Tuesday, 26 May 2015

House of Commons

 Koumudi Patil & Joy Sen

Scholarship in architecture and building techniques has time and again urged us to study the scientific and sustainable rational embodied in evolved indigenous systems. Such practices have often adapted seamlessly to the topographic and climatic exigencies of our subcontinent. Moreover, they are also perceived as collaborative rather than confrontational; thus offering suitable solutions to the alarming man-nature conflict.

However, much of what was known is either lost or inadaptable to the contemporary living requirements. This study is not intended to eulogise or museumise our past. Instead, through a few collated instances, we attempt to bring on the table an urgent need to scientifically explore methods of rejuvenating some of these valuable practices, by gaining knowledge from onsite field experience as well as theoretical modelling and historical reconstruction. With careful analysis, many of these practices can address our contemporary needs of sustainability, safety as well as frugal resources. After all, it will neither be intelligent nor efficient to reinvent the wheel at every age.

As the summer settles in, it may be most appropriate to begin our dialogue with climate responsive architecture. How did ancient India survive the scorching summer, brutal winter, torrential monsoon and humid spring?

Classical texts of architecture such as Mansara and Mayamatam explain the established system of qualified sthapatis (architects), engineers, carpenters, plumbers and local masons working under the patrons of kings or kingdoms. A city described in these texts always comes across as planned and systematically executed construction. Puranas, Agamas and Shilpashastras list definite stages of city planning: bhu-sangrah (study of the site), bhu-pariksha (examination of the site), dikpariched (determination of the cardinal points), padavinyas (survey of the ground), bhu-vidhan (transferring on the ground the layout conceived in planning) and grihanirman (design/construction of the buildings). In fact, the idea of the vastu mandala is as old as the Rig Veda, where a whole sukta is dedicated to building traditions.

The 16 mahajanapadas, as recorded in the early buddhist and jain texts, were just not socio-political confederations, but a system of regional variations of architectural styles subject to varying impacts of climate, available resources, riparian impacts and the intensity of flora and fauna. For example, the Magadhan tradition in today’s Bihar (buddhist vihara) exhibited built-forms based on its relatively arid climate compared with the Anga-Pragjyotisha (Bengal-Assam) belt in response to the available fertile green land. Hence, even the colour, size and nature of bricks (called istaka) varied in the two mahajanapadas, besides the design of the courtyards and allied open spaces. The distant Assam-Bengal and Kerala built-form traditions displayed similar approaches based on a common pack of maritime and saline impacts of backwaters and sea-based commerce.

Sawan Bhadon pillars of Orcha
Likewise, wind catchers, intricate jaalis or hollow walls, amongst many others, are evolved techniques for temperature as well as humidity control. Wind catchers are airshafts, which capture the prevailing wind and circulate cool air to the underground halls of the royal durbars during summer months. The twin towers of Orchha, Madhya Pradesh, called the Sawan Bhadon pillars were perforated on the top to ‘catch the wind’. The base was connected to a reservoir of water ingeniously feeding the fountain — chandan katora. The hot wind caught by the towers was cooled down not only by its long downward passage, but also by the waters. Even simple perforated walls like the jaalis (deeply carved patterns) in Rajasthan minimise heat gain by providing shade. Such devices also result in increased convective transfer of heat because of increased surface area. Similarly, the thick wide walls sometimes made hollow, as in the Bhool Bhualliya of Lucknow or Akbar’s Fathepur Sikri complex near Agra, were good insulators of heat as well as sound.

The common man’s house, however, was a different tale. It is not known whether the sthapati was involved with the typology of the common houses. But irrespective of the sthapati, if there was any, it is well known that the vernacular structures were a result of community-shared knowledge. The vernacular knowledge of the courtyard effect, stack effect, use of local materials and efficient adaptation to local topography were well known in the practices of the past. In many famous instances like Nath-malji’s haveli in Jaisalmer built in the 19th century by Diwan Mohata Nathmal, the prime minister of the local ruler, as well as in most common houses, the courtyard is a common site. It acts as an air funnel discharging indoor air into the sky, resulting in improved thermal comfort of its adjacent areas. Similarly, recessed windows, jaalis and the light wells of Lucknow’s Imambara are not only a source of light, but also of ventilation and thermal transfer.

The value of water to Indians can be understood from the plethora of water harvesting and conservation systems found in different topographies across the country. Zings, vavs, tanks, kund, surangam and scores of other such structures are well established in the architectural typology of India. The most ambitious amongst these might be the water tank at Shringverpur, Allahabad, dating back to the 1st century AD. If the current hypothesis of renowned archaeologist and former director general of Archaeological Survey of India (1968 -72) Braj Bansi Lal is held correct, this flood harvesting technique channelled the flood waters of the Ganga for about a kilometre to feed the tank with a capacity of 6.5 million litres (storage tank alone). This huge construction  is divided into three tanks: inlet tank may have been used purely for desilting through sedimentation, from which water flowed into the storage tank for use by citizens; another storage tank that even had wells in its dug in its floor to further recharge the ground water during monsoon; and the last tank, which might have been a small votive tank followed by the spilling outlets through which the overflow was released back.

One of the ongoing studies at SandHI, IIT Kanpur suggests that the use of the beautiful steps at Chand Baoli in a little town of Abhaneri in Rajasthan made internationally famous by the latest Batman movie The Dark Knight might not have served an aesthetic purpose alone The tank was built by King Chanda of the Nikumbha Dynasty between 800 AD and 900 AD. Simulation of daylight on this structure has revealed that an inverted pyramid with a stepped motif is an optimal form for shadowing the wall which prevents its heating. Of course, lower heating results in lower evaporation. The folklore in Rajasthan, poetically describes the rational behind such a form — paani ko suraj ki chori se bachana hai. (Don’t let the sun steal the water.) With this mantra in hand, the non-engineering communities of Rajasthan have built ingenious water harvesting structures that are a perennial source of water supply in a region that receives less than 10 cm of annual rainfall. In particular, by encouraging a shift from ‘produce’ to ‘fixed’ and then to cash rents, the British administration upset the procedures and protocols between tenants and landlords over the question of the maintenance of such evolved water systems, leading to their gradual demise.

Computer simulations of Chand Baoli in Abhineri, Rajasthan that replicate the ingenious optimal wall shadowing which prevents water evaporation; A) east face at 12.30 in April; (B) south face at 12.30 in April; (C) west face at 15.30 in April; (D) south face at 15.30 in April

Wherever such colonial laws have been defied, indigenous systems are again proving resourceful. Rajendra Singh, the waterman of Rajasthan flouted these colonial laws umpteen times to build johads. This has not only replenished several dried wells, but also miraculously rejuvenated rivers that were lying dry for more than 60 years.

Not only the canals, but also much of the sanitation and storm water lines in Indus cities had perfect rendition of slopes, privy connections, inspection pits placed at grids, and a framework based on geometric patterns of brick kerbing and corbelling.

Over 75 per cent of the built environment of Mohenjodaro and Harappa was carved out of the famous ‘English bond’ known to Indians almost 5,000 years before the British claimed to introduce it in India. Knowledge of orthogonal geometry and town planning layout based on the ‘grid-iron’ pattern were known 1,500 years prior to the ancient City of Miletus (1,500 BCE) in Anatolia.

