Waterpower Technology in India: Traditional Knowledge


Nataraj Dasgupta

Curator, Central Research & Training Laboratory

(National Council of Science Museums)





One of the areas in which India's traditional knowledge systems have developed and survived from pre-historic to contemporary times is that of the development and management of water resources. In the context of South Asia, a wide variety of engineering and water-related systems were developed at different geographic locations over different periods. Though the early history of the watermill in India is obscure, the ancient Indian texts dating back to the 4th century BC refer to the term cakkavattaka (turning wheel) and subsequently different forms of waterliftingdevieces. According to Greek historical tradition, India received water-mills from the Roman Empire in the early 4th century AD. Around 1150, the astronomer BhaskaraAcharya observed water-raising wheels and imagined such a wheel lifting enough water to replenish the stream driving it, effectively, ‘a perpetual motion machine’. The same machine has given rise to Traditional watermills,which have been in use in the Indian mountain region since time immemorial. This device that harnesses waterpower for local production is a symbol of local technical excellence and the traditional wisdom of the people inhabiting the mountain region. In India, experts estimate that the watermill originated somewhere in the northeastern region around the 7th century BC. The system worked harmoniously with nature for over 2700 years and is abundantly scattered across the Himalayas.


Water-lifting devices in ancient India: Origin and Mechanism


As it is in modern times, agriculture was one of the main industries in ancient India. Irrigation has been one of the chief needs in developing agriculture. The oldest evidence of the existence of water-lifting devices is furnished by the ‘scored pottery’ unearthed from the Mohenjo- Daro and Harappa excavations. In the opinion of Sir John Marshall, they were made for attachment to an appliance for raising water, similar to the modern use of water-wheel in Near and Middle East.

Mention of wells, canals and dams in the Vedas indicates that Vedic Aryans did not depend on rainfall alone for agriculture. Besides artificial devices, in areas where natural supply of water was scarce, people had to depend solely upon deep-sunk wells. The hymns ofRgveda and Atharva Veda mention aveta signifying a well, asma chakra which was a mechanical stone wheel device for drawing water from deep wells as well as ghati-chakra or ghatiyantra for lifting water.

As early as the fifth century B.C., mechanical devices, worked by animals, particularly bullocks, were known and used in India. In Astadhyayi, Panini, the celebrated grammarian, has mentioned the yugavaratra to mean the yoke and the rope or strap by which the bullocks were driven for raising water. He has also described two types of wells, the karkandhu and the shakandhu, the latter being a type of water-wheel probably used by the Saka tribe. In order to lift water from wells during irrigation, udamchana, a large earthen bucketwas used.


During the reign of Chandra Gupta Maurya there was an elaborate system of irrigation as is attested by Kautilya’sArthasastra and the Indica of Megasthenes. Megasthenes has described at length about the facilities provided for irrigation, while Arthasastra records the variation of water- rates with the modes of irrigation, which were four in number, viz.