As a part of the 4th Dehradun Literature Festival, 2022 held from 1–3rd April at the Doon International School Riverside Campus in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, writers and authors from across India had gathered to share their views and ideas on their subjects and areas of expertise on various topics such as fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music and other faculties of literary and arts. One of the sessions that had sought equal interest among the students, artists and the participating writers was on the theme history of science in India. The panel on this unique theme had Shri. Hitesh Shankarji, Editor, Panchajanya in conversation with Shri. Sabareesh. P.A, Author, ‘A Brief History of Science in India’ and PhD Research Scholar at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Here is an excerpt of the conversation.
What do you have to say about the evolution of the Indian education system, gurukuls, and pathshalas and its systematic destruction by Islamic invaders and European/British colonial entities. ?
As I started exploring Indian science history, it was certainly convincing that Bharat had an exceptional legacy of continued science and technological progress since ancient times. Even during the peak of Islamic invasions and European colonialism, there existed appreciable standards of scientific pursuit amidst the adversaries, which have been sufficiently explored in this book. When we say scientific pursuit it also points out the necessary political stability and socio-economic conditions that allowed a better public understanding of science in ancient and medieval India. Such public understanding of science definitely came through our unique education system that was indigenous to Bharat since the Vedic times i.e. the humble tradition of gurukuls, ashrams, mutts and reputed universities like the Takshashila (in Gandhara), Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramshila and Telhara in Bihar, Sharada Peeth Temple University (Kashmir), Vallabhi (Gujarat), Pushpagiri (Odisha), Somapura, Bikrampur and Jagaddala in Bengal, Morena (Madhya Pradesh), Kanthaloor Sala (Keeladi, Tamilnadu) among several others that witnessed barbaric destructions. Stories of such destructions by the sword and colonial policies are also an integral part of this book. Had there not been the destruction of universities by Islamic invaders the Nalanda university would have still survived with all its vibrancy.
‘Badshahnama, the important, literary court document of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, shows that he had originally acquired the building, which we today call Taj Mahal in Agra, as a palace from Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur for the reburial of Shah Jahan’s queen, Mumtaz Mahal, in 1632’
One such reference material that synthesises a prolonged attempt by the British to understand the Indian education system through extensive surveys and then to destroy it strategically is by Shri Dharampal and the name of the book is ‘The Beautiful Tree’. Dharampal made extensive research at the British Archives in London to get the reports written by British surveyors about the extraordinary and multidisciplinary education system that prevailed even at the school level in India and how every village in the Madras presidency, Awadh, Punjab, and Bengal presidency had a school that was self-sufficient with fundings and sponsorships from the local traders and guilds because the solutions to the local challenges were derived from the knowledge that was generated at such local education centres. These are all shreds of solid evidence, which give us a better understanding of the Indigenous Indian education system starting from the 1750s. However, the British were to a very large extent through their taxation and trade policies successful in uprooting India’s indigenous education system by diluting the trade guilds who had sponsored the patshalas or the gurukuls at the village level and implemented an alien system of education to suit the colonial needs of the British and to strategically prevent a revolt because what you learn is what you practice in the society. Through the new education system, the British directly hit the conscience of Bharat and the Bharatvasis by repeatedly conditioning the Indian masses that science and technology are originally European entities and that the eastern civilizations had outdated unworthy scientific ideas that need to be put to the bin.
‘Stories of such destruction by the sword and colonial policies are also an integral part of this book. Had there not been the destruction of universities by Islamic invaders, the Nalanda university would have still survived with all its vibrancy’
Macaulay, on February 2, 1835, as recorded in his minutes, hence said, “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class, we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”
Does the evolution of mathematics and astronomy as a combined entity have something to do in common since ancient India?
Any knowledge system, be it scientific or social in nature, evolves over a period of time for a genuine purpose or an existing challenge faced by society. Astronomy was required to enable an understanding of the arrival of monsoon and seasons that were crucial for agriculture and trade. Mathematics or ganitashastra was important for precise astronomical calculations and hence was an important aspect of the Indian knowledge system. The book, ‘A Brief History of Science in India’, covers how the Indian Knowledge System has been multidisciplinary in nature thereby enabling scholars to pursue several aspects of science as an integral part of knowledge generation.
