograph.

Indian glass-makers had adequate expertise in the fabrication of beads, bangles and a few other types. On the basis of various objects excavated at different sites, it may be inferred that the glass-makers employed such methods as moulding, folding, twisting and double-stripping. Possibly, what is known as wire-winding method was also for preparing beads of different types. The beads found at Brahmapuri indicate that they were probably made by this method by coiling the fused glass rod around a wire or spoke, and twirling it to obtain the desired shapes. The technique of preparing what are called the ‘multiple-wound beads’ of opaque glass of different colours was also known. Bangles, both monochrome and polychrome, were produced with great care. Certain patterns were also imposed on them by skilful methods. As regards flasks, bowls and even bottles which are found in some archaeological sites, they were by and large, made in the Mediterranean (Roman) region with which India had commercial contacts from ancient times. Likewise, the milleflori (Latin word meaning ‘thousand flowers’) glass with flowery designs, found near Taxila and Ahicchatra (UP) seem to be of Roman origin. It may be noted that the milleflori technique was a flourishing one specially in Venice. In the medieval period, the artistic glass specimens of the Mughal period show the Persian influence inasmuch as Persian glass-makers came to India with their craftsmanship and were engaged in the production of glass dishes and dish covers, spittoons, flat-bottomed vessels, mirrors and other objects like tiles and ear reels. But glass-tiles appeared in India even as early as the third century BC during the reign of Asoka.

The book gives a summary of archaeological evidence of early glass from various excavated sites. The main ones are:

AHAR, AHAD, Rajasthan

Glass objects, discovered from Ahar, are beads and bangles. Out of five beads, two are of plain translucent variety; two of tabular cuprous glass (Period II – 3rd century BC) and the fifth of opaque green colour. The first two show pulled bubbles and have a very rough surface. They are short tabular, barrel and globular. Four pieces of glass bangles have been discovered. All of them are of monochrome category. Of the four pieces, two came from the phase Ic (Period II) and two were from surface collection. These bangles are of two types – those belonging to phase Ic are plano-convex, and those of surface collections show a triangular section. The colour of these glass bangles varies from turquoise blue, sea-green to milky-white. All these bangles are found to be translucent and full of bubbles. The technique employed for making these bangles was rather crude as indicated by the uneven thickness. Due to the leaching out of the alkalis, the bangle pieces are covered with a whitish filmy patina.

AHICCHATRA, Uttar Pradesh

The glass objects that have been unearthed at Ahicchatra are mainly beads, distributed practically among all the strata. Their dating extends from c. 300 B.C. to 1100 A.D. More than one hundred glass beads were recovered from excavations, besides several others from surface collections.

Period II of the site shows the occurrence of the Painted Grey Ware and black-slipped, black-and red and plain red wares. Among other finds of this period mention may be made of vitreous paste and beads of glass. The dating of period II may be regarded as representing a late phase of the Painted Grey Ware culture.

BROACH, Gujarat

The town-mound at Broach, the ancient Bharukachha of Indian literature and Barygaza of the classical geographers, was excavated by the Western circle of the Department of the Archaeological Survey of India. The occupation of the site may be divided into three periods. Period I (3rd century B.C.) yielded glass beads in association with the beads of semi-precious stones, agate, chert, chalcedony and jasper.

ERAN, Madhya Pradesh

Eran (ancient Airkina) is situated in the district of Sagar. Three mounds, namely ERN-I to ERN-3, were excavated by the University of Sagar. Periods III (1st century to the 5th century) and IV (16th to 18th century AD) were found to be rich in glass beads and glass bangles respectively.

HASTINAPUR, Uttar Pradesh

This site is one of the earliest from where glass has been reported.The occurrence of glass bangles from period II (1100-800 B.C.) is therefore noteworthy.


Beads. Several fragmentary and eleven intact specimens of glass beads were recovered from Maheswar. Of the intact ones, eight came from layers of Phase VI (100-500 A.D.), two from phase V (100 B.C.-100 A.D.) and one from Phase VII (Muslim-Maratha period). They show a wide range of shapes such as spherical, truncated barrel, globular, hexagonal, cylindrical and irregularly circular. Their colours are deep blue, deep green, yellow, sea-green and soiled white.

Bangles. Bangles are both monochrome and polychrome, the former being more abundant than the latter. Of the monochrome type six hundred and seventy-three pieces were recovered, of which fifty-three came from Navdatoli trenches. Of the bangles unearthed from Maheshwar, 95 per cent came from Phase VI.

NEVASA, Madhya Pradesh

About 350 glass beads were recovered mostly from Phase V (50 B.C.-200 A.D.) which represents the most flourishing period in the history of Nevasa. Besides the colouring of glass, these beads reveal various techniques of glass and bead manufacture.


