History of Science in Modern India -Part I

By D.C.V. Mallik (Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Retd.)
With inputs from Procheta C.V. Mallik

Beginning of Western Science & Education in India


India has had a long scientific tradition going back to ancient times. Serious investigations in subjects like Astronomy, Mathematics, Medicine and Metallurgy were carried out over the centuries starting at pre-Vedic times. There is a large body of literature describing the results of such studies. Vedanga Jyotisha, the various Siddhantas, the Charaka Samhita, the Susruta Samhita are definitive texts where the results of research in the respective fields of Astronomy and Medicine are recorded.

As in the early period when there was scientific interaction between the Greeks and the Indians, during the Islamic period, Arab scholars discovered India’s rich contribution to various fields of knowledge and translated Indian texts into Arabic and spread this knowledge to the Islamic countries of West Asia and North Africa.

Our history classes are replete with ancient figures such as Aryabhatta and Varahamihira, who made pretty path-breaking discoveries at the time, complementing those made elsewhere in the world, mainly Europe, China and the Arab world. It was in India that the concept of “zero” was invented, and the modern numerical system is hence known as “Indo-Arabic numerals”. It is another matter that in the West, people refer to them as “Arabic Numerals”, because it’s the Arabs who took the concept over from India to Europe, our name getting lost to history, not for the first or last time.

The great Iranian Historian/Scientist Al Biruni travelled through India in 1017 A.D. and wrote the famous treatise Tarikh Al-hind (History of India). He is considered the founder of Indology, the study of India. Closer to our times, Sawai Jai Singh (1688 -1743) II of Jaipur built five observatories in different locations in North India — Jaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura and pursued astronomical studies. These observatories are huge masonry works and have instruments largely built in stone. The ones in Jaipur and Delhi are major tourist attractions today. Jai Singh knew about telescopes which had come into existence in Europe in the seventeenth century. He apparently used them to study sunspots, the moons of Jupiter, things Galileo had discovered and studied a hundred years earlier but there is nothing that is completely new in the published text of Jai Singh’s work.

No major scientific discovery was made in India in the several centuries preceding the 19th. There was a steady decline in the quality of research during the late Mughal period and thereafter and this can be attributed to the political chaos that reigned in the country. Factious wars, decline of the Mughal power, foreign invasions and looting, lack of growth in education and training and lastly, the deliberate attempt by the European colonial traders to discourage the growth of the native industry to boost their own trade, destroyed to a large extent India’s leading position in science and technology. India was colonised by several European powers over a period of a hundred and fifty years beginning with the first decade of the sixteenth century.

Advent of Colonialism

Among the colonialists, the first to arrive were the Portuguese. The Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama took the sea route via the Cape of Good Hope and arrived in Calicut in 1498. By 1510, the Portuguese firmly established their base in Goa. They also set up trading posts along the Malabar Coast. They brought with them crops like coffee, maize, tobacco, tomato and tubers like potato and tapioca and started cultivation of these along the Malabar Coast from where they spread slowly to the rest of the country. In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the East India companies of England and Holland were formed in the respective countries signalling the beginning of their exploration of the East. The first ship from England landed in Surat in 1608, while the Dutch had landed in the Malabar Coast in 1605. The Dutch wrested the control of the Malabar Coast from the Portuguese. The latter kept their colonies in Goa, Daman and Diu. The Dutch set up trading posts in Bengal and at some places along the Coromandel Coast also. The Dutch colonial outposts acted pretty much independently of each other. The Danes came in 1620 and set up their outposts in Tharangambadi in Tamilnadu (they called it Tranquebar), Serampore in Bengal and the Nicobar Islands.

The French were the last entrants. The French East India Company was initially formed in 1642 under Cardinal Richelieu but reconstructed in 1664 under his successor Colbert. The first French ship landed in Surat in 1668.

Of the colonialists, the British and the French had major ambitions in expanding their trade and through trade, control of the territories starting from the coast to the interiors, taking advantage of the political chaos that reigned in the country. All of them started by establishing `factories’ along the Malabar and the Coromandel coasts, the British in Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, the French in Surat, Masulipatnam, Chandernagore and Pondicherry. The Danes were the least intrusive and they never presented any kind of threat to the other colonial powers. Both the British and the French resorted to military means to defend their respective premises, personnel and trade including recruiting soldiers.