On the cover page of the book as well as in the chapters of the book there are repeated invocations of surgery, Sushruta, Charaka and their respective treatises such as the Sushrutasamhita and Charaksamhita. In this regard, there is an incident which you have narrated about a Parsi soldier named Cowasjee whose nose was chopped off by Tipu Sultan in 1793 and the surgical procedure that was done on him by a Pune surgeon called Kumar in the year 1794. Could you tell more about it and also how India had already known the surgical procedures well before the west and European nations?
The cover page picture you are talking about and explained in the chapter of the book is that of the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine, London depicting the picture of Cowasjee published with the title ‘A Singular Operation’ in the year 1794, after the surgery was performed on his nose by a surgeon near Poona after his nose was cut-off by Tipu Sultan. Cowasjee was a Parsi sepoy employed with the East India Company and was captured as a prisoner of war in the Anglo Mysore War in 1792. After the surgery, the nose had regenerated. The successful surgical procedure was first reported in the Madras Gazette in 1793 by Colly Lyon Lucan, the Chief Surgeon of the Medical Board of Madras and then later in The Gentleman’s Magazine.
On the basis of this surgery 20 years later, Joseph Constantine Carpue performed the first nose surgery in England in 1814 along the lines of Cowasjee’s surgery. His observations on this technique inspired by the Sushrutasamhita are published in his book titled ‘An Account of Two Successful Operations for Restoring a Lost Nose from the Integument of the Forehead.’ Later, the first Indian-type rhinoplasty was performed in Germany and USA in the years 1816 and 1834 by Von Graef and Jonathon Mason Warren respectively.
In his book, Some Aspects of Hindu Medical Treatment, the historian, Sir William Hunter says, “Many centuries ago at the monastic medical university at Nalanda, near modern Gaya, Hindu surgeons successfully performed the operation of rhinoplasty and other feats of surgical skill. In old Hindu medical books, one may find the description of that branch of surgery which deals with the improvement of deformed ears and noses and the forming of new ones, one of the scientific additions to surgery in great hospitals in the large modern cities in Europe at the present time.”
Your book also mentions the evolution of rockets starting from the Vijayanagara empire, Marathas, Mysore and was later on adopted by the British as ‘Congreve rockets’. Is it true that India had the knowledge about rockets and used for for the purpose of warfare and defending forts?
Yes, India had the knowledge about rocked based warfare. I will also need to give you some literary pieces of evidence to show that India had treatises such as Akasabhairava Kalpa as early as 1400 AD among others that mentions rockets and uses the phrases bana, agneyaastra, agninalika etc to denote rockets.
Rockets were a part of the Vijayanagara army at the Battle of Talikota in 1563 against the Mughals. The gradual evolution of war rockets as an offensive projectile instrument and weaponry in warfare was common amongst the Marathas and Mughals and were quite effective in frightening the war elephants and horses and giving offensive surprises against the enemy forces. The cylinder of the rocket was made of iron, and rockets were notably used in defending forts and also formed an important part of the Maratha military at the Third Battle of Panipat in 1761 against the Afghan forces.
James Forbes a British military officer, in 1775, describes the war rockets used by the Marathas, which were quite bothersome to the British and contained an iron tube that was eight to ten inches long and two inches in diameter. The cylindrical object containing the explosives was fixed to an iron rod or two-edged sword or a bamboo cane that was over four feet long. The rocket with an iron spiked projection at the front with combustion material inside the iron tube travelled with great velocity on firing, thereby causing confusion and panic in the enemies and forcing them to defend themselves from the destruction caused by the rockets. The Marathas fired rocket projectiles that had a range of over 940 meters on the British and French troops. Achievement of such greater distance was possible due to the iron casting that enabled greater pressures inside the iron cylindrical pipe. Tipu Sultan had also used rockets as war projectiles in the Battle of Srirengapatanam in 1792 and 1799 against the British. Tipu’s rockets were made of hammered soft iron, whose technique of production was advanced as compared to the British. The rockets were also fitted with swords to cause havoc on the enemy. The French rockets could not match the mark of the English rockets, whereas the Mysore rockets posed a grave challenge to the English army, thereby giving a hint that the rockets used by Tipu were not of French origin. Since Mysore was originally under the Vijayanagara Empire, the idea and knowledge about rockets had evolved over a period of time to be passed on to Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore with further improvement.
