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SECONDARY TOOLS OF EMPIRE:Jesuit Men of Science in India (1994)

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(Source: ‘Discoveries, Missionary Expansion and Asian Cultures’,  edited by Teotonio R. de Souza ( New Delhi :Concept Publishing Company) 1994, pp.175-183)


The arrival of St. Francis Xavier at Goa on 6th May. 1542, is an even of singular importance. He was the first Jesuit in India, and man others were to follow him for the next two hundred years. Although the spread of the Christian faith was the most important plan of the Jesuits, their activities had a scientific dimension about them also, being the First European men of learning in India. In this paper I will describe their scientific activities and discuss their impact on later political developments.’


The Portuguese arrived in India even before the Mughals did While the latter entered through the traditional north-western landgate, the former came by sea and settled on the west coast. The Portuguese introduced a new parameter, navy, in India’s geopolitical equations, placing the Mughals at a permanent disadvantage for a limes to come. The year of Xavier’s arrival in India was also the yea of Akbar’s birth. The latter’s fascination for elephants was legendary We can compare the Mughal empire itself loan elephant, which  powerful on land. The Portuguese were the crocodile which control led the waters. Because of his interest in comparative theology an probably also due to his apprehension about the Portuguese sea borne power. Akbar invited in 1580, a Jesuit mission to his court.  This led to the establishment of a church and a Jesuit mission at Agra which continued till 1803.


As long as the Mughal empire was powerful, the European remained confined lo the coastal regions, outside imperial zone of influence and minded their business. They did take an interest in botany.  This is natural, because after all it was the lure of the culinary plants that had brought them to these parts in the First place. Interest in plants was beneficial and profitable, because of their medicinal, commercial, and curiosity value in Europe. While the European traders had a good idea about India’s coast-line, they were ignorant about the country’s interior, having had no reason to venture there, nor being equipped for the task. Geographical exploration was left to the Jesuits, who had the training, the lime, and the opportunity to criss-cross the country. They had also the necessary discipline to make careful observations, to record them faithfully, and to transmit them regularly.  In Europe, these reports were dutifully preserved, yet ignored. Europe was not as yet ready for India.


In the eighteenth century, the collapse of the Mughal empire produced a political vacuum.  The European vaishya outfits developed kshatriya ambitions, and knowing post-Plassey India became a paying proposition. Jesuit data were now dug up and put to use. Colonial geographers avidly scanned the 34 Jesuit volumes of Lettres Edifiantes el Curieuses. Interestingly, an abridged translation in two volumes was edited in London in 1743 by John Lockman entitled, Travels of the Jesuits into Various Parts of the world. He deleted accounts of conversions and miracles,  as being ‘quite insipid or ridiculous lo most English readers, and indeed to all persons of understanding and taste’. English readers were interested undoubtedly only in those parts of the work which furthered their overseas interests. A fresh edition was published in Paris between 1780 and 1783 in 26 volumes by Ouerbocuft, who conveniently arranged the letters in geographical order. Volumes I0 lo 15 give information about India. This compilation is however largely devoted to the French missionaries, with the Mughal Mission being very poorly represented.


Traditionally, the conquerors entered India from the north-west and moved eastwards, leaving the southern part alone. (Aurungzeb brought an end to the Mughal power by needlessly trying to subdue the south, and the Marathas ruined themselves by trying to extend their hold right up to Delhi). In contrast, the Europeans, coming as they did by sea. were First interested in south India, and later in the eastern, central and northern parts. This is therefore the order in which geographical information about India was sought and incorporated into the main body of European knowledge, irrespective of the order in which this information was First obtained.


Fr. Anthony Monserrate (1536-1600)


Chronologically speaking, the first Jesuit geographer in India was Fr. Anthony Monserrate even though his work was unnoticed for 200 years.3 Born at Vie de Ozona, 30 miles from Monserrate in Catalonia (Spain), he joined the Order in 1558 and left for India in 1574. He was chosen lo be a member of the first Jesuit mission to Akbar’s court and was asked by his superiors at Goa to keep a diary. This he did most faithfully, adding greatly to its value by his geographical and astronomical observations. On his journey from Surat to Fatehpur Sikri in 1580, .he made a survey and took observations for latitude. When in 1581, Akbar marched to Kabul against his half-brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim, he took him along for continuing the tuition of his second son Murad (1570-99). He encouraged Monserrate to take observations en route, which he did as far as Jalalabad.


Akbar however did not seem to have shown any interest in the data collected by Monserrate, who kepi it with himself when he returned from the mission. 


On the basis of his observations, Monserrate prepared in about 1590 a small map.5½” X 41/8” in size. This little map was a tremendous improvement on all previous efforts. It was based on actual observations rather than on travellers’ tales. It gave a better idea of the Himalayas and of the upper course of the Punjab rivers than Rennell had done nearly 200 years later. Expectedly, Monserrate did not have any knowledge about regions east of the Yamuna. Studied today, one notices that he had placed Surat east of Goa instead of west of Goa, and that the map is four degrees too far to the east. But keeping in mind the limes when it was first prepared and when it was first used, its value cannot be under-estimated4.


Monserrate’s geographical endeavour belongs lo the category of historical romance rather than to that of historical compulsion. The Jesuit Mughal Mission operated under the Portuguese patronage, but the latter soon became redundant in the European power-game. Indeed, ironically. Monserrate’s work done when the Jesuit mission was established, came to light only when the mission ended.


The French who were the last of the Europeans lo arrive in India and became semi-finalists in the power-game, acted as patrons to the French Jesuits. Thanks to the Jesuits, French were more successful on the scientific front than on the colonial.


Fr. Jean-Venant Bouchet (1655-1732)


The first dependable map of the interior of the southern peninsula was due lo the efforts of Fr. Jean-Venant Bouchet who had the distinction of arriving in India from the east rather than from the west.5 Born at Fontenay-le-Comte in France, he joined the Society in 1670 and was a member of the expedition sent to Siam in 1687 by king Louis XIV. There were 14 Jesuits in all, formally designated as The Mathematicians of the King’. They arrived in Siam in 1688, but were expelled the same year as a result of a revolution that overthrew the king. The missionaries left for India, but only three survived the or- deal and reached Pondicherry on 17th February, 1689, two of them being Fr. Bouchet and Fr. Jean Richaud. It is not clear who the third Jesuit was. On arrival in India, Bouchet joined the Madura Mission, but left it in 1702 to set up the Carnatic Mission.


Bouchet covered the Coromandel coast on foot, made astronomical observations at Pondicherry, and prepared maps and sketches. In 1719 Bouchet sent to France his map of Madurai and the neighboring kingdoms, extending it to slightly north of latitude 14° N. Obviously there was some sort of coordination between the Jesuit data collectors on the one hand, and the French commercial and political interests, on the other. Because of the map being drawn by a small scale of not quite an inch to one degree of latitude and consequently not capable of giving the countries in any considerable detail, the Jesuits sent over several manuscript charts, and other materials, from which D’Anville composed a new map. It was drawn by a scale nearly twice as large as the former, and was a great deal more particular as well as accurate, and extended further north.6 D’Anville published his map of the southern Peninsula in 1737 and followed it by his famous Carte de Linde in 1752. An important feature of this map was that he left blank very conscientiously those parts of India, about which he did not have authentic knowledge. The significance of D’Anvillc’s efforts can be judged from the fact that his Memoirs were translated, annotated, and published with a reprint of his map in London in 1754 rind 1759.7


Bouchet’s companion Fr. Richaud discovered in 1689 that the bright southern star Alpha Centauri was in fact a double slur. This was the second binary ever discovered. Earlier in 1685 Jesuit, Fr. Fontenay, had discovered from the Cape of Good Hope the First binary Alpha Crucis. Richaud’s was the first credited astronomical discovery from India.


Fr. Claude Stanislaus Boudier (1686-1757)


The next stage was the geographical exploration of Hindustan (North India) undertaken by Fr. Claude Stanislaus Boudier. Born at Sens in France, Boudier left France for Chandernagore in Bengal in 1718. His chance to traverse north India came about as a result of astronomical pursuits of Raja Jai Singh Sawai of Jaipur, who wanted the Jesuit lo visit him for scientific consultations.  Accordingly, Boudier and another Jesuit, Pons, set out from Chandernagore on 6th January, 1734. ‘On their arrival they seem unfortunately to have wasted much time in disputing with the local Brahmins as to the extent to which Indian astronomy was indebted to the ancient Greeks’. The two Jesuits worked at Jaipur during August and September 1734 and returned to Chandernagore about a year later.8


The Jesuit mission was no doubt a failure from Jai Singh Sawai’s point of view. But seen from the colonial angle it was a huge success. During his journeys to and fro, Boudier Fixed the longitude and latitude of many important places, and kept a survey of his route between Agra and Allahabad. His Memoir gave ‘the description of places on this road (between Agra and Bengal)… With the computed distance of each from the course of the Gernne (Jamna) and the Ganges’. Boudiers’ work was used extensively by D’Anville and by his British counterpart, Rennell. D’Anville used Boudier’s value for the latitude of Madras in preference to any other. Rennell depended on Boudier for his 1774 general map of Bengal, and used his values as late as 1793.9


Fr. Joseph Tieffenthaler (1710-1785)


A rather pathetic Figure was Fr. Joseph Tieffenthalere who survived the dissolution of the Society of Jesus in 1773 by working under the British auspices.10 Born at Bolzana in the Austrian Tyrol, he joined the Order in 1729, and left Germany for Spain in 1740. In 1742 he sailed from Lisbon for Goa by way of the Philippines. He reached (Goa in 1743, He was apparently intended originally for the Jaipur Observatory, but Raja Jai Singh’s death in 1743 cut short these plans. He was accordingly sent to Agra to work at the Jesuit College there.  Shortly afterwards, he began his wanderings to Mathura, Delhi, Narwar, Goa, Surat, Jodhpur, Ajmer, Jaipur, Gwalior, and to innumerable other places. In 1747, he commenced service as a priest at the Bourbon Colony at Narwar, where he remained for about eighteen years.


Meanwhile, in 1759 the king of Portugal had banished all Jesuits from Portuguese dominions. Consequently, the Jesuit presence at Goa ceased, and with this the Mughal Mission as a Jesuit enterprise ‘may be said lo have come to an end.’ Tieffenthaler found himself in such Financial straits that in 1756 he boldly decided to appeal for financial help lo the ‘famous English nation so well known for their humanity, liberality and charity to the poor’. He travelled to Calcutta keeping surveys of the way. Apparently he found the help he needed and settled in Oudh for the rest of his life, making Lucknow his head-quarters. Till 1771 he was continually on the  move making astronomical observations and surveys, employing also one or more local assistants ‘versed in geography’, whom he sent lo explore the sources of the Ganga and the Gogra.


Tieffenthaler was a tireless explorer. ‘Next to the salvation of souls, and their conquest for God, nothing has afforded me greater pleasure than the study of the geographical position of places, the variations of winds, the nature of the soil, and the character and manners of the regions through which I am travelling’. The publication history of his works makes interesting reading. In 1772 or 1773 he sent a voluminous collection of his works in Latin to a Prof. Krat Zenstein through the agency of a Dutch doctor, whom he had met in India.  He sent other material lo the French orientalist Anquetil Duperron, who was in India between 1755 and 1764, three of which he had spent at Surat collecting Parsi manuscripts.


In 1771 Duperron published the First European translation of Zend Avesta.11 In 1759, when he was at Surat and Tieffenthaler at Narwar. the two were in correspondence with each other. Suddenly in 1776, Duperron received from Tieffenthaler (then at Faizabad) a packet of maps (including a 15-ft long map of Ganga) and some loose papers. Duperron very promptly prepared a treatise on these maps and in 1776 itself published it in the. Journal des Savants making it a point to mention Tieffenthaler’s unattended Copenhagen works. This publication spurred the German astronomer and mathematician Joseph Bernoulli, at the lime professor at Berlin. He obtained Tieffenthaler’s geographical work Descriptio Indiae from Copenhagen, and collaborated with Duperron on its translation and publication along with that of an expanded version of Duperron’s treatise.. The work was published in three volumes in German (1785-87) as well as in French (1786-89). Bernoulli’s publication reached Rennell in England in time for Tieffenthaler’s work to be incorporated into his map of 1788.


Thomas Call in India had already received copies from Tieffenthaler himself. Call’s Atlas of India embodies Routes taken between Goa and Agra by Padri Tieffenthaler; A Survey of the country N.W. of Delhi by Padries Windell and Tieffenthaler.


Fr. Francis Xavier Wendel (d. 1803)


The sad state of the last days of the Moghul Mission is best epitomised by the rather shadowy Fr. Francis Xavier Wendel who along with Tieffenthaler survived the mission. He came to India in 1751 and resided at Agra and Lucknow for the greater part of his life. Though many of his flock were French, he was pro-British in his leanings to the extent that the Commandant at Chandernagore wrote to the Minister in Paris accusing him of being a British agent.12


Wendel was closely associated with Tieffenthaler in geographical pursuits. In 1764, he sent Duperron a map showing the strategic position of the Mughal and British armies at the time of the battle of Buscar. He was the author of A Memoir on the Land of the Rajputs and other Provinces lo the South and South West of Agra, with a map which, he drew up in 1779, and presented to Rennell, who was much indebted to Wendal in the preparation of his own great map of Hindustan. In 1780, Wendel met a Russian named Czernichef who had travelled from Bukhara through Kashmir to Lucknow, and communicated his diary to Col. Francis Wilford at Benares.


Wendel died on 20th March, 1803, and like Tieffenthaler was buried at Agra. With his death, the last links with the Mughal Mission were snapped.


