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Knowledge and divergence from the perspective of early modern India*

  • Tirthankar Roy (a1)


This article explores the origins of divergent technological pathways in the early modern world, and the role that artisanal knowledge played in this process. It rejects older explanations based on societal differences in entrepreneurial propensities and incentives, and a more modern one based on factor cost. It argues instead for the importance of conditions that facilitated transactions between complementary skills. In India, the institutional setting within which artisan techniques were learned had made such transactions less likely than in eighteenth-century Europe. The cost of acquiring knowledge, therefore, was relatively high in India.



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1 Irfan Habib considers ‘the existence of a very numerous class of artisans ... able to live at very low wages’ to be one of the ‘retarding factors’ in the way of development of capital goods in medieval India: ‘The technology and economy of Mughal India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 17, 1, 1980, pp. 1–34. See ‘institutions’ below for further discussion on relative wages.

2 Prasannan Parthasarathi discusses this perspective, earlier statements of which lean on Fernand Braudel and some Indian writers, in ‘Rethinking wages and competitiveness in the eighteenth century: Britain and South India’, Past and Present, 158, 1998, pp. 79–109. The demonstration effect of Indian textiles on British practice was undeniably important. See, for example, the chapter on India in Edward Baines, History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain, London: H. Fisher, R. Fisher, and P. Jackson, 1835.

3 I borrow the phrase from Francesca, Bray, ‘Technics and civilization in late imperial China: an essay in the cultural history of technology’, Osiris, 13, 1, 1998, pp. 1133.

4 Cited text from Angus, Maddison, Class structure and economic growth: India and Pakistan since the Mughals, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971, p. 21. See Max Weber, The religion of India: the sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale, Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958. The evolution of modern science was attributed by later economic historians to the evolution of a ‘scientific attitude’: see Walt W. Rostow, ‘The stages of economic growth’, Economic History Review, 12, 1, 1959, pp. 1–16. Others offered a similar analysis based on the role of the caste system: S. Gopal, ‘Social set-up of science and technology in Mughal India’, Indian Journal of the History of Science, 4, 1–2, 1969, pp. 52–8.

5 For discussions of Marx's views on colonialism, India and China, see Anthony, Brewer, Marxist theories of imperialism: a critical survey, London: Routledge, 1980, pp. 51–9; and Shlomo, Avineri, ‘Marx and modernization’, The Review of Politics, 31, 2, 1969, pp. 172–88. A related account attributed early British technological advances to mercantilist priorities: Walt W. Rostow, ‘The beginnings of modern growth in Europe: an essay in synthesis’, Journal of Economic History, 33, 3, 1973, pp. 547–80.

6 The history of British India, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975 (first published 1817).

7 Macaulay's ‘minute’, reprinted in Henry Sharp, Selections from the educational records, Bureau of Education, India, I, Calcutta: Government Press, 1920. See also Cutts, Elmer H., ‘The background of Macaulay's minute’, American Historical Review, 58, 4, 1953, pp. 824–53.

8 Jack, Goody, The East in the West, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

9 M. D. Morris, ‘Values as an obstacle to economic growth in South Asia: an historical survey’, Journal of Economic History, 27, 4, 1967, pp. 588–607. See also Milton, Singer, ‘Religion and social change in India: The Max Weber Thesis phase three’, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 14, 4, 1966, pp. 497505. The scholarship criticizing Weber is very large. Within this scholarship, Weber's position has often been misrepresented by both ‘vulgar’ Weberians and their critics, according to David Gellner, ‘Religion and the transformation of capitalism’, in Richard H. Roberts, ed., Religion and the transformations of capitalism: comparative approaches, London: Routledge, 1995.

10 See especially Irfan, Habib, ‘Potentialities of capitalistic development in the economy of Mughal India’, Journal of Economic History, 29, 1, 1969, pp. 3278.