However, the British were impressed with the Mysore rockets and made successful attempts to adopt them, which led to the evolution of Congreve rockets that the British introduced in 1806 for use from both surface and ships with sharp metals stuffed in them. It was William Congreve Jr. who studied the rockets, which were used in Mysore by Tipu’s army against the British, and with some improvements, presented the capabilities of his prototype rockets to William Pitt, the British prime minister and to the secretary for war, Lord Castlereagh, in 1805, who ordered their use in the battle with Napoleon in Boulogne in 1806, on Copenhagen in 1807 and at the decisive Battle of Waterloo in 1814. We all know what happened at the Battle of Waterloo!
In your book you have evoked a very serious statement that could be controversial saying that the Taj Mahal has a Hindu temple type of architecture and was procured by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan from Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur. Are you saying that a building of Hindu temple architectural style was converted into a mausoleum? Could you elaborate on this?
I may have to give a long answer to this question as it deals with architecture, engineering, history, philosophy and religion!
The Taj Mahal is one of the seven wonders of the modern world that took immense efforts of native Indian architects, designers, artisans and craftsmen in accordance with India’s traditional building principles, metrology and measurement units (angulam), thereby arriving at a grid pattern design that was in practice since the Harappan civilization, which has also been mentioned in the Arthashastra. Unfortunately, the Taj Mahal has been subject to fake manuscripts by including fictional data about the architect, the construction materials used, and fabricated claims related to its original builder and its history. The engineering materials used for building the Taj Mahal are marbles, bricks, stone, clay, mortar, plaster, wood, metals and precious stones. The Parchin Kari or pietra dura was a form of mosaic design used on the walls of the Taj Mahal, which involved the fixing of precisely carved semi-precious stones after engraving in fine marble. Adhesives were also used to ensure that the floral designs stayed for a longer time.
Badshahnama, the important, literary court document of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, shows that he had originally acquired the building, which we today call the Taj Mahal in Agra, as a palace from Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur for the reburial of Shah Jahan’s queen, Arjumand Banu Begam or Mumtaz Mahal, in 1632, who had earlier died in 1631 at Barhanpur. Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur had previously inherited the palace as an ancestral property from his grandfather Raja Man Singh, which initially had a temple type of architecture. It was after the procurement of the palace from Raja Jai Singh by Shah Jahan that the palace was converted into a mausoleum with necessary Islamic religious adaptations, the erecting of minarets, designs and decorations later on, during the period 1631–1653 AD, as we see today. Moreover, carbon-14 dating of a wooden sample of the north gate door of the Taj Mahal validates the year 1359 AD, with plus or minus 89 years, i.e., between 1270 and 1448 AD. Architectural specifics of the Taj Mahal also represent several symbolic aspects that resemble a Shiva temple and can be confirmed only through a further archaeological re-examination of this impressive early medieval era monument. Am not saying these out of thin air but referring to research papers published by the Current Science journal of the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Journal for the History of Science published by INSA.
How did the British use science and scientific institutions as a tool for the subjugation of India. It seems the British used railways and telegrams for political and military motives and extensively survey the Indian topography for vested interests.
The British effectively had made use of science and technological tools such as railways, telegrams, scientific institutions and surveys initiated by them to get an in-depth understanding of the resource potential that India had. The telegraph system could connect Calcutta and London in very less time. More details have been covered in the book.
Atmanirbhar Bharat and the Indian science system. How is it that we can achieve self-reliance and what is the way forward?