Earthquake safety has also been a matter of concern in many regions in India. Interestingly, it has been tackled effectively through simple frugal solutions that can only be described as beautiful. Construction and design practices like dhajji diwari, kathkuni, koti-banal, taaq and others have shown better seismic response than contemporary construction in the same regions. It was astounding to see the dhajji diwari of the Kashmiri houses withstanding the 2005 earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.6. The term dhajji diwari may have its origin in Persian, referring to a “patchwork quilt wall”. The wall is made of a timber frame with a stone-mortar infill. Observing its seismic resistance, close to 10,000 houses in Kashmir were reconstructed in the aftermath of the earthquake using this age-old technique.
UNESCO poster on dhajji diwari system
Prof Durgesh Rai from IIT Kanpur has conducted multiple shaking-table tests to draw a detailed analysis of the earthquake resistant mechanisms of the dhajji diwari. Similarly, the kathkuni style cleverly uses interlocking wooden sleepers (usually cedar) and stones, forming a horizontal mesh with inherent elasticity to resist seismic force.

Of particular mention is the ingenious technique of using wedge shaped bricks to prevent well walls from falling inwards during an earthquake. Wedge shaped bricks lock together unlike rectangular or square bricks. Even the well-known Roman engineers used rectangular linings in the well walls, often resulting in their inward collapse due to the enormous pressure of the soil. Interestingly, there is evidence of the use of wedge shaped bricks in wells close to Allahabad, even until 1950s. This is of significance considering the continuity of this knowledge from Harappan times till now.

Besides building techniques, it is surprising to read the meticulously drafted rules and regulations guiding the use of personal buildings as well as other civic architecture. Amongst others, Arthashastra makes elaborate mention of fire safety regulations. The regulations imposed heavy penalty against any resident who did not separate the cooking stove from the wall with a line of water pots. Kitchen window or walls were prohibited from facing the kitchen wall of another house. In case of a fire mishap at a site in which fire safety regulations had been violated, the owner was forced to bear the reconstruction expenses of not only his own house, but also that of the property of other citizens, which was damaged due to his negligence.

Such detailed understanding of not only the design and construction of a building, but also of the civic responsibilities of a citizen, give a glimpse of the refined civic sensibilities of our civilisation. Alas! such knowledge as well as its practice has slowly disappeared from our contemporary living surroundings. Today, modernism has a tendency to achieve a universal lifeless homogenisation by suppressing free and creative attempts in local contexts and in local practice. Therefore, we assert a contemporary need to establish a dialogue with tradition, holistically framed through the lens of science and build a science-heritage interface.

(Dr Koumudi Patil is assistant professor in the department of humanities and social sciences and design programme at IIT Kanpur. Email: kppatil@iitk.ac.in

Dr Joy Sen is professor in the department of architecture and regional planning at IIT Kharagpur.

the article was published in Financial Chronicle, Tuesday April 28 2015

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Made in India-Vedic texts give us unique insights into the development of ancient Indian metallurgy

Prof RK Dube

Man and metals have an age-old relationship. Different periods of early human civilisation have been named after metals. The attributes of gold influenced the mind and heart of Indians so much so that they conferred upon the supreme spirit the designation of hirnyagarbha. It was so called, because he remains in a golden egg as an embryo. The two important sources for the history of Indian metallurgy are archaeological excavations and literary evidence.

Although a considerable amount of information on this subject from the study of archaeological finds is available, literary evidence has not been studied to the extent it deserves. Unique information related to metals and metallurgy is available in different Sanskrit texts beginning with Vedic texts to medieval and pre-modern texts. There are both direct and indirect types of references. An attempt has been made here to give a glimpse of some such references.

Fig 1
Figure 1- Geological map of northern areas of Pakistan showing concentration of gold in rock samples. from the report of Integration of Geological, Geochemical and Remote Sensing Data for Finding Source Rocks for Gold in the Northern Areas of Pakistan

The Rigveda has widely referred to hiranya, which is the oldest Sanskrit word for gold. It has also mentioned products made from gold, such as water vessel, necklace and visor. Chariots decorated with gold have also been mentioned. The Rigveda (10.75.8) mentioned that the river Sindhu (Indus) contains gold. The word hiranyayi was used for the river. Another Rigveda hymn (8.26.18), states that the path of the river Sindhu contains gold, and the word used for it is hiranyavartanih. It is interesting to note that Sayana translated this word as hiranmayobhayakula, i.e., both banks containing gold. The above hymns are some of the earliest indirect references to the alluvial placer gold deposits in India. The river Sindhu was an important source of gold in ancient times. It is interesting to note that the references for the availability of alluvial placer gold in the river Sindhu are also reported in modern times. Tucci reported in 1977 that “there were near the Indus (Sindhu) source, as there are even now, great mines of gold in the region of the Mānasarovar and in Thokjalung.” Further, in the itinerary in Khotanese Saka from Gilgit to Chilas (written between 958-972 AD) the Indus is called Ysarnijittāji — the golden river, which is not a mere poetic attribute, but a reality.

Gold obtained from the river Jambu was called jambunada and that from the river Ganga was called gangeya. These were also, alluvial placer gold. The Pali text Anguttara Nikaya narrated the process of the recovery of gold dust or particles from alluvial placer gold deposits in allegorical form.

The Mahabharata referred to pipilika gold (ants’ gold). Heaps of this type of gold was presented to the king Yudhishthira at the time of the rajasuya yagna ceremony. Pipilika gold was powdery in nature and of high purity. It was obtained by panning the auriferous soil of ant hills formed by ants or termites as a part of their nature on the land containing placer gold deposits and hence the name ants’ gold. Kautilya described a variety of gold called rasaviddha, which was naturally occurring dissolved gold in liquid form. He stated that one pala (a measure) of this solution converts one hundred palas of silver or copper into gold, which refers to the cementation of gold on the surface of metals like silver and copper. A similar type of dissolved gold known as hatakaprabhasa was mentioned in Gandavyuha sutra. Kalidas also mentioned such gold solutions and termed it kanaka rasa. It is astonishing to note how people recognised such gold solutions in the past.

Native gold is invariably by no means a pure metal. It contains up to 20 per cent silver, copper, iron, lead, bismuth, platinum group metals and other metals, as impurities. Thus native gold would have different colours depending upon the nature and amount of impurities present. It is logical to assume that the different colours of native gold were a major driving force for the development of gold refining process. Although evidence of gold refining is available in Vedic texts in an allegory form, it was the Arthashastra of Kautilya, which presented it in detail.

Gold refining was a two-stage process. The first stage was the melting of impure gold along with lead, which removed base metal impurities, but not noble metals like silver. The second stage was to heat impure gold sheets with the soil of Sindhu state, which contained salt. The sodium chloride present in the soil reacted with silver and the resulting silver chloride absorbed in the surrounding soil. This was a solid state process, which involved diffusion of silver in impure gold and the subsequent formation of silver chloride at the gold-soil interface.

It is important to note that Kautilya stated that the starting sheet of impure gold must be thin, as this would improve the kinetics of the solid state refining. Usage of gold in granular form, as was the case at least in part in the Sardis refinery of the Lydian kingdom of Anatolia, would result in lower yield.

Another important metal referred to in Rigveda is ayas. It has a shining appearance. Ayas has different meanings in different periods. In early Vedic period, it means either copper or copper alloys. One of the important products made from ayas, as stated in the Rigveda, was the weapon of Indra called vajra. It was made by the process of sinchan (casting). In the later Vedic period ayas or karshnayas means iron. In the Atharvaveda, rajata (silver), trapu (tin) and sisa (lead) have been mentioned.

