TECHNOLOGY IN MEDIEVAL INDIA — c. 650-1750: Irfan Habib; Tulika Books, 35 A/1, Shahpur Jat, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 275.

Researches on technology including its origin and development in both ancient and medieval India have been continuing for more than 70 years in which Irfan Habib has contributed a large number of articles. In this volume, published in “A People’s History of India” series sponsored by the Aligarh Historians Society, he has produced a lucid monograph on the subject indicating the developments in technology, going back to the early days of Indian civilisation and also constantly showing the interaction between India, China, Europe, and the Perso-Arabic world.


The methodology of his treatment of four principal areas — namely, agriculture; crafts; military technology, land transport and navigation; and medieval Indian technology and its social and cultural environment — remains consistently the same with a large number of drawings — several of them from actual Mughal paintings — and document extracts to illustrate the use from early days to the middle of the 18th century. The lifting of water for irrigational purposes sees this transformation from the use of pulley-rope to the use of Persian wheel since the days of Babur in early 16th century. In this device pin-drum gearing was used in horizontal bars attached to the vertical ones with the bullocks attached to the horizontal bars by rope moving in a circle and in the process lifting the water in quick succession. This device was in use in the palace of Fatehpore Sikkri. It was also employed by Akbar to clean the barrels of several guns at the same time in his atelier.

Although India has given cotton to the early world civilisation, in which the ancient Indian device “the cotton-carder’s bow” figured, there has been a lively debate among scholars in the last century on the chronology of Charka or the spinning wheel, a machine that increased production sixfold. Habib, on closer scrutiny of its parts, traced its use to the first half of the 14th century and the gadget itself to Western Asia. The Mughal painting of 1630, reproduced in a drawing in the book,clearly depicts it. Then there is the treadle, the board that weaver keeps under his feet and applies pressure on it to open and close the warp-shed. The use of the device (illustrated in a copy of Mughal painting) leaves the hands free for the weaver to operate the shuttle and this enabled him to work ten times faster. There are some problems in ascertaining the origin of embroidery with needles and tailoring in India. While Altekar claimed that the craft was known in ancient India, it would appear its spread was very limited since Marco Polo, the Venetian who travelled to India towards the end of the 13th century, could not find a tailor in Malabar. Tailors appeared by the end of the 16th century, since we know, apart from other sources, from the writing of the Bengali poet Mukundaram Chakrabarty that tailors were living in separate areas (probably Muslims) and working on monthly wages.

Building technology, which flourished in the Mughal period, has undergone a revolutionary change with the establishment of the Sultanate at Delhi in 1206. A.B.M. Habibullah hinted on this change long ago. In the pre-Sultanate period, architecture progressed from rock-cut technology to the Trabeate technique, in which the pillars are placed closely with stone blocks to support the heavy beam.

The Sultanate period brought the Arcuate system in which the Vault and the Dome were used with lime and gypsum as mortars and this enabled the use of fired bricks and rubble in complex constructions. Although lime has been in use around c. 200 B.C. in India and gypsum in the Indus Valley civilisation, the two came to be used profusely only after the 13th century.

Use of Iron

Iron was in use in India since early times. Yet, during the medieval period — perhaps for want of good blast furnace — the Indian artisans could not produce the screw, the coiled spring, the iron anchor, etc., while gun-making was a cottage industry. In ship-building, iron nails were in use by the end of the 16th century but the Indian shipwrights preferred to have wooden planks sewn with coconut ropes that lasted longer than the nails, caulk and pitch used by the Europeans. Akbar’s different inventions and his use of technology in his atelier were not followed by his successors. Silver mirror and spectacles were not manufactured in India except perhaps from late 18th century. The Indians used polished metal mirror and, if available, imported European spectacles. Paper was manufactured in abundance from the end of the 14th century, at least in Delhi area.

India absorbed changes in technology between the 13th and the 15th centuries, after which the rhythm ceased to work thereafter. Habib searches for the factors responsible for such failures in the socio-cultural environment — to which perhaps the age-old caste system and the surge of orthodoxy had contributed — a situation that was called “cultural failure of the Islamic world” by M. Athar Ali. And the search is still continuing.

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