Sunday 15 February 2009

Interview: Dr D P Agrawal; History of Indian Science and Technology

Peepul ke Neeche
History of Indian Science and Technology
Conversation with D P Agrawal
Dharma Pal Agrawal is a distinguished scientist. During his tenure at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research(TIFR), Mumbai, and Physical Research Laboratory(PRL), Ahmedabad he made outstanding contributions to using scientific techniques like radio carbon dating and thermo luminiscence to fixing the age of archeological artifacts. In fact he brought in a flavour of hard science to Indian archeology. He has also been deeply committed to reconstructing the history of Indian science and technology, which has been ignored by eurocentric historians. Shivanand Kanavi met him at Almora, where Agrawal currently leads Lok Vigyan Kendra to carry out research into the past as well as train a future generation of enquirers.

Shivanand: Dr Agrawal welcome to Peepul ke Neeche. To start with I would like to ask you about one of your current preoccupations with the History of Indian Science and Technology. How did this love or almost an obsession start?
D P Agrawal:
In fact, my fascination with primitive technologies goes back about thirty years. I was working on ancient metal technologies of the Harappans, the Chalcolithic cultures and even before that I was working on Stone Age flaking of tools. For example, taking out long stone blades starts from the Upper Paleolithic times (older than 100,000 years). This continued up to the Harappan times. He produced up to six inch long blades, sharp as a razor. You can even shave with them! For a lot of tasks these stone tools were used as arrows, knives, spears, even harrows for digging the earth. So it seems to me that the story starts there.
The Harappans were using quite a bit of copper. In fact, if you compare them with other copper-bronze age cultures in India, they had the most abundant copper. Pure copper is soft. So you cannot use it as a knife. You can hammer it and anneal it, but after a few hammerings it becomes brittle. So they must have combined some minerals bearing arsenic and tin with those bearing copper and the result was bronze. Now we know if we mix 1-5% arsenic with copper it imparts hardness, also some ductility. Later on they also found that if you add a little bit of lead then you would improve its fusibility. So I started looking at these things when I was at TIFR. We found that the Harappans were using tin alloys, arsenic alloys, adding lead to improve fusibility for casting.
Later on I got interested in how climate changed over the last few million years and we carried out a big project in Kashmir which was a huge lake. So the sediments are there like pages of the book. You can keep turning and you can go back 4 million years. It took us ten years. We wanted to continue but we started getting threats from terrorists, so we had to quit.

Why did they see you as a threat?
It was peculiar. Since we were working with the Department of Atomic Energy for logistical reasons, they said ‘you are making atom bombs to kill us, so we will kill you’. But the people there were extremely friendly and even today if we go there we must meet those families. If they know that you had come but did not meet them, they will be very angry.
I always wanted to document and publish the history of science and technology in India and we were conscious of monumental series on Chinese Science and Civilisation by Joseph Needham. That earned a place in the sun for China’s science otherwise the west never recognized the oriental sciences. But as far as India was concerned the British always denigrated Indian science, technology, its heritage. They claimed that they came here to civilize us. But we had the Indus civilization in the third millennium BC when they were barbarians! I thought that we should publish a series of books bringing out the material evidence about science and technology in India, because if we use literary sources there can be interpretations of all kinds.

Dating the Indian records is a problem.
Yes. Even the measurement of angula is a problem. There are many versions of it. Luckily we have some actual scales in the Harappan sites and we can measure the divisions. In the first stage we wanted to base ourselves on the material evidence, archeological evidence, actual artifacts etc. That is how we started on copper technology, on Harappan architecture, on zinc or iron and so on. Now we have 16 volumes commissioned. Some more will be commissioned.

How did your association with Rajiv Malhotra and Infinity Foundation start?
It was a chance meeting. I used to go to a round table meeting at Harvard University. In the guest house I was staying Rajiv was also there but I did not know him and I thought he was another professor. The round table was mostly about linguistics, archeology, genetics etc of South Asia and West Asia. When I suggested to Rajiv Malhotra that we should have a series like Joseph Needham’s, he liked the idea. Then only he told me that they have a foundation and that they are funding some projects etc. He asked me to produce a 10 page proposal on which we would work. After that the whole thing started.

