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12th IFToMM World Congress, Besançon (France), June18-21, 2007

Astronomical Instruments In Ancient India

Shekher Narveker*
Agnel Polytechnic,
Goa, India

Abstract—Some of the measuring instruments made up of Some of the Indian mathematicians later have
simple mechanisms used for the measurement of length, angle, developed their own instruments and developed their own
and time have been described in ancient Indian literature. methods to facilitate the theory of 'Suryasidhanta'.
However these instruments have remained unnoticed due to Introduction of zero in mathematics and the decimal
language constraints. These instruments were put into use by
various ancient Indian astronomers and mathematicians.
method of calculation is one of such invaluable
This paper is an attempt to interpret and construct these contribution.
instruments based on the available ancient Sanskri tliturature.
Some of the applications of this instrument are also included in B. Aryabhatta (476 AD)
this paper. This paper is an attempt to highlight progressive In his book named 'Aryabhattium' he has given lot of
development of this instruments from 1000 BC to 1507 AD. references of Suryasidhanta. He had developed
Mercury-water wheel mechanism used for time measurement is instruments like chakra yantra (disk instrument), Gola
also included.
yantra (type of armillery sphere) and shadow instruments.
Keywords: unnoticed, progressive development,
mercury-water wheel. C. Varahamihira (505 AD)
He has done a valuable job of compilation of five
I. Introduction astronomical theories which were in use before Crist and
Ancient Indian literature that is available today makes it suryasidhanta is one of them. This compiled book is
clear that there were instruments based on simple known as 'Panchasidhanta'. He had developed some ring
mechanisms which were used to measure vertical angle, and string instruments.
horizontal angle, angles in an inclined plane, distances
and height. Similarly time was measured using water D. Lalla (700 BC)
vessels and also with mechanism working with water He wrote a book 'Shihya Dhi Viddhida'. He was well
head as a potential. These instruments are discussed in the known because of twelve instruments which he brought
various sections of the paper. Original Sanskrit script into practice. These instruments are dealt later in sec III.
describing the instrument and its translation is also
included. E. Bhaskaracharya (1072 AD)
Section II deals with Historical review, section III deals He was one of the promonent Indian mathematicien
with Instruments developed by mathematician Lalla. and astronomer, who wrote a book ‘Sidhantshiromani'. In
Section IV deals with stick instrument. Section V deals his book he has documented valuable ancient liturature
with disk instrument. Section VI deals with semicircular and given the references of many of the instruments used
disc, plumb bob type instrument. Section VII deals with by the astronomers before him. Similarly he has
star anglar positioning instrument. Section VIII mentions documented the various methods for the use of these
a type of armilliary sphere. Section IX deals with water instruments.
wheel mechanism for time measurement, and section X
concludes the paper.
F. Ganesh Dayvatnya (1506 AD)
He has also described the use of the instruments in his
II. Historical Review.
A. Period of Suryashidhanta (1000 BC). book 'Grahalaghawam'. There is a typical method of star
In India people had started the use of the positioning listed in his book. His star positoning
astronomical instruments before 1000 BC. During this instrument is dealt later in section IX.
period one of the prominent books 'Suryasidhanta' was Prominent astronomers, their period, books written by
written for astronomical calculations. The content of this them and instruments used by them are listed in the
book is available but its author is not known. The title table 1. Shadow instruments (gnomon) are not included in
'Suryasidhanta' means sun theory and it highlights the this table.
calculations of positions of stars and planets.
E-mail :
12th IFToMM World Congress, Besançon (France), June18-21, 2007

Astronomers and Contribution in the form of Instruments used by Equivalent name.