We need to explore our Indian Knowledge Systems, churn our minds and ignite amongst ourselves the importance of our traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions and we should be aiming for nothing less than an ‘Indic Renaissance’ in the near future, wherein we all can work together to rediscover our knowledge system irrespective of any barriers that we may face through grass-root study circles and academic debates.
And to ensure that we need to first acknowledge our own contributions, explore, appreciate and value our traditional knowledge systems including that of swadeshi sciences. At the same time, it is equally important to recognise alternative methods and parameters of knowledge generation i.e. the research methodology, because I understand that Indian philosophical thought is far more flexible as they are founded on multiperspective and dynamic religious ideas and provides us greater research scope/opportunity to explore and understand truth i.e. absolute. So I think the time has come wherein research scholars and scientists should start adopting research methodologies adhering to Samkhya and Nyaya philosophies also after necessary course works and target-oriented workshops.
The last chapter of the book lays emphasis on the scope to further the goal of Atma Nirbhar Bharat and the importance of technological self-reliance through understanding and reciprocating case studies from ancient and medieval India. We need to pick sustainable and knowledgeable lessons from the past so as to reciprocate them for the current challenges and a better future.
And much importantly these objectives cannot be achieved by a single person but as a society and as a nation we can certainly organize ourselves towards a common goal and that is how success and history are created.
From a National Education Policy perspective how important is Indian Knowledge Systems that are particularly related to science and technology?
A) India’s history and its glorious heritage are incomplete without highlighting the achievements made in the field of science and technology. So this book ‘A Brief History of Science in India’ intends to fill that gap and it has been framed in such a way that it will be a fascinating read for a general reader and at the same time is highly informative with concepts, facts and figures,
philosophical interpretation and multiple perspectives that would suit academics and research as well. Around 400 reference materials such as encyclopedias, books, book chapters, research articles, archival reports, archaeological evidence, documentary reports and some newspaper reports have been used to structure the contents of this book.
Some of the scientific areas in which India’s magnanimous achievements include Chemistry and Metallurgy, Physics and Earth Sciences, Mathematics and Astronomy, Medicine, Agriculture and Animal Sciences and Engineering Sciences, particularly architecture and shipbuilding. There is a huge scope for the universities in India to start courses on the History of Science and the resources related to the history of science could also be reference material for the universities and schools. The advantage of learning the history of science is but an opportunity to also understand the socio-economic and political circumstances that led to inventions and discoveries pertaining to science India has been a happening place for thousands of years so it also comes with a rich scientific heritage. Academic research is another area, which would find immense scope for the history of science in India. One can get to learn ideas of concepts, philosophies, facts, theories etc. associated with the history of science in India. For all these stakeholders this book can be a good read.
Q) How has been your experience in taking together book writing of A Brief History of Science in India, your PhD research work and Campus activism in JNU as a student activist? A) Indeed it was a very challenging task to write a book on a different subject alongside my PhD research work and organisational activities. Hence I strongly believe that the completion of the book would not have been possible at all without the support of my PhD research guide Dr Reeta Sony Ji, my centre the Centre for Studies in Science Policy – School of Social Sciences.
On this occasion, I would like to thank Garuda Prakashan for firstly having shown interest to publish this book even at the nascent stage i.e. around 3.5 years ago when I had discussed such a book with Dr Sankrant Sir during the book launch of Saffron Swords held at the SIS in 2018. After the first draft was ready Garuda’s team had facilitated multiple rounds of critical editorial reviews on this multidisciplinary book which brought in qualitative improvement in the manuscript.
Another important pillar within the JNU campus has been the resources and the facilities provided by the Dr B.R.Ambedkar Central Library, the DELNET as well as the library of the science-policy centre without which this book would not have been as qualitative as it is. The quarterly and monthly workshops organised by the central library on resources available and seminars on research writing, tools and methodology were tremendously helpful in taking my academic research and book writing with comparative ease amidst campus activism for it was the organizational work that had provided with determination and motivation to undertake multiple tasks at one go.