What are the problems in researching in this area and where have we made positive achievements in recording it?
I would like to see a balanced global history of science and technology so that we can recognize the contributions of different countries, be it China, France, India or England. Dharampal, the Gandhian, showed that up to the 18th century we had a lot of technologies. We could do plastic surgery; make ice, produce high quality steel, textiles and so on. Of course, we could not only produce Taj Mahal but also complex irrigation systems of Shringverpur (near Allahabad).
Then we also found Zawar mines in Rajasthan with huge retorts and commercial scale pure zinc production. Gradually we also noticed that in the Indus valley, they developed hydraulics, engineering and metrology but nobody talked about these things. So we said it is time somebody looked into these things and produced individual histories of these technologies like zinc, copper, iron, architecture, civil engineering etc. Then we realised that not only copper but right up to the 18th century we were producing steel of very high quality. British used to import it and used it in some very important bridges which Vibha Tripathi has mentioned in her book on iron technology. They were making high quality razors using Indian steel in Sheffield. Local people of Kumaun told me that in Lohaghat they used to make stainless steel kadhais. In Karnatak and Andhra regions they were producing special types of steel. It became so famous that it was traded globally and one of the mandis was Damascus. It was of such high quality that when Alexander came here in 4th century BCE, he was presented with 100 talents of steel (talent= 34.3 Kg). It was considered so precious. Then there are records that Persian kings Darius, Xerxes etc up to 6th century BCE used to import Indian iron for making swords etc. So it had already achieved so much fame.
The other curious thing is that though in the folk legends or in our historical writing we do not find any reference to the Indus civilization, but if you go by the technological traditions then you can trace everything from the Harappan substratum. The angula (unit of measurement) for example or the hexadecimal system (1 rupee is 16 annas), ser and chhatak (measure of grain), 16 mutthis to a nali (measure of land) all this goes back to the Harappan times. Now Dr Balasubramaniam has shown that it continues right up to the historical times. The iron pillar of Delhi he has shown that the same system of measurements was used.
Even our water ablutions for example can be traced back to Harappan times. Sindoor and even the toiletry assemblage of a tooth pick, an ear cleaner and a tweezer, can be found in the Harappan sites. In Kaliabangan, Rajasthan for example they used parallel furrows in the fields. On one side they grew peas and gram on the other side mustard. Mustard is the bigger plant and it should not throw its shadow over the peas. So they grew it in such a manner that peas throw the shadow over mustard and not the other way around. This way you can grow two crops. That continues till today. If you see even present day houses in that area in the mud flooring they had put burnt terracotta balls and charcoal. When we asked the engineers there they said it does not allow termites to enter the house and it does not allow moisture. This again is a technology that goes back to Harappan times. The Harappan houses had a square shape with rooms all around with an open shaft, the air conditioning people told us that this ensures air circulation that keeps the house cool. We knew how to fight the hot weather. The main entrance to the house is in the narrow lane and the wider side of the street is closed. If you go to the lanes of Benares, even in June they are cool. The lanes are too narrow so the sun cannot beat down and there is always some wind blowing. In Rajasthan again they never use a plain wall; they break it with some stone work. If there is a flat surface you absorb a lot of heat so you break it. These are devices which Indians used to deal with the weather. All this comes right from the Harappan times.