their period. book them. Original name
(1000 BC) Suryasidhanta
Aryabhata Aryabhata Sidhanta Chakra Yantra Disk instrument.
(476 AD) Aryabhatiya Gola Yantra Spherical instrument
Varahamihira, Pancha Sidhanta Chakra Yantra Ring instrument.
(505 AD) Brihatsamhita
Brihat Jataka
Brahmagupta Brahmasphuta Siddhanta
(598 AD) Karmakhandakhadyaka
Lalla Shihya Dhi Vriddhida Gola Yantra, Spherical instrument.
(700 AD) Bhangana Yantra, Ring instrument.
ChakraYantra, Disk instrument.
Dhanu Yantra, Bow & arrow instr.
Ghati Yantra. Time vessel.
Shakat Yantra Two pivoted sticks
Kartari Yantra, Scizzor instrument
Shalaka Yantra, Needle instrument.
Yashti Yantra Stick instrument.
Shripati Jyotishratnamala, Shalaka Yantra Needle instrument
(999 AD) Shidhantashekhara
Bhaskaracharya Sidhantashiromani Chakra Yantra Disk instrument.
(1072 AD) Leelavati, Chaapa Yantra Semicircular disk instr.
Beejaganitam, Yashti Yantra Stick instrument.
Karanakutuhala Gola Yantra Spherical inst.
Ganesh Daywanya Grahalaghav, Jalatnalika Yantra Star positioning
(1507 AD) Sudhiranjani, (method) instrument
TABLE 1. Astronomers, books written by them and their instruments.
Most of above books are available and they form a fair Script can be read as: Vikalanamkalasastya, tat sastya
link from 1000 BC to 1507 AD. Instruments used during bhaga, uchate, tantrimsatam bhavedrasi, bhagano
the period of suryasidhanta [1],[3] are mentioned in its dvadasaiva te.
text (fig 1). It tells us about the instruments that were Translation : Sixty vikala is one kala, sixty units (kala) is
based on the use of mercury, water, oil, sand, spokes etc. one bhaga, it is said this way that, thirty units (bhaga)
makes one rashi, twelve rashi makes one bhagana.
Vikala, kala, bhaga, bhagana are the units of the angle.
In the modern notation vikala, kala and bhaga are
second, minute and degree respectively. Rashi is also
Fig 1 Script of Suryasidhant stating the instruments. another unit used for the measurement of angle.

Script can be read as: Paradara, ambu, sutrani, B. Length.

shulbataila jalanicha. Bijani, pasava, asteshu prayoga, Unit used for the measurement of length was
stepi durlabha. Yahodara, Angula, Hatha, Danda, Krosha and Yojanas.
Translation : Mercury filled in spokes, water, thread, This unit has been described in the book Lilawati. (Fig3).
with good craftsmenship these instruments are made,
along with oil mixed with water. Also seeds, fine sand, is
used in these applications, these instruments are rare.

III. Units of measurement.

A. Angle.
Unit used for the measurement of angle has been
Fig 3 Units for measurement of length are mentioned in the sript of the
describe [1],[2] in the text of suryashidhant (Fig 2). book Lilawati.
Script can be read as:
Hasteshacha-trurabhivatiha dandaha, kroshaha sahastra-
Fig 2 Script of Suryasidhanta stating the units for angular
dwitayena tesham.
12th IFToMM World Congress, Besançon (France), June18-21, 2007

Sthadhojanam krosha-chatushastayen, tatha karanam pivoted at the end. Kartari means a seizer. This
dashaken vansha. instrument is made up of two sticks both pivoted
Nivartanam vimshati-vansha-sankhayhi shetram together. It was used like a caliper, and also to measure
chaturmishacha bhujay-nirbandham. angle with the help of protractor. Pitha is a horizontal
Translation : disk with a vertical stick at its center. It was used to
Eight rice grains (yahodara) makes one fingure width measure local time based on its shadow, it was used to
(angula), twentyfore fingures make one hand (hasta), measure the height with the help of special geometrical
four hands make one stick (danda), 2000 danda make contruction. Shalaka is combination of two sticks with a
one krosha (unit of length). string. Yasti is just a long stick having standard
Four krosha make one yojana (unit of length), ten dimensions, it was used to measure height and distances.
hasta make one vamsha (unit of length), one nirwatan Special geometrical constructions were framed to
(unit of area) is equal to 400 square vamsha. facilitate the use of this stick. These proposed
geometrical constructions were to construct the
C. Time proportionate triangles with the help of which heights of
Unit for the measurement of time was Vipal, Pala, terrestrial objects could be calculated.
Gadi, Hora, and Deena. Sixty Vipala makes one pala.
Sixty pala makes one ghati. 150 Pala makes one Hora.
24 Hora (Hours) makes one Deena (a day). Similarly
units for the measurement of weight, temperature are
also described in ancient text.

IV Instruments of Lalla.
Astronomer Lalla describes his fomous twevelve
instruments [3],[4] in his book 'Shihya Dhi Viddhida' as
given in fig 4.