Kautilya also described the method for refining silver, which was similar to the first stage process used in gold refining. Further, Kautilya stated a very interesting qualitative test for ensuring the purity of cast silver ingots. According to it, the surface of the cast pure silver ingots should exhibit an appearance of chulika, i.e., projections similar to a cock’s comb. In other words, the top surface of the pure silver ingot has a rising appearance at certain places. In fact, this is a reference to the spitting and sprouting behaviour of silver. Oxygen dissolves readily in molten silver. Molten silver dissolves approximately 20 times its own volume of oxygen near the melting point at one atmosphere pressure of oxygen. Just below the melting point, the solid silver can dissolve oxygen only up to half its own volume under similar conditions.

The large difference in solubility of oxygen in the liquid and solid state causes the evolution of oxygen during solidification of molten silver. Bubbles of oxygen are then given off, resulting in “spitting” at the free surface. As a result, liquid silver from the interior is ejected on the surface of the ingot and a shape similar to a cock’s comb is formed on the top surface after solidification. This author carried out the experimental replication of the formation of chulika on a small size cast pure silver (see picture). If silver contains base metals such as lead and copper, then the dissolved oxygen would combine with it to form respective oxides. In such a situation, the phenomenon of spitting would not be observed and the surface would be smooth.

In this context, it is interesting to note that the law governing the solubility of gases in metals, known as Sievert’s law, came into existence only in the early 20th century. However, ancient Indians recognised the practical aspect of Sievert’s law in judging the purity of silver.

There is a rich Sanskrit terminology for metals, from which interesting information on history of metallurgy can be derived. Only a few uncommon terms would be cited. Silver has a tendency to tarnish. It tarnishes readily when exposed to atmosphere containing sulphur, and looks blackish. Due to this characteristic, an uncommon Sanskrit name of silver is durvarna. The copper produced in Nepal was called naipalika or nepalaka, and was of high purity. Tin recovered from lead-tin alloy was called nagaja, i.e., “that obtained from naga (lead)”. Similarly, tin recovered from the impure gold containing tin was called svarnaja. India was not rich in tin metal. Our ancestors were conscious of this problem and also exploited secondary sources for tin recovery. The presence of lead adversely affects the characteristics of gold and hence it was also called as hemaghna.

The Rasaratnasamuchchaya described three types of ferrous materials, viz. munda, tiksna and kanta. When iron ore pieces are reduced by charcoal in solid state, iron blocks containing porosity results. For this reason the reduced iron blocks are also called sponge iron blocks. Any useful products can only be obtained from this material after removing the residual porosity by hot forging. The hot forged sponge iron blocks are also termed as wrought iron. Munda was wrought iron. As the name suggests tiksna has superior hardness as compared to munda. Tiksna represented crucible steel made by liquid metallurgy and also probably further carburised wrought iron. Special varieties of iron were called kanta. An exciting example of wrought iron produced in ancient India is the world famous Delhi Iron Pillar. It was erected in the present position in Delhi in the 5th century AD by king Chandra Varman. However, the engraved Sanskrit inscription suggests that it was probably brought here from elsewhere in the Gupta period. The average composition (wt%) of the wrought iron of the pillar is- Fe- 0.15 C- 0.05 Si- 0.05 Mn- 0.25 P- 0.005 S- 0.05 Ni- 0.03 Cu- 0.02 N. The most significant aspect of the pillar is that there is no sign of any corrosion, in spite of the fact that it has been exposed to the atmosphere for about 1,600 years.

Delhi Iron Pillar
Another striking feature of the pillar is its manufacturing technology. It was made by successive hot forging of directly reduced sponge iron blocks produced from the solid state reduction of iron ore by charcoal, in a die. The joint lines that have not been completely removed by forging are clearly visible on the pillar. This author discussed this aspect in detail and opined that this procedure is basically very similar to current metal powder forging techniques, with a difference that the latter is not usually used to make a long product by joining pieces together (Powder Metallurgy, 1990, 33(2), 119). In both the cases, hot forging in a die is done not only to give the required shape, but also to remove the residual porosity present in the starting material.

Indian crucible steel was a celebrated material worldwide. It was usually produced by simultaneous carburisation and melting of wrought iron in closed crucibles. Valmiki referred to it by the term “refined iron”. Kautilya termed it vratta, because it was of circular shape. Dr Helenus Scott sent specimens of a variety of crucible steel, available in Mumbai area, to Sir Joseph Banks, the then president of the Royal Society, London, for experimental investigation in 1794. He referred to this steel as wootz in his letter. Recent researches by this author have revealed that the actual name of this steel was the Sanskrit utsa, which was erroneously transliterated in Roman script as wootz by Scott. James Stodart, fellow of the Royal Society, did extensive work on this steel and mastered its hot forging. Stodart was so overwhelmed with its quality that he mentioned the name utsa in Devanagari script on his trade card, along with a note that it is to be preferred over the best steel in Europe. It was named utsa because it had a characteristic of oozing out of low melting point liquid phase when heated to moderate temperatures.

Weapons made of Wootz steel

Historically brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, was known to man much earlier than they were able to extract zinc from its ore on a large scale. In early period zinc was designated as sattva of zinc ore. In medieval period, it was designated as yashada in Sanskrit. Zinc oxide, known as pushpanjan, has been referred to in Charak Samhita. Rasaratnakar (second century AD) provides the earliest documentary evidence for the cementation process for brass making and reduction-distillation process for zinc extraction. Rasarnava and Rasara-tnasamuchchaya described a typical crucible, known as vrintak, having a shape similar to that of a long variety of brinjal, to be used for making the reduction-distillation chamber. The basic principle of the process resembles that of the largescale 12th century industrial process for zinc extraction uncovered at Zawar near Udaipur. It is a unique discovery and the retorts used at Zawar are similar to the vrintak crucible.

The Mahabharata and some Puranas have referred to ferrous arrowheads, which were subjected to ‘tailadhauta’ treatment. Valmiki used this terminology in the context of battle axe. Some of the commentaries of Ramayana have defined tailadhauta as the process used for hardening (of ferrous objects). Clearly, this terminology was used in the sense of oil quench-hardening of ferrous materials.

Manasollas, written in 1131 AD, gives detailed information on fine quality metal image casting by madhuchchhishta vidhan (lost wax process). Both sushira (hollow) and ghana (solid) images were cast. Although the documentary evidence is of a later period, it had been used since a very long time ago. The famous bronze dancing girl from Mohenjodaro was made by this process. Shilparatna (later part of 16th century) has mentioned the process of making fine gold powder from thin gold leaves for painting applications. The powder produced would have a flaky shape, which gives higher covering area per unit mass.

In the Indian tradition, people with expertise in technical disciplines were highly regarded. This is reflected in a hymn of Atharvaveda, in which karmar (ironsmith or metalsmith in general) has been called manishi, i.e., a wise or learned person. Further, it has been stated in the Kavyamimansa (10th century AD) that goldsmith, ironsmith and similar other people should also be invited by kings in the kavya-pariksa sabha, i.e., literary meetings organised to judge the scholarship of poets.

Metal technology, for that matter, all other technologies, are human creations shaped historically by context. The examples discussed here illustrate how ancient Indians solved metallurgical challenges, which helped in the development of Indian metallurgy and also the scientific and technological temper in the people of those times.