Harappan mystery, how this great culture flourished? We have material remains of their culture but what were their thoughts, what was their state? At the same time we have this heritage of Vedic literature. Some have found similarities between the two and some have argued against it. What is your view on that?
I would not claim expertise in ancient Sanskrit, but from whatever translations we have been reading about the Vedic society, it seems to have been a pastoral type. It is mainly rural and not an urban society at all which comes out loud and clear. It is dominated by priests, who had large pieces of land to sustain a large number of cattle etc. They also had a very important place for the horse, which is totally missing in the Harappan culture. If you go into their religion, the Vedic gods are all natural gods, like agni, vayu, marut etc which seems very animistic. Whereas the Harappan religion is iconic; one can see proto-Siva, Pashupati as the preserver of animals, Yogeshwar Siva is shown in a yogic pose. Then one has Mahishasur Mardini, worship of banyan tree, peepul tree etc. The basic substratum of Indian society, be it religious, cultural, technological, architectural etc can be traced back to the Harappan civilization. So it seems the Aryan phase is a bit intrusive in our history. It comes and then becomes the dominant culture, the priests, Brahmanas etc. Later on it becomes fashionable to trace your ancestry to Aryans . I will give an example from Kumaon. Here all the powerful gods are local. You can see Golu Devata, Nanda, even Badrinath, these are not Aryan Brahmanical gods. When Shankaracharya came here they incorporated them into the Brahmanical system. The local goddess Nanda became the consort of Shiva (Parvati). Tribal, primitive gods were incorporated into the Hindu pantheon of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh or their consorts. The same thing happens in the case of the Harappan gods. Later on they have been incorporated in some form into Brahmanism. In the tablets and seals you can see them. Even actual replica of Shivaling has been found in Kaliabangan. Most of the beliefs that we have in fertility goddesses etc go back to the Harappans. In between an interlude comes which breaks the tradition of urban civilization. We forgot the making of wells, cities etc. Around 18th-19th century BCE this starts happening. Something happens which breaks the tradition and a new one starts and sooner or later it merges with the old.

You have proposed that just as we had northwestern influences, we had north eastern ones also.
Yes. We have not gone into it deeper. Dr Vasudha Pant is working on history of plant domestication. Recent excavations carried out by Allahabad University and the Dept of Archeology, UP, at various sites yielded iron from 1500 BCE. Either we had independent development of rice or it had something to do with the Chinese.

What do you see as important challenges before Indian archeologists and historians, where further work is required, where gaps are?
If you take the archeological scene there is the peak of Harappan civilization and then something happens around 1900 BC and no more cities. People forget many things; whether there was a major climatic change or new people came is not certain. But you cannot decimate people, they move; the culture transforms. The transformation of Harappan culture into later cultures needs to be investigated. We have to excavate more sites in the western part of the Ganga valley, Haryana etc. Now Prof Osada of Kyoto and Prof Shinde of Deccan College are doing some work in Haryana and are finding sites which show transition of cultures. Eastern Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, would be very interesting.

What about Central, Eastern and Southern India?
Deccan College, Jeewan Kharakwal of Udaipur, Osada of Kyoto these are some of the groups working there.

1900 BC to 600 BCE is one gap which needs to be filled.
That is right. The second urbanization comes around 6th century BCE, the first goes back to third millennium BC and the degeneration starts around 18th-19th C BCE. So what happened in between? The other important area is peninsular India. We have very good sites of Stone Age there. We have very good examples of Neolithic culture there.

What period does Neolithic signify?
When we talk about the Stone Age it could be as far back as I million years ago. We have extensive Stone Age artifacts there. But the Neolithic will be more like third millennium BCE when they were using ground stone axes, beginning of agriculture and domestication of animals. Then we find megalithic cultures which probably starts around 1000 BCE.

What are the characteristics of megalithic cultures?
Mega means big, lithos means stone. Huge stones they have used for burials. They also put a lot of iron artifacts in the burials. Dating is a little controversial. Earlier it was thought that it could be 3rd C BCE. But some of the thermo luminescence dates are going back to 1200 BCE. But iron there is about 700-800 BC. There is a lot of iron in each grave.

Which are the important sites of megaliths in the peninsular India?
Brahmagiri, Tadakanhalli and in fact all over the south with different types of megaliths in different regions. In Kerala they have dolmens. But a society which produced so much iron, must be an urbanized society. Must have produced a lot of agricultural surplus, but where are those sites? Megaliths are so spectacular and give such rich yield in terms of artifacts that you go after them and do not go into the habitation sites. What sort of people generated these megaliths? What sort of society was there has to be investigated. Also what is the history of agriculture itself in the South? At the moment you have three broad divisions; North-wheat and barley, East-rice, South-millets. But what was the relationship of south with Africa with which it had sea borne trade, contacts.
In the south there are lots of challenging problems which we need to investigate especially the changes in the settlement patterns, even history of technology.

