4 December 2017

India - 5000 Years of Science

“India has a long and dynamic tradition of scientific thinking and technological innovation.” – A tradition that stretches back 5000 years, in fact, from today’s scientific space exploration missions to Mars to the first known use of the numeral zero. Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, at the Science Museum in London (until 31 March 2018, free entrance), is an ambitious little exhibition which neatly distils a flavour of the great breadth and depth of an amazing human story. Divided into three themed sections: observation, calculation, and innovation, it takes us from the early city-building civilisation of the Indus Valley (c.3300-1300 BC), through the classical and medieval eras (c.1500 BC-c.1500 AD), the Mughal (1526-1857) and British (1757-1947) Empires, to the modern day Republic of India. Showing how over millennia the cultures and peoples of the Indian subcontinent have traded goods and knowledge – commodities, artworks, technology, ideas – with other civilisations, the ripples of which have spread across the globe and continue to reverberate today. In many ways, India has always been at the very forefront of science.

The roots of Indian cosmology begin in its many religious traditions, as symbolised by the ‘earth witness’ pose of the Buddha statue at the start of the exhibition. Modern science is so often divorced from its origins in people’s minds these days that it is interesting to see here the linking of modern science to systems of knowledge which were first developed in the traditions of folk culture as they became embodied and codified in religious and philosophical thinking. Restoring this link is probably no bad thing and is perhaps something which should be given far greater prominence and focus, particularly given the remarkable resurgence of creationist thinking and ‘flat-earthers’ in only the last few years. 

19th century photographs of solar flares and sunspots on the surface of the Sun

To my mind the early modern “Age of Enlightenment” in the 18th century as a pivotal period of transition in the West, along with the richly deep traditions of cosmology underpinning scientific concepts first found in the East, are more than simply bridges from the eminent thinkers of the past to those of the present – they are a means towards a more holistic understanding of our worldview and more importantly the continuity of the enquiring mind which is endemic to all cultures. That drive to understand the world around us, from microcosm to macrocosm, is something shared by all peoples. Examining and thinking about the environment in which we live (indeed with which we are interdependent, despite the exponential impact which we are currently effecting upon it), and contemplating the vast wonders of the wider universe itself in all its enormity and our infinitesimally small existence within it, is the common thread running through all human cultures across time.

Jambūdvīpa, or ‘Jain Map of the World’, c.1817

Two very different but not dissimilar maps at the start of this exhibition put me in mind of two books which I bought while I was in Delhi last year: A History of Science in World Cultures: Voices of Knowledge by Scott L. Montgomery and Alok Kumar (Routledge, 2016), and Cosmology to Cartography: A Cultural Journey of Indian Maps by Dr Vivek Nanda and Dr Alexander Johnson (National Museum, 2015). The first of the two maps, the ‘Jambūdvīpa’, or ‘Jain Map of the World’ (c.1817), which shows the Jain concept of the universe – with the notional continent of Jambūdvīpa at its centre – but which also explains how to calculate vast numbers, including different types of infinity, is neatly contrasted by the ‘Index Chart to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India’ (1860) on the opposite wall. The GTS chart illustrates the prodigious efforts of British colonial officials to physically survey the subcontinent. Each triangle on the chart represents the sum of hundreds of distance and angle measurements made using heavy theodolites, cumbersome 100-feet measuring chains, and compensation bars – like those displayed alongside – which produced a map that at the time was unrivalled in both scale and accuracy. 

Index Chart to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, 1860

Cary-Lambton Theodolite, c.1802

Ramsden's 100-feet chain, c.1793

George Everest's compensation bar, c.1830 & Surveying 10-feet standard, c.1830

Having read Matthew Edney’s excellent Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843 (University of Chicago Press, 1997) I was particularly interested to see these items, as well as the colonial-era botanical sketches made by unnamed Indian artists for Nathaniel Wallich (a Danish surgeon and botanist employed by the British East India Company) shown nearby, which are contrasted nicely by similar Mughal-era artworks commissioned by the Emperor Janhangir (1569-1627).

Linking these artistic as well as scientific exhibits is a fascinating machine – an oscillating plate phytograph (early 1900s). Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937), often referred to as the father of modern science in India, was fascinated by how plants respond to stimuli. He developed this machine in order to measure the influence of light, temperature and gravity on plant growth, thereby inventing a device which, through enhanced magnification, speeded up the time it usually took to conduct such studies. Arguably it’s only by marrying these supposedly opposites – of art and ideas, faith and facts – that we can properly comprehend the natural evolution of our current understanding of a scientific cosmology as it was first seeded and how it has since grown in the collective human mind.

Nathaniel Wallich's botanical wattercolours, early 1800s

Oscillating plate phytograph, early 1900s

Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937)

Painting of a Himalayan goat, 1807 & Painting of Akbar crossing the Ganges by elephant, c.1586-1589

As a centrpiece to the exhibition, there is an example of the cleanest and most pristine auto-rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, which you are ever likely to see! – But this iconic mode of transportation (both amusing and scary by equal measures to outsiders visiting India) makes a serious point about the practical applications of science and engineering to the day-to-day lives of ordinary Indians. India has always been a site of technological innovation – as is illustrated by a fascinating set of objects and images relating to the Tata steelworks.

Advanced metalworking has always been a key industry in India, exported to other countries long before the developments of mechanised mass-production in the colonial and modern eras. From the ‘lost wax’ technique used to cast bronze statues of religious deities to the advanced chemistry which refined India’s steelworks, producing personal arms and armour to tanks, battleships, and steam engines, such innovations in engineering have helped to advance globalisation in the modern era through industrialisation. 