It is understandable that most of the metal technologies of the past are not relevant in present times. However, examples from the past can re-energise us towards encouraging local innovations and enterprise at all levels. Finally, it is clear that Vedic and classical Sanskrit texts are knowledge texts, and the study of Sanskrit has value because Sanskrit is not just a classical language, but a vehicle of discovering our knowledge inheritance and assessing its contemporary relevance.

(Prof RK Dube is former professor and head of the department of materials science and engineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur)
This article was published in financial chronicle, Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Circling the square - The making of ancient Indian knowledge systems

Amita Sharma

Who knows for certain?
Who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, whence came creation?
The gods are later than this world’s formation;
Who then can know the origins of the world?
None knows whence creation arose;
And whether he has or has not made it;
He who surveys it from the lofty skies,
Only he knows — or perhaps he knows not.

The Rig Veda (X:129)

The Hymn of Creation is, perhaps, one of the profoundest critical gazes cast on the creator in the history of metaphysical thought, putting under erasure an a priori cognisant principle, manifesting a spirit free to doubt and question. This defines ancient Indian knowledge systems, cohabiting different realms of ‘realities’ generating at one level, the language of sophisticated argument, technical detail and codification, and at another, a language that is tentative, suggestive, pushing the borders of the known.

The genesis of ancient Indian knowledge systems is this coupling of intellectual enquiry with a sense of sublime wonder at the great mysteries of life. Ancient Indian knowledge forms were divided into two broad groups, namely para vidya and apara vidya. Para vidya or higher knowledge is knowledge by which the imperishable is known. Apara vidya encompassed worldly knowledge, like science, technology, arts, commerce and management. To the modern mind, thinking in exclusive categories, dichotomising knowledge forms, these two knowledge worlds are dualistically wedged. But the uniqueness of ancient Indian knowledge systems is the coexistence of the transcendental with the empirical, generating several distinctive features. The sacred and the secular flowed into each other.

There was no Inquisition to be feared, no imposed dogma. Savants built upon inherited knowledge forms while equally questioning them. We find Kautilya disagreeing with earlier thinkers of political science on issues of warfare, or Brahmagupta virulently rejecting Aryabhata’s theory of a rotating earth. A huge literature of commentaries, many of them sadly lost, is evidence of ceaseless and tireless scholarly discussion, debate and dissent.

Technical knowledge often arose to serve religious practices. Over time, organised systems emerged dealing with language, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, the arts, governance and administration, ethics and yoga and a host of lesser known knowledge systems related to agriculture, animal husbandry, water management, town-planning that were documented in numerous texts rarely studied now.

Today the enmeshing of ideas, of poetry with physics, maths with mantra, science with mysticism, might appear as pre-scientific and, therefore, mere objects of curiosity. Yet when submitted to rigorous tests, they have almost always proved their worth. A few examples illustrate how the complexity of Indian knowledge systems argues for analytical rigour, not a reductionist reading and uncritical rejection. It is not for nothing that 20th century physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger or Werner Heisenberg drew inspiration from Vedantic concepts.

Ancient Indian mathematics arose from the Vedangas — a reflection on the Vedas. The Shulba-sutras, India’s first texts of geometry, composed around 800 - 600 BCE, exemplify traditional epistemological forms and their contribution to modern knowledge. These texts add-ressed the theological requirement of constructing fire altars with different shapes such as a falcon in flight with curved wings or a tortoise with extended head and legs, but with the same surface area. The altars had to be constructed with five layers of burnt bricks, each layer consisting of 200 bricks and no two adjacent layers having congruent arrangements of bricks. One of the geometric constructions involved squaring the circle (and vice-versa) viz., geometrically constructing a square having the same area as a given circle.

The Baudha­yana Shulba-Sutra says, a rope stretched along the length of the diagonal produces an area which the vertical and horizontal sides make together. This is a precise geometric expression of the Pythagorean theorem, which states that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right-angle triangle equals the square of its hypotenuse. Were we more aware of the contribution of Indian geometricians, the Pythagorean theorem might today be equally known as the Shulba theorem.

The Vedic mantras are chanted till today after a ritual prayer. Have we ever noticed the incantation involves large numbers? For example, the mantra at the end of the annahoma (food-oblation rite) performed during the ashvamedha invokes powers of 10 from a hundred to a trillion.

Maths and verse enmeshed not just in style, but in substance. Pingala (300 - 200 BCE), author of the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody, Chandaḥsāstra (the science of metres), gave elaborate rules for listing out all possible combinations of ‘heavy’ (long) and ‘light’ (short) syllables in Vedic metres. In the process, Pingala constructed prastāras or tables which noted the combinations in what would be called today a binary system of notation (for instance, ‘long-long-short... long-short-short’). The science of metres led to the Indian equivalent of the famous Fibonacci numbers (in which each number is the sum of the preceding two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55...).

A Vedic hymn could have more than one meaning, embedding philosophical speculation with mathematical concepts. A famous shloka from Ishavasya Upanishad reads, purnamadah purnamidam purnat purnamudachyate purnasya purnamadaya purnameva vashishyate: “That is whole; this is whole. From the whole comes the whole; take away the whole from the whole, what remains is the whole.” Mathematically, this can be interpreted in terms of zero as well as infinity, both of which are meanings of purna.

While the zero (variously called shunya, purna, bindu ...) as an empty place-holder in the place-value numeral system appears much earlier, algebraic definitions of the zero and its relationship to mathematical functions appear in the mathematical treatises of Brahmagupta in the 7th century whose Brahmasphutasiddhant had basic operations (including cube roots, fractions, ratios and proportions) as well as applied mathematics (including series, plane figures, stacking of bricks, sawing of timber, and piling of grain). His concept “divided by zero = infinity” is etymologically interesting: khachheda means divided by kha, where kha (space) stands for zero.

Consider the way decimal story unravels. The present system of decimal numbers needed two fundamental discoveries: the concept of zero and the principle of place value. Both were developed in India between the 1st and the 6th centuries CE. The first inscription with a decimal place-value notation is from Sankheda in Gujarat, dated 346 in the Chhedi Era, or 594 CE, where ‘3’ stands for hundreds, ‘4’ for 10s and ‘6’ for units. But five centuries earlier, the Buddhist philosopher Vasumitra, discussing the counting pits of merchants, had remarked, “When [the same] clay counting-piece is in the place of units, it is denoted as one, when in hundreds, one hundred.”

Decimal representation was also employed in a verse composition technique, later labelled bhuta-sankhya (literally, object numbers) used in technical books. Since those were composed in verse, numbers were often represented by objects. The number 4, for example, could be represented by the word Veda (there are four Vedas), the number 32 by the word teeth (a full set consists of 32), and the number 1 by moon, sun or atman, all of which are unique. So, “Veda-teeth-moon” would correspond to 4-32-1 or our decimal numeral 1324, as the convention for numbers then was to enumerate their digits from right to left.

This rich tradition of mathematics flowered in some of the greatest mathematicians of their times who contributed towards discovering and formalising mathematical principles. Aryabhata I (born 476 CE) described fundamental principles of mathematics and astronomy in 121 verses of Aryabhatiya which deal with quadratic equations, trigonometry or the value of π, correct to 4 decimal places. His calculation of the circumference of earth was within 12 per cent of the actual value, his table of planetary positions and his lengths of the sidereal and solar years remarkably precise. Brahmagupta (born 598 CE) studied many geometrical figures, introduced negative numbers and defined mathematical infinity as “that which is divided by zero”.

