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Medieval Indian engineers in the 7th century built robots. Powered by water and clockwork

Using hydraulics and clockwork, engineers could make wondrous devices that are now lost. These were more credible than claims about pre-modern Indian technology such as UFOs and genetic engineering.

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One of the most fascinating, and least understood, aspects of South Asia’s history is the evolution of its technology. With so little evidence surviving from secular contexts, we often have to speculate about how engineering operated in the medieval period. This is all the more frustrating because many sources attest that medieval courts had some truly surprising and wondrous devices: automata, or what we might call robots today.

Evidence from stories and travellers

Though I can already feel the readers of our column rolling their eyes, the evidence for the existence of automata is far more credible than other claims made about pre-modern Indian technology, such as UFOs, mercury-powered aeroplanes, and genetic engineering. We can guess that medieval Indians had automata because multiple courts with whom they interacted also possessed them, and they are well-attested by credible travellers. These devices were not the sleek, Bluetooth-operated cleaning or assembly bots that we are accustomed to today. Instead, they were powered by water and clockwork, both of which humans have been using for centuries in watermills, windmills, fountains and similar structures.

The Lokapannati, an 11th-century Buddhist text composed in Burma—a region that had extensive interactions with South India—narrates the story of a young man in the ancient North Indian city of Pataliputra. Dr Signe Cohen explores this story in her article Romancing the Robot and Other Tales of Mechanical Beings in Indian Literature. The man hears tales of strange machines called bhūtavāhanayantra, literally meaning “machines that are the vehicles of spirits,” built by the master artisans of Roma-vishaya, or “Rome-Country”. Eager to learn their secrets, he is reborn in Roma and marries the chief engineer’s daughter. Through a series of adventurous events, including being chased by squads of flying death robots and receiving exposition from wise old Buddhist nuns, these designs finally reach the hands of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who uses them to create and protect thousands of stupas.

This story may seem rather fanciful, but interestingly, the “Roma-vishaya” referred to in the narrative—probably the Byzantine Empire, the medieval successor of ancient Rome—did, in fact, have automata. In 948, an ambassador from northern Italy described a magnificent Byzantine construction called the “Throne of Solomon”, a bejewelled throne with a gilded tree in front of it. The branches of the tree were adorned with birds made of gilded bronze, and the sides of the throne featured lions of gilded gold with open mouths that roared with quivering tongues.

Automata of this sort, though simpler, had been known in the Mediterranean region for centuries. For example, in the first century CE, the Greco-Egyptian engineer Heron published texts describing automata, as studied by historian Adrienne Mayor in Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. By forcing water into an airtight container and out through pipes of various sizes, topped with model birds, Heron created the illusion that the birds were singing. It is possible that a similar mechanism was used by the great Pallava artisan Mandhatar, who “surpassed the Greeks in artistry”, in the 7th century CE. According to his contemporary, the court poet Dandin, Mandhatar developed a statue of a standing, starving ascetic that could moan “kṣuditoyam” (I am hungry). These examples and more are described in art historian Michael Rabe’s paper The Māmallapuram Praśasti: A Panegyric in Figures.

Soon after, in the Abbasid Caliphate of the 8th century, we know that both Greco-Roman and South Asian scientific texts and teachers were collected. The resulting wave of technological innovation led to the invention of new waterwheels, ship-mills, and advancements in optics and fine mechanics. While the largest cities in Europe and South Asia had populations of perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, Abbasid Baghdad boasted 1.5 million residents. These developments resulted in some of the most impressive examples of medieval Indian automata.

Also read: This is how Shiva became Asia’s most popular god – innovation, assimilation, conquest

What did Indian automata look like?

In 959 CE, Somadeva Suri, a learned Deccan Jain theologian, completed work on a sprawling epic, the Yashastilaka-Champu. Its protagonist recalls an earlier life that seems to have been inspired by Somadeva’s time in Manyakheta, the capital of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, the warlike overlords of the Deccan. He describes a “mechanical fountain house” or yantradhārāgṛha, including beds on pavilions surrounded by water, mechanical lotuses, monkeys, snakes that rhythmically poured streams of water from their mouths, and mechanical women that poured sandalwood-scented water from various parts of their bodies when touched, reflecting the medieval South Asian courtly fascination with bodily pleasures.

It is not a coincidence that this description appears on the Indian continent shortly after we hear of similar automata in the Mediterranean and Arab worlds. Indian courts were just as interested in acquiring rare and marvellous luxuries and wonders. These automata also took distinctly South Asian forms; snakes and lotuses are not the kinds of things that Arab engineers would design. We know that South Asian knowledge inspired Abbasid innovations, and we know that the Rashtrakuta dynasty, whose court inspired Somadeva’s description, were highly regarded by the Arabs. Traveller Al-Masudi described them as among the Four Great Kings of the world and the foremost rulers of the subcontinent. It was a mutual respect.

It seems highly likely that a Rashtrakuta or Abbasid embassy to Iraq or the Deccan was responsible for transmitting knowledge of automaton engineering, and that South Asian engineers further developed on this, thus establishing a line of knowledge from ancient Greece to Egypt to medieval Baghdad, Constantinople, and Manyakheta.

But how did South Asian engineers actually build their automata? What natural principles were harnessed to make them? We can only make educated guesses on this front. The 11th-century polymath King Bhoja of Dhara makes a tantalising reference to automata in his Samaranganasutradhara. As historian Professor Daud Ali writes in his paper Bhoja’s Mechanical Garden: Translating Wonder Across the Indian Ocean, the king describes and classifies fountains, artificial animals, and even mechanical people that could dance, sing, and speak. However, all he says about their operation is: “For a water-powered machine: timber, hide, and metal form the earthly element; other water and its own water in upward, downward and oblique directions the watery element; heating its fiery element; and the gathering, imparting, filling, and impelling the airy element.”

Perhaps South Asian engineers considered themselves creators of artificial life, composed of the same four elements that make up all living things. They were likely acquainted with a variety of potential mechanical marvels. However, Bhoja refuses to disclose any more, claiming that revealing the secrets of making machines would not be in the interests of machine-makers and would ruin the sense of wonder that people felt when they saw these devices. It is probably to such wonders, or to Indian merchants’ interactions with them in their Mediterranean travels, that the Lokapannati refers.

Inevitably, war would destroy the Rashtrakuta capital and that of Bhoja. While hydraulic engineering continued to be used in courtly gardens, such as those of the Mughals, knowledge of automata gradually faded and was lost. All that would remain of those centuries of wonder, interaction, and innovation are faint and indirect recollections in story compilations like the Lokapannati.

A vast amount of knowledge about South Asia’s deep connections and intellectual interactions with the world lies slumbering in libraries, museums, and monasteries. Unfortunately, funds and political platforms seem to be allocated more readily for imaginary technological achievements rather than the ones that genuinely fascinated our ancestors.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Prashant)

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