Photograph of steelworkers in Jamshedpur by Sunil Janah, 1940s-1950s - opened in 1907 Jamshedpur was the first modern steelworks to open in India

Tata Steel advert from the Times of India, 1934-1935

Commemorative stamps for the 50th anniversary of India's steel industry, 1958

The railways – one of the characteristic modes of transportation for which India is best known – were key to developing networks of trade, communication, and control; regulating the routines of life and work for millions of Indians from the 19th into the 21st centuries. But these prodigious, practical applications of science to the everyday first originated in the innovations of the theoretical. To return to the Jain Jambūdvīpa map of the world, we see it juxtaposed again by perhaps the most remarkable pairing of theoretical works of pure mathematics – the ancient Bakhshali manuscript (c. 300-800), found in 1881, which contains the earliest example of the use of the numeral and the concept of zero, sits alongside the modern handwritten calculations of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920), and a handwritten letter from Satyendra Nath Bose sent to Albert Einstein in 1924. The digital revolution – based on a system of zeros and ones – has facilitated the development of computer technologies which have enabled India to advance and perfect its remarkable space exploration programme, reaching Mars on its first attempt – amazingly the only country in the world (so far) to do so.

The Bakhshali manuscript, c. 300-800

Selected papers from Ramanujan's work, 1914-1920

A second exhibition, Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017, very ably charts the history of photography in India from the so-called Mutiny or Uprising of 1857, which resulted in the full colonisation of the subcontinent by the British, to the seventieth anniversary of India’s independence this year (visitors are not allowed to take photos in this exhibition, but you can click here to view a wide selection of the images on display). Here again the exhibition is grouped into three themes: performance and power, art and independence, and, modern and contemporary. The first two sections contain a wealth of historical treasures which I found truly fascinating – there are almost too many images presented here, such that I could very easily have spent several hours taking it all in had I had more time. The first section neatly contrasts the power of photography in terms of commemoration and demonstration through colonial propaganda images (from souvenir postcards to the early photojournalism of Felice Beato), and the contrived courtly projections of princely power by Indian royal families who embraced this new medium to show themselves off in all their regal finery. 

There are some remarkable examples of the pseudo-scientific anthropological studies of colonial photographers, such as Maurice Vidal Portman (1860-1935) who made a set of images of ethnographic “types” for the British Museum in 1890 of Andaman Islanders, expressly documenting the disappearing “primitive cultures” of such “noble savages,” noting their supposedly significant anthropometric distinctions. Another example is William Johnson, who set up a photographic studio in Mumbai around 1852, and later, working between 1868-1875, he compiled and published an ethnographic study entitled, The Oriental Races and Tribes and the People of India. A neat juxtaposition to these images are those of the Indian photographer, the Maharaja Sawai Rum II (1834-1880), who made a number of self-portraits of himself dressed up in the different garbs of various Indian castes and classes. It is interesting to contrast these indigenous “types” with those presented in the images of James Waterhouse (1842-1922), which were published in his study, The People of India, in which it seems clearly apparent that one of his subjects, the Begum of Bhopal, was directing the proceedings – ensuring she was photographed in a number of guises which variously showed her as a royal personage, a stateswoman, as well as a proud mother and grandmother. These sets of images thereby invite us to rethink the agency at work behind such photographic forms of representation and classification as commonly practiced during this particular period of time.

Miniature charkha, or spinning wheel, 2017

There are also equally fascinating and arguably more moving and emotive images from the end of the colonial era on display in the second section of the exhibition – particularly those of Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson – which document the last days in the life of Mahatma Gandhi, his funeral and the immediate aftermath of his assassination in January 1948. These images made me think back to a small charkha, a hand-operated spinning wheel, representing the kind of technology of personal empowerment and of resistance through national self-sufficiency, the use of which Gandhi promoted in the cause for Indian independence, which is included in the 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition next door. This was also a nice parallel for me, linking these two exhibitions to the India and the World: A History in Nine Stories exhibition which I worked on last month at the CSMVS in Mumbai – which also includes a much larger charkha, one which Gandhi himself may even have used.

Six Defining Moments from India and Photography

The charkha spinning wheel which was key to Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggle is more than simply a piece of technology to be utilised; its functionality has a deeper conceptualisation if we think of it as a physical representation of the Ashoka chakra, the ‘eternal wheel of the law.’ That conceptual link and the continuity of such systems of thought and knowledge, of knowledge and power, of self-determination and justice, of balance and harmony, lives on in perpetuity – symbolised by the wheel at the centre of the national flag of India. Like the cosmological wheel at the heart of the Indian religious world view, the Ashoka chakra, the infinite mandala, or the wheel of the dharma, sacred to Jains, Buddhists and Hindus alike, is perhaps also a representation of the scientific soul of India and all its peoples.

National flag of the Republic of India, with the Ashoka chakra at its centre, 2017

If, like me, you are interested in the history of science, colonialism, and photography, then these are certainly two very excellent exhibitions not to be missed.

The Science Museum, London – until 31 March 2018


  1. Very interesting Tim. Unlikely to be able to see these exhibitions so this is the next best thing. Good to see a mention of Bose who had close links with one of my interests Patrick Geddes.

    1. Many thanks, Murdo. Very glad you enjoyed the review. Intrigued now, I'll have to look up Patrick Geddes!


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