Monserrate revisited


In the very early years of the nineteenth century, more than 200 years after its completion, Monserrate’s work was dusted out of the archival shelves and incorporated into the corpus of geographical knowledge. The time was not fortuitous. The struggle for territorial control over India was almost over, and the British were Finally at Delhi. The territory west of Delhi was now of strategic importance. In 1804 Francis Wilford of the Bengal Engineers brought out a valuable Map of the Countries West of Delhi. This map was a tremendous improvement on any thing that had been produced before.  It stretched as far as Sukkur and Dera Ghazi Khan on the south-west, Kabul on the west, and to Chitral and Gilgit in the north. For the collection of the material he employed a surveyor, Mirza Mogul Beg between 1786 and 1796, and made use of Fr. Monserrate’s manuscript.13 


It is reasonably certain that a copy of Monserrate’s manuscript journal was kept at the Jesuit college at Agra, from where it was taken by Tieffenthaler, who may have passed it on to Wilford in 1784 one year before his own death. Monserrate’s work thus neatly brackets the Mughal history. It was prepared when the Mughal empire was first established. It was made use of by the British when they reached the Mughal capital and formally deprived the titular emperor of his sovereignty.




The eighteenth century saw a bitter struggle between the two European powers, Britain and France, for territorial control of India. The European military might could have been of decisive use against the native kings only if the lay of the land was known to the foreigners. Accurate geographical information of the country came from the Jesuits who had the training, time, and the opportunity to criss-cros: the country. The French were more successful on the geographica front than on the colonial. The first reliable map of India was the work of D’Anville, achieved no doubt because of his easy access to the meticulous field-work done by the Jesuits.


Interestingly, the history of the Agra-based Jesuit Mughal Mission tells us much about the history of the increasing European involvement in India. In 1579 when Akbar invited Jesuits to his court from Goa, there were apprehensions that he, incensed at Portuguese affrontry on the sea, might hold the Jesuits as hostages. Two hundred years later in 1765 Tieffenthaler, already disowned by Portugal and soon to be disowned by the Pope, successfully appealed to the British at Calcutta for financial help for his geographical and exploratory pursuits. And finally Wendel, the last remnant of the mission, was openly accused by the demoralized French of being a British agent.


We have seen that the geographical work done by the Jesuits ii India was of great value to the French and British colonial interests It will be interesting lo Find out whether these interests directly or in directly influenced the Jesuit aims in India and whether the Jesuits perceived the use lo which their work was being put to.





1.                    R  K.  Kochhar,  “Science in British India”.  I.  Colonial tool, Current Science, 1992, pp.                              63,689.

2.                    E. Maclagan, The Jesuits and the Great Mogul, London, 1932, p. 15.

3.                    lbid.,p.l48.

4.                    R. H. Phillimore, Historical Records of the Survey of India, Vol. I, Dehra Dun,1945.

5.                    Kochhar, “French Astronomers in India during the 17th-19th Centuries,” J. Br.Astr.                                    Assoc., 1991, pp. 95, 101.

6.                    Phillimore, op. cit., p. 238.

7.                    lbid.,p.2l0.

8.                    Maclagan, op. cit., p. 134; Phillimore, op. cit., p. 314.

9.                    Ibid.,p. 314.

10.                 Ibid., p. 137; Phillimore, op. cit., p. 388; Noti; S.. Joseph Tieffenthaler, S.J., Bombay, 1906.

11.                 Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 4, p. xv.

12.                 Maclagan, op. cit., p. 141; Pbillimore, op. cit., p. 395.

13.                 Phillimore, op. cit., p. 395.





Posted in Blogs (Articles) on May 28th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment


Vistas in Astronomy, Vol. 34, pp. 69–105, 1991 



R. K. Kochhar

Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore 560034, India



1. Ancient and medieval times

2. Use of telescope in the 17th century

3. Advent of modern astronomy in the 18th century

4. Madras Observatory (1786-1899)

5. Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (1800)

6. Lucknow Observatory (1831-49)

7. Trivandrum Observatory (1837-52)

8: Poona non-observatory

9. 19th century astronomy – a critique

10. Advent of physical astronomy (1874)

11. Takhtasinghji’s Observatory Poona (1888-1912)

12. Kodaikanal Observatory (1899)

13. Nizamiah Observatory (1901)

14. Uttar Pradesh State Observatory, Naini Tal (1954)

15. Concluding remarks




India, as can be expected from an ancient culture, has a long astronomical tradition.

The earliest interest in astronomy was in determining the four directions for ritualistic

purposes, in making rather inexact calendars, and in observing stars near the zodiac as a

guide to the motion of the sun and the moon. The development of mathematical astronomy

in India came about as a result of interaction with Greece in the post-Alexandrian period.

The leading figure in this modernization of Indian astronomy was Aryabhata I, who was

born in AD 476 and completed his influential work, Aryabhatiya 1 , in AD 499.

The main occupation of Indian astronomers for the next thousand years was the

precise calculation of the planetary orbits and developing algorithms for the solution of

the mathematical equations that arose in the process.

In the Indian scheme of things, there was hardly any place for observation. Stars were

not studied, and observations were made only to the extent that they were required for

carrying on planetary calculations. The instruments used were rather simple: a waterclock,

a sundial, and an armillary sphere.

The indifference of the ancient Indians towards observation is tellingly illustrated by

the pioneering Aryabhatiya itself. Theoretical planetary calculations require three empirical

input parameters: earth’s diameter, the distance to the moon, and the distance to

the sun. There is no clue whatsoever in Aryabhata’s work as to where he obtained these


Aryabhata takes the earth’s diameter to be 1050 yojanas. It is not possible to compare

this value with any other because yojana is not a standard length. (In fact, Aryabhata

defined his own yojana so that 10 yojanas equal one arcminute of the moon’s orbit). The

distances to the sun and the moon, being in units of earth radii, can however be compared

with others.

Aryabhata places the moon at 60½ earth radii and the sun at 875½ earth radii. These

values are different from, and in fact less accurate than, the values of Hipparchus (d. ca.

125 BC) who devised the method of obtaining them from the simultaneous observation of

solar eclipse from two stations on the same meridian.

Presumably Aryabhata obtained his values of these parameters from his own observations

of a solar eclipse.

Now, there is a strong tradition that Aryabhata’s birth place Ashmaka was in what

is now the south Indian state of Kerala. If this is true (not all scholars agree on this)

then Aryabhata could have observed the total solar eclipse of AD 493 January 4, whose

path passed through Kerala. Interestingly, Kerala has a legend that Aryabhata and his

son Devarajan were excommunicated from their caste for the double sin of going to the

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 71

sea and observing the eclipse 2. In any case the legend implies the existence of the practice

of eclipse observations.

It should be realized that Hindu astronomers treated astronomical results as revelations

rather than deductions. The results were therefore preserved in the format used in

the (divine) Rig Veda, that is as terse shlokas composed in the rigid framework of metre.

In this format there was no place even for details of mathematical calculations or scientific

arguments, let alone for observations that were in any case not considered to be important.

The introduction of the Arabs to astronomy came from translation of Indian texts.

Given the formidability of these texts, which can only have been compounded in translation,

it is probably not surprising that the Arabs decided to specialize in observational

astronomy, rather than dabble in planetary calculations.

The first Indian astronomer in the Arab experimental mould was Mahendra Suri who

in AD 1370 culled a small 32-star catalogue from Ptolemy’s catalogue, and wrote a treatise

on astrolabe, or yantraraja 3.

In the early 18th century Raja 3ai Singh set out to update the tables Ulugh Beg (1394-

1449) had prepared 300 years previously, in 1436. He built huge immovable masonry

instruments which he himself had designed, on the pattern of brass instruments of the

Arab-Persian school. Jai Singh built five observatoriesa,4: in 1724 at Delhi; in 1734 at his

newly founded capital Jaipur; and later smaller ones at Mathura; Ujjain; and Varanasi


Before building these structures Jai Singh did experiment with brass instruments, but

decided against them for a number of reasons: they were faulty, because of their mobility

and size; the axes became worn and the instruments untrue; the graduations were too

small for fine measurements, etc.

Obviously Jai Singh had no idea about the theory of errors, nor did he realize that

small instruments have the great asset that they can be improved upon in the light of the

user’s experience.

In addition, unlike the case of ~’~rance and England, there were no compelling reasons

for him to use his not inconsiderable influence to develop technology to achieve the desired

accuracy in metal. He then decided to build his observatories in the famous Indian tradition

of palaces and temples. The very fact that he headed the observatory himself rather than

offer full-time appointment to his ‘assistant’ Jagannath shows that for him it was a case

of what we may call vijnan vilas (science as a royal pastime or diversion). To appreciate

the term it must be remembered that it was customary for Rajas and Maharajas to give

names like Raj vilas, 3ai vilas or Lakshmi vilas to their palaces.

Ironically, Jai Singh’s instruments are less accurate than Ulugh Beg’s. Jai Singh’s two

72 R.K. Kochhar

quadrants (in ~amrat yantra, i.e., equal-hour sun dial) are of radius 49.5 ft(at Delhi) and

49 ft 10 in. (at Jaipur) whereas Ulugh Beg’s sextant had a radius of 132 ft. Ulugh Beg

could achieve a precision of 2-4 arcseconds, whereas Jai Singh’s accuracy is of the order of

a couple of arcminutes 3,4.

Thus with all his enthusiasm and personal efforts Jai Singh remains a historical

anachronism. Intellectually he belonged to the long-past medieval astronomical tradition,

even though chronologically he lived in the modem age of astronomy.


It is interesting to note that telescopes were used from India in the 17th century itself.

The earliest use appears to have been in 1651, barely 40 years after its use by Galileo.

Jeremiah Shakerley (1626 – ca 1655), known in English astronomical circles s as one of

the earliest followers of Kepler, emigrated to Surat in west India. He observed the 1651

transit of Mercury, but could time neither the ingress nor egress. His effort thus remains

a historical curiosity 6. Shakerley also observed a comet in 1652.

In 1689, Father Jean Richaud, a French Jesuit priest made astronomical observations

from Pondicherry in south India, and discovered the binary nature of the bright star Alpha

Centanri. In fact, the visiting Jesuit priests were the earliest users of the telescope in India

for geographical purposes, although their observations were not made use of till there arose

colonial compulsions to learn about India’s geography.

In the early 18th century, Raja Jai Singh himself owned a telescope, but apparently

it was not of much use to him.

These telescopic swallows however did not make an Indian astronomical summer.


Modern astronomy could take root in India only in the later half of the 18th century,

when it was pressed into service as a geographical aid.

As the British East India Company’s non-trading activities increased and it came

to control more and more territory, many of its officers started making for their own

amusement astronomical observations for the determination of latitudes and longitudes.

Surveying instruments were thus in great demand. They could be purchased from England

or from the captains and crew of the European ships. When an officer died or left the

country, his surveying instruments would find ready buyers. In the early days, it was not

the policy of the Company to supply surveying instruments to its officers. But a small

stock of surveying instruments – sextants, quadrants, theodolites, clocks, telescopes, etc. –

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 73

Figure 1. A page from SarnraZ Siddhan~a (the supreme text book), the Sanskrit translation

of Ptolemy’s Almagest; ordered by Jai Singh,

Figure 2. A 1790 pencil and wash sketch of Jai Singh’s Delhi Observatory by the uncle and

nephew team of Thomas and William Daniell. The sketch (28 in. x 51 in.) was executed

on three sheets of paper and pasted together (from P.Pal & V.Dehejia: From Merchants

to Emperors, Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca & London, 1986).

74 R.K. Kochhar

(3) (4)

Figure 3. Astronomical clock by John Shelton, presumably made for the transit of Venus

of 1769. Identical to the one used by Capt. James Cook, this was a part of the private

observatory William Petrie set up at Madras in 1786. The clock is now at Kodaikanal,

and still in use.

Figure 4. Michael Topping (1747-1796), who founded the East India Company’s Observatory,

Madras, using William Petrie’s private observatory as a nucleus (from ref. 7)

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 75

Figure 5. A 1792 sketch (retouched) of the Madras Observatory building. The single room

Observatory was later expanded. The original buildings have long been demolished. The

18 ft conical granite pillar that served as a pedestal for the early telescopes can still be

seen at the original site.

• :.~ i*: .-

• . :: ‘:,’_ ,.

Figure 6. Portrait of John Warren (1769-1830) as a boy T. A direct descendent of William

the Conqueror through his youngest daughter Gondrada, Jean-Baptiste Francois Joseph

de Warren (the 24th Comte de Warren) served in the army under the future Duke of

Wellington and officiated as the Madras Astronomer during 1805-11. His 1807 value of the

Madras longitude continued to be used in the official maps for about 100 years, till 1905.

76 R.K. Kochhar

Figure 7. John Goldingharn swinging a Kater’s pendulum in front of a clock by Haswell

at Madras in 1821. The second Assistant, Thiruvenkatachari, is reading the clock, while

the first Assistant, Shrinivasachari, sitting near the pillar is noting down the reading (from

Phil. Trans., 1822. The original colour painting sent with the manuscript can be seen at

the Royal Society of London).

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960

was gradually built up by purchases from England or from within the country 7.


The transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 saw a flurry of astronomical activity. At the

request of the Royal Society of London, the company sent out reflecting telescopes, clocks,

and astronomical quadrants for the observation of the 1769 transit from various places.

The King of France deputed Guillaume Le Gentil (1725-1792) to observe from Pondicherry

the transits of 1761 and 1769. He could observe neither, but spent the time determining

the longitude of Pondicherry with respect to Greenwich and Paris.

An early British observer was the Calcutta-based Colonel Thomas Dean Pearse

(174112 – 1789) who made observations of longitude and latitude from 1774 to 1779. He

participated in the 1781-84 Mysore war and made observations on his march to and from

Madras 7,s. He used a clock by Ellicot; and a number of instruments: (i) transit instrument

by Jonathan Sisson; (ii) a ‘tolerably good’ Hadley’s quadrant and quicksilver, replaced in

1776 December by (iii) Ramsden’s inverting land quadrant with a micrometer; (iv) Hadley’s

wooden octant and quicksilver (used in 1782); (v) A 15 inches radius land quadrant by

B.Martin, belonging to the Company. It had been used by William Hirst during the 1761

transit of Venus; (vi) An 18 inches focus reflector: by Gregory, with a brass stand, replaced

in 1777 by (vii) a triple-glass Dollond refractor with a double-glass micrometer.