Fig 5 A sketch of some of the instruments described by Lalla.

Fig 4 Twelve instruments used by Lalla are described in this script..
V. Stick Machine of Bhaskaracharya.
Script can be read as: This machine was known as Yasti Yantra. Yasti means
Golo, bhagana, chakra, dhanu, ghati, shanku, shakata,
a stick. It is also refered as Dhi Yantra. Dhi Yantra
kartaryaha. Pipta, kapal, shalaka, dwadahsa yantrani saha means a machine to be used with intelegence. This
yastya. machine has been also described by mathematicians like
Translation: Lalla, Shripati and others but Bhaskaracharya has
Sphere, ring, dial, bow, time measuring water vessel.
developed his unique method to calculate the height of
Gnomon, divider, scissor. Circular seat with central terrestrial objects like trees and mountains. The principle
stick, semicircle with stick, combination of sticks, are the and constructional details of this machine are available
twelve instuments along with a stick. in fair detail in 'Shidhantashiromani' of Bhaskaracharya
These twelve instruments are as described below and
[7]. His script describing this instrument is given in the
some are shown in fig 5. fig 6.
The Gola yantra is a type of armilliary sphere used to
locate planetary positions. Bhangana is a ring with
angular graduations alonge its circumference, it is a type
of protractor. Chakra is a circular disk with angular
graduations, it is also a type of protractor. Dhanu is a
semicircular disk with angular graduations and a stick Fig 6 Sript describing the stick instrument of Bhaskaracharya.
pivoted at the center, it is a type of protractor with a Script can be read as:
plumb bob arrangement. Ghati is a small vessel with a Vansasha mulam pravilokya chagram, tatsavantaram
hole at the bottom. It was used to measure time. Shanku tatsya samuchayam cha.
is a type of gnomon, a long vertical cone used to identify Yo vetti yastey-va kar-sthaya sow, dhi-yantra vedi vada
East-West-North-South direction based on shadow of its kim na vetti.
tip. A special geometrical construction known a 'Matsya' Translation :
was used for this purpose. Altitude of sun and day time Look at the bottom and top of bamboo tree, simply
was also measured with this instrument based on the looking at it you can find its distance and its height.
shadow. Shakata consists of two 'V' shaped sticks,
12th IFToMM World Congress, Besançon (France), June18-21, 2007

The person who obtains these distance and height with a Script can be read as: Chakram chakrashankam
stick, such person can calculate many other astronomical paridhow slatha-shrunkhala-dika-dhararam.
parameters using this stick which is a intelegent machine Dhatri tribh adharat kalpya bhardheatra khardha cha.
(dhi yantra). Tanmadhe sushmatam shiptawarka-bhimukha-nemikam
This machine (fig 7) has a stick pivoted to a board. Fig dharyam.
8 shows geometrical construction to calculate the height Bhumerunnatta-bhagastatra-kshachchyaya bhuktaha.
of a tree. To use this machine one has to focus the top Tatkhardhantacha nataa unnata-lavasangunikrutam
and bottom of the object and draw the two lines on the dhrudalam.
board. With these two lines, two triangles are Dhrudalonnata-shabhaktam nadya stula paire prokta.
constructed and based on their proportions, height of the Dalikrutam chakra-mushanti chaapa kodandakhandam
object is calculated. It is to be noted here that there is no khalu turyagolam.
need to measure the distance between the object and the
observer. This instrument was also used for land survey. Translation :
A disk with graduations on the cercumference and is
supported with a flexible chain.
Horizoantal line on this disk is named as bhumi (earth),
space above this line is akash (sky), top point of vetical
line is named as khardha.
At its center attach a stick.
Hold this disk in front of sun, stick will cast its shadow.
Angle between the ground (horizontal) line and shadow
of stick is named as ‘unnata’.
Similarly angle between top point of disk and shadow of
the stick is nammed as ‘natta’.
Fig 7 Stick machine known a yasti yantra of Bhaskaracharya. This natta and unnata are used to calculate the local time.
Half of this disk is known as ‘Chaapa Yantra’, and half
of this chaapa yantra is named as turya yantra.