Bhaskara II (born 1114), author of Lilavati and Bijaganita, proposed solutions to cubic and biquadratic equations, worked out an efficient algorithm for some types of second-degree indeterminate equations and laid down some of the foundations of calculus.

As in the case of mathematics, early astronomical insights were embedded in sacred texts often veiled in allegorical or poetical forms. The Rig Veda refers to a wheel consisting of 360 spokes, clearly the days of the year; some of its verses have been interpreted in terms of eclipses and meteor showers.

The Aitareya Brahmana (3.44) declares, “The sun never really sets or rises. ... Having reached the end of the day, he inverts himself; thus he makes evening below, day above... Having reached the end of the night he inverts himself; thus he makes day below, night above; He never sets; indeed he never sets.” This seems to reflect an awareness of the sphericity of the earth.

The famous scholar Sayana (c. 1315-1387) commented thus on a hymn to the sun from the Rig Veda (1.50.4): “Thus it is remembered, O Surya, you who traverse 2,202 yojanas in half a nimesha.” With a yojana of about 13.6 km and a nimesha of 16/75thof a second, this amounts to 280,755 km/sec — just 6 per cent from the speed of light (299,792 km/sec) — a coincidence worth noting.

The Puranas describe time units from the infinitesimal truti, lasting (according to Bhaskara II) one 2,916,000,000th of a day or about 30 microseconds, to a mahamantavara of 311 trillion years. Time is seen as cyclical, an endless procession of creation, preservation and dissolution. The end of each kalpa brought about by Shiva’s dance is also the beginning of the next. Rebirth follows destruction. Each Brahma day and each Brahma night lasted a kalpa or 4.32 billion years, adding up to 8.43 billion years which is not too far from the current 13.7 billion years for the age of the universe (another coincidence, which the US astronomer Carl Sagan noted).

In contrast, till the 19th century, much of Europe was convinced that the universe was no more than 6,000 years old. And while we are on coincidences, let us mention that Jain texts state that there are 8.4 million species on earth, which compares well with the figure of 8.7 million arrived at in a 2011 research paper.

Sacred geographies enfolded astronomical observations. According to the German archaeologist Holger Wanzke, the east-west alignment of the main streets of Mohenjodaro’s citadel (or acropolis) was probably based on the Pleiades star cluster (Krittika), which rose due east at the time; it no longer does because of the precession of the equinoxes. Ujjain, associated with the legendary king Vikramaditya, is located on the Tropic of Cancer; it was a centre of astronomical observations. Chitra-koot is associated with Rama, who is often represented symbolically as an arrow. Mapped with GPS, ashrams and other holy sites there form arrows that point to the sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice. Varanasi’s 14 Aditya shrines precisely track the sun’s path through the year, embedding time in the ancient city’s map.

The purpose of alluding to diverse forms of cultural codification of knowledge is that even while ambiguity may enwrap them, they have a steady stream of scientific insights that merit research. The significance of culturally embedded knowledge is supported by our material inheritance.

For the growth of a truly scientific spirit, it is necessary that we critically evaluate our intellectual inheritance. Bhaskara II said, “It is necessary to speak out the truth accurately before those who have implicit faith in tradition. It will be impossible to believe in whatever is said earlier unless every erroneous statement is criticised and condemned.”

In ignoring our own knowledge legacy, or rejecting it as myth, are we guilty of creating an uncritical modernism that stultifies its own growth?

Fields Medal winner, Manjul Bhargava has said that he was inspired not only from ancient Indian mathematicians, but also from his practice of tabla and his knowledge of Sanskrit. The statue of Nataraja, a symbol of the dance of subatomic particles, which adorns the CERN where the hunt for the ‘ultimate’ particles goes on, is a reminder that India’s wisdom offers much to the world in its tireless research into the mysteries of life in its infinite complexity.

(With inputs from Michel Danino)
Amita Sharma is former additional secretary in the ministry of human resources development. Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, currently guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar

This article was published in financial chronicle, Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Traditional knowledge systems - an overview

Rajiv Malhotra 

It is now recognized that western criteria are not the sole benchmark by which other cultural knowledge should be evaluated. While the term 'traditional' sometimes carries the connotation of 'pre-modern' in the sense of 'primitive' or 'outdated', many of the traditional sciences and technologies were in fact quite advanced even by western standards as well as better adapted to unique local conditions and needs than their later 'modern' substitutes. In countries with ancient cultural traditions, the folk and elite science were taken as part of the same unified legacy, without any hegemonic categorizations. However, modernization has homogenized various solutions, and this loss of ideas is similar to the destruction of biodiversity. Colonizers systematically derogated, exterminated or undermined the local traditional science, technology and crafts of the lands and people they plundered, because of their intellectual arrogance, and also to control and appropriate the economic means of production and the social means of organization. Modern societies created hegemonic categories of science verses magic, technology verses superstitions etc., which were arbitrary and contrived. But many anthropologists who have recently worked with so-called 'primitive' peoples have been surprised to learn of some of their highly evolved and sophisticated technologies. The term 'Traditional Knowledge System' was thus coined by anthropologists as a scientific system which has its own validity, in contradistinction to 'modern' science.

The United Nations University proposal defines Traditional Knowledge Systems as follows:

Traditional knowledge or 'local knowledge' is a record of human achievement in comprehending the complexities of life and survival in often unfriendly environments. Traditional knowledge, which may be technical, social, organizational, or cultural was obtained as part of the great human experiment of survival and development.
Laura Nader describes the purpose of studying TKS: 
"The point is to open up people's minds to other ways of looking and questioning, to change attitudes about knowledge, to reframe the organization of science -- to formulate a way of thinking globally about traditions."


Modern science can perhaps be dated to Newton's times. But Traditional Knowledge Systems date from more than 2 million years, when Homo habilis started making his tools and interacting with nature. Since the dawn of history, different peoples have contributed to different branches of science and technology, often in a manner involving interactive contacts across cultures separated by large distances. This interactive influence is becoming clearer as the vast extent of global trade and cultural migration across large distances is being properly recognized by researchers.

However, one finds that generally the history of science as commonly taught is mostly Eurocentric. It typically consists of two phases: It starts with Greece, neglecting the influences of others upon Greece. Then it 'fast forwards' many centuries to the Enlightenment period around 1500, to claim modern science as an exclusively European triumph, by neglecting the influence of others, especially India, upon the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. The European Dark Ages is presumed to be dark worldwide, when in fact, the rest of the world thrived with innovation and prosperity while Europe was at the peripheries until the conquest of America in 1492.

Thanks to especially the work of Joseph Needham, China's contributions to global knowledge have recently become known to a wide range of scholars. Even more recently, thanks largely to Arab scholars, the important role of Islamic empires in the transmission of ideas into Europe has become better appreciated. However, in the latter case, many discoveries and innovations of India, as acknowledged by the Arab translators themselves, are often depicted as being of Arab origin, when in fact, the Arabs often retransmitted what they had learnt from India over to Europe.

Therefore, the vast and significant contributions made by the Indian sub-continent have been widely ignored. The British colonizers could never accept the fact that Indians were highly civilized even in the third millennium BC, when the British were still in a barbarian stage. Such acknowledgment would destroy the civilizing mission of Europe that was the intellectual premise for colonialization. British Indologists did not study TKS, except to quietly document them as systems competing with their own, and to facilitate the transfer of technology into Britain's Industrial Revolution. What was found valuable was quickly appropriated (see examples below), and its Indian manufacturers were forced out of business, and this was in many instances justified as civilizing them. Meanwhile, a new history of India was fabricated to ensure that present and future generations of mentally colonized people would believe in the inherent inferiority of their own traditional knowledge and in the superiority of the colonizers' 'modern' knowledge. This has been called Macaulayism, named after Lord Macaulay who successfully championed this strategy of Britain most emphatically starting in the 1830s.

