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Volume: II, Issue II, July-December 2011


AN ASPECT OF INDO-FRENCH EXCHANGE IN SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY (c. 1650-1800 C.E.)







Abstract

The features that characterize the Indo-French exchanges become interesting to the historians as parameters for intellectual change. The earliest exchange that attracts our attention was the one that occurred between Dr.Bernard and Jahangir. However it was into this pre-existing environment of exchange and accommodation established by his predecessors and Shahjahan welcomed the French physician Francois Bernier in 1655. When Aurangzeb ascended the throne in 1658, Francois Bernier was appointed the court physician and his Indian host Danishmand khan was exempted from personal appearances at Aurangzeb’s court. More information is occurred on the second phase too (c.1670) when there was a sudden increase in these encounters once the European Age of Discovery began to inspire Frenchmen to leave their homes and seek fame and fortune in India. The most vivid examples of scientific exchange between the Indians and the French come from the second half of the eighteenth century following the elimination of the French power from all their bases in Bengal and Coromandal Coast. The individual officers like Claude Martin, Polier became free agents who moved from one Indian ruler to other in search of patronage and wealth. They wanted to pass on their knowledge of military technology, agriculture and food processing, textiles weaving and even their pursuit of simple scientific pastimes like botanical collection into the Indian political elites. By modernizing the indigenous elite groups like Gentil, Reymond,Madec,polier,Claude Martin, De-Boigne were most important in the context of these changed conditions.



Keywords Content

Sixteenth century European travellers were not a novelty for the Mughal court. Almost every Mughal emperor since Akbar had seen his share of traders, physicians, artillerymen and envoys from Britain, France, Italy and Holland come in search of buyers for their expensive wares. Their travelogues generated a fascination for the Mughal Empire and its wealthy nobles had induced commercial interest [Chakrabarti, 2011, pp. 1-36].

The earliest exchange that attracts our attention was the one that occurred between Dr. Bernard and Jahangir. Information on this association between an emperor who was also an avid naturalist and a physician from France in the early decades of the 17th century is not reported in his Tuzuk-i Jahangiri (on his Memoirs) [M.A. Alvi and A. Rahman, 1968, pp. 1-10]. However it was into this pre-existing environment of exchange and accommodation established by his predecessors and Shah Jahan welcomed the French physician Francois Bernier in 1655. Bernier travelled around India and his account of the empire is a useful document for all historians who wish to understand Mughal India [Bernier, 1916, pp. 70-79].

When Aurangzeb battled for and finally ascended the throne in 1658, Francois Bernier was appointed the court physician and his Indian host Mula Shafi Yazdi alias Danishmand Khan was exempted from personal appearances at Aurangzeb’s Court. This was done in order to enable an uninterrupted translation of the European texts in Bernier’s possession and exchanges of ideas between the two. This was a quite concession from one who is reviled as a religious bigot today. Bernier translated and explained to Danishmand Khan the essence of the Cartesian worldview that had captured the imagination of 17th century European philosophers [Husain, 1997, p. 237].

Apart from explaining Descartes, Bernier also gave lessons on anatomy and on the circulation of blood as was being propounded by Harvey in England. He even dissected sheep to demonstrate to his hosts the concept of circulation which did not impress the Indian Hakims. Theories on circulation of blood were, old hat, because Galen had talked of ‘tides’ in the production of blood in c. 200 AD. Later Ibne Sina, their Shaikh ur Rais, had given more details to this concept in his Qānūn al Masūdi in the 11th century [Charles Elgood, 1970, pp. 130-31]. The Indian scholars were interested more in the cosmology and philosophy that Bernier had to offer. Danishmand Khan invited the Brahmin pundits to discuss the remarkably familiar ideas of Descartes and Gassendi and for months, his house was lively place with all sorts of views being discussed. Danishmand Khan was so enthused by the discussion and the claims of similarity by the pundits that he tried to acquire a copy of the Vedas but was unable to do so [Jein-Marie Lafont, 2000, pp. 90-118]. Here again the basic defect of recticence between medieval scholars i.e. their aversion to opening up their texts for examination, prevented a possible synthesis between the teachings of Descartes, Gassendi and ancient Indian materialism [Ahmad, 1982, p.78]. However, by the mid-eighteen century French astronomers such as Pons and Calmette did not have to face this prejudice, and they were easily given a part of the Vedas. Gentil too had a completely welcoming experience at Banaras when he found no problems for getting copies of Sanskrit texts and Polier explicitly states that contrary to popular prejudice about Hindu scholars, they were even given him their texts [Lafont, op.cit., p.99].

