History Optional Paper-1 Solution – 2010: Q.8 (a)

Q.8 (a) What was the Indian response to European Technology? [2010, 30m]


Indian response to European Science

In Europe, science had grown from the 15th century onwards by setting out a sphere of rationalism away from religion. The inability of science to delink itself from religion or mysticism became an inhibiting factor in India and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Indians were exposed to European learning. The European impact on India was first felt with the coming of the Portuguese.

The rulers and the nobles were constantly on the look out for European novelties. Thus, we hear of globes of the world, glasses, spectacles, substantial house-clocks being purchased or presented.

Abul Fazl was aware of the discovery of America by Europeans: he gives the Persian term alam nau for the “New World”. But this knowledge does not appear to have become a normal part of the teaching of geography in India.

Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh (d.1743) was an astronomer of the first order. He had some Greek works on mathematics (including Euclid) translated into Sanskrit as well as more recent European works on trigonometry, logarithms and Arabic texts on astronomy. He incorporated in his works latest European astronomical knowledge as is evidenced from the Zij which was based on Latin tables of Phillipe de Hire.

Bernier, a French physician, who came to India during the second half of the seventeenth century, claims to have been in the company of a Mughal noble Agha Danishmand Khan for five or six years, to whom he used to explain the new discoveries of Harvey and Pecquet concerning circulation of the blood. He interested in scientific matters, such as astronomy, geography and anatomy.

These contacts did not, however, spread out, or induce a more systematic study of the western sciences. Bemier held a very poor opinion of the Indians’ knowledge of anatomy. Indian hakims and vaids did not show any interest in Harvey’s discovery. As Bernier lamented, there were no academies (except madrasas for religious study) where such subjects could be taken up for study. Thus, interest in western science and philosophy was individual, and died with the individual.

Indian response to European Technology

Water Pump Technology

Efficient water pump was another weak point. An Englishman had offered to Jahangir to pump water out of the Jamuna, like the Thames at London, for the use of the ordinary people. But the idea was pooh-poohed by Sir Thomas Roe, and went no further. The water-pump on ship was rejected in favour of water bailed out by the khalasi or labourer on board ships. However, the use of iron nails, the iron anchor, and the capstan to raise and lower it were accepted. Absence of water-pumps meant that mining could not go below water-level in mines.

Agriculture Technology

One remarkable development during this period was the introduction of some new crops, plants and fruits. Many of these were brought by Europeans, especially the Portuguese. Tobacco, pineapple, cashew-nuts and potato were the most important crops and fruits that came from America. Tobacco led to huqqa-smoking (hubble-bubble). Besides, tomato, guava and red chilies were also brought from outside. Maize is not listed in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i Akbari. It seems that this, too, was introduced by Europeans from Latin America.

Fruits of better quality were grown by seed propagation. It is doubtful whether the art of grafting in horticulture was extensively practiced during the Delhi Sultanate. Mangoes of the best quality were exclusively produced in Goa through grafting by the Portuguese. Some European travelers to India paid glowing tributes to the delicious mangoes of Goa called Alfonso, Our Lady, Joani Perreira, etc.

Textile Technology

The Europeans did not bring their own textile techniques to India, at any rate during the first half of the seventeenth century. Actually, they did not possess any superior technology in this area during this period, except perhaps to the English Company to send silk dyers, throwsters and weavers to Qasimbazar in Bengal. Italian silk filaturs were introduced into India in the 1770s.

Military Technology

Portuguese ships and guns were seen at the basis of Portuguese superiority at sea, and an attempt was made to copy them. Thus, the Zamorin of Calicut weaned away two Milanese from the Portuguese to manufacture guns for him. A Portuguese writer, Castanheda, writes that four Venetians came to Malabar in 1505 to cast guns.

In the field of manufacturing of cannons and muskets India remained technologically backward. This was because the guns were not cast together as a single piece. A single piece could not be cast because the furnaces were too small, because of poor bellows. Good cast-iron could only be produced in large furnaces given high temperature by power-driven bellows. By 1550, bellows in Europe were being worked by “trip-lugs on water-driven shafts, or by system of cranks, levers and weights.” In India, there was no improvement on the skin-bellows worked by wood or hands.

Indian guns were actually matchlocks. Europe knew of two more devices to fie a gun: wheel-lock (1520s) and flint-lock (1620s) in which matchcord was dispensed with. Abul Fazl claims the manufacture of handguns without matchcord in Akbar’s arsenal, but these were produced on a limited scale, most probably for Akbar’s personal use only because Indians in North India were scarcely familiar with this technique during the early decades of the seventeenth century.

European pistols were available at Burhanpur or sale as early as A.D. 1609. Sometimes Europeans gave pistols in gifts to Indians. But the Indians did not learn the art of wheel-lock.

Indians in general preferred curved swords, in contrast to the European’s straight double-edged rapiers. The Marathas, however, late in the seventeenth century took a liking to European swords.

Shipbuilding Technology

In the field of ship-building, we are told that as early as 1612, the ships at Dabul were reported to have been made “Christian like with topps and all their tackings (sails) accordingly”. Another contemporary, Bowrey, thought that the master carpenters of the Krishna-Godavari delta on the Coromandal coast could construct and launch ships as any shipwright. Many of them had learned the techniques of European construction from European craftsmen. Surat was another centre for such ship construction. By the end of the seventeenth century, “European country-traders made little technical distinction between ships built in the west and those built in the countries of the Indian Ocean.