11 Sanjay Subrahmanyam has been the most prolific critic of the conception of Mughal India as a ‘system’. See especially ‘The Mughal state – structure or process? Reflections on recent Western historiography’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 29, 3, 1992, pp. 291–321. See also the introduction in Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds., The Mughal state 1526–1750, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

12 Dharampal, Indian science and technology in the eighteenth century, Goa: Other India Press, 2000 (previous editions 1971, 1993); Claude, Alvares, De-colonizing history: technology and culture in India, China and the West: 1492 to the present day, Goa: The Other India Press, 1991. See also D. M. Bose, S. N. Sen, and B. V. Subbarayappa, eds., A concise history of science in India, New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy, 1971.

13 K. N. Panikkar, ‘Cultural trends in pre-colonial India: an overview’, in S. Irfan Habib and Dhruv Raina, eds., Social history of science in colonial India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007. See also Zaheer, Baber, The science of empire: scientific knowledge, civilization, and colonial rule in India, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996, for a similar view on mass literacy.

14 A systematic study of literacy in pre-colonial India remains absent. Early nineteenth-century data indicate that literacy rates in 1800 could not have been very different from the rates in 1901, which were 10% among men and 0.7% among women. For discussion of the statistics, see John D. Windhausen, ‘The vernaculars, 1835–1839: a third medium for Indian education’, Sociology of Education, 37, 3, 1964, pp. 254–70; Joseph E. Di Bona, ‘Indigenous virtue and foreign vice: alternative perspectives on colonial education’, Comparative Education Review, 25, 2, 1981, pp. 202–15; and D. H. Emmott, ‘Alexander Duff and the foundation of modern education in India’, British Journal of Educational Studies, 13, 2, 1965, pp. 160–9. Limited research available on education in medieval India suggests that urban artisan groups were rarely literate, not to speak of the rural artisans, who were ‘of course automatically excluded from access to any kind of knowledge’: Vijaya, Ramaswamy, ‘Vishwakarma craftsmen in early medieval peninsular India’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 47, 4, 2004, pp. 548–82.

15 See Bray, ‘Technics’.

16 See Kapil Raj, Relocating modern science: circulation and the construction of scientific knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650–1900, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ‘Introduction’ in Habib and Raina, Social history of science, proposes that the task of the historian is to explore how science travels from one intellectual context to another. The assimilation process is seen as a problem of epistemology as well as a problem in political history. This historiography deals mainly with the uneasy relation between the state and the research scientist.

17 Deepak Kumar, ‘Science and society in colonial India: exploring an agenda’, Social Scientist, 28, 5/6, 2000, pp. 24–46; Ashis, Nandy, Science, hegemony, and violence, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990. With science in context, the relationship between colonial rule and colonial modernity is explored in Gyan Prakash, Another reason: science and the imagination of modern India, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999. For a survey of the historiography of colonial science in relation to the modernization project, see David, Arnold, Science, technology and medicine in colonial India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

18 See, for example, Deepak, Kumar, Science and the Raj, 1857–1905, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995; and Habib and Raina, Social history of science.

19 Daniel, Headrick, The tools of empire, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, p. 205.

20 Roy, MacLeod, ‘Nature and empire: science and the colonial enterprise’, Osiris, 15, 1, 2000, pp. 113.

21 One important collection of essays, despite the promising title, retains the bias: Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar, eds., Technology and the Raj: Western technology and technical transfers to India, 1700–1947, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1995.

22 Epstein, S. R., ‘Craft guilds, apprenticeship, and technological change in preindustrial Europe’, Journal of Economic History, 58, 4, 1998, pp. 684713; idem, ‘Property rights to technical knowledge in premodern Europe, 1300–1800’, American Economic Review, 94, 2, 2004, pp. 382–7.

23 See, for example, Trevor Griffiths, Philip A. Hunt, and Patrick K. O'Brien, ‘Inventive activity in the British textile industry, 1700–1800’, Journal of Economic History, 52, 4, 1992, pp. 881–906.

