Friday, April 19, 2024
HomeReportsAircraft in ancient Indian literature: Flights of fancy or lost leaps of science?

Aircraft in ancient Indian literature: Flights of fancy or lost leaps of science?

Also Read

Ancient civilizations across the globe have had myths about deities – particularly sun gods – who crossed the sky in aerial chariots. We Indians, too, had legends about a godly race we considered hugely superior to our own in terms of power, longevity, and technology. These beings rode airborne vehicles, many of which were distinctive in the sense that – unlike similar vehicles in other countries’ myths – they were like aircraft or helicopters as we know them now, not pulled by or yoked to birds or animals; but, instead, self-moving. Indians were familiar with two such types of vehicles. One belonged to the Ashwins, and the other to the Maruts.

Many of us know of the Ashwins as a pair of twins said to be divine healers. What is less well known is that they also served as emergency rescue workers. The Rigveda is full of accounts of the Ashwins rescuing stranded or trapped people in dramatic ways; they then provided them with emergency care and immediate transport to a safe location. Bhujyu, who had been betrayed by his father, injured and tossed into the ocean from a ship, was in an utterly hopeless state; at least eight Rigvedic hymns recount his rescue by the Ashwin twins. One such account is from RV 1.116:

Yea, Aśvins, as a dead man leaves his riches, Tugra left Bhujyu in the cloud of waters.
Ye brought him back in animated vessels, traversing air, unwetted by the billows.
 RV 1.172 describes this in more detail:

Ye made for Tugra’s son amid the water-floods that animated ship with wings to fly withal,
Whereon with God-devoted mind ye brought him forth, and fled with easy flight from out the mighty surge.

(We are using Ralph Griffith’s translations of the Rigveda throughout this article.) They rescued at least one other prisoner who had been fettered and tossed into the sea – Rebha (RV 1.116, 1.117). The same verse (and many others) narrate how the Ashwins saved Atri, whom robbers had thrown into a deep pit in an inaccessible mountain crevice. The Ashwins gave him instant nourishment, and carried him to safety. They also rescued Saptavadhri, who had been trapped alone under a giant tree trunk (RV 5.78). Many verses also narrate how they saved Vandana from a mountain pit.

When the sage Gotama got lost in a desert and nearly died from thirst, the Ashwins came to his aid (RV 1.116). While these are only some of the Ashwins’ many errands of mercy, we see that they often required access to difficult terrain – seas, deep forests, mountains, and deserts. Ordinary vehicles would have found these difficult to traverse, which might explain why the Ashwins tended to use airborne cars for these missions, even though they did possess other vehicles (like horse-drawn chariots). Interestingly, some verses refer explicitly to the fact that the Ashwins’ “car” is not drawn by horses. RV 1.120 says

I have obtained the horseless car of Aśvins rich in sacrifice,
And I am well content therewith.

RV 1.112 also mentions the car being horseless. In addition, there are plenty of verses describing the Ashwins’ vehicle as having three seats, three wheels, and space for food and mead which were presumably both for the pilots and their rescued passengers.

The reason that Indians became familiar with the aerial vehicles of the Ashwins was because of the frequent interaction that the Ashwins had with them during their rescue missions. We now come to the second type of self-propelled flying vehicles that Indians were aware of – those belonging to the Maruts. The Maruts were a group of 49 storm gods. They were a band of .brothers who practised polyandry – they had a common wife, Rodasi. As the Maruts’ main function was to cause storms, they did most of their work while airborne, but needed a flying vehicle to carry their wife with them.

The story behind how the Indians became acquainted with the Maruts’ vehicles is an unusual one. Unlike the Ashwins, the Maruts did not have frequent direct interactions with Indians. But their wife, Rodasi, bore a daughter named Mamata who married into an Indian clan – the famous priestly family of the Brihaspatis (she married Utathya, a brother of Brihaspati). Due to very unfortunate circumstances (the details of which one can refer to in the Matsya Purana), one of Mamata’s children – Bharadwaja – was not accepted by his parents.