Prior to the European advent, the planks of ships and boats were joined together by stitching or sewing them with ropes made of coir, or sometimes with wooden nails. The Europeans were using iron nails and clamps which made their vessels stronger and durable. The Indians lost no time in adopting the new technique. Around A.D. 1510, Varthema noticed “an immense quantity of iron nails” in Indian ships at Calicut. Abul Fazl (A.D. 1593-94) informs us that for a ship of Akbar 468 mans (maund) of iron were used. Some Mughal paintings establish the presence of iron nails, strips and clamps for constructing vessels.

Similar positive response to European iron anchors is evidenced during the seventeenth century. Earlier, anchors were made of big stones.

The Indians used buckets to bail out the leaked water in the ships. However, the European iron chain-pumps started to be used in India, though not widely, during the second half of the seventeenth century. But these were not manufactured in India: they were purchased or borrowed from Europeans.

Side by side with the improvement of ship-design, there was strengthening of their hulls to absorb the shock of artillery. Indian merchantmen began to carry guns and armed men for defence. The Ganj-i-Sawai, the biggest ship of Aurangzeb, was armed with 80 cannons and 400 muskets. However, the cannons of these ships were useless against European ships because of their often faulty location, the unskilled marksmenship of the Indian gunners, and their poor navigational skills.

Glass Technology

During the 16th and 17th centuries, a variety of glass articles were brought to India by the Europeans. All these were new for Indians: for example, looking-glasses (mirrors made of glass). Indians knew how to make mirrors of metals (bronze and copper) but not of glass. Another object was spectacles made of glass lenses. The Europeans gave these things to Indians as gift and, sometimes, they also sold them (but the market was very limited). Thus, the Indians started using European glass articles without manufacturing.

It seems that the technique of fabricating sand or hour-glass was known in India during the 15th century, but the Mughal paintings exhibit European made sand-glasses only, which were brought to India by the Europeans. However, the positive evidence for its manufacture in India comes from the second half of the seventeenth century.

Apart from these, Indians got from Europe drinking-glasses, magnifying or burning glasses and prospective glasses (telescopes). Since the latter were made of glass lenses like the spectacles, there was no question of their indigenous manufacture during the seventeenth century.

The absence of the use of telescopes (dur-bin) till the eighteenth century in India meant hostile ships could not be sighted on sea. It also made Jai Singh’s observatories outdated because he did not use the telescope for observation. He did send a series of embassies to Portugal, but Portugal itself was out of touch with new developments in astronomy in England and Holland based on observation.

Printing Press

European movable metal types were brought to Goa around AD 1550 by the Portuguese. The latter started printing books on Christian saints, Sermons, grammars and vocabularies in the Marathi and Konkani languages and dialects, but in Roman script rather than in the Devanagari script. .

Emperor Jahangir is once reported to have expressed doubt about types being cast in Persian or Arabic scripts during a discussion with the Jesuits, whereupon the latter promptly showed him a copy of the Arabic version of the gospel, probably printed at Vatican in A.D. 1591. This topic was not brought up again by Jahangir.

In A.D. 1670s, Bhimji Parak, the chief broker of the English Company at Surat, took a keen interest in this technology. A printer was sent to India in A.D. 1674 at Bhimji’s request, along with a press. Bhimji intended to contrive types in “banian characters after our English manner”, but it could not be feasible since the English printer did not know type-cutting and founding. No type cutter was sent from England to assist Bhimji. Nevertheless, Bhimji persisted in this endeavor to realize his dream of a printing-press with Devanagari fonts. He employed his own men, obviously Indians, to do the job. The English factors at Surat testify (A.D. 1676/77) that, “we have seen some paper printed in the banian character by the persons employed by Bhimji which look very well and legible and shows the work feasible”. But then, at that crucial moment, Bhimji lost heart and abandoned the project midway.

Time Reckoning Devices

Much before the Mughals, the Europeans had invented the two most essential features of an ordinary mechanical clock – the weight-drive and escapement, Europeans’ clocks and watches were often given in gift to Indians (Jabangir was presented a watch by Sir Thomas Roe). The Jesuit church at Agra had a public clock-face with a bell. Notwithstanding the exposure of a substantial cross-section of Indians to European mechanical clocks and watches for a long time, there is no evidence to indicate its acceptance among any social group of Indian society for general use. These were mere toys, and novelties for the Indians who received them as diplomatic or ordinary gifts.

The one important reason for non-acceptance was the incompatibility of the Indian time-reckoning system with that of Europe at that time.

House-Clocks were a representation of the new science of physics growing in Europe and depended on cranks, levers and weights. The absence of the humble screw and spring in India made manufacture of machinery difficult. In place of a screw, a piece of wire was soldered on.The absence of the screw and the spring in India also explain refusal to accept the European clocks.


It has been argued that Indian response to European science and technology was “scrupulously selective in its nature, depending on convenience, utility, exigencies, or other material or pragmatic considerations.” It has also been argued that abundance of skilled labour combined with low subsistence costs inhibited improvement in tools. A finer product could be attained more cheaply by a larger application of labour and manual skill than by adopting a mechanical contrivence. But there were cases where use of more labour or skill the product could not be attained, or invention and improvement would be cheaper than enormous use of muscle power. Refusal to accept printing presses, and draw loom for weaving patterns have been given as examples of this.


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