24 Robert, Allen, ‘Collective invention’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 4, 1, 1983, pp. 124.

25 Joel, Mokyr, The gifts of Athena: historical origins of the knowledge economy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

26 Margaret, Jacob, Scientific culture and the making of the industrial West, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. This approach can be traced to Robert Merton's exposition of the knowledge revolution in England, which emphasized the role of social interaction, the itinerant scholar and mechanic, invisible colleges, societies, and, above all, increasing application of utilitarian norms to scientific knowledge. See ‘Science, technology and society in seventeenth-century England’, Osiris, 4, 1938, pp. 360–632.

27 Irfan Habib, ‘Pursuing the history of Indian technology: pre-modern modes of transmission of power’, Social Scientist, 20, 3/4, 1992, pp. 1–22. See also idem, ‘Potentialities of capitalistic development in the economy of Mughal India’, The Journal of Economic History, 29, 1, 1969, pp. 32–78; idem, ‘The peasant in Indian history’, Social Scientist, 11, 3, 1983, pp. 21–64; idem, ‘Akbar and technology’, Social Scientist, 20, 9/10, 1992, pp. 3–15; and idem, ‘Technology and economy’.

28 Khan, I. A., ‘Early use of cannon and musket in India: A.D. 1442–1526’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 24, 2, 1981, pp. 146–64.

29 Stephen P. Blake, Shahjahanabad: the sovereign city in Moghul India, 1639–1739, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. xiii.

30 Habib, ‘Potentialities’, p. 57.

31 See particularly Richard C. Foltz, Mughal India and central Asia, Oxford and Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

32 Shireen Moosvi, ‘The Mughal encounter with Vedanta: recovering the biography of “Jadrup”’, Social Scientist, 30, 7/8, 2002, pp. 13–23.

33 See C. M. Cipolla, ‘The diffusion of innovations in early modern Europe’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 14, 1, 1972, pp. 46–52, on medieval Europe; and Douglas E. Haynes and Tirthankar Roy, ‘Conceiving mobility: weavers’ migrations in pre-colonial and colonial India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 36, 1, 1999, pp. 35–67, on India.

34 Habib, ‘Technology and economy’, p. 8.

35 Vijaya, Ramaswami, ‘The genesis and historical role of the master weavers in south Indian textile production’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 28, 3, 1985, pp. 294325. Sakis Gekas discusses several other changes in textile technology in pre-colonial India: ‘The organization of Indian textile technology before and after the European arrival’, paper prepared for the Global Economic History Network, London, 2006.

36 Ahsan Jan Qaisar, The Indian response to European technology and culture (A.D. 1498–1707), Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982; Baber, Science of empire; Sanjay, Subrahmanyam, ‘A note on Narsapur Peta: a ‘syncretic’ shipbuilding centre in south India, 1570–1700’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 31, 3, 1988, pp. 305–11.

37 Kapil, Raj, ‘Colonial encounters and the forging of new knowledge and national identities: Great Britain and India, 1760–1850’, History of Science, 2001, pp. 119–34.

38 Qaisar, Indian response, pp. 10–13.

39 ‘One misses in India even that curiosity which the Chinese literati and the Greek and Roman citizenry displayed in the techniques of the crafts’: Habib, ‘Pursuing the history’, p. 15. According to Jesuits, Akbar had artisanal skills, and showed off his knowledge of carpentry and building trades before master artisans. Whether the masters looked upon these displays as entertainment or education is not known.

40 This engagement of the state in irrigation projects was not of a kind that might justify characterizing the state as ‘despotic hydraulic’, a point of which Karl Wittfogel was aware: see Oriental despotism, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957, p. 45. South Asian states tended to be innovative, and engaged in both hydraulic projects and hydro-agricultural ones, that is, large-scale construction works that needed central coordination of labour as well as decentralized technologies; on the distinction, see ibid., p. 3.