Because it became difficult for Europeans to ignore the massive archaeological evidence of classical Indian science and technology, they propounded that Indus Civilization had to be a transplant from the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations. These constructions in historiography have tended to be cumulative rather than re-constructive, i.e. more layers were constructed without re-examining or correcting prior ones. Unfortunately, since independence there has not been much improvement in such distortions of history, and this has continued to negatively impact the understanding and appreciation of TKS. Many in India's intellectual elite continue to promote the notion that pre-colonial India was feudalistic, pre-rational, and by implication in need of being invaded for its own benefit.

This has created a climate in which entrenched prejudice against TKS still persists in contemporary society. For example, according to TKS activist Madhu Kishwar, India's government today continues to make many TKS illegal or impossible to practice. Even after independence, many British laws against TKS have continued, even though their original intent was to destroy India's massive domestic industry and foreign trade and to replace them with Britain's Industrial Revolution. It is significant to note that today less than 10% of India's labor works in the 'organized sector', namely as employees of a company. The remaining 90% are individual freelancers, contract laborers, private entrepreneurs, and so on, many of whom still practice their traditional trades. However, given the perpetuation of colonial laws that render much of their work illegal, they are highly vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation, corruption, and abuse. The descendants of India's traditional knowledge workers, who built massive cities, technologies, and dominated world trade for centuries, are today de-legitimized in their own country under a democratic government. Many of today's poor jatis, such as textile, masonry, and metal workers, were at one time the guilds that supplied the world with so many and varied industrial items.

GDP of Major Economies over the last two millennia 
It is important to note that amongst all the conquered and colonized civilizations of the Old World, India is unique in the following respect: Its wealth was industrial and created by its workers' ingenuity and labor. In all other instances, such as the Native Americans, the plunder by the colonizers was mainly of land, gold and other natural assets. But in India's case, the colonizers had a windfall of extraordinary profit margins from control of India's exports, taxation of India's economic production, and eventually the transfer of technology and production to the colonizer's home. This comprised the immense transfer of wealth out of India. From being the world's major exporting economy (along with China), India was reduced to an importer of goods; from being the source of much of the economic capital that funded Britain's Industrial revolution, it became one of the biggest debtor nations; from its envied status as the wealthiest nation, it became a land synonymous with poverty; and from the nation with a large number of prestigious centers of higher education that attracted the cream of foreign students from Eurasia, it became the land with the highest number of illiterate persons. This remains a major untold story. The education system's subversion of India's TKS in its history and social studies curricula is a major factor for the stereotyping about India. Even when told of these things, few westerners and elitist Indians are willing to believe them, as the prejudices about India are too deeply entrenched.


The present day globalizing economy with its mass media glorification of the western lifestyle is resulting in the homogenization of human 'wants' and in unachievable expectations. Conventional western technology by itself cannot deliver or sustain this false promise to the world, for several reasons:

Westernized living is unachievable by billions of poor humans, because the capital required simply does not exist in the world, and the trickle down effect is too slow to reach the bottom tier where most of humanity lives.

Western civilization depends upon inequality -- there must be cheap labor 'somewhere else', and cheap natural resources purchasable from somewhere, without regard to the big picture of world society or global ecology. This practical necessity of the present-day global capitalist system conflicts with the equal rights of states and persons long theorized and promoted. All sorts of reasons are offered against such drastic proposals as opening all borders and allowing free competition among all available laborers, contradicting the 'freedom' position so popular in theory.

The western economic development model demands 'growth' to sustain valuations in the stock markets, and growth cannot be indefinite. A steady state economy in zero growth equilibrium would devastate the wealth of the west, since the financial models are predicated on growth.

Even if the above obstacles could be overcome and the world's six billion persons were to achieve western lifestyle, it would be unsustainable for the planet's natural resources to sustain.

When Gandhi was asked whether he would like India to develop a lifestyle similar to England's, his reply may be paraphrased as follows:
 The British had to plunder the Earth to achieve their lifestyle. Given India's much larger population, it would require the plunder of many planets to achieve the same.
If the idealized lifestyle is unavailable to all humanity, then on what basis (morally, intellectually, and in terms of practical enforcement) do a few countries hope to sustain their superiority over others so as to maintain such a lifestyle? The point is that employing TKS is an imperative for humanity at large, while reducing global dependence on inequitable and resource draining "advanced" knowledge systems.

We have to study, preserve, and revive the Traditional Knowledge Systems for the economic betterment of the world in a holistic manner, as these technologies are eco-friendly and allow sustainable growth without harming the environment. India's scientific heritage needs to be brought to the attention of the educated world, so that we can replace the Eurocentric History of Science and Technology with an honest globalization of ideas. This goal requires generations of new research in these fields, compilation of existing data, and dissemination through books, seminars, websites, articles, films etc.


Civil Engineering

The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization was the world's first to build planned towns, with underground drainage, civil sanitation, hydraulic engineering, and air-cooling architecture. Oven baked bricks were invented in India in approximately 4,000 BC. From complex Harappan towns to Delhi's Qutub Minar and other large projects, India's indigenous technologies were very sophisticated in design, planning, water supply, traffic flow, natural air conditioning, complex stone work, and construction engineering.

Metal Technologies

They pioneered many tools for construction, including the needle with hole at the pointed end, hollow drill, and true saw. Many of these important tools were subsequently used in the rest of the world, centuries later during Roman times. India was first to produce rust-free iron. In the mid-first millennium BC, the Indian wootz steel was very popular in the Persian courts for making swords. The British sent teams to India to analyze the metallurgical processes that were later appropriated by Britain. Making India's metal works illegal was motivated partly by the goal to industrialize Britain, but also because of the risk of gun manufacturing by potential nationalists. India's exporting steel industry was systematically dismantled and relocated to Britain.


India's textile exports were legendary. Roman archives contain official complaints about massive cash drainage because of imports of fine Indian textiles. One of the earliest industries relocated from India to Britain was in textiles, and it became the first major success of the Industrial Revolution, with Britain replacing India as the world's leading textile exporter. Many of the machines built by Britain used Indian designs that had been improved over long periods. Meanwhile, India's textile manufacturer's were de-licensed, even tortured in some cases, over-taxed, regulated, etc., to 'civilize' them into virtual extinction.

Shipping and Ship Building

India participated in the earliest known ocean based trading systems. Regarding more recent centuries, it is known to scholars but not to the general public that Vasco da Gama's ships were captained by a Gujarati sailor, and much of Europe's 'discovery' of navigation was in fact an appropriation of pre-existing navigation in the Indian Ocean, that had been a thriving trade system for centuries before Europeans 'discovered' it. Some of the world's largest and most sophisticated ships were built in India and China. The compass and other navigation tools were already in use at the time. ('Nav' is the Sanskrit word for boat, and is the root word in 'navigation', and in 'navy', although etymology is not a reliable proof of origin.)