On the surface of this disk a special construction is

h1 recomended to mark E-W-N-S direction [7]. This
h2 l2 instrument was used for angular marking of land and
d angular positioning of cities. It was also used to measure
time and to measure some astrological parameters like
l2 h
Height = H = d h 1 + d 'natta' and 'unnatta'.
2 l1

Fig 8 Stick machine was used to calculate the height of the tree and
other terrestrial objects.

VI Disk Instrument of Bhaskaracharya.

This machine is known as Chakra Yantra. It means
dick machine. It appears to be the combination of chakra
yantra, shanku yantra and pitha yantra of Lalla. Its
description is available in the script of Sidhantshiromani
[7] as given in fig 9. This instrument is a type of
Fig 10. Disk instrument of Bhaskaracharya.
protractor used for angular marking, measurements and
to obtain astronomical parameters. (Fig 10).
VII. Semicircular disk machine of Bhaskaracharya.
This machine is known as chaapa Yantra. Chaapa
means a semicircle. This instrument appears to be the
modified version of Dhanu Yantra of Lalla.
Bhaskaracharya has attached a long stick along the
diameter of the semicircular disk [7]. Disk has the
angular graduations and a pivoted chain at the center of
the disk (fig 11), this chain is used in similar way like a
plumb bob. Description of this instrument is also given
in Sidhantashiromani [7] which is already listed in fig 9.
Fig 9 Sript describing disk instrument of Bhaskaracharya known a Basically it was used for the measurement of vertical
chakra yantra. angle.
12th IFToMM World Congress, Besançon (France), June18-21, 2007

Construct the triangle and mark its base, height and

Locate the gnomon, hold the thread, and hold the tube on
top of the gnomon and look at the star.
Keep a plate filled with water and you can observe star
immage through this water.
Fig 11 Semicircular disk instrument of Bhaskaracharya known as This arrangement consists of a levelled surface
chaapa yantra. placed in E-W-N-S direction [2]. Triangles are
constructed on this surface to obtain angles. A gnomon
Height of the terrestrial objects, diameter of earth,
is placed on this surface. A tube is placed on the top of
diameter of moon, circumference of earth and distance
the gnomon. A plate filled with water is kept on the
between moon and the earth was calculated by
surface. Reflected image through water surface of the
Bhaskaracharya using this instrument.
star or a planet is observed through the tube and its angle
To calculate the height of the terestrial object, stick
is measured with the help of constructed triangles. A
was focussed at the bottom and top of the object and the
thread is used to measure height, base and hypotenuse in
angle was measured. This angle was then used to
the vertical plane. This instrument was used for mapping
calculate the height with the help of jya and cotijya. This
of stars and planets. Instrument used for star angle
jya and cotijya are similar as sine and cosine resp.
measurement is shown in fig 13.
VIII Star positioning instrument of Bhaskaracharya. Eye
This instrument is known a Gola yantra and has been Star
also described in the text of 'Sidhantshiromani'. It is
somewhat similar to armilliary sphere. However the Plate
Gnomon Table
terminology used here is not understandable and it is with
difficult to construct the instrument in its original form. Fig 13 Schematic diagram of star angle measuring instrument.
Instrument used by Aryabhatta for star positioning
consists of one horizontal disk, positioned in E-W-N-S X. Time measuring machine of Bhaskaracharya.
direction and another similar disk held perpendicular to This machine was known as ‘Jala chakra yantra’. It
it with a plumb bob arangement [4]. means water wheel machine. It is a time measuring
machine and is described in the book Sidhantsiromani
IX. Star positioning Instrument of Ganesh [7]. Schematic diagram is shown in fig 14, its script is
Daywatnya. shown in fig 15, and fabricated model is shown in the fig
This instrument is known as Jala nalika yantra. It 16. This mechanism operates with a balance between
means water and tube machine. It is described as a mercury in the tubes and the water in the vessels.
method of measuring star angle with the help of This mechanism uses water head as a potential. In the
horizontal water surface and a hollow tube. Angle is initial position, containers are empty and mercury is in
measured with the help of constructed triangles as lower position on the wheel. As the water gets collected
described in the book Grahalaghawam of Ganesh into one of the container, the wheel starts rotating. A
Daywatnya. This original script is not in full detail, it is stage comes when mercury slides from one end of the
given as a outline of points as explained below (fig 12). tube to the other end of tube and causes an imbalance,
Its detail explanation is available in other edited due to which the wheel rotates further. Because of
books[2]. mercury, wheel rotates in jerks. If four containers are
used then each container rotates the wheel by 90 degrees.
Copper tube
( siphon) Water

Fig 12 Script describing the star angle measuring instrument.