Another exchange that occurred soon after was that prompted by the revival of the Mughal tradition of the compilation of encyclopaedia on Natural History e.g. the Farhang-i-Aurang Shahi [Encyclopaedia, MS. No. 1367/D254] was written in the 1660s and is a catalogue of plants, insects, birds, marine life and geo-physical curiosities. This is important since it could be considered the standard bearer of a secular approach to nature and precedes by almost 25 years, the famous Hortus Malabaricus by Garcia d’orta and other such works that began to be written by our European counterparts. Much like D’Alembert’s Encyclopaedia that marked the French break between natural History and Biblical theories on creation in the 18th century. A comparison of these landmark compilation is very important for an understanding of the classification of nature as well as the evolutionary processes followed by science in the two culture areas.

More information is occurred on the second phase too (c.670) when there was a sudden increase in these encounters once the European Age of Discovery began to inspire Frenchmen to leave their homes and seek fame and fortune in ‘Des Indes’ (the Indus or India). French travellers such as Tavernier not only made immense profit via his trade in diamonds, he also compiled an illustrated catalogue of the famous diamond that he had encountered in his travels [Tavernier, 1889, pp. 335-37].

Other merchants too were active agents in this exchange. George Rocques, an itinerant textile merchant wrote a journal containing a detailed description on the types of textiles available in India – the manner of their measurement as well as the details of various production technologies witnessed by him in his search for expensive silks and cotton c. 1700.

In France, royal Patronage and interest within the bibliotheque du Roi also prompted many nobleman and traders to start searching out and purchasing manuscripts in Persian, Arabi, Sanskrit for themselves as well as for their patron, the French Emperor. Abbe Bignon, the Librarian in c.1727 was an avid collector of ornately bound and lavishly illustrated as well as illuminated manuscripts. The mere presence of these manuscripts and the availability of Persian coaches resulted in an interest in the content of these manuscripts and soon French scholars were learning the Indo-Persian languages subsequently producing vast amount of literature on Indian medicine and astronomy [Lafont, op.cit., p.113].

On the other hand when Sawai Raja Jai Singh established his observatories at Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura, French Jesuit priest like Pons and Boudier immediately offered him help since they were interested in using astronomy to compete more accurate calendars much like Raja Jai Singh was, and that was why the Ptolemic vs. Copernican debate did not occupy a central position in this exchange [Sharma, 1995, p.311]. Though Prof. S.M.R. Ansari has written intensively on this encounter, much less has been published on the impact of other Jesuits on Indian medicine and the philosophical mindset of their Indian counterpart [Ansari, 1985, pp. 3-6]. We have been missing in our fascination with the western dominance in the sciences. The interaction was too rich to have been one sided and the impact of Indian astronomical methodology on the French cannot be ruled out.

The most vivid examples of scientific exchange between the Indians and the French come from the second half of the eighteenth century following the elimination of the French power from all their bases, in Bengal and coromandal coast. The individual officers like Claude Martin, Polier became free agents who moved from one Indian ruler to other in search of patronage and wealth [Rosie, 1990, p. 32]. They wanted to pass on their knowledge of military technology, agriculture and food processing, textiles weaving and even their pursuit of simple scientific pastimes like botanical collection into the Indian political elites. For example Martin experiments with the indigo plant in botany led to highly publicized and extensively conducted indigo cultivation at Najafgarh near Kanpur [Rosie, 2000, Introduction]. De Boigne, the French General guarding Mahadji Scindia’s northern territories from his base at Aligarh, was a partner in this indigo enterprise too. Martin was also cultivating roses and extracting the attar with the help of his friend Queiros. Atonie Polier too was indulging in this industry and had published a paper in the Asiatick Researches [Asiatic Research, 1788, pp.332-35].

By modernizing the indigenous elite groups, their various states would become more competent to deal with the kind of modern imperialism that the British East India company armies had come to represent. The influences exerted by Gentil, Reymond, Madec, Polier, Claude Martin, De-Boigne were most important in the context of these changed conditions whether Awadh or Hyderabad or Mysore could have actually embarked on an Indo-French ‘Renaissance’ before they were so ruthlessly interrupted by the British armies (c.1770-1800).

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