7 Ancient Indian Inventions That Will Surprise You

Ancient Indians have contributed to shaping the world in ways you probably couldn’t imagine. From plastic surgeries to the conceptualization of intellectual theories, there are many extraordinary ancient Indian inventions.

Nov 1, 2020By Simran Sood, BA History and Anthropology (in-progress)
ancient indian invention
Bakhshali manuscript, the Oldest record of Zero Symbol (Dotted form), 3rd-4th century CE; Elephant-headed child Ganesha, 13th century CE; Chert cubed-weights excavated at Chanhu-daro, Indus Valley, 2400-1700 BCE


In the quest for historical and archaeological documentation, people usually observe, preserve, and interpret the in-your-face evidence. Materialistic proofs such as monuments, palaces, etc. and written sources are prioritized. Along the way, the smaller, but not insignificant, developments and historical achievements are discarded. It is important to acknowledge the involvement of such material and philosophical contributions in the progression of the march of history. We will do so below by looking at some important ancient Indian inventions.


The Indus Valley Civilization And Ancient Egyptian Inventions

terracotta bull indian invention
Terracotta bull, Indus Valley Civilization, 2600-1900 BC, via the British Museum, London


Ancient India, in this manner, has done its share of revolutionizing and popularizing its originations to the present-day human society. The Indus Valley civilization, rivaling the likes of Egyptians and Greeks, played an important role in establishing important milestones in epistemology, arts and crafts, technology, clothes and fabrics, metrology, genetics, industrial production, and every other field imaginable. Read about the antiquity and current influence of seven such ancient Indian inventions.


7. The Concept Of Zero

bakhshali manuscript zero symbol
Bakhshali manuscript, the Oldest record of Zero Symbol (Dotted form), 3rd-4th century CE, via University of Oxford


Present mathematics owes it to ancient Indian scholars for developing the skill of counting. Trading of materials and ideas was a prevalent activity between ancient India and ancient Greece, and hence, there are many records of the exchange of mathematical ideas between the two civilizations. Even though Greece is credited for contributing some opinions on the concept of zero, the world of Math was revolutionized by ancient Indians in 500 CE. 


In the long list of surprising Indian inventions, the astronomer Aryabhata is always cited for first using the expression ‘Kha’ for zero in his numbering system. Through him, zero had finally gained a positional value. Its purpose now shifted from being a mere named concept to becoming a number in its own right. 100 years later, you see another scientific genius, Brahmagupta employing the word sunya (empty), widely-used in present-day India, to denote zero. Various synonyms such as akasa (sky) are used in later years, connoting to the idea of an ‘empty circle’ and imagining the concept of zero in different forms, apart from simply tallying numbers. This is how the concept of zero transformed from an adjective to a noun (proper number).

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The notion was spread towards the Western lands by Arab traders. One important thing to remember is that zero was not conceived for computation, rather, as a part of a system used for storing numbers. Indians and Greeks, on the other hand, performed their computations on sandboards. Based on inscriptions found in these two ancient societies, there is a lot of debate as to which civilization should be credited for assigning the symbol ‘O’ to the concept of zero. 


6. Plastic Surgery: Facial Reconstruction

ganesha elephant
Elephant-headed child Ganesha with Parvati, his mother, seated on his lap, 13th century CE, via the British Museum, London


Today, the practice of plastic surgery is seemingly as important in the show business, on an international level, as having actual skills and talents. These aesthetic surgeries are certainly on the list of Indian inventions, whose mentions you will find throughout the myths and historical texts of the subcontinent. 


The theory of reconstructive surgery is recorded in Indian sources as old as 4000 years ago. Vedic records of the time retell the story of Shiva, a Supreme Hindu deity, replacing the head of his dead human son, Ganesh, with the face of an elephant baby. According to these sources, the knowledge of Ayurveda (the science of life) was passed down from Brahma, another Supreme Hindu deity, to Sushruta, the son of King of Banaras, through a chain of gods and humans acting as the connecting links.  


Sushruta then gathered all these learnings, including information about plastic surgery, in Sushruta Samhita, a section of the famous four-part religious texts called the Vedas. Many of the practices prevalent today, such as a nose job or skin grafting, are mentioned by Sushruta. He describes the surgery of rhinoplasty in great detail, with steps as informative as using the patient’s cheek or forehead flap to reconstruct a person’s nose. Another source from 4th century India discusses the use of plastic surgery in Ashtanga Hridyans by the great ancient Indian scholar Athreya.  


5. Weights: A System Of Measuring

chert cubed weights chanhu daro
Chert cubed-weights excavated at Chanhu-daro, Indus Valley, 2400-1700 BCE, via the British Museum, London


The Indus Valley civilization is an evolved and recently-discovered ancient culture. The Harrapan and the succeeding cultures of that time are credited with inventing many of the common things we use today, especially in the system of measuring— for instance, the ruler and the weights. In the 1930s, fifty-eight cubed weights were discovered at Chanhudaro, an archeological site of the Indus Valley civilization which can be located in modern-day Pakistan. 


The Indian inventions, dated 2400-1700 BCE, were made using the decimal and binary mathematical systems of measurement. The pieces discovered were multi-colored, made of different sands, and came in different shapes and sizes. Metrologists estimate that the stones were first shaped with a chisel, and then stroked on smooth surfaces till the required mass amount was achieved. 


The Indus Valley people were extremely careful in producing these weights. Over time and space, with a gap as wide as seven centuries, the level and degree of precision of the mass weight remained very accurate, with a margin error more or less than only two percent. In addition to their mastery at hand-crafting, the weight range establishes that the Indus people were also aware of the usage of the powers of ten, the basis of the decimal system, and also employed numbers of large values in their computations.


