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History of measurement systems in India


History of measurement systems in India

Emperor Jahangir (reign 1605–1627) weighing his son Shah Jahan on a weighing scale, 1615, Mughal dynasty.

The history of measurement systems in India begins in early Indus Valley Civilisation with the earliest surviving samples dated to the 5th millennium BCE.[1] Since early times the adoption of standard weights and measures has reflected in the country's architectural, folk, and metallurgical artifacts.[1] A complex system of weights and measures was adopted by the Maurya empire (322–185 BCE), which also formulated regulations for the usage of this system.[2] Later, the Mughal empire (1526–1857) used standard measures to determine land holdings and collect land tax as a part of Mughal land reforms.[3] The formal metrication in India is dated to 1 April 1957 when the Indian Government adopted the International System of Units (SI).[4]


  • Early history 1
  • Post Maha Janapadas period—High Middle Ages (400 BCE–1200 CE) 2
  • Late Middle Ages—Republic of India (1200 CE–1947 CE onwards) 3
  • See also 4
  • Citations 5
  • Bibliography 6

Early history

Standard weights and measures have existed in the Indus Valley Civilisation since the 5th millennium BCE.[1] The centralised weight and measure system served the commercial interest of Indus merchants as smaller weight measures were used to measure luxury goods while larger weights were employed for buying bulkier items, such as food grains etc.[5] Weights existed in multiples of a standard weight and in categories.[5] Technical standardisation enabled gauging devices to be effectively used in angular measurement and measurement for construction.[6] Uniform units of length were used in the planning of towns such as Lothal, Surkotada, Kalibangan, Dolavira, Harappa, and Mohenjo-daro.[1] The weights and measures of the Indus civilisation also reached Persia and Central Asia, where they were further modified.[7] Shigeo Iwata describes the excavated weights unearthed from the Indus civilisation:

Hindu units of time—largely of mythological and ritual importance—displayed on a logarithmic scale.

Rulers made from Ivory were in use by the Indus Valley Civilisation prior to 1500 BCE.[8] Excavations at Lothal (2400 BCE) have yielded one such ruler calibrated to about 116 inch (1.6 mm).[8] Ian Whitelaw (2007)—on the subject of a ruler excavated from the Mohenjo-daro site—writes that: 'the Mohenjo-Daro ruler is divided into units corresponding to 1.32 inches (33.5 mm) and these are marked out in decimal subdivisions with amazing accuracy—to within 0.005 of an inch. Ancient bricks found throughout the region have dimensions that correspond to these units.'[9] The Indus civilisation constructed pan balances made of copper, bronze, and ceramics.[1] One excavated pan balance from Mohenjo-daro (2600–1900 BCE) was constructed using a cord-pivot type fulcrum, a bronze beam, and two pans.[1] A number of excavated surveying instruments and measuring rods have yielded evidence of early cartographic activity.[10]

Weights and measures are mentioned throughout the religious and secular works of the Vedic period in India.[11] Some sources that mention various units of measurement are Satapatha Brahmana, Apastamba Sutra, and the Eight Chapters of the grammarian Pāṇini.[11] Indian astronomers kept a pañcānga for calculations of tithi (lunar day), vāra (weekday), naksatra (asterism), and karan (half lunar day) for social and religious events.[12] Klostermaier (2003) states that: "Indian astronomers calculated the duration of one kalpa (a cycle of the universe during which all the heavenly bodies return to their original positions) to be 432,00,00,000 years."[13]

Post Maha Janapadas period—High Middle Ages (400 BCE–1200 CE)

Steelyard balances—found in India since the 4th century BCE—have been excavated from the archaeological sites of Gandhara and Amravati.[14] Evidence of a complex system of weights and measures existing in use for multiple purposes under the central control of the Maurya administration (322–185 BCE) is found in the Arthashastra.[2] Archaeologist Frank Raymond Allchin outlines the details of the measurement systems of the Maurya state:

Depiction of equal arm balances is found in the art of Ajanta cave (No. 17) in the Maharastra state.[15] Beams of steelyard balances have been unearthed from the 8th century CE archaeological sites at Sirpur and Arang.[15] The research conducted by Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūn, an Islamic scholar who undertook one of the first studies of India's traditions in his Tahriq-e-Hind, also reflect on the regular usage of the steelyard in India.[16]

Late Middle Ages—Republic of India (1200 CE–1947 CE onwards)