The early observers had to employ a lot of ingenuity. Pearse 9 modified Hadley’s

wooden octant so that he could take angles of 150 ° and consequently meridian altitudes

as far as 75 °. Similarly he modified the Dollond refractor: ‘And I made a polar axis for

it of brass with rack work, and a declination circle not divided, which also is racked; to

which when the micrometer was used, the telescope was fixed’.

In 1787, the Company purchased the following instruments for survey work 7 in

Bengal by Reuben Burrow (1747-92) one time assistant to the Astronomer Royal Nevil


Arnold’s chronometer Sicca Rs 1000;

Astronomical quadrant Rs 200;

DoUond’s achromatic telescope Rs 360.

A sicca rupee was a new rupee; after two or three years of use, it was at a small discount.

Burrow’s 1789 proposal for an astronomical observatory was brusquely turned down

by the Company 7, so that individual efforts at Calcutta did not have any cumulative effect.

In contrast, Madras turned out to be more congenial for matters scientific, thanks to the

practical requirements there.


In the 1780s the East India Company was already a big landlord on the east coast

78 R.K. Kochhar

of India. Its geographical and navigational needs now came to the fore: (i) To survey

the territories it already had; (ii) to increase revenue earnings; (iii) to ensure safety of sea

passages; and (iv) to learn about the geography of the country the British were increasingly

getting involved with. Astronomy was thus required for navigational and geographical

purposes. As the sea traffic increased, the limitations of the Coromandel coast became

abundantly clear. The Bay of Bengal is affected by monsoons for seven months in the

year. Company ships that took barely six days between Calcutta and Madras in the

winter months December – April could require 4-6 weeks at other times.

In addition, or perhaps as a consequence, the Coromandel coast is rocky, full of shoals,

and without safe landing for the Indiamen, which therefore were often wrecked.

A survey of the coast was thus literally a matter of life and death, and eventually

in 1785 a trained surveyor-astronomer, Michael Topping (1747-96), was sent out from

England, passage paid, and equipped with surveying instruments l°. He has been called r

‘the most talented and highly qualified all round surveyor that served the East India

Company during the 18th century’.

This is the place to introduce another character in the story, who along with Topping,

was responsible for the establishment of a public observatory at Madras, the first one

outside Europe. William Petrie joined the civil service 11 on arrival at Madras on 1765

June 25. Starting at the lowest rung as a writer (or a clerk), he rose to become a senior

merchant in 1776. He served in the Governor’s Council many times during 1790 – 1800

(the dates are variously given). Petrie officiated as the Governor for a short period from

1807 September until December. He left India in 1812 to take over as the Governor of

Prince of Wales Island (Penang, Malaysia) where he died on 1816 October 27.

Petrie was not only an influential civil servant but enlightened also. He was himself

an astronomer, and in 1799 ehthusiastically supported Major Lambton’s proposal for a

trigonometrical survey of peninsular India. Not much is known about the personal life of

Petrie; his mother Margaret was the daughter of Andrew Waugh of Selkirk (Ref 7, Vol IV,


In 1786 November Topping set out by land on his survey of the coast north of Madras,

and returned the next February 12. In 1786 itself Petrie set up an iron-and-timber

observatory 13 at his ll-acre residence at Egmore, Madras, and furnished it with his own

instruments. The next year, he hired a Danish youth John Goldingham (later FIRS, d.1849)

as his assistant.

Petrie’s observatory fulfilled the long-felt need for a reference meridian in British India

and immediately became India’s Greenwich.

In 1788 January when Topping was sent on the coastal survey south of Madras, he

arranged for Petrie’s observatory to be occupied in public service. Goldingham was now

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 79

hired at a monthly salary of 15 pagodas (as against Topping’s 192) to make observations

of Jupiter’s satellites at Madras corresponding to Topping’s field observations 7. [1 gold

pagoda = 3½ rupees = 8 shillings].

When in 1789, Petrie left for England on a short visit he placed the Observatory in

Topping’s charge, offering it as a gift to the Government. Being made of iron and timber

it could be removed and rebuilt.

Topping, backed by Petrie himself, made a strong plea to the government for nationalization

of this observatory, pointing out 7 ‘it is doubtless from considerations of this nature

that the Hon’ble Court [of Directors] have come to the resolution of thus affording their

support to a science to which they are indebted for the sovereignty of a rich and extensive


On 1790 May 19 the Court of Directors decided to accept Petrie’s offer and to establish

an observatory for T ‘promoting the knowledge of Astronomy, Geography and Navigation

in India’.

In 1791 a garden house was purchased at Nungambakkara, Madras, while the instruments

were removed to the Fort because of the war against Tipu, Sultan of Mysore. The

old garden house was provided with another storey, to act as the library, Astronomer’s

residence, and offices. A separate 20 ft x 40 ft single room was constructed in 1792 as the


This is an appropriate place to clear a misconception that has persisted for about 120

years. Topping prepared a description of the Observatory and sent two signed copies to

London (they can be seen at the India Office Library and Records, and at Royal Astronomical

Society.) 14

An unsigned copy remained at Madras, and was prefixed to Goldingham’s 1793 observations.

(It is now at Bangalore 15, with the first several pages gone and the remaining

near total destruction). Without caring to look for corroboration, Madras Astronomer

Norman Robert Pogson as well as his successor Charles Michie Smith both assumed Goldingham

to be its author and made him the first Astronomer and 1792 the year of the

observatory’s establishment 16. Writing in 1892 on the occasion of the ‘centenary’ of the

Observatory Michie Smith wondered how Michael Topping’s name came to be etched on

the gra~te pillar in the Observatory. His version of the Observatory’s history received

wide currency 17 and has persisted to this day, notwithstanding the correct picture in two

government-sponsored but poorly circulated books: Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras 1°, and

Phillimore’s Historical Records of Survey of India 7.

J l”P& ,)4 z 1/2-F



R. K. Kochhar

In contrast to the Greenwich Observatory, which came into existence without any

instruments, Madras had instruments but no observatory. ‘The Company had from time

to time Sent many valuable Astronomical Instruments to Madras, most of which, for want

of a proper deposit, and of proper person to render them Serviceable, had been Scattered

abroad in different parts of the Country, or lain by neglected at the Presidency ”4. Topping

collected these instruments at the Madras Observatory, whose starting point was Petrie’s

own instruments:

i. A transit instrument by Stancliffe is – ‘small but invaluable’ — of exquisite workmanship

-‘, and although its Axis is only Sixteen Inches and a half in length [it] has

been adjusted in Mr Petrie’s Observatory — to within half a Second of time at every

altitude of the Meridian. ’14

ii. Transit clock by Shelton Is. Similar to the one used by Capt James Cook in his transit

of Venus expedition, it has been at Kodaikanal since 1899 and in use ‘9.

iii. A one-ft diameter quadrant by John Bird is.

In 1793 the Company purchased the following for Madras Observatory 17.

iv. A circular astronomical instrument of 16 in. diameter by Troughton.

v. Six telescopes in Brass mounting with Racks and Hook joints for observing the Satellites

of Jupiter – by Dollond. Two were retained at the Observatory, and rest distributed.

Topping also asked for six sextants of Mr Hadley’s construction, made either by

Ramsden or Stancliffe, according to his own modifications. These were not sanctioned 2°.

The instruments collected at the Observatory under Topping included 21 .

vi. Astronomical quadrant by Martin.

vii. Astronomical clock by Monk.

viii. Pocket chronometers in silver cases by Arnold, Nos 378, 391,393, 397.

ix. In 1804 the Observatory acquired a portable transit by Ramsden. It came as a gift

from John Goldingham who was proceeding on a long leave.

x. In 1808 the Observatory purchased an ‘excellent’ 18 in. circular instrument by Cary,

from Lt-Col.John Munroe. This was in 1823 transferred for use by Sir George Everest

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960

at the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India ( see section 5).


It was quite common in those early days for surveyors to borrow instruments from the

Observatory or leave them there when no longer required by them.

Till 1830 the Observatory was wholly engaged in survey oriented astronomy. Its chief

assets were the 20 in. transit and the 12 in. altazimuth ‘neither of them bearing an

object glass of so much as an inch and a half in aperture’. 22 The ever-expanding British

colonial interests depended upon safe navigation, which in turn required familiarity with

the southern skies. In 1826 state-of-the-art instruments were ordered. Whatever new

instruments the Observatory acquired in the remainder of the 19th century came in the

next four decades. 23 They are described below:

i. A 5 ft focus transit instrument and 4 ft diameter mural circle by Dollond 24 (1829),

both with 3¼ in. aperture telescopes. The instruments were ordered in 1826, received

in 1829, and installed by Thomas Glanville Taylor (1804-48) in 1830. Taylor used

these instruments during 1831-1843 to prepare his famed Madras catalogue of 11015

stars, which in 1854 was described by the Astronomer Royal Sir George Airy as

‘the greatest catalogue of modern times’. 2s The catalogue was revised in 1901 by Dr

A.M.W.Downing, Superintendent of the Nautical Almanac, with financial assistance

from the India Office and the Royal Society.

In February 1861, the object glass of the mural circle was reported stolen. Both these

instruments were cut up and made into two handy telescopes for use during the 1868


ii. Three inch aperture telescope by Dollond 2s (1829)

Along with the transit and the mural circle was received a 3 in. aperture, 5 ft focus

achromatic DoUond telescope mounted on a mahogany frame armed with brass, supplied

with two graduated circles and a long axis moving on a graduated arc.

iii. Six inch equatorial by Lerebours & Secretan 2s (1850)

It came to Madras in 1850 as the personal property of Capt. William Stephan Jacob

(1813-62) who installed it for reasons of economy on stout wooden trestles under a folding

(rather than rotating) teak wood roof, atop the astronomer’s residence. It was subsequently

paid for by the Company (£500).

This telescope with an English mounting was made by M.Secretan at Paris, where

Jacob’s friend Charles Piazzi Smith inspected it and drew a sketch, which is now at the

Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. 26

Its defective objective was replaced in 1852 by the maker with a new one of 6 in.

82 R.K. Kochhar

aperture and 88 in. focus. Using it Jacob showed in 1852 that the recently discovered

crepe ring of Saturn was translucent. The discovery was independently made by William

Lassel at Malta using a 20 in. reflector. This provided convincing proof that the rings of

Saturn were after all not solid. In 1861, Pogson discovered his first minor planet with it,

aptly naming it Asia. 2r

The telescope was remodelled in 1898 by Sir Howard Grubb of Dublin, who provided

it with an electric drive and mounted a 5 in. aperture Grubb photographic lens on the

equatorial. 2s

The telescope has been at Kodaikanal since 1899, and in use as a photoheliograph

since 1912.

iv. Transit circle by Troughton & Simms 27 (1857)

With an objective of 5 in. aperture and a divided circle of 42 in. diameter, it was

similar to but smaller than Airy’s 1850 Greenwich circle, but ‘divided by the same exquisite

machinery’fl 7

It was ordered in 1855 and was constructed in 1857 under the supervision of Richard

C.Carrington who had got a smaller one made in 1852 and who ‘advised such alterations

as his own instrument had led him to consider advisable’. The transit circle was received

only in 1858, the delay in arrival being due to the 1857 turmoil in India variously referred

to as ‘the mutiny’ or ‘a war of independence’.

Either the instrument arrived without a set of instructions or they were lost. In any

case, there were difficulties in its installation which could take place only in 1862 after an

expert mechanic (F.Doderet) became available.

The transit circle was in use for 25 years (1862-1887)under the supervision of Pogson,

who did not reduce most of the data. (These results were later published by Pogson’s

successor Charles Michie Smith). The damaged instrument is now at Bangalore.

v. Universal equatorial by Troughton & Simms ~r (1862)

This portable equatorial could be used with either of the two telescopes of apertures

2 and 2 ¼ in. It was formerly the property of Lt-Gen.William Cullen (1785-1862) British

Resident of the State of Travancore since 1840, and was purchased on his death by Pogson

for his planned southern sky survey on the lines of Argelander’s Bonn survey; but this never

materialized, thanks to the overbearing attitude of the Astronomer Royal.(The equatorial

is now kept at Bangalore, with the two telescopes missing)

vi. Eight inch equatorial by Troughton & Simms (1864) 2T

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 83

The lens was made by George Merz, Fraunhofer’s assistant and successor at Munich,

and tested by the Astronomer Royal. Similar to a telescope made for the Liverpool City

Observatory, it was ordered in 1861; made by Mr William Simms (cost Rs 5200); received

in 1864; and installed two years later. In 1931 it was sent to Kodaikanal, where it was not

set up till 1960 when its original mount was discarded (and probably lost) and another

one used.


Madras Observatory did not get any new instruments after 1864. Its survival however

was ensured when in 1861 September, a German mathematical instrument maker,

F.Doderet, was appointed at Madras to start workshops for the repair of levels, theodolites,

etc. for the Public Works Department. In the mean time Capt. (later Lt-Gen.)

James Francis Tennant (1829-1915), who was the director for a year from 1859 October to

1860 September (later the President of the Royal Astronomical Society), had purchased

for the Observatory an excellent lathe, by Holtzaffel. With it and other tools from the

arsenal, a workshop was set up at the Observatory, whose first task was the commissioning

of the transit circle. Doderet looked after the instruments, improvised them, and made

new ones out of those discarded. He kept the two equatorials – the observatory’s lifelines –

in working condition, years after they were no longer new. For the 1868 eclipse, Doderet

made handy telescopes out of the parts of the historical 1830 transit and mural circle, thus

proving that history is a luxury poorly-equipped observatories can ill afford.

The period 1830-64 can truly be called the golden age of the Madras Observatory. It

was never so well endowed, before or after. It was because of the infrastructural support

available that the Observatory could see the 19th century through, otherwise it would have

met the fate of the observatories at Lucknow and Trivandrum (see sections 6 and 7).


