Monday, December 31, 2007

1857 - Some History … Some Propaganda


To many of us this date is confusing. Was there really a organised nationalist, uprising against colonialism or is it a random mutiny (glorified post facto by historians with a partisan view).

Current comparative status makes some of us believe that we have been a historically backward nation. Recent progress and successes make another group believe that we are on the thresh-hold of being a world power. Both these standpoints make an error of projecting current backward and forward.

For India to take a global position requires a different mindset (best represented by Nehru-Alignment; Subhash Chandra Bose-India Independence League or Gandhiji’s inspiration to Mandela, Martin Luther King and many others). Post-Nehru India has became progressively inward looking. Today, India will need significant investments (not only money) to re-acquire an international dimension in future - and to re-write colonial factual deviations of history.

Immediate History

From 9th century to the 15th century, Europe was grappling with rampant Church persecution. The Bhakti and the Sufi movements were harmonising Indian belief systems. These movements led the Indian society to a forward looking, integrative approach. Guru Nanak’s belief systems (Sikhism) and his approach to spreading the creed (make your eldest son my disciple) started making a difference.

While the Levant and the Occident were at each other in the crusades, Islam and Hinduism had begun to aquire a critical balance with each other. Open hostility had receded at a social level (Kabir, Guru Nanak, Akbar, Tansen) and continued, intermittently, at a political level - for instance Aurangzeb.

The Vijaynagar kingdom (after the sacking in 1565, and the rump rulers) was the center of trade for India’s main exports - spices (from the South India and SE Asian archipelago), Wootz steel from the Deccan plateau, a multitude of silk centers from the Deccan and Southern coastal towns were the major exports. India’s biggest import was gold.

By the end of the 19th century, Colonial India was de-urbanising. Populations in Indian agrarian network was increasing. Agricultural taxes were high. Hence, food production declined. Famines had become a regular feature. Industrial production was a distant memory.

Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the trade route (May 20, 1498) expanded market for Indian goods and brought European buyers to India, laden with gold (looted from the New World). The monopoly of the Arab trade was broken. This started a gold rush to commence trade with India. Over the next 70 years, major European, formed chartered companies.

The Chartered Companies

Britain was the first off the mark - with the English East India Company formed in the 1600. The Dutch started soon after with the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Co.) in 1602. The Danish Opperhoved initially started in 1616 and was reborn in 1732, as Asiatisk Kompagni. The Portuguese organised themselves as chartered company in 1628. The French came with the French East India Co. in 1664. The Swedes joined the rat race in 1731 with Svenska Ostindiska Companiet. The Italians came in as the Genoa East India companies. The Hanseatic League had its own operations.

Indian Exports - 1700

Between 1707 (Death of Aurangzeb), and 1757, the Battle of Plassey, the Indian economy was booming. 3 significant sectors which contributed to this boom. Apart from significant agrarian output - spices, timber, Indigo, etc. Indian industrial output was a major item in our goods basket - fabric, gems and jewellery and metals. India was a technology leader in these industrial sectors.

Precision Cutting Tools

South India was the only source of diamonds till middle 18th century. Being the hardest, natural substance on Earth, diamond cutting was a high technology industry and India monopolized this business till the 14th century. From circa 6th century, we have the Buddha Bhatta’s text “Ratnapariksha” which served as a manual for Indian gemologists. The French traveller Tavernier reputedly (call it ancient industrial espionage) took that technology to Europe.

Brazilian diamond finds in 1725, the South African discovery in 1866-67 changed the supply equation. The auction of French Royal diamonds of Napoleon III in 1871 brought diamonds in limelight. Boucheron, Bapst along with Tiffany and Co. cleaned up this auction. The Koh-i-noor continues to captivate the minds of people.

It is this skill and technology acquired over the centuries that makes India into a global hub for diamonds. The diamond cutting dominance by India is by now a 2500 year old phenomenon.


The Ashoka pillar (made of steel) in New Delhi is a marvel of metallurgy. For more than 1600 years, it has stood in the rain, exposed to scorching sun, freezing winters and buried under the earth for a few years.

And it is still shining. No rust. No deterioration. Estimated at 6-7 tons in weight, nearly 70 feet in height - and cast in a single block. There are reputedly other such pillars at Dhar and Kodachadri (Karnataka).

Konark Sun Temple (related to Sun Temple at Karnak, Egypt?) used about 2000 tons of lodestone and iron clamps. No mortar, no bricks. Iron clamps helped to keep up parts of this structure in the air based on magnetic repulsion. The iron beams survived for more than 700 years. The Jagannath Puri temple has similar quality and vintage of steel.

As the source (for Konark temple) Dharmapad, recounts, Narasimha Dev, the ruling king, ordered the sculptors to complete construction earlier than the estimated time - with accompanying threats. The team could not keep up with the king’s schedule, and the Sutradhar (Chief Architect) Sri Sibei Samantaray was sidelined. Another architect was assigned the job of completing this work. The newly appointed Sutradhar did complete the work by the stipulated time - but since he did not have the plans, structural inconsistencies crept in.

Wootz steel, was the preferred input in the world, for swords, pistols and such. Known as Damascus steel, it went into Japanese Katanas, European guns. The famed Damascus steel swords, armour and pistols, used steel ingots imported from India as Wootz steel. Indian exports of wootz was a big earner for India till British efforts killed this industry in India. Subsequent efforts to “reverse engineer” this technology in Europe during the 20th century, has been unsuccessful. Damascus was the trading centre over which the Battle of Kadesh, the biggest chariot battle, was fought between the Indo-Aryan Hittites and the Egyptian Pharoah Ramesses-II fought.

The world’s first suspension bridge, at Menai Straits, in Britain, used Indian steel. A colonial geologist, T.H.D.La Touche, says, “….its (iron’s) superiority is so marked, that at the time when the Britannia tubular bridge across the Menai Straits was under construction preference was given to the use of iron produced in India” (Research Vibha Tripathi, - T.H.D.La Touche,Calcutta,1918; hopefully, we will see more of Vibha Tripathi’s research on this subject).

Was British reluctance and obstruction to Tata Steel plans in early 20th century a result of fear of Indian steel making prowess? Between the Mittals and the Tatas, Indians dominate the world of steel again. Is this historical continuity or a new beginning!


Dhaka muslin was till the 20th century the finest cloth you could buy. Indian silks competed with the Chinese.

Tragically, our illustrious Finance Minsiter, P.Chidambaram says “I want to end 5000 years of poverty” in the parliament and the media. And the internet is full of people of people (especially Indians) discussing how India will become a super power in this century. While Chidambaram is factually incorrect, many Indophiles are unrealistically believe that India is a one step away from being a super power. At best, we have a unique history. To improve the outlook on India’s uncertain future, a better understanding of our situation and more investments (not only money) are required.

Angus Maddisson gives an interesting perspective on Indian economy through the last 1000years. His research shows that for much of the last 1000 years, India has been a significant economic power till the 1900 or so. The British colonial rule - especially from 1925 onwards, drastically changed this situation.

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