And their maritime contacts....
Yes their maritime contacts which go back to pre-historic times. From Roman times we have quite a bit of evidence. My feeling is that this period studies are not getting the amount of attention they deserve so there are still those blanks.

And also northeast and eastern part of the country ...
In Assam some work was done by T C Sharma and A K Sharma. Problem there is the high rainfall and most of the sites are covered by forests and vegetation and difficult to dig. Conditions have always been disturbed there. That makes it dangerous for people from outside to work there.

Your training was in Chemistry. How and when did you turn to archeology?
I went into radiocarbon dating which was nuclear chemistry. When Willard Libby invented radiocarbon dating (he was awarded Nobel Prize for it) in the mid fifties. Nehru was very conscious of it and with his close relationship with Bhabha he said there is so much confusion about Indian chronology why not use this new method. So Bhabha took up the challenge and under the leadership of Prof D Lal a group was established. Lal went abroad and worked with Libby and we at TIFR were one of the earliest labs in the world. We went around different sites, collected samples, learnt about contamination. It was a very educative experience. We also developed the thermo-luminescence dating technique, in which my colleague Ashok Singhvi played a major role.

A couple of questions before we end this conversation today. All of us have been taught in school that there was an Aryan invasion, what is the archeological evidence for that? Second, what were the causes of decline of Harappan civilization?
The first is very controversial. What we know about Aryans is through literature and that also through the oral tradition. Equating that with archeological evidence is very difficult. Evidence after 1800 BC is clear that there is a cultural break. There are no more cities. Only village settlements. There is a degeneration, which could mean some new people came, perhaps Aryans. But there is no clear evidence in the Harappan towns that there was a major invasion . So if they came they came, in waves and somehow subjugated the natives. In the case of culture also there is birth, growth decay and death. This applies to Harappan culture also. We cannot say that Harappans were decimated. So some transformation took place. May be there was climatic change also and they moved to eastwards where there was more rainfall. But they could not adapt to monsoon ecology and hence decayed. It could be a combination.

You were also associated with Prof Yash Pal in writing the first paper on the lost river Saraswati, based on Landsat imagery. Can we say now that the Ghaggar system was the Saraswati mentioned in the Vedas?
We found that the Ghaggar dies somewhere near the coast. It is no longer a perennial river. Moreover in this area there were some tectonic disturbances which changed the direction and flow of the rivers. For example the Satluj which was a major tributary of the Ghaggar system was pirated by the Indus. Similarly paleoYamuna went into Ganga valley. So the Ghaggar died. .

The identification with Saraswati, how satisfactory is that?
That is more literary but the area they describe and the traditions associated with the Ghaggar seem to identify it with the Vedic Saraswati. However some want to identify the Harappans with the Saraswati only. They started calling it the Saraswati civilization. That is not right. Pakistan is a creation of the British so we cannot give away the Indus civilization because of that.

There is also a mirror reflection in Pakistan, which identifies the culture with West Asia rather than India.
Yes. Some people there even call it Moenjodaro because they think Mohenjodaro might identify it with Krishna and some people here say it is Saraswati civilization and not Indus. I do not understand the logic of both. The beginning of Indus civilization is in fact in Baluchistan in Mehargarh. How can you deny that?

We can only hope that if the relations between India and Pakistan improve then we could also have joint teams exploring archeology.
Yes I have also been mooting that idea. What is important for us is that the great Harappans are undeniably our ancestors. They are the first civilized people in this subcontinent. Now why do you worry whether they were Aryans, non-Aryans, Dravidians etc. Let us study them thoroughly and how they merged with later streams of Indian civilization. These are important issues and not any body’s political agenda.

(This interview appeared in Ghadar Jari Hai--The Revolt Continues, Vol II, No. 4, Oct-Dec 2008, see )