However, although the colonialists came to establish trade in spices and silk, the ships that brought them also carried enlightened individuals — naturalists, men of medicine, engineers and other specialists who wanted to discover the East. They were driven by their abiding spirit of adventure to explore every aspect of India’s rich cultural heritage, its vast body of learning and the craft of its renowned artisans. These men brought with them new ideas and new knowledge derived from the European Renaissance and breathed new life into the decadent state of Indian scholarship. A special mention ought to be made of the Jesuit missionaries who started pouring into the country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In addition to their professional involvement with Christianity, they were also well versed in several fields of learning and carried with them new knowledge of astronomy, geography and natural history, which they wished to impart to the natives. They were active in the political field and their presence was noted in the Mughal Court. The missionaries played an immensely important role in spreading modern education all over the country. They also contributed a great deal to the furtherance of scientific research. The interaction of all these enlightened people with the native scholars led to a rejuvenation of learning and scholarship influenced by newer ideas, newer science that had just been born in the West. The lull of the previous centuries was broken and the fusion of the rediscovered knowledge and wisdom of the East with the new ideas and knowledge from Europe led to an explosion of activities in science, arts and other fields of human endeavour. This ushered in the Modern Age in India.

Roots of Western Science in India

The earliest scientific studies by colonialists appear to be in the area of botany. They were interested in the native Indian flora. The pioneer was a Portuguese doctor, Garcia da Orta, who arrived in India in 1534. He was also a specialist in botany. He founded a botanical garden in Goa in which he grew a number of medicinal plants and studied scientifically the flora of the Indian west coast. When the Dutch took over the possession of the Malabar Coast from the Portuguese, the Dutch naturalists too evinced a keen interest in the flora around them. The Governor of Dutch Possessions, Hendrikh Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein studied a number of plants and seeds with the help of specialist medical practitioners. His monumental work Hortus Malabricus was published between 1686 and 1703 in 12 folio volumes containing 794 plates. There were others like Paul Herman and John Burman who collected plant specimens and studied them. In 1747 the famous Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus published Flora Zeylanica in which he included Malabari and Sinhalese names based on the work by these naturalists. Around the same time, on the Coromandel Coast, the English and the Danes were engaged in similar studies. The Baltic (now Latvian) Johan Gerhard König, a collaborator of Linnaeus’s made a huge collection of plants and sent specimens to the University of Lund for further study.

Before the turn of the seventeenth century to the eighteenth, the enthusiasm in botanical research had spread to the Presidency of Bengal. In 1787, the Royal Botanical Garden was established by the British in Sibpur, near Calcutta, on the west bank of the river Hooghly. It exists today covering an area of over 300 acres and is a major tourist attraction, because of its collection of exotic flora from various parts of the world and the banyan tree, which is more than 250 years old and which covers an area of more than 4 acres although its main trunk had been amputated in 1925 because of its diseased condition caused by it being hit by two cyclones. The Royal Botanical Garden was used to grow teak trees for commercial purposes. It had a long string of distinguished naturalists managing its affairs. In 2009 the garden was renamed after Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose.

It is but natural that the British who came to rule over such large parts of the country had to have a thorough geographical knowledge of their territories and thus a large effort was made by both the British and the French to initiate Survey Work. The Jesuit missionaries already possessed considerable geographical knowledge of the sub-continent and rudimentary maps of India were available in England, France, Holland and Italy. In 1723, the French geographer Delisle published a fairly accurate map of the southern coast of India. There were other French officials doing survey work in south India and in 1752 a comprehensive map `Carte de l’inde’ was published at the request of the French East India Company. The first major survey of the Ganges River was undertaken by James Rennell an Englishman. He became the Surveyor General of the British East India Company in 1767 and in 1783 he published the Map of Hindoostan.