However, he was not abandoned. He found a loving home with his maternal grandparents, the Maruts, and Rodasi. You will recall that Rodasi owned a flying vehicle. As a member of this family, Bharadwaja received intimate knowledge of flight and flying vehicles. Eventually he became a famous sage, and his family contributed in a major way to one of the “family books” in the Rigveda. The knowledge of flight vehicles that he inherited from his maternal grandparents might possibly have had repercussions far into the future, in nineteenth century India. But more of that later.

RV 6.66 describes the Maruts’ vehicle, highlighting the fact that it is not borne by an animal:

No team of goats shall draw your car, O Maruts, no horse no charioteer be he who drives it.
Halting not, reinless, through the air it travels, speeding alone its paths through earth and heaven.

RV 1.64 similarly describes the Maruts’ aerial chariot as being “self-moving”.

The next mention of aerial vehicles occurs in the Ramayana. By this time, such vehicles are not being used exclusively by deities. The Pushpak “viman” of the Ramayana belongs to Ravana, and is maintained by Maya Danava, neither of whom are gods. It could be used for journeys across an ocean – Ravan used it to abduct Sita and carry her to Lanka, while Ram used it to fly himself and Sita home after defeating Ravan in Lanka. But it could also be used while fighting with an opponent who was also in the air, as in Ravan’s battle with the vulture Jatayu, who was flying at him repeatedly to prevent him from kidnapping Sita.

Maya Danava represents a key link in process of the technology of flight passing on from gods to Indians. An Indian himself, he was celebrated for his superb architectural and engineering skills. Ancient kings hired him to construct marvels like palaces with devices that cast optical illusions (as the Pandavas did in the Mahabharata, when they commissioned him to build them a marvelous palace at Indraprastha). Maya was also Ravan’s father-in-law, so when Ravan requested him to take charge of and maintain the Pushpak chariot, Maya was happy to oblige. In the process of taking care of the aerial vehicle, Maya figured out how to build flying vehicles himself. Although the demand for such exotic and expensive vehicles could not have been high, he did occasionally receive commissions for flying vehicles. A client of his was from the time of the Mahabharata – King Saalva – who wanted a flying metal “fortress” to launch an aerial attack on Dwaraka, the capital of Krishna.

The fierce aerial battle that followed is narrated in detail in chapters 76 and 77 of canto 10 of the Bhagawat Purana. Saalva and his soldiers bombed Dwaraka from the air, while securely ensconsed within the iron flying fortress designed by Maya Danava. They destroyed its towers, parks, recreational areas, and palaces. It could easily evade the Yadus’ weapons. As if by magic, it appeared low in the sky at one moment, perched on a mountain top or hovered near the sea at another, and landed on the ground at yet another moment. Finally, Krishna managed to hurl a club at Saalva’s helicopter and hit it. It then crashed into the sea and shattered, after which the battle finally ended with Krishna killing Saalva. Strikingly, no other country’s ancient literature seems to contain any mention of similar “air raids” or bombings by air.

Maya Danava followed tradition by passing on his specialized knowledge of aircraft to his children – in his case, daughters. These daughters are mentioned in the Brihatkatha, a first century BC collection of tales originally written in Paisachi (a now forgotten language). The Brihatkatha was later translated into Sanskrit and exists in two Sanskrit versions, the Brihatkathamanjari and the Kathasaritasagara. These feature, as side characters, two daughters of Maya who lived in central India (roughly in the area corresponding to Ujjayini and the Vindhya mountains). They knew how to operate small planes, capable of carrying two to three people. In fact, they regularly used such planes for joyrides. One of Maya’s daughters used it to give rides to her friend, a princess, and to visit her sister, who lived in a rather remote and inaccessible spot in the Vindhya range.