Translation :
A method to measure the angle of the planet through a Water
tube. In the respective direction, complete the Draining tray collection tank
construction, that is if star is in east then in the easten Fig 14 Schematic diagram of time measuring machine.
side or if star is in west then western side, construct the
further proccedure.
12th IFToMM World Congress, Besançon (France), June18-21, 2007

Fig 15 Script describing time measuring machine.

Fig 16 Time measuring machine of Bhaskaracharya.
Script can be read as:
Laghu-daruja-samachakre sama-sushiraraha samantara V. Conclusion
Kinchid-wakra yojyaha sushira-syardhe pruthaka tasam. The concept of measurement of angle, height and time
Rasapurne tachakram dyadhara-shasthita svayam with the help of instruments and mechanisms was being
bhramati. practiced in ancient India. It appears that there is a
Tamradi-mayasya-nkusha-rupanalasyambu-poornasya. progressive development of instruments from 1000 BC
Yeka-kunda-jalantardwitiya-magram twadho-mukham to 1507 AD. Measurements were also done with well
cha bahihi. defined units for angle, length and time. Similarly
Yugapanmuktam chet ka nalena kunda-dwahihi patati. innovative geometrical constructions were used to
Nemyam badhadwa ghatika-chakram jalayantrawata facilitate the use of these instruments. A typical time
tatha dharyam. measuring mechanism using water-mercury was used to
Nalaka-prachuta-salilam patati tatha tad-ghati-madhe. achieves the constant time period of rotation.
Bhamati tatastat satat purna-ghati-bhihi samakrustam.
Chakra-chutam tadudakam kunde yati pranalikaya. Acknowledgement:
The author is thankful to Sanskrit Bharati and Bharat
Translation : Vikas Parishad for their support and for arranging the
A symetric wheel made of wood with exactly similar and literature. Thanks goes to Mr. Vishavanath G. Joshi for
hollow spokes joined to the rim such that they are helping the author to learn Sanskrit language and to
slightly inclined. translate the scripts.
Hollow spokes should be half filled with mercury. Wheel
should be supported on the axle to rotate freely. References:
Copper or other metallic U shaped bent tube, is inverted [1] Baladevprasadji Mishra. (Ed). Suryasidhant, Khemraj Shrikrishna
and filled with water. Prakashana, pages 234, 1996.
[2] Bramhanand Tripathi, (Ed) Grahalaghavam of Ganesha
One end of tube is deeped in water tank and other end Dayawanya., Choukhamba Surbharati Prakashan, Varanassi, page
kept below water level and outside the tank. 109, 1995.
If both ends are oppened simultaneously then water [3] Chinmaya Yuva Kendra, Awakening Indians to India. Central
flows outside the tank through the tube. Chinmaya Mission Trust. Page 397, 404, 2003.
[4] Keshav Srusti (Ed), Vijanan Bharati Publication, Mumbai, page
On the rim attach the vessels, place the whole 21, 23, 29, 31, 90
arrangement of water wheel below the tube. [5] Shrikapileshwara Shastri, (Ed), Suryasidhant, Choukhamba
Such that the water flowing through the tube falls into Sanskrit Sausthan, Varanassi, Page 264, 270, 2003.
the vessel. [6] Ramchandra Pandey, (Ed), Lilawati, Kkrishanadas Akadamy,
Varanassi, page 2, 134, 196, 1993.
Vessel gets filled with water and wheel starts rotating. [7] Muralidharachaturvedi, Shrimad Bhaskaracharya Pranit
Water gets poured out of the vessel and is collected in Sidhantsiromani, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Varanassi,
the tank through a channel. page 360-362, 443,470, 1998.
Time period of rotation of this wheel is constant as [8] Mohan Apte, Ganitashiromani Bhaskaracharya, Moraya
Publication, Mumbai, page 115-118, 1998.
long as water flow is constant. It was used to measure [9] S. R. Narvekar, 'Constant RPM Water wheel Clock', Proceedings
the time which was based on revolutions made by the of 12th National Conf. on Machines & Mechanisms 2005, India,.
wheel. page236-242,2005.