In 1799 with the fall of Tipu Sultan of Mysore the East India Company acquired

vast territory in south India. Its control now extended from the east coast to the west.

Immediately, Brigade-Major William Lambton, vigorously supported by his commanding

officer Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), submitted a proposal to the Madras

Governor Lord Clive suggesting a trigonometrical survey of the southern peninsula on the

lines of ones recently conducted in France and Britain. The proposal was supported by

the Governor’s councilor Petrie, who had earlier been instrumental in the establishment

of Madras Observatory. The formal orders for the start of the survey were issued on 1800

February 6. The early assistants to Lambton were Lt John Warren of the 33rd Foot and

Ensign Henry Kater of the 12th Foot (later FRS).

On 1818 January 1, the survey was extended to cover the whole of the subcontinent. It

84 R.K. Kochhar

was named the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (GTS) and placed under the direct

control of the Governor General, with Lt George Everest (1790-1866) of Bengal Artillery

as the chief assistant to Lambton, the first Superintendent of the Survey. Lambton died in

1823 and was succeeded by Everest who retired in 1843. The trigonometrical survey was

a monumental scientific endeavour, unparalleUed in the world by virtue of its vastness and

problems of logistics.

Lambton started his survey with second-hand instruments*: a zenith sector with

an arc of 5 ft radius made by Ramsden in 1791 or 1792; and a 16 in. circular transit

instrument by Troughton. These instruments were part of a set sent to China as a gift

that was refused. The Madras Government bought these (and other minor instruments)

from Dr James Dinwiddie (d.1815) a lecture of science at Calcutta, paying him Rs 3600.

Lambton found them in ‘a wretched state’ and had to put them in working order.

In the early years, the surveyors had to get their own instruments. They, as well as the

Survey, bought instruments from private individuals who had obtained them from England

for astronomical purposes. Thus the Survey acquired a few altazimuths with circles of 15

to 24 in. diameter. Hasty disposal of instruments after Lambton’s death left the GTS

without any worthwhile instruments. Everest then obtained in 1823 an 18 in. altazimuth

by Cary from Madras Observatory, which had purchased it second-hand in 1808. For this

transfer, Everest took the help of Sir Charles Metcalf, Resident at Hyderabad who ‘kindly

obtained it for me from the Madras Observatory by his intercessions with Sir Thomas

Munro [Madras Governor] ’36. It was used, after modifications, till 1846.

Whenever repairs were required, the survey officers had to carry them out themselves

with the help of local mechanics at the Company ordnance depots. This was because

sending the instruments to England via the Cape of Good Hope would be a matter of

years with the added risk of loss of the ships. Thus in 1808 when the great theodolite was

damaged in a fall at Tanjore, Lambton brought it to Bangalore, and repaired it himself,

after 6 weeks of hard labour.

There was yet another problem. The instruments procured second-hand in India

were astronomical instruments and not really suitable for survey work. The Madras 18

in. altazimuth was called excellent by the Astronomer, but the Surveyor General while

referring to its use was less than enthusiastic, describing it as an instrument ‘of very inferior

powers, but such is the paucity of instrumental means’ that there was no other resource

to fall back upon 38.

Instrument Department

In 1830 the survey got some new instruments and more importantly a repair workshop.

When Everest returned from England after a five year stint, he brought with him

Mr Henry Barrow (1790/1 – 1870, later FRS) who had earlier done jobs for Troughton,

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 85










IN THE YEARS 1880–1843





~”~’~’:”” ‘ :~ “‘ ….. …. ~ ‘2″~,

• .%, ~.:





Figure 8. The title page of Taylor’s celebrated Madras catalogue.

86 R. K, Kochhar


Figure 9. Six inch aperture refractor by Lerebours &: Secretan, painted by Charles Piazzi

Smith in 1851. The original is at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (I thank Mary T.

Briick for sending me the photograph).

Figure 10. Transit Circle by Troughton & Simms made in 1857. Similar to, but smaller

than, Airy’s Transit at Greenwich, it was used at Madras for 25 years 1862-87.

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 87

. . . .

• , ,2.m~r~i .. .

• – ,, .

• .. ,~ ~ . e – , ~ , . : ~ : . ~ ;

(11) (12)

” – “l. ‘


Figure 11. A 3 ft theodolite constructed for the Trigonometrical Survey of India by ‘that

celebrated artist’ Troughton between the years 1827 and 1830. ‘This is probably the

best of all the instruments appertaining to the Survey, and it has been most extensively

employed ’36.

Figure 12. The title page of a booklet in Urdu brought out by C. Ragoonathchary on

the occasion of the 1874 transit of Venus. Ragoonathachary was an Assistant to Pogson,

discoverer of a variable star, and the first Indian Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Figure 13. The 15 in. refractor of the Nizamiah Observatory made by Sir Howard Grubb

in 1903 (from Astronomical and Optical Instruments, Publ. No. 1 of Sir Howard Grubb,

Parsons & Co., 1926).

88 R.K. Kochhar

Figure 14. The corner stone of the spectroheliograph building being laid at Kodaikanal in

1903, when Charles P. Butler was the acting Director of the Observatory. It was in this

building that John Evershed in 1909 discovered the Effect named after him.


Figure 15. Dallmeyer No. 4. One of the five photoheliographs originally made for observing

the 1874 transit of Venus, it was used at the Kodaikanal Observatory from about 1900 to


Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 89

DoUond, Jones, Walkins, etc. (Everest was introduced to Barrow by an assistant at

Greenwich Observatory, William Richardson, who had refused an appointment at Madras

which then went to his colleague Thomas GlanviUe Taylor). Barrow was appointed as the

Mathematical Instrument Maker to the East India Company at a monthly salary of Rs.500

plus house rent; and a workshop was set up for him at Calcutta. (It is now known as

the National Instrument Factory).Gifted but headstrong, Barrow fell out with Everest

and was discharged from service in 1839. On return to England Barrow set up his own

manufactory and supplied instruments to the GTS.

For repairs during the field trips, Everest took along Arcot-born Syed Mir Mohsin

Husain (d. 1864) whom he had hand-picked. Brought from Madras to Calcutta by one

of Everest’s predecessors Col.Valentine Blacker (1778-1826), Mir Mohsin was appointed

in 1824 as an instrument repairer at the Surveyor General’s office at a monthly salary of

Rs.25. In 1836 he was appointed a sub-assistant at the GTS. On Everest’s recommendation

the company appointed Mohsin successor to Barrow, but with a lowered designation of

‘Head artificer to the department of scientific instruments ‘7 . Overcoming prejudice in high

quarters, Everest finally in 1843 got Mohsin appointed as Barrow’s successor with the

same official designation,if not the salary. Mohsin was given a monthly salary of Rs.250.

Markham s wrote about Mir Mohsin: ‘though he could not read English, he would have

taken a leading place even among Europcan instrument makers’.

The Instrument Department got busy remodelling astronomical altazimuths to serve as

geodetic theodolites, by replacing their circles and axes, using parts from older instruments

and making new ones. In 1833 Baxrow reconstructed to Everest’s design, the old Cary’s

theodolite, replacing the vertical circle with one taken off another instrument. Barrow

made a new horizontal circle and hand-divided it himself – a singular achievement.

Not only were old instruments modernized, new ones were also modified to meet

Everest’s exacting standards. Thus, the great 3 ft theodolite and two identical 18 in

theodolites made by Troughton & Simms under Everest’s supervision and received at

Calcutta in 1830 had to be improved upon before they could be used.

The crowning glory of Mir Mohsin and Everest was the treatment of two altazimuth

instruments received from ’13:oughton & Simms in 1832. The two, each with a 3 ft vertical

circle and 2 ft horizontal circle, were found to be radically defective in design when later put

to use. In 1839 the brass horizontal circles of both were replaced by cast-iron ones, which

after Barrow’s refusal werc hand-divided by Mohsin Hussain using an engine designed by

Everest. (This was before William Simms devised his self-acting dividing engine). For

this outstanding work, Mir Mohsin received from the Governor General an increase in

salary and an equivalent of £200 ‘the stun that would be charged for the same work by the

first rate makers in London’. In 1840, Hussain constructed an 18 in. theodolite, entirely

by himself, except for the object glass of the telescope and lenses of the eyepieces and


90 R.K. Kochhar

The Instrument Department also undertook non-survey work. Thus in 1835, Barrow

excellently repaired the Madras 5 ft transit instrument that Taylor was using, although

the instrument was gone from the Observatory 11 months. Barrow received Rs 203 for the

repair and return freight. In 1874-75, the Department manufactured 3999 instruments,

repaired 2391, and examined 2067.

In 1862 the Secretary of State for India asked Lt – Col. Alexander Strange FRS (who

had been a member of the GTS 1847-60) to supervise and test all instruments destined for

India, and an observatory was set up for the purpose at Lambeth. The average yearly cost

of the instruments for the five year period 1873-77 was £ 16343. The cost of inspection

was 2? 584, including 2? 350 for Colonel Strange’s salary a. The instruments sent out for

the GTS included the following sT

i. Two zenith sectors by Troughton & Simms (received 1869 and 1871).

ii. Two identical transit telescopes (marked 1 and 2); 5 in. aperture, 5 ft focus; by

T.Cooke & Sons (1872).

iii. Two drum chronographs (A and B) with electrical apparatus; for use with above, by

Eichens & Hardy of Paris (1872).

iv. Three 8-day astronomical clocks with mercurial pendulums, by Frodsham of London


v. A 3 ft theodolite by Troughton & Simms (1874). 3s

Also received were

vi. Two smaller transit instruments by T.Cooke & Sons.

vii. Two 12 in. vertical circles (German form) by Repshold of Hamburg.

The first use of the transit telescopes was in 1872 to electro-telegraphically determine

the longitude difference between Madras and Bangalore under John Herschel (son of Sir

John Herschel). Telescope 2 was found defective and repaired by Doderet in Madras in

1875, who also carried out the changes in the electric recorders 38. In 1896 telescope 2 and

and chronograph A were sent to Madras for later use at Kodaikanal. 2s (The telescope is

still at Kodaikanal, whereas the chronograph without the electrical arrangements is now

kept at Bangalore).

This Strange set of instruments was the last consignment of major positionalastronomy

instruments received in the 19th century.

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960



In 1819 the Nawab of the rich province of Oudh (correctly, Avadh, corresponding to

the eastern part of the present Uttar Pradesh) Ghazi-uddin Hyder, on the instigation of

the British, declared his independence from the tottering Mughal empire at Delhi and

proclaimed himself the King. The second King (1827-37) Naseeruddin Hyder (who had a

European wife) founded an Observatory at the capital city of Lucknow.

Although the Observatory belonged to the King, its scientific control was in the hands

of the British, the Astronomer’s appointment being made by the Governor General. Major

James Dowling Herbert (1791-1833) came to Lucknow with good credentials. He was at

that time occupying the number two position at Calcutta as Deputy Surveyor General

and Superintendent of Revenue Surveys (salary Rs 750 pm). He had earlier for a short

period officiated as the Surveyor General, and his name had been mentioned to take over

Everest’s responsibilities as Superintendent of the GTS if Everest relinquished charge on

grounds of health. Herbert joined at Lucknow in December 1831, and promptly ordered

the best available instruments for the Observatory.

Herbert died in 1833, and was succeeded by Lt – Col. Richard Wilcox (1802-48).

The lure of high salary (Rs 1000) had again attracted a capable man to Lucknow. Since

1832, Wilcox had been an astronomical assistant at the GTS, with a salary of Rs 618 pm.

Everest wrote about him ‘Lieut Wilcox is a person highly able, and likely to qualify himself

in a shorter time than any person in the Department’. Herbert describes him as ‘one of

the cleverest young man we have’. He was in addition a distinguished oriental scholar 7.

Wilcox joined at Lucknow in 1835 September. His place at the GTS was taken by Andrew

Scott Waugh who subsequently succeeded Everest.

Wilcox built the Observatory, put up the instruments, organized the plan of observations,

and brought the observatory into a state of high efficiency ~. The Observatory was

ready for use in 1841. It was the best equipped in India, certainly better than Madras,

and was in fact on par with Greenwich and Cambridge. It boasted of (i) a mural circle of

6 ft, (ii) an 8 ft transit, and (iii) an equatorial of more than 5 in. aperture – all three by

Troughton • Simms. The clocks were by Molyneux.

Wilcox set out to emulate Taylor at Madras who was engaged in the work on his

monumental ‘Madras catalogue’. Wilcox himself observed with the mural circle. ‘I believe

that our transit observations – in which I take no part myself (being left to the ‘Hindoo

lads’)- will compete with those of any observatory’. The equatorial was used for observing

the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites. ‘I have observed but few occultations, on account of

their requiring time for the previous computations …. ‘.

The results from these excellent instruments were never published. Wilcox died in

1848 October; and the Observatory itself was abolished in 1849 by the King on the ground

that the great outlay incurred in maintaining it had produced no advantage whatever to the

92 R.K. Kochhar

state or to the people and learned of Oudh’. It is reported that a memorandum to the King

had asserted that ‘the Europeans and not Indians are benefited by this Observatory’. 29

When Avadh was annexed by the British in 1856, there was a move by the Surveyor

General Sir Andrew Wangh to use these instruments for an observatory at Calcutta. The

Observatory was however ransacked in 1857. Lt James Francis Wennant of the Bengal

Engineers was a part of the British force that recaptured Lucknow. He found that though

the building itself was ‘unhurt’, all the instruments had perished.

In the mean time all the records of the Observatory, reduced as’well as unreduced,

were eaten up by insects. Thus ended a first class observatory whose results could never

see the light of day.


The King of Travancore, Raja Varma (1813-47) (better known as Svati Tirunal), set

up an observatory at Trivandrum, in 1837. The astronomer John Caldecott (1800-1849)

furnished it with

i. a transit instrument by Dollond, of 3¼ in. aperture;

ii. a 5 ft diameter mural circle by DoUond, with a 4 in. aperture telescope;

iii. a mural circle by Jones;

iv. a portable altazimuth by Troughton & Simms;

v. a transit clock by E.J.Dent; and

vi. a mean time clock by E.Wrench.