Other characters in the Brihatkatha either ride in or design flying vehicles. King Udayan, a king of Vatsa (another central Indian kingdom, corresponding to modern Khajuraho), did not own an aerial vehicle. But he wanted to commission one when his pregnant wife, Queen Vasavadatta, wanted to ride in a plane. Udayan searched far and wide for mechanics or carpenters capable of building a plane. However, every artisan he met denied that he could make such planes. Ultimately, he did find an Indian carpenter who constructed a small plane for him and his wife. The carpenter told him that though some Indian artisans actually did know how to make planes, they always hid their knowledge for fear of being captured by hostile kings and also of being forced to make war machines. Udayan and Vasavadatta, luckily, used their helicopter for a more pleasant purpose, being content with paying a flying visit to Vasavadatta’s parents in Avanti.

Some carpenters who featured in individual stories in the Brihatkatha were able to make flying vehicles that carried a few people and that fly using the principle of compressed air. However, they usually went to great pains to keep their knowledge secret, though they sometimes used it for personal ends. They were afraid of being exploited by enemy kings. This was not an unreasonable or imaginary fear. History is replete with incidents of invading kings capturing particularly talented people (for instance, the Kushan emperor Kanishka is known to have captured the physician Charaka at Takshashila, as well as the Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, while a Hun ruler of Kashmir had kidnapped the eighth century Sanskrit playwright Bhavabhuti from Kannauj). Besides the fear of being exploited and used for evil ends, there was the danger of being forcibly compelled to give up trade secrets, particularly as intellectual property rights’ protection was non-existent. The only solution to this problem was to keep this knowledge restricted to a very few individuals, perhaps a family which was officially engaged in some other occupation. For instance, an obscure branch of potters secretly passed on the knowledge of how to perform plastic surgery operations, pioneered by Susruta and only rediscovered in 1793 by English surgeons who saw a potter performing such an operation and instantly publicized it in The Gentlemen’s Magazine.

There are numerous other mentions of aircraft in our ancient literature. By now, it must be clear that our literature abounds in descriptions of cars that fly through the air, and are not powered by animals or birds. Equally, such vehicles have been mentioned rarely, if at all, in the ancient literature of other countries. Moreover, in our stories, knowledge of flying vehicles passed gradually from deities to humans. (While Greek literature mentions Daedalus and Icarus, they focused on attaching wings to their own bodies and flying; they did not use vehicles. In our literature, however, there was a focus on flying vehicles capable of carrying other passengers and provisions. )How likely is it that in the whole world, only the Indian imagination was preoccupied with thoughts of self-propelled flying machines? Since literature mirrors real life, could it actually be because we were familiar with such things?

To evaluate this, we come to documented evidence of actual attempts to build flying machines, in the polymath king Bhoja’s book, the Samaranganasutradhara. Bhoja was a major historical figure, an eleventh century king who reigned from 1010 to 1055. While his kingdom had its centre in Malwa, in central India, with its capital at Dharanagara (modern Dhar), it extended over a wide geographical region, from the Sabarmati river in the west to Vidisha in the east, and from Chittor in the north to the upper Konkan in the south. He was celebrated as a scholar king, and was equally well known for his practical projects – such as building dams – and his educational ones – he sponsored universities and encouraged education among his subjects to such an extent that even weavers in his kingdom were familiar with Sanskrit poetic metre. He was a patron of learning, and was himself a prolific author.Chapter 31 of the Samaranganasutradhara (which in general is about mechanical inventions and architecture) focuses on Bhoja’s and his engineers’ attempts to build flightworthy vehicles. According to the book, these machines were built of light wood, were bird-shaped, and were powered by boiling vats of liquid mercury. At first glance, mercury seems to be a very unlikely source of power. Current investigations, however, are showing it to be quite feasible. NASA used mercury in its engines in its SERT mission tests in the 1960s. They were using ion engines where powerful magnets in the spacecraft pushed away charged particles at high speed, generating thrust to power the craft. When mercury was used as the fuel instead of krypton or xenon, which are lighter, it could generate a stronger thrust because of its greater weight. In 2018, a space startup named Apollo Fusion was planning to use mercury to fuel high-power, low-cost rocket engines. Other fuels are, however, considered to have fewer environmental risks. In his manual, Bhoja does not discuss all the technical details, in the interests of safeguarding the intellectual property rights of the mechanics who actually built these vehicles.

