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History of Technology in India

Review: History of Technology in India. Bag, A. K. (Ed.) 1997. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. Pp. 705. Price Rs. 1200/- ($350).
by D.P. Agrawal and Lalit Tiwari

Through this brief review of History of Technology in India we would like to bring to the notice of interested readers a valuable work on India’s history of science and technology. We have tried to give a glimpse of the broad areas covered in the book, rather than giving a critique of individual articles, to facilitate its use as an important reference work.

Each age has its own technology and technology carries the stamp of its age. This is a well-known dictum and this is the concept of this book. This volume contains contributions of thirty Indian experts through their remarkable essays. This book is published for Indian National Commission for History of Science by the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi. In this review we discuss only the first volume, which covers the period from antiquity to 1200AD.

A. K. Bag, former head of History of Science Division of Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi has edited this book. This volume has a variety of technological details and covers obviously many divergent issues that have made this book quiet interesting. The volume begins with the Stone and Bronze Age technologies of the Indian subcontinent in a global context.

This edited volume has ten different sections, which contain a total of 30 articles by well-known scholars of different fields. First and second sections have only one article each named Stone Age Techniques and Bronze Age Techniques, respectively. Third section is “Material Technology” which has six articles. Fourth section is “Chemical and Medical Practices” containing five articles by various authors. Section five has only one article; five articles comprise section six, entitled “Agriculture and Food Technology”. “Building, Construction Engineering, Irrigation works and Transportation” is the title of seventh section, which has five articles by various scholars. Sections eight, ninth and tenth are very small.

In the first article on “Stone Age Techniques”, Vidula Jayaswal, the famous prehistorian, describes generally the method of tool-making in all three stages of Stone Age, e.g., the Palaeolithic, the Mesolithic and the Neolithic periods.

Bronze is found in use in the Indian subcontinent at quite an early phase and became a distinctive feature of the Indus Valley culture (represented by Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Chanhudaro and other sites). The Harappan, the Chalcolithic and the Copper Hoards cultures were the three main copper using cultures. D. P. Agrawal and Manju Pant, in their article “Bronze Age Technology”, analyse the Bronze Age technology through archaeological AND chemical evidence.

India has the oldest material technology like, metals, ceramics, glass, gems and minerals, etc.; the third section of this book is dedicated to this technology. The Section contains six important articles: the first article is “Mining” by R. D. Singh who deals with history of ancient mining and minerals uses in India. Bhanu Prakash in his article, “Metals and Metallurgy” summarises the ancient metallurgy of gold, silver, lead, copper, iron, steel, zinc and some ancient alloys of gold, silver, copper, iron-carbon etc. with special reference to ancient mines and mining operations. Next article is “Methods of Coin-Making” by B. N. Mukherjee. Generally ancient coins can be broadly divided into four classes, viz. (i) archaic die-struck including the so-called ‘punch-marked’ , (ii) cast, (iii) repousse and (iv) die-struck. In his article, Mukherjee uses some historical and archaeological evidence for describing the techniques of coin making in antiquity. The invention of pottery is the most important landmark in man’s march from barbarism to civilization. Occurrence of pottery is attributed to the Neolithic period but the recent evidence from West Asia shows that pottery came to be made by humans in the later stage of the Neolithic, and that there is an aceramic stage preceding the use of pottery. This is the issue of next article “Ceramic Technology” by M. K. Dhavalikar, the famous archaeologist, who deals with ancient ceramic technology with examples from archaeological evidence. “Glass” is the title of next article by H. C. Bharadwaj, the chemist. Origin of glass is shrouded in mystery and it is difficult to pinpoint the exact place and date of its birth. However, archaeological findings have clearly proved that the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India made various siliceous and glazed materials including faience, glazed pottery and glass. Whether the people of the Indus civilization knew glass making is debatable. However, they made bangles, beads and other objects of faience and glazed pottery in the 3rd millennium BC. They also knew the art and science of colouring glazed layers, both red and blue, with cupric and cuprous copper. In his article, Bharadwaj describes the earliest glass objects, glass manufacture technology, colouring technology etc. with the help of archaeological examples. Next article is “Gems and Minerals” written by A. K. Biswas. He deals with ancient gems industry and minerals in his article with special reference to archaeological evidence.