The excavation at Paiyampalli in the district of North Arcot was carried out under the guidance of S.R. Rao in 1964. The work has brought to light the glass beads and bangles of two cultural periods, namely the Neolithic (Period I, 1390±200 B.C.) and megalithic (Period II, 315±100 B.C).

PRAKASH, Maharashtra

Forty-five glass bangles have been recovered from Phase II (6th – 1st century B.C.), Phase III (2nd century B.C. – 6th century A.D.), and Phase IV (6th to 11th century A.D.) and also from an unstratified deposit. The occurrence of monochrome glass bangles during the pre-Christian era is noteworthy in this connection.

SULUR, Kerala

About 148 beads have been found in the middens near the megalithic tombs at Sulur. They are of green (72), red (29), black (11), blue (24), blue zon (1), yellow (3), opaque orange (1), imitation garnet (2), pale brown (1) white (1), clear (2) and corroded (1) glass.

TAXILA, Pakistan

According to Beck, there is no evidence of glass at Taxila before the 7th and 6th century B.C. The glass objects that have been recovered from Taxila comprise beads, bangles, small vessels, tiles and some miscellaneous articles. The glass beads from the fourth stratum of the Bhir Mound (c. 5th century B.C.) are twenty-five in number. Most of the beads are colourless and iridescent. Those that are coloured are blue, black, green, very dark green, grey, opal white, amber, etc. Two more glass objects, other than beads, which came from the same stratum are an ear-ornament decorated with a rosette on one side and a part of a miniature casket. Both were made of a fine variety of black or very dark green glass, which has the appearance of obsidian and is free from quartz grains or other impurities. The glass beads found in stratum III (c. 4th century B.C.) are 217 in number.

UJJAIN, Madhya Pradesh

The excavation at Ujjain, in Central India, yielded a number of glass beads, ear-reels and bangles belonging to the period c. 500 B.C. to 1st century A.D. Of the few ear-reels, the most interesting feature on one specimen is the decoration of impressed coils representing ‘eyes’; the decoration appears on one side only. A squarish seal resembling a specimen from Maheswar, is of black glass with a green tinge and bears on one side the symbol of an elephant. The specimen appears to be of 300 B.C.

There are many other sites given in the book.

Chapter four, which happens to be the last chapter in the monograph deals with furnaces, tools, and various techniques for fashioning glass objects in ancient India.

The authors tell us that though glasswares have been unearthed from various archaeological sites in India yet the findings do not help in recreating the technology in the past. The authors say that the glass making in India did not advance beyond the first and the very rudimentary stage. The furnaces that were used could not produce heat in excess of 10000 C. Moulding was one of the techniques used in India for the production of glass objects. Blowing was introduced in India towards the end of the first century.

The chemical analyses of glass objects found in over 15 sites of different parts of India indicate that the Indian glass-makers knew the importance of metallic oxides or other compounds for imparting the desired colours to the glass objects. Minerals containing iron like haematite, copper, cobalt, managanese, aluminium or lead were used along with the silicates in a desired way and in appropriate quantity for the production of various types of glass beads, bangles, tiles and bottles. The monograph is full of useful technical details, with chemical tables of the glass objects found in India. Tables of archaeological objects found are also given. It is a work that more or less presents the status of research in ancient glass objects in India.

We would like to end the review with some very perceptive remarks by Subbrayappa. He says,

In India, however, glass did not have a social value similar to that of metals and pottery which was preferred to glass vessels in some religious functions, and in iatro-chemical practices as well. There was commercial contact, now and then, between India and the Greco-Roman world. The foreign glass objects found at Arikamedu (first – second century AD) reveal not only such contacts but also their wide use in the Greco-Roman culture. Yet, glass played an insignificant role in the Indian socio-cultural life. The rasavadins (alchemical-cum-medicinal chemists) did not somehow choose to employ always glass vessels for their chemical operations involving distillation, steaming, mild heating and the like. Their apparatus was by and large earthen which did not permit them to observe the way in which the chemical processes as well as the fabrication of glass apparatus, like those which placed chemistry on a solid foundation in the West in the 18th century. Around this time the West had developed what are known as tank furnaces for large-scale commercial production of glass. The fabricating methods were also standardized; more importantly, by using the finest raw materials – silica and compounds of sodium, magnesium as well as calcium, and, employing the pot method, optical glass having a required degree of hardness, desired refraction and dispersive powers, was produced. Lenses, prisms, mirrors, glass tubes and vessels played a notable role in the new experimental methods that led to the growth of physics, chemistry and biology in the West. In Indian ethos, however, the importance of glass was hardly recognized (Subbarayappa 1999).

Further Reading

Subbarayappa, B.V. (Ed.) 1999.. A Note on Glass in India. In Chemistry and Chemical Techniques in India (Ed.) By B.V. Subbarayappa. Vol IV Part 1. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilization. Pp. 323-336

Dikshit, M..G. 1969. History of Indian Glass. Bombay: University of Bombay.