In 1842 there was received

vii. a 5 in. aperture, 7 ft focus English plan equatorial by Dollond.

viii. There was also a smaller equotorial of 4.3 in. aperture and 5 ft focus.

By 1852 these instruments had become so dilapidated that the Observatory Director

John Broun FRS gave up astronomy and concentrated on magnetism and meteorology.


Astronomy in India: 1651-1960



And then there was an observatory that wasn’t to be. Its founder was Capt. William

Stephen Jacob (1813-62) of the Bombay Engineers who worked for the GTS from 1833 to

1843, becoming First Assistant in 1837. In 1842 Jacob set up an observatory at Poona to

house his 5 ft focus equatorial by Doiiond in a folding roof rather than rotating (expense

£25). On the basis of the work done at Poona, while holding the post of Assistant Superintendent

of Roads and Tanks in the Public Works Department, Jacob was invited to come

over to Madras Observatory which he did in 1849 by closing down his own observatory.

Jacob was always dogged by ill-health. He left for England in 1858 on leave, and

resigned his post the next year. In 1859, Jacob wrote to R.C.Carrington, the Secretary

of the Royal Astronomical Society 63 ‘the East India Company has expended large sums

in the promotion of science, witness the Trigonometrical Survey, and the Magnetic and

Meteorological Observatories, but though astronomy has not been altogether neglected, it

has scarcely been allowed the prominence that it merits both by its intrinsic importance

and from the advantages offered by the Climate.’

In 1861 the British Parliament gave a grant of £1000 to the Royal Astronomical

Society ‘in aid of the proposed temporary maintenance of an Observatory near Poonah’.

Jacob bought a 9 in. aperture telescope by T.Cooke & Sons ‘at his own expense and

cost’ (£550) and was given £500 (£100 for purchasing a chronometer and other minor

instruments, £400 for package, freight and first expense on arrival). Jacob was to hold the

charge of the Observatory for three years, but never got to using the remaining grant. He

arried at Poona in 1862 August, but died two days later of ‘violent lever attack’ ‘though

leaches were freely applied’. 35

The 9 in. telescope was subsequently put on sale in England. 7


We have seen that astronomical activity in India in the 19th century followed two

distinct channels: pure astronomy as represented by the Madras Observatory, and practical

astronomy as represented by the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. In the early years,

till 1829, there was hardly a distinction between the activities of the Observatory and the

Survey. Madras Observatory was the reference meridian for all survey work, and the early

astronomers Michael Topping, John Goldingham, and John Warren actively participated

in the GTS work, being officially co-designated (till 1810) Madras surveyors. Between 1794

and 1810 the Observatory ran a surveying school to train India – born European boys (then

called natives) as assistant surveyors. The last astronomer to do survey work was Thomas

Glanville Taylor who assisted George Everest at Calcutta in 1831.(The first astronomer

without any surveying connection whatsoever was Norman Robert Pogson who joined in


After this, the two streams, (Madras) astronomy and trigonometrical survey, increas94

R.K. Kochhar

ingly separated. For reasons of state, practical astronomy received all the favours, while

pure astronomy emerged as a poor cousin.

The relative importance of the two streams of astronomy is best brought out by

economics. In 1801 the Survey Superintendent’s monthly salary was fixed at Rs.980,

when the Madras Astronomer was receiving Rs.672. Seven decades later, in 1877, the

Superintendent’s salary had gone up to Rs.2565, whereas the Madras Astronomer received a

paltry Rs.800. Fifteen officers of the survey were drawing more than the Astronomer,three

of them being Fellows of the Royal Society. ~

Significantly, while military officers were permitted to serve on the GTS, they were

not allowed to take up the ‘civil’ appointment at Madras Observatory.

The attitude towards pure astronomy is best brought out by a little-known incident. In

1834, on orders from the Government, instruments were issued to John Cumin, the former

Astronomer at Bombay, for the observation of the opposition of Mars. The Surveyor

General, George Everest, made a strong protest against the loan, saying 7

‘… The discoveries which the late astronomer of Bombay is likely to make in science

would hardly repay the inconvenience occasioned by retarding the operations of the Great

Trigonometrical Survey …’


Although spectroscopic and photographic techniques had been used in the Indian

observations of the solar eclipses of 1868, 1871 and 1872, it was the 1874 December 9

transit of Venus and a belief in a connection between the sun and the famines that led to

the beginning in India of solar physics – or physical astronomy as it was then called. 39,4°

At the initiative of the Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy, transit of Venus observations

were planned at Roorkee and Lahore, under the supervision of Col. James Francis

Tennant (later Lt-Gen.) of the Royal Engineers. Note that it was Tennant and not Airy’s

bete noire, Norman Robert Pogson, the Madras Astronomer, who was asked to do this

work. The following instruments were sent out from England.

i. Photoheliograph by Dallmeyer

Precisely similar to the five instruments made for the British transit of Venus expeditions,

it had a 4 in. aperture lens that made a 4 in. diameter solar image on 6 in. square

photographic plates. It had originally been ordered by Dr Warren de la Rue, who was

persuaded to give it up for India’s use. It was used at Roorkee by Capt.J.Waterhouse

Superintendent of the Mathematical Instrument Department, Calcutta, who took over 100

photographs of the solar disc. These pictures were sent to Greenwich where they were

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 95

reduced by Capt. G.L.Tupman who wrote 42 ‘There is only one really sharp image in

the whole collection, including the Indian and Australian contingents, and that is one of

Captain Waterhouse’s wet plates taken at Roorkee ….. ‘.

ii. A 6 in. aperture, 82 in. focus equatorial by T.Cooke & Sons, ‘of their usual pattern’.

Its construction was supervised by CoLA.Strange. It was also set up at Roorkee.

Eventually this telescope reached Kodaikanal via South Kensington and Poona. Its

mounting now supports Pogson’s 8 in. telescope at Kodaikanal.

iii. A small transit instrument,

iv. a standard and two journeyman clocks,

v. a chronograph,

all by T.Cooke & Sons.

Tennant’s suggestion for setting up a solar observatory at Simla with these instruments

was turned down and he was asked to send the instruments back to England. However,

where Tennant failed, Joseph Norman Lockyer succeeded by using his good offices with

Lord Salisbury, the Secretary of State for India, who had visited Lockyer’s laboratories at

South Kensington a number of times and shown great interest in his work. s°

Lockyer in 1877 suggested s9 that the photoheliograph already in India should be used

for daily photography of the sun; and ‘the remaining instruments should certainly come

home at once. If not contrary to Indian regulations, I would beg to be allowed the use of

them …. ‘

Salisbury accepted the suggestions, writing to the Governor General of India on 1877

September 28 … and viewing the fact that a study of the condition of the sun’s disc in

relation to terrestrial phenomena has become an important part of physical investigation,

I have thought it desirable to assent to ….. obtain photographs of the sun’s disc by aid of

the instrument in India ….. ‘The stand of the photohehograph will be retained in India,

and a fresh tube will be sent there to replace that used by Colonel Tennant (which had

been found defective) …. The other instruments may also be sent to England, and will be

placed in the custody of the Science and Art Department which has offered to take charge

of them ‘sg.

The telescope tube was replaced by the Astronomer Royal and thus, directly on orders

from the Secretary of State for India, solar photography started at Dehra Dun in 1878.

In 1880 a bigger photoheliograph – of 6 in. aperture, 9 ft focus objective giving 12 in.

diameter pictures – was sent out by the Solar Physics Committee. Also arrangements were

made to modify the older one to give 8 in. pictures, instead of 4 in. Direct photography

continued at Dehra Dun till 1925 with some years of overlap with Kodaikanal.

96 R.K. Kochhar


This was the first modern astrophysical observatory in the country, and result of efforts

of Kavasji Dadabhai Naegamvala (1857-1938) a lecturer in Physics at Elphinstone College

Bombay. Armed with a 5000 rupee grant from Maharaja Takhtasinghji of Bhavnagar

(in Gujarat) and a matching amount from the Bombay Government, he established an

observatory at Government College of Science (now College of Engineering) Poona where

he had shifted in the mean time.

The chief instrument was a 16½ in. aperture silver-on-parabolic glass Newtonian with

a 4-inch finder attached. This telescope by Grubb along with its £250 observatory dome

was inspected at the Indian Government’s Lambeth Observatory in 1887 or 1888 before

being sent to Poona, where it was installed in 1890, though the building had been ready

in 1888.

In 1874 the Government of India had purchased a 6-inch equatorial by T.Cooke &

Sons for observing the transit of Venus from India. After the transit (in 1879) it was

loaned to Sir Norman Lockyer at South Kensington (see section 10). The India office

also purchased two spectroscopes from Hilger (one solar, the other stellar) for Lockyer’s

use. The equatorial was also inspected at Lambeth and along with the spectroscopes was

sent to Poona in 1885. 43 (In 1893 the telescope and the spectroscope were asked to be

sent to Madras for use at Kodaikanal Observatory which came up only in 1899. Madras

however received only one of the spectroscopes). Ironically, Naegamvala’s first use of the

large telescope was to prove his mentor Lockyer wrong. Naegamvala showed in 1891 that

the chief nebular line in Orion was sharp under all circumstances and therefore could not

be the remnant of a magnesium band as Lockyer had suggested. In other words William

Huggins and James E.Keeler were right.

Lockyer’s bland reaction is amusing. Describing Poona Observatory, he wrote 45 in

1898 ‘Some spectroscopic work of preliminary character was done during 1891, but it was

found that the instrument used was altogether lacking in stability and was very weak in

its driving parts …’.

The telescope was sent to Grubb for modifications and was received back in 1894. It

was now ‘a Cassegrain reflector of 16~ in. aperture and 127 in. focus, adapted both for

visual and photographic work, and supplied with electrical control’. To this was attached

a 6 in. achromatic finder with filar micrometer and solar eye piece.

The telescope underwent yet another change when in 1897 the mirror was replaced

by a 20 in. aperture, 11 ft. 3 in. focus mirror by Dr A.A. Common. No results appear to

have been published using this telescope.

The Observatory was closed down in 1912 on Naegamvala’s retirement and instruments

were transferred to Kodaikanal from where we get their description. They comprised the

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 97

following: •

i. 20 in. reflecting telescope by Grnbb. Mirror by Dr A. A. Common (now called

Bhavnagar telescope).

ii. 6 in. Cooke photo-visual equatorial telescope.

iii. Two prisms of 6 in. aperture for use with the above.

iv. 12 in. Cooke siderostat.

v. 8 in. horizontal telescope.

vi. Large gating spectroscope, by Hilger.

vii. An ultraviolet spectrograph, by Grubb.

viii. Sidereal clock, by Cooke.

ix. Mean time chronometer, Frodsham No 3476.

The Poona Observatory was a clear case of history repeating itself. Though the best

equipped in the country when set up, Maharaja Takhtasinghji’s observatory turned out to

be a one-astronomer observatory, closing down with Naegamvala’s retirement.

The Kodaikanal Observatory, after a shaky start, rose to great heights, and was intact

when the time came for modernization.


Although the need for a modem observatory as a successor to the one at Madras for

research in the newly opened field of physical astronomy had been felt for many decades, it

was only in 1891 on the death of Pogson after a 30 year uninterrupted stint as the Director

of Madras Observatory that the question of a new observatory was taken up in earnest.

The severe famine in the Madras Presidency in 1876-77 was taken to underline the

need for a study of the sun so that monsoon patterns could be better understood. Thanks

to the efforts of John Eliot 44, Meteorological Reporter to the Government of India (later

renamed Director General of Observatories), it was finally decided in 1893 – overruling

Norman Lockyer’s 45 objections supporting Naegamvala’s case – to establish a solar physics

observatory at Kodaikanal in the Palani Hills of South India with the Madras Astronomer

Charles Michie Smith as the Director46; to transfer all astronomical activity from Madras

to Kodalkanal; and to place the new observatory under the control of the Central Gov98

R.K. Kochhar

to Kodaikanal; and to place the new observatory under the control of the Central Government.

Kodalkanal Observatory came into existence on 1899 April 1, with the following

instruments that had in the mean time been collected at Madras from a variety of sources2S:

i. Photoheliograph called Dallmeyer No 4; this was one of the five identical photoheliographs

made by John Henry Dallmeyer (1830-1833) for the British transit of Venus

expeditions 47. With a 4 in. aperture, 5 ft. focus object glass, it was modified after

the transit (in 1844) to give an 8 in. diameter solar image. Similar to the ones in use

at Greenwich and Dehra Dun, it was received at Madras in 1895 April on loan from

Greenwich. (It is now at Bangalore, without the optics)

ii. Spectrograph received in 1897, consisting of a polar siderostat with an 11 in. aperture

plane mirror; a 6 in. aperture, 40 ft focus lens; and a concave grating. The siderostat

and the lens were made by Sir Howard Grubb, and the rest of the instrument by Adam

Hilger. (The siderostat still survives and is at Bangalore.)

iii. 6 in. aperture telescope by T.Cooke &: Sons. Made for the 1874 transit of Venus

observations at Roorkee, it was loaned to Lockyer, along with a three-prism solar

spectroscope by Adam Hilger. Sent in 1885 to Poona, it was transferred to Madras in

1893 (see sections 10 and 11).

iv. Transit telescope and chronograph. Already discussed in section 5, this 5 in. aperture,

5 ft. focus equatorial was made by T.Cooke 8z Sons for the Great Trigonometrical

Survey of India, which sent it to Madras along with the accompanying galvanic drum

chronograph made by Eichen & Hardy of Paris.

v. 6 in. equatorial by Lerebours & Secretan. An old Madras telescope of 1850 vintage,

it was remodelled by Sir Howard Grubb in 1898 who mounted on it a 5 in. focus

photographic lens, and provided the telescope with a new driving clock.