4. Chess: Originally Four Players

ivory chess piece
Ivory chest-piece, a man seated on two horses, 17th century, India, via The British Museum, London


Chess is considered a game for intellectually evolved people. However, even in olden times, the model of Chaturanga (the four divisions), the most famous one out of the two premature Indian inventions of the board game, was played by the Indians. Robert Caplan designates the time of development for the strategy game anywhere between 3000 BCE – 500 CE. The game reached Persia and Europe through the Arabs. 


This infant Indian invention of chess had 64 squares and unlike its present counterpart, was played by four people instead of two. Each player had eight pieces: four pawns, king, bishop, knight, and rook. Alternatively, in place of a six-faced dice, an oblong one was used. In addition, the players facing each other were allied and two teams were formed based on the opposing directions of their seating positions.  


In a general understanding, chess is attributed to have first been mentioned in the Puranas, a collection of 18 religious texts in ancient Indian literature. Legend says that to amuse Ravana, the villain of the epic Ramayana, with imagery of warfare, his wife invented the game of chess. Mahabharata, another Indian saga, recounts how the Pandava brother Yudhishthira lost his kingdom, estates, riches and even, his wife to the sly Shakuni in a game of dice. 


3. Cotton: Natural Fibers And Cultivation

indian man and woman punjabi cotton
Indian man and woman of Punjabi descent card cotton, (possible) geographical successors of Indus natives, 19th century, India, via The British Museum, London


Arguably, cotton is the most commercialized commodity in the world. With another achievement under its belt in the long list of Indian inventions, Indus Valley civilization had started growing cotton way before anyone else. While the ancient Greeks adorned goatskins and other animal hides as clothing, ancient Indians had started cultivating cotton in the 5th-4th millennium BCE.


Greek philosopher Herodotus describes Indian cotton as “a wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of sheep”. Other accounts describe Indian cotton to be “woven in winds”. The Arab merchants carried the notion of cotton cultivation to Greece and then Europe in 800 CE. The oldest cotton thread, dated to the Neolithic age, was found at the archeological site of Mehrgarh and Rakhigarhi. 


The Indian invention cotton has been a part of its national identity for many centuries. The colonial desire for the trade of cotton fabrics was a driving factor behind British imperialism in 17th century India. Hence, the charkha, cotton spinning wheel, and khadi, plain cotton cloth, were symbolic of the struggles of the Indian independence movement in the mid-1900s.


2. Yoga: Connection Of Mind And Body

yoga narasimha vishnu man lion
Yoga Narasimha in powerful discipline pose, Vishnu in his Man-Lion Avatar, 1250 CE, South India, via Yoga: The Art of Transformation Exhibition, Cleveland Museum of Art


The term yoga has varied meanings in the Sanskrit lexicon, ranging from the noun chariot (200 BCE–400 CE) to the union of the body with God. It is in the 3rd century BCE we see that the God of Death makes the comparison of the body and intellect to the rider and the chariot. In the text Kathaka Upanisad, Nachiketa, the youngest brother of Pandavas, is made privy to the three foundations of yoga: the importance and physiology of the human body; the connection of the individual to the Supreme being; and, the components of the mind and body.  


Buddhist and Jain schools of philosophical thought also embody the yogic theory in the later years. Between 300 BCE-400 CE, the Yogic theory had been immortalized into some core principles that influence our understanding of the concept in this day and age. It employed all forms of human philosophy: cognition, perception, divine and supernatural knowledge, and consciousness. 


Two stances on the modern popularized practice of Yoga stop it from being incorporated everywhere for the global good. The elitist Christian yoga-phobic mentality on one hand, and the listing of yoga amongst Indian inventions, do not allow the followers of Christianity and Hinduism to intermingle with this notion. The idea of globalization and an inter-connected world dies out as these groups resist the acceptance of cultural realities different from their own.


1. Cataract: An Indian Invention In Medicine

sushruta samhita palm leaf
Sushruta Samhita Palm Leaf, 12th-13th century, Nepal, via Los Angeles County Museum of Art


The Bower Manuscript, named after the discoverer who unearthed the Sushruta Samhita (the book of medicine) in Turkestan, 1890, details the possible variety of procedures and diseases for the benefit of humankind. The translation by Bhisgratna in 1907 recognizes the physician Sushruta, as the writer, and for his contributions to the philosophical and procedural theories of medicine. In this book, there is mention of couching, the operation used in the treatment of cataract. 


Sushruta describes the procedure of cataract-couching. He outlines the removal of cataract in various steps, by the use of a pointed instrument. The main task is to disturb the lens material, take it to the back of the eye and burst it with an incision. He cleans the eye with butter and advises to rest it for 10 days. The stages of the procedure are as detailed and descriptive as his instructions on skin flap removal for a nose job. 


Many modern-day ophthalmologists, namely eye doctors, refute that the form of ‘couching’ performed by Sushruta cannot be considered the correct procedure. According to them, Jacques Daviel introduced the method of extracapsular cataract surgery in the 1700s. 


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By Simran SoodBA History and Anthropology (in-progress)Simran works independently as a writer and researcher. She is a student of History and Anthropology. Currently, she is assisting in the writing of an archaeological and historical book. She is also a part-time assistant for philosopher Volker Zotz. When she’s not busy typing at the rate of sixty words per minute, you can find her lazing around and hopelessly devouring historical romance dramas.