Water Harvesting Systems

Scientists estimate that there were 1.3 million man-made water lakes and ponds across India, some as large as 250 square miles. These are now being rediscovered using satellite imagery. These enabled most of the rain water to be harvested and used for irrigation, drinking, etc. till the following year's rainfall. Village organizations managed these resources, but this decentralized management was dismantled during the colonial period, when tax collection, cash expropriation, and legal enforcements became the primary function of the new governance appointed by the British. Recently, thousands of these 'talabs' have been restored, and this has resulted in a re-emergence of abundant water year round in many places. (This is a very different approach compared to the massive modern dams built in the name of progress, that have devastated the lives of millions.)

Forest Management

Many interesting findings have recently come out about the way forests and trees were managed by each village and a careful method applied to harvest medicines, firewood, and building material in accordance with natural renewal rates. There is now a database being built of these 'sacred groves' across India. Again, it's a story of an economic asset falling into disuse and abuse because of dismantling the local governance and uprooting respect for traditional systems in general. Massive logging by the British to export India's timber to fund the two world wars and other civilizing programs of the empire are never mentioned when scholars try to explain India's current ecological disasters. The local populations had been quite sophisticated in managing their ecology until they were dis-empowered.

Farming Techniques

India's agricultural production was historically large and sustained a huge population compared to other parts of the world. Surpluses were stored for use in a drought year. But the British turned this industry into a cash cow, exporting massive amounts of harvests even during shortages, so as to maximize the cash expropriation. This caused tens of millions to die of starvation while at the same time India's food production was exported at unprecedented rates to generate cash. Also, traditional non-chemical based pesticides have been recently revived in India with excellent results, replacing Union Carbide's products in certain markets.

Traditional Medicine

This is now a well-known and respected field. Much re-legitimizing of Indian medicine has already been done, thanks to many western labs and scientists. Many multinationals no longer denigrate traditional medicine and have in fact been trying to secure patents on Indian medicine without acknowledging the source.

Mathematics, Logic and Linguistics

Besides other sciences, Indians developed advanced math, including the concept of zero, the base-ten decimal system now in use worldwide, and many important trigonometry and algebra formulae. They made several astronomical discoveries. Diverse schools of logic and philosophy proliferated. India's Panini is acknowledged as the founder of linguistics, and his Sanskrit grammar is still the most complete and sophisticated of any language in the world.

There were numerous other indigenous Indian industries. India's manufactured goods were highly prized around the world. We must evaluate the historical importance of these TKS based on their economic value for their time, when their importance could be compared to today's high tech industry. India's own English educated elite should be made aware of this to shed their Macaulayite inferiority complexes. Furthermore, the development, refinement and extension of TKS offer potential benefits capable of resolving or diminishing some of the inequities in modern societies worldwide.


Besides the above examples of Indian contributions to the very foundations of so-called 'western' science, another category of Traditional Knowledge Systems is non-literate folk science. Western science as a whole has condemned and ignored anything that it did not either appropriate or develop, as being magic and superstition. However, in countries such as India that have cultural continuity, ancient traditions survive with a rich legacy of folk science. 

In North America and Australia, where original populations have been more than decimated, such continuity of folk tradition was disrupted. In Western nations with large colonies in the Old and New Worlds, such knowledge systems were looked down upon. It is this prejudice that subverts the importance of folk science, and ridicules it as superstition. The process of contrasting western science with folk knowledge systems extends to the demarcation of knowledge systems in different categories of science versus religion, rational versus magical, and so on. But we need to insist that these western imposed hegemonic categories are contrived and artificial.

Western science seldom realized that non-literate folk science preserves the wisdom gained through millennia of experience, direct observation, and has been transmitted by word of mouth. Development projects based solely on new technologies are pushing the Traditional Knowledge Systems towards extinction. This traditional wisdom of humankind needs to be preserved and used for our survival.

Westernized 'experts' go to non-literate cultures assuming them to be 'knowledge blanks' which need to be programmed with modern science and technology. Ramkrishnan, the renowned ecologist, humbly admitted that the ecological management practiced today by the tribes of the northeastern states of India is far superior to anything he could teach them. A good example in this regard is the alder (Alnus nepalensis), which has been cultivated in the jhum (shifting cultivation) fields by the Khonoma farmers in Nagaland for centuries. It has multiple usages for the farmers, since it is a nitrogen-fixing tree and helps to retain the soil fertility. Its leaves are used as fodder and fertilizer, and it is also utilized as timber. One could cite numerous such examples. Unfortunately, many plants which the tribes traditionally cultivated for specific benefits have now disappeared in the name of progress.

The vast majority of modern medicines patented by western pharmaceutical firms are based on tropical plants. The most common method to select candidates for detailed testing has been for western firms to scout tropical societies, seek out established 'folk' remedies, and to subject these to 'western scientific legitimizing'. In many cases, patents owned by multinationals are largely for isolating the active ingredients in a lab, and going through rigorous protocols of testing and patent filing. While this is an important and expensive task, and deserves credit, these are seldom independent discoveries from scratch. Never has the society that has truly discovered it through centuries of empirical testing and trial and error received any recognition, much less any share of royalty. India's recent fights in international courts, over western patents of its traditional intellectual property in agriculture and medicine, have brought much needed publicity for this arena.

Colin Scott writes: 
"With the upsurge of multidisciplinary interest in 'traditional ecological knowledge', models explicitly held by indigenous people in areas as diverse as forestry, fisheries, and physical geography are being paid increasing attention by western science specialists, who have in some cases established extremely productive long-term dialogues with local experts. The idea that local experts are often better informed than their western peers is at last receiving significant acknowledgment beyond the boundaries of anthropology."

But in too many cases, western scholars reduce India's experts to 'native informants' destined to live below the glass ceiling: the pandit as native informant to the western Sanskritist; the poor woman in Rajasthan as native informant to the western feminist seeking to cure her of her tradition; the herbal farmer as native informant to the western pharmaceutical firm appropriating medicines for patents; etc. Given their poverty in modern times, these 'native informants' dish out what the western scholar expects to hear in order to fit his/her model, because in return they receive gifts, rewards, compensation, recognition, and even trips and visas in many cases. Rarely have western scholars acknowledged India's knowledge bearers as fellow scientists and equal partners, as co-authors or as co-panelists. This competitive obsession to make 'original' discoveries and to put one's name on publications, has exacerbated the tendency to appropriate with one hand, while denigrating the source with other hand so as to hide the plagiarism. We have referred to this as 'academic arson'.


Villagers in remote areas like Uttaranchal have events called 'Jagars', in which the Jagaria sends the Dangaria into a sort of trance. The Dangaria then helps sort out problems, provides remedies for ailments, resolves social conflicts of the village society etc. One could dismiss this as superstition; but this is also considered a traditional method of reaching the unconscious. Does the Jagaria use his spiritual powers to reach and tap the unconscious region of the mind of the Dangaria? Or, as propounded by Vaclav Havel, did these rituals represent the attempts of ancient humans to come to terms with the unknown, the non-rational, and the unconscious parts of our beings? Were these devices useful to invoke lost memories of the ancient past?

We are, therefore, not willing to dismiss Jagar as some mumbo-jumbo, but a phenomenon worth scientific investigation. This should be an important scientific research connecting Traditional Knowledge Systems to Inner Sciences. Ironically, from Jung onwards, many westerners have studied and appropriated these traditional 'inner sciences', renamed and repackaged them. Meanwhile, the original discoverers and practitioners have been dismissed as primitive societies awaiting cure by westernization.