The polar siderostat and the 40 ft focus lens, and Dallmeyer No 4 were taken to

Shahdol (now in Madhya Pradesh) and adapted for photography during the total solar

eclipse of 1898.

In 1902 September a calcium-K spectroheliograph was ordered from Horace Darwin’s

Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company 4s. Its construction was supervised by

H.F.Newall, and it arrived in 1904 August, at a cost of £1300. This 12 in. aperture, 20

ft. focus solar telescope was used in conjunction with a Z440 Foucault siderostat incorporating

an 18 in. aperture plane silver-on-glass mirror made by T.Cooke & Sons. In 1903,

a dividing engine was received from the same company.

John Evershed’s arrival in 1907 heralded the observatory’s golden age. He made a

prismatic camera using the prisms he had brought with him; and got the spectroheliograph

into working order. Evershed also built a number of spectrographs, and continued his work

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 99

radial motion in sunspots (the Evershed effect). In 1911 Evershed finally made an auxiliary

spectroheliograph and bolted it to the framework of the existing instrument so that now

the sun could be photographed not only in calcium K light but also in hydrogen alpha.

This was the first and only time that a state-of-the-art pure astronomical instrument was

built in India.

In 1912 instruments were received from Poona on the closure of Takhtasinghji’s Observatory.

The 20 in. Bhavnagar reflector was installed only in 1951. In 1933 a Hale

spectrohelioscope was received as a gift from the Mount Wilson Observatory.

Thanks to Anil Kumar Das (1902-1961) and the International Geophysical Year that

started in 1957, Kodai~nal acquired three instruments in 1958: (i) a Lyot hydrogen-alpha

heliograph (£2234) with a 15 cm aperture objective, from Paris (ii) A Lyot coronograph

(£8126) with a 20 cm aperture, 3 m focus objective from M/s REOSC, Paris. The coronograph

has never really been used. (iii) A tunnel telescope of 38 cm aperture and 36 m

focus (Rs 525000), from Sir Howard Grubb Parsons. The tunnel telescope has been the

main solar physics telescope in the country, ever since. This was the last consignment of

instruments to reach Kodaikanal Observatory.

In 1961 with the appointment of Manali Kallat Vainu Bappu (1927-1982) the emphasis

shifted towards moderuisation of stellar astronomical facilities, with the establishment in

1968 of an observatory at Kavalur 48.


Nizamiah (i.e. Nizam’s) Observatory was established in 1901 by a rich nobleman

Nawab Zafar Jung at his estate at Phisalbanda in Hyderabad. His chief instruments were

(i) a 15 in. refractor, by Howard Grubb; and (ii) an astrograph, with an 8 in. aperture

photovisual doublet Cooke lens.

Showing foresight, Zafar Jung had taken the Nizam’s (i.e. the King’s) permission

for the name and had also ensured that after the founder’s death, the Observatory would

be taken over by the Government. Jung died in 1907; the observatory was shifted to

Begumpet in Hyderabad itself with Mr.A.B.Chatwood as the Director.

The first instrument to be installed end of 1909 was the astrograph which was housed

in a 25 ft dome by T.Cooke & Sons. Using it, the Nizamiah joined the international ‘Carte

du cier program. The 15 in. Grubb was installed only in 1922; in the mean time (1915-22)

its objective was used at Kodaikanal.

The Observatory acquired, in 1939, a Hale spectrohelioscope made by Howell & Sherburne

of Pasadena. In 1958, a 1.2 m reflector was purchased from J.W.Pecker & Co. of

Pittsburg using a rupee grant from the US government. A new site was chosen for the

$~’A ~48112-0

I00 R.K. Kochhar

observatory near the two villages of Japal and Rangapur, some 50 km from Hyderabad.

The 1.2 m reflector was installed in 1968 at the Japal-Rangapur Observatory and remains

its mainstay.


This observatory was set up in April 1954 at Varanasi under the honorary directorship

of A.N.Singh, the Principal of the newly established D.S.B.Government Degree College at

Naini Tal. Its early instruments included 5°

i. a gravity-driven 25 cm refractor, by T.Cooke & Sons,

ii. a 13 cm transit telescope,

iii. a set of quartz clocks by Rhode gz Schwartz.

In November 1955, with Vainu Bappu as the Director, the Observatory was shifted to

Manora Peak, Naini Tal. The Observatory’s biggest telescope is a 1 m reflector by Carl

Zeiss Jena set up in 1972 (its twin is at Kavalur).


The first half of the 20th century saw astronomy in India represented by two observatories:

the Imperial Government’s Kodaikanal Observatory; and Osmania University’s

Nizamiah Observatory.

The real reason for the establishment of Kodaikanal Observatory was the need of the

British astronomers to collect good quality data on the sun, which as Lockyer pointed out

was not so obliging to Britain itself. The solar connection with the monsoons (which even

today determine India’s prosperity) was used as a convenient reason to strengthen the case

for a solar observatory in India. Nizamiah observatory, on the other hand, was set up for

no reason other than cosmic curiosity. During the British period, Kodaikanal’s mainstay

was the state-of-the-art instruments made by Evershed himself.

It was after India’s independence in 1947 that Kodaikanal Observatory received the

new Government’s support in the name of astronomy for pleasure and prestige. Thus,

International Geophysical Year was used to buy new equipment for solar studies.

We have closed our account in 1960. This is the year when Bappu joined Kodaikanal

as its Director. He set out to update stellar astronomy. As a result of his efforts a new

observatory was set up at Kavalur (Javadi Hills, Tamil Nadu), which is now named after

him, and has a 2.3 metre telescope. In the mean time a small solar physics observatory

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 101

has come up at Udaipur, and an infrared 1 metre class telescope at Gurushikhar (Mount


It may, however, be pointed out that India’s infrastmctural facilities have been espeeiaUy

conducive towards radio and ram wave telescopes.

The poet-1960 astronomical facilities will be treated separately.


I thank Professor M.G.K. Menon for encouragement, advice, and help in this project.

Thanks are also due to Professor J.C. Bhattacharyya for helpful conversations on recent

developments. I thank the library staff at the India OiBce Library and Records, Royal

Greenwich Observatory, Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Society of London

for their help. Thanks are due to our library and the photographic laboratory staff at

Kod~kanal and Bangalore for cheerful cooperation, and to the workshop staff for help in

assemblin~ the old instruments at the time of the Institute’s bicentennial celebrations in


102 R. K. Kochhar


I. Shukla,K.S. (1976) Aryabhatiya of Aryabhata, Indian National Science Academy, New


2. Krishna Warrior,N.V. (1988) Desk Encyclopaedia (in Malayalam). Vol.l, D.C.Books,

Kottayam, Kerala.

3. Kaye,G.R. (1918) Astronomical Observations of Jai Singh, Govt. Printing Press,

Calcutta. Also see Bholanath (undated) A Hand book of Maharajah Jaisingh’s Astronomical

Observatory, Delhi. (As Assistant Engineer in the Buildings Dept., Jaipur,

the author was associated with the renovation work.)

4. Sharma,V.N. (1987) IAU Coll. No.91: History of Oriental Astronomy (Eds:

G.Swarup, A.K.Bag & K.S.Shukla) Cambridge Univ. Press.

5. Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

6. Kochhar,R.K. (1989)Ind. J. Hist. Sci. (still in the press).

7. Phillimore,R.H. (1945-58) Historical Records of Survey of India, 4 vols., Dehra Dun.

This is the most authentic reference on survey of India.

8. Markham,C.R. (1878) A Memoir of the Indian Surveys, 2nd edn. (lst edn. 1872),

W.H.AIIen & Co, London. Markham is rather sketchy and not always reliable.

9. Pearse,T.D. Asiatic Researches 1, 47.

10. Love,H.D. (1913) Vestiges of Old Madras, 4 vols., John Murray, London.

11. Prinsep,C. (1885) Madras Civil Servants 1741-1858 Trubner & Co, Ludgate Hill.

12. Paper in A.Dalrymple’s Oriental Repertory, Vol.1. These results published in 1792

were communicated by Petrie. Topping’s astronomical and geographical paper is

followed by Cursory Remarks, where he comments on roads and rivers and points out

that teak timber could be transported down the Godavari River at a small expense.

Topping also attaches an account on the cultivation of pepper.

13. Topping’s description of the Observatory (ref.14) says that it was established in 1787.

If it is not a misprint, it could mean that the observatory came up while he was out

of Madras (i.e. in 1786 November or December) and he learnt about it on his return.

It is not possible to say where exactly in Egmore Petrie’s Observatory was located,

because old records refer to garden houses with respect to each other, and not to any

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 103


14. Michael Topping: Description of an Astronomical Observatory erected at Madras in

1792, by order of The East India Company, Madras, 24th December 1792. RAS copy

of the MS is without any illustrations; IOLR copy has a sketch of the Observatory.

The damaged Bangalore copy contains all the illustrations referred to in the text; and

an appendix written a little later.

15. Goldingham’s MS, prefaced by Topping’s unsigned account of the Observatory (Indian

Institute of Astrophysics).

16. Madras Observatory’s Annual Reports.

17. Nature 46 (1892) p.301, Observatory 15 (1892) p.410, Indian Imperial Gazetteer 1908

for Madras all make 1792 the year of the Observatory’s establishment and John

Goldingham the first Astronomer. Apparently the first one to make this mistake

is Markham (ref.8) who recognizes Topping as a surveyor, but not as Astronomer.

In 1792 May Topping was appointed ‘Astronomer and Surveyor’ and given charge of

all non-military surveys. In 1794 April his designation was changed to ‘Company’s

Astronomer and Geographical Marine Surveyor’. He was also the Superintendent of

Tank Repairs and Water Courses. This last position earned him an additional 400

pagodas a month, about twice his scientist’s salary.

18. Inventory of 1811 Oct 1. Madras MS records (Indian Institute of Astrophysics).

19. Kochhar,R.K. (1987) Antiquarian Horology 17, 181.

20. Topping,M.: Indent of Astronomical Instruments wanted — at Madras 1792 Jan

19.(RAS MSS Madras).

21. Topping,M.: List of Instruments (Astronomical and Geodetical) belonging to the

Hon’ble Company at present in my charge, 1794 Jul 22 (RAS). (RAS MSS Madras).

22. Pogson,N.R. (1887) Madras Meridian Circle Observations 1862-4, Govt of Madras.

23. Kochhar,R.K. (1985)Bull. Astr. Soc. India. 13, 287.

24. Taylor,T.G. (1832) Madras Astronomical Observations, Vol.1, Madras Observatory.

25. M.N.R.A.S. 14 (1854), 145.

26. Worster,W.K. &: Jacob,W.S. (1855) Madras

Madras Observatory.

Astronomical Observations, Vol,8,

104 R.K. Kochhar

27. Annual Reports by N.R.Pogson 1861-1890.

28. Annum Reports by C.Mich~e Smith 1891-1899.

29. Ansari,S.M.R. (1985) Introduction of Modern Western Astronomy in India during

18-19th Centuries, IHMMR, New DelM ll00 62.

30. M.N.R.A.S (1858) 18, 287.

31. Broun,J.A. (1874) Observations of Magnetic Declination made at ‘h-ivandrum and

Augustia MaUey … in 18,52-69, Henry & King, London.

32. Dreyer,J.L.E. & Tnrner,H.H. (1923) History of the Royal Astronomical Society 1830-

1920, R A S London.

33. RAS Papers 49, R.A.S. Archives.

34. DNB wrongly says it was by Lerebours & Secretan.

35. M.N.R.A.S. (1863) 23, 128.

36. Account of the Operations of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, various

volumes, Dehra Dun. Vol. 1 gives a historical summary.

37. Strange,A. (1867) Proc. R. Soc. 15, 385.

38. IGng,H.C. (1955) The History of the Telescope, Charles Gritrm& Co, London on p.238

confuses Strange’s 1874 theodolite with Everest’s of 1830, both made by Troughton

& Simms.

39. Reports of the Committee of Solar Physics (1882, 1889), H.M.Stationery Office.

40. Kochhar,R.K. (1987, 1988) Indian Institute of Astrophysics Newsletter 2, 25; 3, 11.

41. Tennant,J.F. (1887) Report of Transit of Venus as seen at Roorkee and Lahore on

December 8, 1874, Calcutta.

42. Tupman,G.L. (1878) M.N.R.A.S. 38, 509.

43. Kochhar,R. K. (1990) Indian Institute of Astrophysics Newsletter 5, 6.

44. Govt of Madras Public Govt Order 21 Nov 1893 Nos. 940, 941.

45. Lockyer,N. (1898) Report on Indian Observatories.

Astronomy in India: 1651-1960 105

46. Michie Smith received support from the Astronomer Royal: W.H.M.Christie (1898)

Report on Indian Observatories.

47. Derek Howse in his History of Greenwich Observatory, Vol.3.(Taylor & Francis, London)

mistakenly attributes the construction to J.H.Dallmeyer’s son Thomas Rudolphus

Dallmeyer (1859-1906) who was only 15 at the time of the 1874 transit.

48. Annual Reports of Kodaikanal Observatory 1900-1961.

49. Kochhar,R.K. & Menon,M.G.K. (1982) Bull. Astr. Soc. India. 10, 275.

50. Sanwal,N.B. (1983) in Nizamlah Observatory, Platinum Jubilee Souvenir 1908-1983.

(ed.: G.M.Ballabh) Osmania University, Hyderabad. The year 1908 is the year of the

Observatory’s taking over by the Government, not its founding. Also see Sanwal,N.B.

(1983) Bull. Astr. Soc. India 11,349

51. 25 years of Uttar Pradesh State Observatory, Naini Tal (1979), UPSO.