41 Siddiqui, I. H., ‘Water works and irrigation system in India during pre-Mughal times’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 29, 1, 1986, pp. 5277; Aniruddha Ray, Madhyajuger Bharatiya shahar (Medieval Indian cities), Calcutta: Ananda, 1999.

42 Habib, ‘Akbar and technology’, pp. 7–8.

43 Thomas, E., The chronicles of Pathan kings of Delhi, London: Trübner, 1871 p. 274.

44 Siddiqui ‘Water works and irrigation’, p. 75.

45 H. T. Colebrooke, Remarks on the husbandry and internal commerce of Bengal, London: Blacks and Parry, 1806, p. 48.

46 Habib, ‘Potentialities’, p. 62.

47 See Satpal Sangwan, ‘Level of agricultural technology in India (1757–1857)’, Asian Agri-History, 11, 1, 2007, pp. 5–25.

48 Extract from letters of Helenus Scott, MD, to Sir Joseph Banks, President, Royal Society, London c.1790–1801, reproduced in Dharampal, Indian science, p. 252.

49 For discussions on relative wages, see Baber, Science of empire, p. 63; Arnold, Science, technology and medicine, p. 95; Parthasarathi, ‘Rethinking wages’; Habib, ‘Technology and economy’, p. 33; Stephen, Broadberry and Bishnupriya, Gupta, ‘The early modern great divergence: wages, prices and economic development in Europe and Asia, 1500–1800’, Economic History Review, 59, 1, 2006, pp. 231.

50 Tapan Raychaudhuri suggests that, in urban crafts, unfree labour was common: ‘Non-agricultural production’, in T. Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, eds., The Cambridge economic history of India, vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 214. Habib considers ‘the nobles’ extortion of forced labour’ an important factor in Mughal India: ‘Potentialities’, pp. 65–6.

51 On the analytical discussion on caste, see Dipankar Gupta, ed., Social stratification, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 23–7. Modern discourse on the social history of caste has concerned itself with the origins of hierarchy and pollution, the major debate in historiography relating to the influence of colonialism on restructuring hierarchy. See especially Susan, Bayly,Caste, society and politics in India from the eighteenth century to the modern age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

52 Twigg, H. J. R., A monograph on the art and practice of carpet-making in the Bombay Presidency, Bombay: Government Press, 1900, p. 56.

53 Harris, H. T., Monograph on the carpet weaving industry of southern India, Madras: Government Press, 1908, p. 45.

54 Edwardes, S.M., A monograph upon the silk fabrics of the Bombay Presidency, Bombay: Government Press, 1900, p. 56.

55 Madras, The hand-loom industry in the Madras Presidency, Madras: Diocesan Press, 1936, pp. 143, 146.

56 Tirthankar, Roy, ‘Out of tradition: master artisans and economic change in colonial India’, Journal of Asian Studies, 66, 4, 2007, pp. 963–91.

57 I discuss some of these features in Traditional industry in the economy of colonial India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; and ‘The guild in south Asia’, International Review of Social History, forthcoming.

58 Baines, History of the cotton manufacture, p. 115. See also Eric, Kerridge, Textile manufactures in early modern England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985, pp. 174–5.

59 A. P. Wadsworth and Julia De Lacy Mann, The cotton trade and industrial Lancashire, 1600–1780, Bristol: Thoemmes Press and Tokyo: Kyokuto Shoten, 1999, p. 412.

60 John Percy, Metallurgy, London: John Murray, 1864, p. 258.

61 R. V. Russell and Hira Lal, The tribes and castes of the Central Provinces of India, vol. 2, London: St Martin's Press, 1916, p. 10.

62 Verrier, Elwin, The Agaria, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

63 W. V. Scudamore, A monograph on iron and steel work in the Bombay Presidency, Bombay: Government Press, 1907, p. 7.

64 G. Hammersley, ‘The charcoal iron industry and its fuel, 1540–1750’, Economic History Review, 26, 4, 1973, pp. 593–613.