Fourth section is based on chemical and healthcare practices in ancient times. First article of this section is “Mercurial and Metallic Compounds” written by Damodar Joshi. The article covers ancient literature related to medicare and metals, to assess the development of mercurial and metallic compounds in a historical perspective. Joshi deals with the ancient mercurial and metallic compounds as discussed in Charak SamhitaSusruta SamhitaAstanga HrdayaRasa Hrdaya TantraRasarnava TantraCakradattaRasa Prakasa Sudhakara, etc. In his article, “Cosmetics and Perfumes”, R. T. Vyas, states that in ancient times cosmetics and perfumes were limited to the use of flower-garlands and gandha, sandal-paste to beautify the persons of gods and humans. The word sugandhi, well perfumed, is used twice in the Rigveda. Similar expressions involving the use of the word gandha are also found in Taittiriya SamhitaMaitrayani samhita and Taittiriya Aranyaka. R. Krishnamurthy deals with the ancient dyes for textiles, hair; inks; mordants and pigments for pottery paintings, tinted glass, art paintings, surface coatings and other colouring agents with the help of ancients texts in his article. Next article by A. N. Sharma is related to the ancient surgical techniques. Salya is the word applied to the art of surgery in Indian medicine and is derived from the root Sal or Saval meaning to move quickly. Sharma asserts that the Salya Tantra or the science of surgery is the oldest of all the other branches of the science of Ayurveda. He describes the ancient surgical techniques in his article. Ayurveda is the ancient medical science of India and has its roots in antiquity. Hindus believe that the source of Indian medicine system is of divine origin. “Medical Techniques” is the title of the next article by R. N. Singh. According to Singh, these medical techniques can be categorised into three groups, Diagnostic, Prognostic and Therapeutic techniques and he summarises all the three techniques in his article.

Fifth section has only one article titled “Textile Technology” by Varadarajan and Patel. They deal with fibres, wools, silks, cotton, and ancient Indian loom technology using both literary ethnographical evidence.

The next section contains five articles related to ancient agriculture and food technology. Agricultural part of this section is dealt with by the late Lallanji Gopal using ancient texts for describing agricultural techniques, tools, appliances, ploughing, plantation methods, pest resistance treatments, manuring, irrigation, etc. In the remaining part, four articles relate to fermentation technology by Mira Ray, food technology by K. T. Achaya, veterinary sciences by S. K. Kalra and inland fisheries by Sharma and Singh. All authors use ancient literary texts in support of their arguments.

Buildings, construction Engineering, Irrigation Works and Transportation are discussed in the next section and has five articles. Bharadwaj writes the first article on town planning, building and building materials. He illustrates his article with the help of archaeological evidence. Next article is “Fortification and Forts” by M. S. Mate. He describes fortifications with the help of ancient literature and archaeological evidence. In his article, “Structural Principles in Temple Architecture”, the late Krishna Deva deals with the architecture and techniques of ancient Indian temples. He gives a connected history of temple architecture in India from the Gupta period (c. 4th-6th centuries A.D.) when temples of bricks or dressed stone started being constructed on the logical principals of structural architecture. Next article is “Irrigation and Irrigation Works” written by T. M. Srinivasan, it deals with the ancient irrigation systems, dams, reservoirs, sluices, canals, embankments, wells, water-lifting devices, etc. from a historical point of view. K. V. Raman summarizes the ancient transport systems with special reference to Indus valley, Buddhist period, Mauryan period, Gupta period, etc.
Next section is also very interesting, its entitled, “Arts and Crafts” and contains only four papers on different topics. The first article written by M. L. Nigam describes the ancient jewellery work with the help of archaeological and literary evidence. Furniture is one of the most important feature of civilization. Human predilection for comfort has created a host of house-hold articles. In his article, K. Krishna Murthy describes the ancient furniture works from the 9th century to1200 A.D. with the help of literary evidence. “Writing-materials” and “Leathercraft” are the next articles of this section written by Mamata Chaudhuri and R. Selvarangan, respectively. Both deal with the ancient techniques with the help of ancient texts and literature.

Next two sections have only one article each by A. K. Bag and Arun Kumar Biswas. According to Bag, ancient measurement parameters are considered as sources of all scientific thinking and lie at the root of natural knowledge, their formulation and standardisation are based on observations and experiences made at different times. They evolved without disturbing uniformity in nature or in measurements. He discusses the concepts of length, weight and time in his article. Biswas deals with the social factors in the development of technology in his article. This is very lengthy and informative article and covers twenty-six pages of this book.
When such a large collection of essays is put together, the quality of different articles is seldom uniform. Some of the articles seem to be compiled in a hurry; very few have been written by experts who have considerable experience in these fields. But it is a unique attempt to cover practically the whole gamut of ancient Indian technology and science. So it has become a valuable reference work. We would therefore like to recommend that will prove a valuable source book for those interested in ancient India’s scientific technology.