The Chinese merchant Ma Huan (1413–51) outlines the standardised weight and currency system in place at the port city of Cochin.[17] Ma Huan noted that gold coins, known as fanam, or locally known as "panam",[18] were issued in Cochin and weighed a total of one fen and one li according to the Chinese standards.[17] They were of fine quality and could be exchanged in China for 15 silver coins of four-li weight each.[17]

The Mughal empire (1526–1857) undertook central agrarian reforms, under which statistical data was compiled by the local quanungo officials on instructions from then revenue minister Todar Mal.[3] As a part of these reforms, Akbar the Great (1556–1605) enforced practical standardisation in the empire's weight and measure system.[3] The Mughal measurement system measured land in terms of gaz and bigha.[3] The measure of agricultural output was the man.[3] Todar Mal's reforms were resisted by large land holders in India, following which the land of these zamindars was placed under the control of the Mughal treasury.[3] Mughal surveying parties used standardised bamboo rods with iron joints to clearly record land according to the standard imperial land measures.[3] These records were later used to collect land revenue corresponding to the land holdings.[3]

British units of measurement were adopted in India as first the East India Company and later colonial rule gained foothold.[4] The Republic of India adopted the metric system on 1 April 1957.[4] However, the traditional units still prevail in some areas.[19] Chakrabarti (2007) holds that: 'Yet a few areas have still remained untouched by the metric system. In the land-measuring system in India, possibly one of the most complex and archaic systems, we follow different sets of measuring units and systems in different parts of the country. Different State governments have tried to standardise this by introducing a suitable metric system through which official transactions take place and official records are kept. But the land dealings are still done in a number of archaic units. It appears that people are satisfied and comfortable with them.'[19]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Iwata, 2254
  2. ^ a b c Allchin, 217
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Richard, 84
  4. ^ a b c Chakrabarti, 390
  5. ^ a b Kenoyer, 265
  6. ^ Baber, 23
  7. ^ In the third millennium BCE the Indus measuring system was further developed in the ancient regions of Iran and Afghanistan -- Iwata, 2254.
  8. ^ a b Whitelaw, 14
  9. ^ Whitelaw, 15
  10. ^ Schwartzberg, 1301–1302
  11. ^ a b Sharma & Bhardwaj, 320
  12. ^ See Sarma (2008) in Astronomy in India.
  13. ^ Klostermaier (2003)
  14. ^ See Sharma & Bhardwaj, pages 332 and 336.
  15. ^ a b Sharma & Bhardwaj, 333
  16. ^ Sharma & Bhardwaj, 334
  17. ^ a b c Chaudhuri, 223
  18. ^  
  19. ^ a b Chakrabarti, 391


  • Allchin, F.R. (1995), "The Mauryan State and Empire", The Archaeology of Early Historic South Asia: The Emergence of Cities and States, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-37695-5.
  • Baber, Zaheer (1996), The Science of Empire: Scientific Knowledge, Civilization, and Colonial Rule in India, State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-7914-2919-9.
  • Chakrabarti, Bhupati (2007), "Fifty years of the metric system in India and its adoption in our daily life", Current Science, 92 (3): 390–391, Indian Academy of Sciences.
  • Chaudhuri, K. N. (1985), Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-28542-9.
  • Iwata, Shigeo (2008), "Weights and Measures in the Indus Valley", Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (2nd edition) edited by Helaine Selin, pp. 2254–2255, Springer, ISBN 978-1-4020-4559-2.
  • Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark (2006), "Indus Valley Civilization", Encyclopedia of India (vol. 2) edited by Stanley Wolpert, pp. 258–266, Thomson Gale, ISBN 0-684-31351-0
  • Klostermaier, Klaus K. (2003), "Hinduism, History of Science and Religion", Encyclopedia of Science and Religion edited by J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen, pp. 405–410, Macmillan Reference USA, ISBN 0-02-865704-7.
  • Richards, John F. etc. (1996), The Mughal Empire, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56603-7.
  • Sarma, K.V. (2008), "Astronomy in India", Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (2nd edition) edited by Helaine Selin, pp. 317–321, Springer, ISBN 978-1-4020-4559-2.
  • Schwartzberg, Joseph E. (2008), "Maps and Mapmaking in India", Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (2nd edition) edited by Helaine Selin, pp. 1301–1303, Springer, ISBN 978-1-4020-4559-2.
  • Sharma, V.L. & Bhardwaj, H.C. (1989), "Weighing Devices in Ancient India", Indian Journal of History of Science 24 (4): 329–336, Indian National Science Academy.
  • Whitelaw, Ian (2007), A Measure of All Things: The Story of Man and Measurement, Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-312-37026-8.
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