65 Ibid.

66 Hegde, K. T. M., ‘A model for understanding ancient Indian iron metallurgy’, Man, 8, 3, 1973, pp. 416421.

67 Scudamore, Iron and steel, p. 6.

68 A. Ray and D. K. Chakrabarti, ‘Studies in ancient Indian technology and production: a review’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 18, 2, 1975, pp. 219–32.

69 Ramaswamy cites a twelfth-century inscription in South India stating that the Vishwakarma was primarily a maker of weaponry: ‘Vishwakarma craftsmen’, p. 571.

70 Bennet, Bronson, ‘The making and selling of wootz: a crucible steel of India’, Archeomaterials, 1, 1, pp. 1351; J. D. Verhoeven, A. H. Pendray, and W. E. Dauksch, ‘The key role of impurities in ancient Damascus steel blades’, Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 50, 9, 1998, pp. 58–64, available at; Thomas T. Read, ‘The early casting of iron: a stage in iron age civilization’, Geographical Review, 24, 4, 1934, pp. 544–54.

71 Scudamore, Iron and steel, p. 8.

72 See, for example, Hegde, ‘Model for understanding’; and Bennet Bronson, ‘Metals, specialisation, and development in early eastern and southern Asia’, in Bernard Wailes, ed., Craft specialization and social evolution: in memory of V. Gordon Childe, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996, pp. 180–1.

73 Between 1770 and 1880, ‘at least seventeen attempts’ were made to manufacture charcoal iron on a relatively large scale, usually with integrated rolling mill, foundry, and forge. All of them failed. See R. S. Rungta, The rise of business corporations in India, 1851–1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, pp. 276–8. The cost remained high. None of these firms seemed to use local knowledge, or succeed by doing so. Wood fuel was not a sustainable option after demand for wood in railways, ships, and bridges exploded from the mid nineteenth century and forests were protected. The next successful round of domestic steel-making had to await large-scale mining of coal.

74 Watson, E. R., A monograph on iron and steel works in the province of Bengal, Calcutta: Government Press, 1907, p. 34.

75 Wales, J. A. G., A monograph on wood carving in the Bombay Presidency, Bombay: Government Press, 1902, p. 8.

76 Watson, Iron and steel, p. 34.

77 Abbott Payson Usher, ‘The industrialization of modern Britain’, Technology and Culture, 1, 2, 1960, p. 114.

78 Lynn White, Jr, Medieval technology and social change, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962, p. 41.

79 Chris Evans and Goran Rydén, ‘Kinship and the transmission of skills: bar iron production in Britain and Sweden, 1500–1860’, in Maxine Berg and Kristine Bruland, eds., Technological revolutions in Europe, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1998, pp. 188–206.

80 Eric, Dorn Brose, ‘Competitiveness and obsolescence in the German charcoal iron industry’, Technology and Culture, 26, 3, 1985, pp. 532–59; L. Magnusson and M. Isacson, ‘Proto-industrialisation in Sweden: smithcraft in Eskilstuna and Southern Dalecarlia’, Scandinavian Economic History Review, 30, 1, 1982, pp. 73–99.

81 Ashton, T. S., Iron and steel in the industrial revolution, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1963.

82 Marika, Vicziany, ‘Imperialism, botany and statistics in early nineteenth-century India: the surveys of Francis Buchanan (1762–1829)’, Modern Asian Studies, 20, 4, 1986, pp. 625–60.

83 See Roy, ‘Out of tradition’, for more discussion on this theme.

* I wish to thank three readers and the editors of the journal for comments and suggestions that led to significant changes to an earlier version. I have benefited from discussions with Patrick O'Brien on the theme of this article, and from responses received at two seminars at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Warwick. I am grateful to Frances Pritchett for making available a copy of the picture that appears as Figure 3.


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