On the origin of the Punjabi Khatris

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on May 12th, 2009 by Rajesh Kochhar – 26 Comments


Rajesh Kochhar

[email protected]


This essay first describes how the question of Punjabi Khatri identity arose as part of colonial ethnology. It then briefly reviews the structure and the legends. Finally a hypothesis is  proposed to explain the origin of the Khatri caste and its relationships:


i.                    Persons of Greek extraction who had already been  Persianized and were located in the north-west India were absorbed by the   ( upper) Punjab Kshatriya clans. Khatri, Arora and Sood are products of this alliance. 

ii.                  These Greeks  carried a taint because  they  were of mixed pedigree,ate beef and otherwise also did not submit themselves to Brahminical discipline. 

iii.               The taint was transferred to the  Punjab Kshatriya clans who accepted them in marriage.

iv.               Khatris in Punjab were able to enlist Brahmin support for themselves and self-consciously insisted on calling themselves Khatri. 

v.                 Their brethren who migrated to Punjab hills were not so fortunate. Since the dominant position there was held by the Rajputs, and since Brahmin orthodoxy was strong , they were pushed down in the hierarchy and dubbed Sood. Note that both Khatri and Sood are  derived from varna names. 

vi.               For some reason, Aroras split from the Khatris and  established matrimonial alliances in lower Punjab and Sind. 

vii.             In course of time, structure appeared within the Khatri caste, which loosely split into Char-ghar and Bunjai. From among the later,  Sarin and Khukhrain became autonomous. 

It should be possible to test or refine the hypothesis by carrying out DNA tests on carefully selected population samples drawn from various castes, sub-castes  and clans



Punjabi Khatris are a numerically small but otherwise successful and influential caste group.  Many students of current affairs probably know that the community has contributed two prime ministers to India: Inder Kumar Gujral and Dr Manmohan Singh who does not use his Kohli surname. 

Though their caste appellation is obviously derived from Kshatriya, denoting the ancient Indian warrior class, the Khatris have traditionally been engaged in professions associated elsewhere with Banias and Kayasthas. They have thus been predominantly though not exclusively traders, merchants and bankers as well as administrative and revenue officials. 

From their original habitat in (the undivided) Punjab, the Khatris spread eastwards as far as West Bengal and Orissa and southwards into Gujarat.  One of the biggest landowners in the erstwhile Bengal presidency was the Raja of Burdwan, a Punjabi Khatri from the Kapur clan whose ancestor had come over in the mid 17th century as a petty revenue official. The Mahtabs of Orissa are also believed to be of Khatri extraction. 


Colonial ethnology

Punjabi Khatris became conscious of their caste identity about 125 years ago. The British with their fetish for categorization and documentation felt that all extant Indian castes should be fit into the Vedic framework of the four varnas. “It was decided by the Government of India in 1885 to make a comprehensive field survey for precise information about the way of life, manners and customs, rituals, marriage practices etc. of the tribes, castes, sub-castes of the country for better administration and ethnographic research.” The task was assigned to a Bengal Indian Civil Service Officer, Herbert Hope Risley, who in 1891-92 published his The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, after “six years of intensive study and survey”. Much to the chagrin of the Khatris through out north India, Risley declared that “If then, it is at all necessary to connect the Khatris with the ancient fourfold system of castes, the only group to which we can affiliate them is the Vaisyas” ( quoted in Seth 1905:iii). 

This was unacceptable to the Khatris for whom the villain of the piece was   “One Babu Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, M.A., of Bengal”. Risley had based his conclusion on the study by Bhattacharya who in turn was alleged to have   deliberately degraded the Khatris “ under the influence of a personal grudge against the Burdwan Raj, publicly attributed by the Honourable Raja Banbihari Kapur, Manager of the State, in his speech delivered before the Khatri Conference at Bareilly, in June 1901” ( Seth 1905:i).      

                                          The Khatris marshalled a whole lot of evidence in favour of their higher social status and, wishing to be suitably classified in the 1901 census, submitted a “manuscript volume of about 300 pages of foolscap, dealing with the question in detail” to the census superintendent for North West Province and Oudh (corresponding to the present Uttar Pradesh). The response of the authorities was rather unexpected. It was now proposed to  classify “the Khattris, the Kurmis and the Kayasthas”  all in a new group called “Castes allied to Kshatriyas who are considered to be of high social standing , though their claim is not universally admitted” (Seth 1905:viii). This “night-mare of impending social degradation” propelled Khatris into concerted action. A three-day conference of “more than four hundred representatives of the numerous Khattri Sabhas, Committees and Associations scattered over the country” was held in Bareilly in June 1901 under the chairmanship of Raja Banbihari Kapur (referred to above).The Khatri leadership was eventually able to convince the British authorities that “the Khattris are generally believed to be the modern representatives of the Kshatriyas of Hindu tradition” (Seth 1905: xiv). 

It is noteworthy that the debate centred on the position of  Khatris vis-à-vis  Vaishyas , Kayasthas and other castes in Bengal and ( what is now ) Uttar Pradesh rather than in the original Khatri habitat, Punjab. 

The results of the campaign were summarized in a 1905 book “A Brief Ethnological Survey of the Khattris” written by Moti Lal Seth, deputy inspector of schools and member Khattri Hitkari Association, Agra. This remains one of the primary sources of information on Khatris. A valuable additional and more general  source is the three-volume Glossary of the Tribes and Castes of the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province, compiled by a British  civil servant  Horace Arthur Rose, superintendent of Punjab census operations. The Glossary is based on Punjab  census  reports of 1881 and 1891 prepared  by Denzil  Charles Jeff Ibbetson and   Edward  Douglas Maclagen respectively .  It also “embodies some of the materials collected in the Ethnological Survey of India which was begun in 1900, under the scheme initiated by Sir Herbert Risley”. 

It must be stated at the outset that  in the following, the  cultural and geographical setting, rules of endogamy and exogamy as well as hierarchical ordering,    etc.,  that are described here  are   as  they  obtained a century ago, even though present tense is  employed . There is no implicit approval or disapproval of any practice that is reported. Needless to say, various social groups are far more flexible now than they were in the past. The changes have been particularly rapid after the partition.   


General Remarks 

A caste is defined by rules of endogamy. It comprises a number of sub-castes or clans which practice exogamy.  People do not marry within their clan; they marry into other clans within the caste. The social and ritual status of a caste is assigned by the priestly class. Non-acceptance by the Brahmins of uncooked food and drinking water from a caste group would place it way down on the hierarchical ladder. (Since food is grown by castes ranked low, uncooked food can be accepted.) One of the principal arguments proffered by the Khatris in support of their claim for a high social status was that the Sarasvat Brahmins accepted cooked food from them. 

Within related castes, daughters are not given in marriage to clans deemed lower. There is a reason for that. Socially, the girl’s side ranks lower than the boy’s. Marrying a girl from a lower- ranking clan re-enforces this pattern. But if a higher-ranking girl was married off beneath her level, the rules of hierarchy would become fuzzy. (It is noteworthy that the two daughters of Emperor Shah Jahan, Roshan Ara and Jahan Ara, remained unmarried. Shah Jahan is probably the only Mughal Emperor whose all children are from the same mother.)

The varna system that prevailed in very ancient times was a simple one.  The current caste system is far too complex to be related to the varna system in any straight forward manner. Brahmins and Banias  are probably the only two  caste groups that conform to the ancient varna categories.

Perusal of a Sanskrit dictionary would reveal that many castes formed through intermarriages between various varnas. Thus Modak is described as a “ mixed tribe” that “ sprung from a Kshatriya father and Sudra mother” ( Apte 1970:449 ). Also people who came into India from outside at different times  were  obviously accommodated into the caste system.  Castes have split; new castes have been created; and there are examples of vertical mobility. People have migrated within the country and carried their caste identity with them. But the status assigned to them in their new setting depended on the extant power structure and availability of slots. While we try to created the big picture, we should keep in mind caste equations were primarily local.

It is not possible to construct socio-history of any caste group, because of total absence of authenticated source material. There are a large number of legends. It is difficult to say when these legends were created and what factual information they contain.  Many legends are a recent creation. When communities prosper and become influential, they seek to upgrade their status retrospectively. There is a widespread tendency to trace the origin of castes, sub-castes and family names to ancient texts. Nobody has ever attributed the origin of their family or clan name to a dishonorable act  by their ancestors!

If a group was alienated from the main body, it must necessarily have been small to begin with. It would however grow through marriage alliances elsewhere. Since a caste is endogamous, it must attain a certain minimum size for maintaining its identity. If it becomes too big it must split. 

It is ironical that the quest for a higher social status within Indian society required approval   from the colonial rulers. Since the Europeans were obsessed with the Sanskrit India, upper-caste Indian themselves went overboard in linking themselves to ancient India, as if there were no intermediary evolutionary stages between the remote antiquity and the colonial present. 

The remaining part of this essay is organized as follows. We first review the structure within the Khatri caste and then examine its relationship to other castes (Arora, Bhatia and Sood) which are, or claim to be, related. Aroras are recognized as coming from the same ethnic stock as Khatris but are ranked lower, while Bhatias have always been considered to be separate. Soods, residing in Punjab hills, have not figured in the reckoning. I shall however argue that they are probably closer to Khatri-Arora than hitherto conceded.

I shall then present my own hypothesis on the origin of the Khatri caste and also suggest some specific DNA tests to test the hypothesis.


Aroras like the Khatris are urbanite and engaged in similar professions. The Aroras are far more numerous than the Khatris and spread over much larger territory. The Khatris were confined to upper Punjab while the Aroras inhabited not only upper Punjab but also lower Punjab and Sind. In the upper Punjab, the Aroras were more concentrated towards the west while the   major Khatri concentration was between the rivers Ravi and Beas. Satluj was the eastern boundary for both. Interestingly, the Bania concentration lay towards the east of Satluj.  The absence of Banias in Punjab proper  and made it possible for Khatris and Aroras to take up the former’s profession. It may be noted in passing that the upper Punjab Aroras are largely Sikh while their southern counterparts are Hindu. The Khatris however are mostly Hindus. This is interesting in view of the  fact that Sikh Gurus were all Khatri ( see below).


Structure within  the caste 

The  primary division among the Khatris is between Char-ghar or Char-jati ( four-clans)  and Bavanjai or Bunjai  ( from bavinja, 52 in  Punjabi). The sub – castes comprising the Char-ghar are Kapoor, Khanna, Malhotra or Mehra, and Seth. In Uttar Pradesh , Malhotra is known as Mehrotra and Seth and   Tandon are equivalent. The total number of Bunjai sub-castes is of course much higher than 52.  The relationship between these two groups is non-symmetrical. The Char-ghars marry their daughters among themselves but condescendingly accept daughters-in–law from among the Bunjai. Since the Bunjai are a party to this custom, this means that they accept a lower position vis–a-vis the Char-ghar on the social totem pole. 

Normally while arranging the marriage of a boy or a girl, the partner should not be  chosen from the clan of either the  father or  the mother. However the Char-ghars, because of the small number of constituent clans, do not follow this dictum in entirety. While the father’s clan is kept out in toto, only the closely related part of mother’s clan is excluded so that two and a half clans are available for striking a matrimonial alliance within the group. For this reason, Char-ghar are also known as Dhai-ghar (Dhai means two and a half) (Ibbetson quoted in Seth 1905:175). It would  thus be erroneous  to  consider  Dhai-ghar  and  Char-ghar as  distinct entities as is sometimes done. 

There are in addition groups known as 5-jati, 6-jati or 12-jati ( Sometimes the word jati is replaced by ghar). They seem to represent marriage – driven clustering among contiguously placed clans. They have no other significance.  The  Khatri structure as  recorded by Seth ( 1905) and Rose (1911) is over-constructed. 

 It is a matter of immense  proud  for the Khatri community that the Sikh Gurus were all Khatris.   Guru Nanak was a Bedi;  Guru Angad Trehan; and  Guru Amar Das Bhalla. He was succeeded by his son-in-law, Guru Ram Das,  a Sodhi. All the subsequent  Gurus came from the same family. Bichitra Natak  names  Rama’s sons Lava and Kush as ancestors of Sodhi and Bedi clans respectively ( Seth 1905: 61-62). 

There are two offshoots of the Bunjai, namely  Khukhrain (spelt variously) and Sarin. The Khukhrain are said to be  descendents of Khatris  who  “joined the Khokhars in rebellion and whom other Khatris were afraid  to marry” ( Rose 1911:513). “This group  consisted of  8 sections originally”: Anand, Bhasin, Chaddha,  Kohli, Sabharwal, Sahni, Sethi and Suri. To these “Chandok have been affiliated in Peshawar, and in Patiala the Kannan section is said to belong to this group” ( Rose 1911 II:509). Seth ( 1905: 215-216) inserts Kari (?) into  the list, which is difficult to identify. Ghai are also said to be Khukhrain. According to  Wikipedia and web sites maintained by  the Khukhrains, they were predominantly located in the  area between  rivers Jhelum and Chenab with the town of Bhera as their main centre. Interestingly Mohyal Brahmins, rather than  the Sarasvats,  officiated as their priests.While the isolation of the Khukhrain was  at least in part due to  geography, the  separation of Sarin  came about for reasons of social orthodoxy.


Allaudin Khalji 

It is said that the “ entire organization” of the Khatris  “ underwent a complete change” in the time of  Sultan Allauddin Khalji ( r. 1296-1316)  on the question of widow remarriage ( Seth 1905 :171).  On the death of a large number of Khatri soldiers, a royal proposal was  made for remarrying the young war widows. The proposal was eventually abandoned because of  vehement opposition from within the community. A small band of Khatris who had supported the proposal were isolated as Sarins. For the rest,  the agitation created a social hierarchy was created ; the stronger the opposition  the higher the status.


Interestingly, Seth’s account   (Seth 1905: 171-175) is couched in modern idiom. One gets the distinct impression that he is backdating his own campaign against the colonial ethnologists! Sample the following: “The subject became the common topic of the day in all Khatri households…monstrous Khattri meetings were held in all parts of the country; and party after party began to pour into the capital”. “Crowded meetings were held at Delhi to submit protests against the proposal to the Emperor; a deputation waited on the Durbar to represent the case… The excitement became a mania and the mania a frenzy”. The royal supporters “could only get a limited number of signatures to what we may call The Khattri Widow Remarriage Bill” (Seth 1905:171-173). 