Myths & Legends

Myths and legends sometimes represent the attempts of our ancestors to explain the scientific observations that they made about the world around them and transmitted to the future. They chose different models to interpret the observations, but the observations were empirical. Let us compare some of the old legends with modern scientific observations about the geological history of the Indian subcontinent. We will discuss three examples, and each could be seen as fiction or hard fact or some combination of both:

1. The geology of Kashmir (India)

The geology of Kashmir (India) has been studied for more than 150 years now. As a result of these studies, it is now known that due to the rise of the Pir Panjal range around 4 million years ago, a vast lake formed, blocking the drainage from the Himalayas. Subsequently, the river Jhelum emerged as a result of the opening of a fault near Baramula, draining out the lake about 85,000 years ago. This is accepted as the geological history of the Kashmir valley.

Physical Map of Jammu & Kashmir 
Now let us compare this to the old legend: In Kashmir there is a very old tradition which describes a vast lake, called Satisara, in the valley in very ancient times. Kalhana, a poet chronicler, wrote his book Rajatarangini, or 'The River of Kings', in 1150 AD. In this book, he mentions an ancient lake (Satisara) giving a reference from a still earlier text, Nilamata Purana. Aurel Stein (1961), who translated Rajatarangini, describes the legend of Satisara in these words: "This legend is mentioned by Kalhana in the Introduction of his Chronicle and is related at great length in Nilamata.... The demon Jalodbhava who resided in this lake was invisible in his own element and refused to come out of the lake. Vishnu thereupon called upon his brother Balabhadra to drain the lake...". Ignoring the mythical struggles between gods and demons, the legend does depict an account resembling the draining out of the primeval lake.

2. The sea level on the West Coast of India

The sea level on the West Coast of India, as elsewhere during the Ice Ages, was about 100 meters lower than today and started rising only after 16,000 years ago. This is the accepted eustatic history.

The related legend says that when Parasurama donated all his land to the Brahmins, the latter asked him how he could live on the land that he had already donated away. Parasurama went to the cliff on the seashore and threw his Parasu (hatchet) into the sea and the sea receded, and then he occupied the land that thus emerged. This is possibly a reference to the regression of the sea and the newly emerged land.

3. The river Satluj

The third example is of the river Satluj, a tributary of the Indus today. In finding its new course, the Sarasvati braided into several channels. This is the accepted geology.

The relevant legend says that the holy sage Vashista wanted to commit suicide by jumping into the Sarasvati, but the river wouldn't allow such a sage to drown himself, and broke up into hundreds of shallow channels, hence its ancient name Satadru. Unless the early author of such a legend observed the braiding process of the Satluj, he could not have imagined such a legend. This is another instance of legends coinciding with a modern geological observation.

Indus river system
Theorizing the possible role of myths, Scott says: "The complimentarity of the literal and the figurative help us to realize that the distinction between myth and science is not structural, but procedural.... Myths in a broader, paradigmatic sense are condensed expressions of root metaphors that reflect the genius of particular knowledge traditions.... Numerous studies have found that the "anthropomorphic" paradigms of egalitarian hunters and horticulturalists not only generate practical knowledge consistent with the insights of scientific ecology, but simultaneously cultivate an ethic of environmental responsibility that for western societies has proven elusive."

The Israelis have been very successful in rediscovering many lost technologies relevant to their environment and culture by investigating their ancient myths and traditions. Through this, they have become pioneers in many processes of economic value that conventional European technology lacks.


India's intellectual resources are not limited to (though they are limited by) its 'Indi-Genius' doubting intellectual elite. Today, there are Indian economists, social developers, and scholars who are working hard to revitalize many TKS'. Resources for research and teaching of India's Traditional Knowledge Systems should be made available for the following reasons:
  1. India has amongst the best cases for successful revival of TKS: It has a rich heritage still intact in this area. It has the largest documented ancient literature relevant to TKS. It has the intellectual resources to appreciate this and to implement this revival, provided the Macaulayite mental blocks could be shaken up through re-education of its governing elite. It has dire needs to diversify beyond dependence solely upon the new panacea of globalization and westernization.
  2. India's scientific heritage, besides its philosophical and cultural legacy, needs to be properly understood. The aim is not inspired by chauvinism, but to understand the genius of Indian civilization better. This would overhaul the current assessment of India's potential.
  3. To correct the portrayal of the History of Science, the History of Ideas, mainstream accounts of World History, anthropology and culture. This entails emphasizing to scholars and educators that TKS should be included, especially India's achievements and contributions to world science that have been very significant but unappreciated.
  4. To include Traditional Knowledge Systems in economic planning, because they are eco-friendly, sustainable, labor rather than capital intensive, and more available to the masses. This should be done in parallel with the top down 'modern' scientific development using westernized 'globalization', as the two should co-exist and each should be used based on its merits.


Inner Sciences

The Inner Sciences of India have been on the one hand appropriated by the west, and on the hand have been depicted as being in conflict with the progressive, rational, and materialistic west. In fact, inner and outer realms are often viewed as opposites, that can at best be balanced because one contradicts the other. This assumes that Inner Sciences make a person and society less productive, creative, and competitive in the outer realm. 

However, India's TKS are empirical evidence to demonstrate that Inner Sciences and outer development did coexist in a mutually symbiotic relationship. This is a major reason to properly study India's TKS. Without removing this tension between inner and outer, it would be difficult to seriously motivate the modern world to advance in the Inner Sciences in a major way. Inner progress without the outer would be a world negating worldview, which India's TKS record shows not to be the case in classical India. Outer progress without inner cultivation results in societies that are too materialistic, too selfish to the point of genocides and holocausts, eco-unfriendly, and dependent upon force and control for social harmony.


Until the 1800s, TKS generated large scale economic productivity for Indians. It was the TKS based thriving Indian economy that attracted so many waves of invaders, culminating with the British. Traditionally, India was one of the richest regions in the world, and most Indians were neither 'backward' nor uneducated nor poor. Some historians have recently begun to come out with this side of the story, demonstrating that it was massive economic drainage, oppression, social re-engineering, and so forth at the hands of colonizers that made millions of 'new poor' over the past few centuries. This explanation yields a radically different reading of the poverty in India today. Upon acknowledging India's traditional knowledge systems, one is forced to discard accounts of its history that essentialize its poverty and the accompanying social evils. The reality of TKS contradicts notions such as:
  1. India was less rational and scientific than the west.
  2. India was world negating in its outlook (which is a misreading of the Inner Sciences), and hence did not advance itself from within.
  3. India's civilization was mainly imported via invaders, except for its problems such as caste that were its own 'essences'.
  4. Indian society was socially backward (to the point of being seen as lacking in morality); hence it depends upon westernization to reform its current problems.
Society Today

Is India a 'developing' society, or is it a 're-developing' society? Without appreciating the TKS of a people, how could anthropologists and sociologists interpret the current condition of a society? Were they always poor, always living in polluted and socially problematic conditions as today, in which case these problems are essences? Or is there a history behind the present condition? This history should not, however, excuse the failures of fifty years of independence to deal properly with the economic and social problems that persist. Going forward, Traditional Knowledge Systems are eco-friendly, symbiotic with the environment, and therefore can help provide a sustainable lifestyle. Since the benefits of heavy industries do not trickle down to the people below the poverty line or to so-called developing countries, a revival of traditional technologies and crafts must complement the modern 'development' schemes for eradication of poverty. In this regard, the distinction between elite and folk science was non existent in ancient times: India's advanced metallurgy and civil engineering was researched and practiced by artisan guilds.