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  • kewal sethi

ancient india and technology

ancient india and technology

a friend asked, ''india had an economy in which one third of worlds wealth was in this country. we had no dearth of intelligence. then why could we not be the innovators of the machines and instruments which would have enabled us to maintain the lead''.

frankly i would not be able to answer that question and would seek help from friends. however i came across a quote from a UNESCO document which says, ''sophisticated knowledge of the natural world is not confined to science. human societies all across the globe have developed rich sets of experiences and explanations relating to the environments they live in''.

we, dazzled as we are by symbols and equations presented by western world, believe indians to be backward in technology. it is our belief that we merely indulged in introspection seeking brahm and going in for salvation, for moksh.

the truth is otherwise. of mathematics, we need not dwell on it for it has been discussed so often. the bakhshali manuscript, the earliest surviving written material on indian mathematics now known (dating to the eighth century according to the japanese scholar hayashi, and discovered in 1881 near peshawar in today’s pakistan), already has the essence of what we think of as an algebraic equation, namely: (1) the use of symbols for unknown quantities and for arithmetical operations—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—and (2) a statement of equality between appropriate expressions involving those symbols for both operations and unknowns. one can see a correspondence between modern notation and the ancient one used in such texts as the bakhshali manuscript. bhaskara ii (and even earlier, brahmagupta) also solved what later became known as pell’s equation (after john pell, 1611–1685). he also proposed and solved another equation that fermat proposed in 1657 and euler solved in 1732.

for metallurgy, again, the proofs are there. indian bronze idols have been unearthed from indus valley civilization. excavations yielded the celebrated figure of a dancing girl cast in bronze some 4,000 years ago (striking a pose not unfamiliar today). india was a pioneer in the extraction of zinc—the process used in the zuvar mines of rajasthan since the fourth century b.c. the iron-and-steel industry throughout india dates from around 1300 b.c.e. tipu sultan’s rockets surprised british armies with a performance far exceeding anything then available in europe, chiefly because of the excellence of the steel he used for the casings. until late in the eighteenth century, india exported iron and steel to england,

ayurveda, depended heavily on the use of herbs; around 600 drugs, including those of mineral and animal origin, were noted and their use to treat specific diseases recommended. indian advances in surgery were even more impressive. the treatise of sus’ruta (written down fourth century c.e. - in existence in some form much earlier) had lasting influence, and as late as the eighteenth century, accounts of indian surgical practices appeared in learned journals of the west. vaccination, rhinoplasty, and eye surgery were practices well known in india long before they were introduced in the west.

the major industry associated with india for thousands of years has been textiles. india was also at one time famous for boats and shipping. although much indian shipping stayed fairly close to the coast, indian craftsmen displayed excellent skills in building ships. the best ships operated by the east india company in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were usually made in the bombay area.


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