The Newsletter 56 Spring 2011

Scientific instruments in pre-modern India and the global circulation of knowledge

Saraju Rath

Sreeramula Rajeswar Sarma, 2008. The Archaic and the Exotic: Studies in the History of Indian Astronomical Instruments. Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 319 pages. ISBN 978 817304571 4.

No comprehensive and authoritative history of science and technology of India has till today been written that would be even remotely comparable to the achievement of Joseph Needham (1900-1995) for China, through his still continuing series Science and Civilisation in China or SCC (1954- ). One of the reasons is no doubt that much substantial spade work on the history of science and technology in India remains to be done before such an encyclopedic project can be undertaken.

JUST AS MUCH OF HIS OTHER RESEARCH, the present work of Prof. Dr. Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma would provide a reliable basis at least for important sections of an SCC-like history of science and technology of India. This also applies to a still ongoing project of Prof. Sarma’s, a descriptive catalogue of “all extant Indian instruments in all private and public collections in India and abroad, with historical surveys of the development of each instrument-type, its use and geographic spread, and a full technical description of each” (Sarma, The Archaic and the Exotic [AE], p. 27).

Sarma’s AE contains fifteen chapters divided over four parts. The author explains the title as follows: “The history of astronomical instrumentation in India is dominated by two mutually contradictory – yet complementary – currents: on the one hand the resilience of certain archaic instruments that held sway for long even after they had become obsolete; on the other, Indian astronomers’ receptivity to exotic instruments from other cultures. Hence the title of the volume: The Archaic and the Exotic” (AE, p. 13).

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