If we could actually use flying machines, then an immediate question arises – why didn’t we keep flying all through this time? Why did we have to wait for the Wright brothers? As economist Ashok Sanjay Guha explains in his book, “Reversals of Fortune: Why the Hierarchy of Nations So Often Turns Topsy-Turvy”, technology does not always progress in a linear fashion; if there is insufficient demand for an invention, the technical knowledge underpinning it can very well disappear for centuries. For instance, the steam engine was first invented by Hero of Alexandria in the first century AD; it was used to open the gates of the temple of Alexandria by remote control, to prove to the assembly of worshippers that the gods had entered to accept their offerings. Afterwards, nothing is heard of the steam engine for the next 1600 years, until it was reinvented by Thomas Newcombe for draining water out of coal mines. Science and technology cannot steadily progress or even sustain themselves at their current levels unless there is a strong social need for them.  Without this impetus, scientific curiosa are forgotten very soon. Another example relates to the extremely sophisticated urban drainage systems of cities in the Indus valley civilization – such as Mohenjo Daro and Harappa – of third millennium BCE India.  A main sewer connected with many north-south and east-west sewers: all kept watertight by expert masonry. Each house had its own drains that emptied into the sewer system. Archaeologist Rita Wright describes how this system remained unparalleled, in its technical excellence, until the twentieth century, even in the west. As pointed out by Amartya Sen in “The Argumentative Indian”, these technologies vanished but remained unrivalled for the next four thousand years, not only in India but also in the west, while we might have expected them to spread to other corners of the ancient world, and definitely to continue to be used by the descendants of the people who were once part of this urban civilization.Perhaps that is what happened with aircraft in ancient India.

Our narrative on the history of aircraft in Indian literature comes full circle with the reappearance of Bharadwaja in nineteenth and twentieth century India. Please recall Bharadwaja, who, as a member of the Marut family, acquired detailed knowledge about flying vehicles. His legacy emerged much later, in the Vaimanika Shastra. composed by Pandit Subbaraya Shastry (1866-1940) who dictated its contents, apparently during 1918-23. The Pandit, in turn, claimed to have received knowledge of the contents of the book from his guru, a wandering ascetic, who in turn had passed on the received wisdom of Bharadwaja. The book contained ancient prescriptions for making different types of vehicles capable of flight. Our British rulers frowned on any funding or research to explore the contents of the book. In fact, they immediately put Subbaraya in jail, where he remained till his dying day. Thus, the general public never got to have any interaction with him.

A civilization undergoing a thousand years of subjugation and foreign invasion might certainly be destroyed and crumble to pieces. The Indian civilization did not do so even after subjugation by Muslim and Christian rulers, and despite being subjected to constant foreign invasions, managed to withstand them. But we certainly had to suffer and pay a price in terms of the erosion of our self-confidence and self-image, internalizing our inferiority to whites as a fact. Many Indians, some of them scientists, thus immediately labelled the book as a fraud and a hoax.

Currently, the research scene has changed. Some of the models of aircraft described in the book were tested in 2017 by Travis Taylor, an aerospace engineer, at the University of California, Irvine. Performing a wind tunnel experiment, Taylor found that the model was flight-worthy.[1] This raises a very interesting question. How and where did Subbaraya, a very poor man of little formal education, an ascetic who roamed the forests in search of a guru, a man persecuted by illness, find enough knowledge to write about not only airplanes, but even spacecraft? We must remember that such knowledge was not available at that time in the white man’s world either, especially with regard to spacecraft. The answer to this question is not available today. Maybe it will require a lot more funding and research to unlock the mystery. The rumour is that NASA and even China are interested in the book. Good luck to them! But we would really like it if Indians also could benefit from this, or at least gain a deeper understanding of how the minds of our ancestors worked.

Indrani Guha and Brishti Guha

[1] The YouTube video of the experiment is available at

  Support Us  

OpIndia is not rich like the mainstream media. Even a small contribution by you will help us keep running. Consider making a voluntary payment.

Trending now

- Advertisement -

Latest News

Recently Popular