According to Seth, this is when hierarchical ordering within the Khatris was created. “The primary movers of the agitation were considered to be the brightest jewels of their race and given the now proud title of dhai ghars”. They were followed by the Char- ghar, 12-ghar and the  Bunjai ( Seth 1905:174).

There are many problems with this story.  While the episode may well explain the isolation of the Sarins, it cannot explain the structure within the community in a satisfactory manner. As we have already seen, Dhai-ghar do not have an identity distinct from the Char-ghar, and 12-ghar.etc.,  do not  have a separate  entity. It is not clear why social leadership in the hands of the Char-ghar should lead to their refusing to marry their daughters into the Bunjai. Significantly, there does not appear to be any mention of the episode in the Sultanate chronicles of the time. One wonders whether it was an historical event at all.


Kochhars: a case study 

It may be instructive to narrate the story of birth of a clan preserved as oral history by the clan itself. A girl  was married into the  Nanda family . A disaster struck her parents’ family which killed all its members except for  her little brother. This  orphaned boy was brought up in his married  sister’s household . The boy became the progenitor of a new clan, which was named Kochhar for the following reason. The little boy was carried  by his sister on her side lap ( called kuchhad in Punjabi).The rescue took place on Baisakhi day which is celebrated as the founders’ day by  the Kochhars. As part of the commemoration, Dadi svaad da poorha is cooked, as a homage to a holy man who fed the brother-sister duo on their foot journey. Since now the Nandas became the foster parents of the Kochhars, they would not intermarry. Notably, the Nandas do have an assigned Gotra as can be expected from an old clan, but Kochhar have none. 

Although the Kochhars do not carry any living memory of the   original sub-caste of  their progenitor, according to Rose ( 1911 II:522),  he was a Seth. If this be true, it is a remarkable piece of information. The Kochhar as also the Nanda  now belong to the lower-ranking Bunjai while the Seth are from the Char-ghar. The creation of the Kochhar clan thus belongs to an era when a Seth girl could be married to a Nanda.    Beri  are  said to be an off-shoot of Chopra ( Rose 1911:517), although details are not  known.


Khatri – Arora divide

Khatris claim that they are the survivors of Parshuram’s anti-Kshatriya campaigns. Their ancestors took shelter with a Vaishya friend while their purohits, the  Sarasvat Brahmins, interceded on their behalf with Parshuram who in turn spared their life on the condition that they  give up arms and take to trade ( Seth 1905:53). 

There is another version of the story. After exterminating the Kshatriyas, Parshuram came looking for pregnant women who had taken shelter with Sarasvat Brahmins. The hosts declared the Kshatriya women to be their own daughters and as a proof thereof partook food cooked by the Khatri women ( Seth 1905:64).


This  legend is hard to accept at face value. Parshuram belonged to the Bhrigu clan and  is said to have lived some 30 generations before Rama and 60 generations before Krishna. According to the Puranas,  the target of his wrath were not all Kshatriyas but a specific section  called the  Haihaya.   Accounts of Parshuram’s battles are grossly exaggerated. Surely there were Kshatriyas, including the Haihaya, in the post-Parshuram period (See Pargiter (1922) for details). As far as the Khatri community is considered, if it  had taken to trade that early , it is unimaginable that  the Kshatriya label would have stuck to it. This legend runs counter to the one cited above which makes the Sodhi and the Bedi direct descendents of Rama. It is very likely that the Parshuram legend is a back formation consistent with known Khatri attributes. 

While the Khatris escaped Parshuram’s wrath through the intervention of their purohits, allegedly the would-be Aroras saved their skin by claiming that they were not   Kshatriyas    but some others (Aur in Hindi).They were accordingly dubbed Aroras and made to constitute a separate endogamous group. 

The legend must have been influential in its time because it succeeded in putting the Aroras on the back foot. The Aroras also trace their origin to Parshuram’s time, but  claim that their eponymous king Arur truthfully told Parshuram that he indeed was a Kshatriya. The sage was pleased to spare and bless him. The logic here seems to be rather convoluted. If Parshuram could spare Arur for telling the truth, why did  he exterminate   the others? 

No matter when and why the Khatri – Arora split occurred, it must have  taken place in the upper Punjab  where the Khatris lived. Once the Aroras were refused matrimonial alliances by the Khatris, lower Punjab and Sind were probably added to the Arora  fold through marriages. The legend, no matter how unhistorical, does convey the important information that the Aroras and Khatris are accepted as being ethnically  the same people, and that they separated before structure  developed  among the Khatri caste. 

I  now propose a hypothesis to explain their origin. It would seem that the insistence of the Punjabi Khatris to flaunt their Kshatriya antecedents was a defensive act, whose purpose was to  divert attention from an un-Kshatriya taint they carried, This taint , I would like to suggest , was an alliance with the settlers of Greek extraction.  It should be kept in mind that what have been  called Indo-Greeks had already been  Persianized.



Contrary to general perception, north-west India’s acquaintance with Greek elements began not with the Macedonian king Alexander’s invasion ( 326 BC)  but  two centuries previously during   the Achaemenid empire of Iran which  at its peak extended from Indus in the east to the Aegean Sea in the west. During the period 546-448 BC, the Persians made repeated efforts to annex Greece. While they were thwarted in their attempts to capture the mainland, they were able to subjugate the Greek states in Asia Minor, including Ionia (from which the Sanskrit term Yavana is believed to come). 

One of the consequences of the intermittent Greco-Persian wars was the establishment of Greek settlements in  the eastern parts of the Achaemenid empire that is in and to the north of the Hindu Kush region. There were two type of settlers. For some, Hindu Kush was a safe haven. They had earned  the wrath of their compatriots by collaborating with the invaders and therefore had to be shifted out for their own safety. For others, Hindu Kush was a Siberia. They had valiantly raised the banner of revolt against the invaders and were consequently deported. In course of time  both these  types of settlers   married locally and   partially de-Hellenized themselves. 

When Alexander encountered them, he judged them by the actions of their ancestors. Thus  citizens of  the small hill state of Nysa ( between rivers Kabul and Indus) were treated with consideration , while the Branchidae`( located  probably between Balkh and Samarqand)  were  said to be  massacred  because their ancestors had yielded up the treasure of the  temple of  Apollo at Didyma near Miletus  to Xerxes ( Narain 1957: 3). 

There were pockets of Greek influence in the Punjab plains as well. Greek historians mention Alexander’s friendly encounter with a petty king Sophytes, who either ruled the territory between  rivers Indus and Jhelum or, what is more likely, between  Jhelum and Chenab. Direct proof of Sophytes’ Greek extraction/ connection   has come from the discovery of a silver drachma. 

A notable feature of the kingdom of Sophytes was that it attached “uncommon value” to physical beauty. While contracting marriage, the people “did not seek an alliance with high birth but made their choice by the looks, for beauty in the children was highly appreciated”. The love for beauty was carried to an extreme. If “the officers entrusted with the medical inspection of the infants” noticed “any thing deformed or defective” , the children were ordered to be killed (Raychaudhuri 1972 :222). 

Greek historians also mention  a people called Kathaians who lived to the east of river  Ravi and gave a tough fight to Alexander’s army. They also valued beauty very much to the extent that the “handsomest man was chosen  as king” (Raychaudhuri 1972 :222). 

As is well known Alexander’s invasion was followed by  the establishment of an empire by Chandragupta Maurya. His grandson Ashoka (304-232 BC) in his edicts refers to Yavana and Kamboja on his north-western frontier.  ( Similarly, there are numerous literary references as well.) Within 25 years of Ashoka’s  death, the  Greeks  from Bactria ( Balkh) came down to the Punjab plains. Demetrios (early 2nd century BC) appears to have held Punjab, as well as lower Indus, Malwa, Gujarat and probably also Kashmir. He was the first one to introduce bilingual coinage with inscriptions in Greek and Kharoshthi. After him the kingdom split into two warring parts with Jhelum as the dividing line. The most prominent later king was Menander ( c. 150 BC) who decoupled himself from Bactria and  is known to Buddhist literature as Milind.  His capital has been identified with Sialkot. The Indo-Greek rule  lingered on till  about 50BC, when its last king Hermaeus was dethroned by the Pahlava who also came from the north-west. 

The Indo-Greeks were unable to expand into mid-India. They and their early internecine wars were duly taken note of by the Puranas: “There will be Yavanas here by reason of religious feeling or ambition or plunder; they will not be kings solemnly anointed but will follow evil customs by reason of the corruption of the age. Massacring women and children and killing one another, kings will enjoy the earth at the end of the Kali age”. Similarly, Gargi Samhita states that “there will be a cruel, dreadful war in their own kingdom, caused between themselves” (Raychaudhuri 1972:343). 

Dharma-sastras do not think much of  the Greeks. Atreya  Dharma- sastra , which is quoted by Manu-smrti,  mentions Yavanas among non-Aryan tribes ( Kane 1990 : 261). Manu-smrti classifies Yavanas as dasyus who speak mleccha language ( Kane 1990 : 326) and forbids Brahmins to dwell in the kingdom of a sudra ( Kane 1990 : 335).  

Gautama Dharma-sastra quotes the widely held view that the offspring of a Kshatriya male and a Sudra female was  designated a Yavana ( Kane 1990 : 35). It is noteworthy that Gautama forbids beef eating while Apastamba “seems to allow it and cites the Vajasaneyka for support” (Kane 1990 : 1990 :73). Significantly the latter does not mention Yavanas ( Kane 1990 : 73). It is recorded that a   Damodara  made the  Yavanas of Mulsthana ( modern Multan) give up cow slaughter ( Kane 1990 : 806).  It would thus seem that the Persianized Greeks, or Yavanas, were looked down upon for their mixed pedigree, for eating beef,  and  more generally for not subjecting themselves to the Brahminical discipline. 

What happened to the Yavanas? It is noteworthy that while the name Kamboja survives as a Punjab caste group, there is no preservation of Yavana in any contemporary caste or ethnic group. I would like to suggest that the Yavanas were absorbed by the Punjabi Kshatriya clans through intermarriage. Product of this alliance was the Khatri caste. Since the Yavanas had been dubbed  outsiders or half-castes by the Dharma-sastras , the Khatris deliberately shoved their Greek connection under the carpet, tenaciously stuck to the Kshatriya label, and emphasized their ancient lineage. 

I would like to further suggest that the Sood of Punjab hills are the same people. It is noteworthy that the Khatri could claim and obtain high-caste status because their claim was supported by the Sarasvat Brahmins. Since the dominant slot in the hills was already occupied by the Rajputs, Sood were pushed down the hierarchy. It is significant that both the terms Khatri and Sood are derived from the ancient Varna names Kshatriya and Shudra; they  are probably  two sides of the same coin. 

It was stated in the Khatri claims for a high-caste status that their rituals are in accordance with Manusmriti. Going strictly by the book seems to be a deliberate attempt at Sanskritization. It is noteworthy that Brahmins do not have much of a hold in Punjab  unlike in  the Madhyadesh, for example. The Khatri community is clan-driven rather than gotra-driven. Some of the clans  have two gotras instead of one. In some cases, more than one clan share the same gotra. In addition there are cases where the clans do not have any gotra at all. 

While a Khatri’s notions about his own handsomeness may be exaggerated, the incidence of fair complexion and sharp features among Khatris seems to be higher than the national average. This may be due to the Greek strain in them. Another contributing factor may have been the beauty-enhancing selective breeding prevalent among the subjects of Sophytes and probably also among the Kathaians, as noticed earlier. The name Sophytes seems to be cognate with Sobti , a Punjabi Khatri clan name. Iran also has a similar sounding surname, Sabouti. 



To sum up our discussion so far, we have made the following  points.


i.                    Persons of Greek extraction who had already been Persianized and were located in the north-west India were absorbed by the   (upper) Punjab Kshatriya clans. Khatri, Arora and Sood are products of this alliance. 

ii.                   These Greeks  carried a taint because  they ate beef and otherwise also did not submit themselves to Brahminical discipline. The taint  was transferred to the Kshatriya clans which accepted then in marriagel. 

iii.                 Khatris in Punjab were able to enlist Brahmin support for themselves and self-consciously insisted on calling themselves Khatri. 

iv.                Their brethren who migrated to Punjab hills were not so fortunate. Since the dominant position there was held by the Rajputs, and since Brahmin orthodoxy was strong , they were pushed down in the hierarchy and dubbed Sood. Note that both Khatri and Sood are derived from varna names. 

v.                 For some reason, Aroras split from the Khatris and established matrimonial alliances in lower Punjab and Sind. 

vi.                In course of time, structure appeared within the Khatri caste, which loosely split into Char-ghar and Bunjai. From among the later, Sarin and Khukhrain became autonomous. 


DNA tests 

The above  discussion is admittedly speculative. There is no reliable source material on the subject and it is not possible to establish any chronology. Fortunately, recent developments in biology can be combined with social anthropology to obtain valuable clues on questions such as  the history of Khatris and their relationship with other castes. We can take blood samples from volunteers drawn from different well- defined social groups  like Char-ghar; Bunjai ; Sarin; Khukhrain ; Aroras from upper Punjab and from lower Punjab; Soods,  Bhatias,  etc., and  study the results of DNA fingerprinting. What results can be expected from such a study? 

The separation between Khatris and Soods should be small. Since because of geographical isolation the Soods have been tightly endogamous, their genetic study can be expected to provide valuable information. 

The separation between Khatris and  the Aroras from upper Punjab should be less than that between Khatris and  the Aroras from lower Punjab. 

Given the lack of any worthwhile material on the history of Indian castes, sub-castes and clans , it is time new biology was listed as an aid. The old advice to a young researcher is very relevant here: Try something and see what happens.



Apte, Vaman Shivram ( 1970) The Student’s Sanskrit – English Dictionary ( Delhi : Motilal Banarasidass) 

Kane, P.V. (1990) History of Dharmasastra, Vol. I, 2nd ed. (Pune : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute) 

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