The Coromandel Coast, which the sailing ships from Europe used heavily, was a veritable graveyard because of its rocky nature and its unpredictable weather often devastated by cyclones that arrived from the Bay of Bengal. There was an urgent need to know this coast quite thoroughly. In 1785, the British brought in one trained astronomer-surveyor Michael Topping to Madras and provided him with proper equipment to survey this coast. Robert Kelly, another Englishman working in Madras Presidency was also engaged in the survey work in the southern peninsula. The early European surveyors included a number of able mathematicians among them many who made significant contributions in astronomical observations, in triangulation work and in geodetic survey. Topping advocated the method of continuous triangles spreading through the length and breadth of the survey area. He clearly was in favour of a trigonometrical survey. The Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) of India took place in the early decades of the nineteenth century and its foundation was laid by William Lambton (1753 ? -1823). Lambton started the work around 1800 and carried it out the first twenty years covering a very large part of the Indian peninsula. Lambton was succeeded by George Everest as the Surveyor-General. His name was immortalised by a brilliant Indian surveyor working under him, Radhanath Sickdhar by name, who discovered during a survey of the Himalayas, the highest mountain peak in the world.

Special mention should be made of two scientific institutions, both founded in the 1780s and both having a continuous tradition of scholarship and research since then to the present. They are The Asiatic Society and The Madras Observatory. I may be wrong but to my knowledge these are the only two institutions of higher learning started by the British in the 18th century.

The Asiatick Society

Among the adventurous individuals, who came early, was William Jones (1746 – 1794), who arrived in Calcutta in 1783 as a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court of Adjudicature at Fort William. Jones was a versatile classical scholar, trained at Oxford, proficient in Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew. He was already a Fellow of the Royal Society in London. In India his interest turned to Sanskrit and he started learning it in great earnestness engaging well known Pundits. In time he gained quite a proficiency in Sanskrit and came to be known as ‘Oriental Jones’. He was one of the first scholars to point out the similarity between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin and conjectured that all these languages must have had a common origin thereby pointing out the possibility of their mother language being used by a people who lived in close proximity of each other. Jones was deeply disturbed by the general lack of interest in classical learning and the lowly state of scholarship among his contemporaries. He offered to give stipends to any Hindu astronomer who would name in Sanskrit all the constellations which he would point out in the sky, or among the physicians anyone who could bring him all the plants mentioned in the classical Sanskrit texts. His offer had no taker at all. He decided to set matters right. It was largely through his efforts that in 1784 The Asiatick Society was started in Calcutta with the objectives of carrying out scholarly investigations, promoting learning and exchange and communication of ideas. He collected a group of experts in ancient and mediaeval history and started earnestly work in deciphering the old records and manuscripts and relating them to what was known in Europe. A hundred and fifty years later, Sir Lewis Fermor, the eminent geologist and the first President of the National Institute of Sciences of India, referred to 1784 as the year when Western science and learning began in India in a formal sense.

The Asiatick Society started with a group of 30 amateur scholars and did not have any Indian (native) member until 1829. It functioned from the Supreme Court of Bengal till the demise of William Jones in 1794. The library of the Society came to have a valuable collection of manuscripts dating to 7th century A. D. as also a collection of old coins. It is at the initiative of the Society that the Indian Museum was founded in 1814 and much of the antique collection was transferred there. William Jones himself was responsible for the identification of Sandrakottos mentioned in Greek history with Chandragupta Maurya. This was followed by the correct identification of Pataliputra, the famed capital of the Mauryas at the confluence of the Ganges and the Son. Through these identifications he helped establish the correct chronology of events of Indian history in relation to the history of Europe.

In 1833, James Princep became the Secretary of The Asiatick Society and he with the help of the Sanskrit scholar Premchand Tarkalankar deciphered the Brahmi script of the Asokan edicts carved on the Asokan pillars. These pillars were discovered in many places in India, the most famous one is found today on the ramparts of the Ferozeshah Kotla in Delhi where it was brought by Ferozeshah’s workers in 1356 A.D. This opened up a fresh avenue of historical studies of the Mauryan period. Princep’s assistant, one Alexander Cunningham, drew up a plan to have a dedicated institution to archaeological studies and through his efforts The Archaeological Survey of India came into existence in 1861. The Asiatic Society had provided the seeds from which grew a number of other learned institutions. It remains alive and active to this day and continues to publish scholarly books and organises conferences etc.

