Under my byline

The emperor’s favourite subject

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books by Rrishi on 16 April 2009

A “people’s history” in which the state plays the leading role

Irfan Habib, Technology in Medieval IndiaTechnology in Medieval India c. 650-1750
Irfan Habib
xii + 140

“People’s history”, it says in the title of this series, but reading this slim volume on technology in medieval India, the one name that recurs is not of any clever subject but of Akbar, the Mughal emperor. Time and again it is the emperor who is credited with a game-changing invention or espousal of a particular technology — by his court chronicler Abu’l Fazl, of course, but even so.

Against the Indian summers, Abu’l Fazl writes, Akbar urged the adoption of screens of wetted khas, the lovely smelling grass, for windows and doors. The hot air blowing through would lose its heat to the water and pick up the fragrance, thus simultaneously air-conditioning and aromatising the interior.

And Akbar allegedly figured out how to chill drinks in hot weather. While in Europe in the 16th century the task was still done with snow hurried down from the mountains, in Agra the emperor had large metal containers filled with water and sealed, which were then dipped into and swilled about in an even larger tub of saltpetre (used in gunpowder) mixed with water. The chemical reaction cooled the sealed container in minutes — think sharbat. Made in this way, cold water was fairly cheap, and hence not purely a courtly pleasure.

Like all rulers, Akbar was also keenly interested in military equipment. At first the Mughals wanted enormous cannon, and built themselves the biggest in the world. But such cannon proved a nightmare to transport and were woefully inaccurate. So Akbar commissioned smaller, more precise field pieces, and contributed the following improvements: first, kit cannon, which could be shipped in pieces and assembled on the battlefield; and second, a firing mechanism which allowed up to 17 cannon to fire at once in a deadly fusillade.

That’s not the end of it: according to Abu’l Fazl, Akbar had a sea-going ship built at Lahore, using iron nails (a novelty in Indian shipbuilding). Then, to send it downriver to the sea, Akbar ordered up a barge, on which the ship was loaded and transported. This anticipates by nearly a century the Dutch, who invented a similar method in 1688.

Obviously Akbar didn’t do the work himself. We know that he was functionally illiterate. Does he deserve the credit? Yet Irfan Habib, the great Marxist historian of the so-called “Aligarh school” who co-edits this series on “A People’s History of India” and has written this book, relays Abu’l Fazl’s claims without apparent incredulity.

Perhaps the reason is to be found in the book’s last section, where Habib relates technology to the “social and cultural environment”. The context is the 16th and 17th centuries, when the technological gap between Europe and the rest of the world began to widen at a historically unprecedented rate. “[W]e may first note,” Habib writes, “the fact that while many important mechanical principles had been adopted, their applications remained simple and separate, and that combinations of them which alone could produce machines are extremely rare.” Useful principles were applied in one craft and not another, better techniques or tools were slow to spread, and European advances were not even copied and put into use (the riveting screw and spiral spring, for example). So Habib asks, was India held back by some factors particular to itself?

It’s an old but good question, and the answers are also by now both old and quite good. One of the factors was caste, when linked to the extreme specialisation of the Indian worker, which meant that it took three or four Indians to perform the tasks that one Dutch worker might do by himself. Thus the craftsman’s professional horizon was limited, and because of caste specialisation there was no incentive to be flexible.

Therefore, few individuals were able to take the broad, intuitive view necessary to innovation — none more than the emperor, who supervised the work of all the various karkhanas clustered about the capital complex. (Characteristically Indian top-down development driven by needs of state, in other words.)

There’s already a number of books on the history of technology in India. They all have a similar metastructure: whatever era they describe, from proto-historic (Harappan culture) to 19th-century, they cover a similar range of topics — namely, agriculture (including the plough and irrigation), crafts (textiles, metallurgy, pottery, building, luxury goods), warfare, transport and communication. It’s a materialistic frame, which suits a Marxist historiography. This book does much the same, but is set apart from the rest by its brevity and comprehensiveness, and by Habib’s admirable sureness of touch.

However, like the others, it merely skims a few critically important topics: technology in finance (credit, debt, money transfer, inter-regional trade), medical science and treatment, food preparation, storage and warehousing, town planning, sanitation, administration, education, organisation of labour… The history of Indian technology is still fruitfully wide open to inquiry. It takes a fine summary like this book to show us what we still need to know.

(See Tulika Books’ catalogue.)


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