The Madras Observatory

The Surveyor-General of Madras Presidency, Michael Topping, is today remembered more as the founder of the Madras Observatory in Nungambakkam. The observatory was started as a private one in Egmore in 1786 by a company official, William Petrie, who had interest in astronomy and who later officiated as the Governor of Madras. He had collected some fairly modern instruments. Topping used this observatory as a reference meridian for his survey work. He prevailed upon the East India Company to take it over and shifted the observatory to Nungambakkam in 1792. Some of its remnants, among them an engraved pillar, can still be seen at the site. In the early years, the Observatory provided the reference meridian for the work of the GTS of India. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Granville Taylor working at the Observatory produced the celebrated Madras Catalogue of southern stars containing 11,000 objects. Norman Pogson, who is known for establishing the brightness scale of stars, was the Director of the Observatory from 1861 till his death in 1891. It was a full-fledged research institution.

To the observatory’s luck, three important astronomical phenomena took place in quick succession of each other which brought the observatory to prominence all over the world. These were two total solar eclipses (1868, 1871) and an annular eclipse (1872) of the Sun, all three visible from locations close to Madras. The first one, the eclipse of August 18, 1868, generated enormous interest amongst European astronomers as this was to be the first time that spectroscopy was being done during an eclipse. Teams of professional astronomers from England and France came with their equipment and set up tents along the path of the eclipse. These were clustered around the tobacco fields of Guntoor. Pogson and his team set up their camp at Masulipatnam and Vunpurthy. Just before the totality, the flash spectrum, spectrum of the chromosphere, was photographed and lo and behold, the spectrum carried signatures of a line at 5876 Angstroms, just next to the well-known D2 line of sodium. No one knew which element the line belonged to and since this was seen in the Sun, the new element was named Helium. Years later Sir William Ramsay was able to outgas terrestrial rocks and found traces of Helium escaping from the samples. Today we know Helium to be the second most abundant element in the Universe and one that is crucial to the eventual formation of life on Earth, since it is from Helium that the element Carbon is created and all life-forms evolved from carbon compounds.

In 1882, Pogson had proposed acquiring a 20-inch telescope and locating it at a hill station in the southern peninsula to pursue studies of the Sun and stars. In due course, it became more and more imperative that a dedicated observatory should be built to study the Sun. All over the world, the new subject of Physical Astronomy was being taken up and the Sun occupied the central place in the studies that unfolded. Surveys were taken up in the Nilgiri Hills and Palani Hills in the Western Ghauts. Not much progress was made during Pogson’s lifetime but the movement to establish a hill observatory gained momentum in the 1890s. Kodaikanal in Palani Hills won over Kotagiri in the Nilgiri Hills as the new location and in 1899 the Solar Physics Observatory was established under the direction of Michie Smith, a Scotsman. The British Government decided to make Kodaikanal the main government observatory and shifted all the important instruments from Madras to Kodaikanal. The Madras Observatory became an affiliate of the new solar physics observatory. The observatory in Kodaikanal reached great heights in the first two decades of the twentieth century under the leadership of the astronomer John Evershed. It continued to do front-line solar astronomy and also had facilities for stellar astronomy. In 1971 it became an autonomous research institute, and was named the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. While the major solar physics research continued in Kodaikanal, it shifted the stellar work to a newly established observatory in the Javadi Hills of Tamilnadu in a place called Kavalur. It shifted its headquarters to Bangalore in 1976 and has its main campus in Koramangala. It has now vastly expanded its activities having telescopes in Hanle, Ladakh, in addition to the ones in Kavalur, Tamil Nadu and a radio telescope in Gauribidanur about 100 km from Bengaluru. It has an ultraviolet payload on ASTROSAT, the Indian Astronomical Satellite. It is going to build a very modern vacuum solar telescope in Merak, Ladakh on the shores of Pangong Tso.

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