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A Descriptive Catalogue of Indian Astronomical Instruments



Abbreviations and other Conventions



A. Indo-Persian Astrolabes by the Lahore Family

B. Indo-Persian Astrolabes produced by Others

C. Sanskrit Astrolabes with Multiple Plates

D. Sanskrit Astrolabes with Single Plates

E. Astrolabes reworked in Sanskrit

F. Indo-Persian Celestial Globes produced by the Lahore Family

G. Indo-Persian Celestial Globes produced by others

H. Sanskrit Celestial Globes

I. Sanskrit Armillary Spheres (Gola-Yantra)

J. Indo-Persian Quadrants

K. Sanskrit Quadrants (Turīya-yantra)

L. Dhruvabhrama-yantra of Padmanābha

M. Phalaka-yantra of Bhāskara II

N. Palabhā-yantras & Equinoctial Sundials in Sanskrit

O. Cūḍā-yantras

P. Sanskrit Column Dials

Q. Indo-Persian Horizontal Sundials in Mosques and Museums

R. Water Clocks

S. Metal Instruments designed by Sawai Jai Singh

T. Instruments designed by Sawai Madho Singh

U. Instruments designed by Buhlomal and his Associates at Lahore

V. Astronomical Compendia

W. Miscellaneous Instruments

X. Indian Adaptations of European Instruments

Y. Foreign Instruments in Indian Collections

Z. Fake Astronomical Instruments


Apx.A Bibliography

Apx.B Index of Museums with Indian Astronomical Instruments

Apx.C Index of the Instrument Makers, Designers and their Patrons

Apx.D1 The Yantrarāja of Mahendra Sūri with Malayendu Sūri’s Commentary: Some Extracts

Apx.D2 The Dhruvabhramādhikāra of Padmanābha with his own Commentary: Some Extracts

Apx.E Replicas and other Imitations of Sawai Jai Singh’s Masonry Instruments


In AD 628, Brahmagupta completed his monumental Brāhmasphuṭa-siddhānta which, as David Pingree observes, ‘was enormously influential on later Indian astronomy as well as on Islamic and Western European’ astronomies.i The twenty-second chapter of this work describes the construction and use of several astronomical instruments, from the simple quadrant to mercury-driven perpetual motion machines. While studying this chapter,ii I wondered whether any specimens of these instruments are preserved today in museums. Such specimens, I thought, would help in understanding better the rather brief descriptions in Sanskrit texts. Therefore, a survey of Sanskrit astronomical instruments in various museums in India would be a worthwhile task, I reflected. But gradually I came to realise that many Sanskrit instruments are closely related to Islamic astronomical instruments, that several Islamic astronomical instruments were also produced in India as well and that large numbers of specimens of Sanskrit as well as Islamic astronomical instruments are preserved in museums abroad, especially in UK.

It was about this time that I came across a catalogue of the exhibition on ‘Science in India’ which was mounted by the Science Museum of London in connection with the Festival of India in 1982. The exhibition gave an admirable account of scientific activity in India from the earliest times up to the present day, by means of manuscripts and artefacts. The catalogue, compiled by Dr R. G. W. Anderson, who later became the Director of the British Museum, made me aware of the actual specimens of Indian astronomical instruments which are still extant in various museums in India and abroad. Encouraged by this catalogue and later by personal conversations with Dr Anderson and other scholars, I began studying Indian astronomical instruments in museums and private collections within India and outside.

Thus began my exploration of pre-modern Indian astronomical instruments in 1991 which lasted a quarter century and spanned three continents.“ A descriptive catalogue of the extant instruments which I identified during the course of my explorations in about a hundred museums and private collections is presented in the following pages. The majority of the surviving instruments are astrolabes. These are not simple measuring tools. Their fabrication from sheets of brass demands sophisticated workmanship. Engraving the various kinds of lines and circles on the plates and on the back requires high precision. Fashioning the kursī and the rete involves fine artistic sense. Furthermore, large quantities of astronomical, astrological and geographical data are engraved on them. Therefore, astrolabes have been carefully preserved by owners and eagerly collected by cognoscenti throughout the centuries in all the regions.

In this catalogue, astrolabes are described in five sections A, B, C, D and E. Then follow celestial globes in three sections F, G and H. These are also products of excellent metal craft and artistic beauty. Thereafter are treated diverse kinds of instruments which exist in smaller numbers.

I have personally examined and photographed many of the instruments described in this catalogue. In some cases, where I could not personally study the instruments, detailed information and photos were kindly sent to me by museums, auction houses and private collectors. The third source is archival. At the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, Francis Maddison collected a large number of photos of astrolabes and of other instruments which were sent to him for evaluation by auction houses. Likewise, Anthony J. Turner, Le Mesnil-le-Roi, has a large collection of photos. Both very generously lent me photos of Indian instruments in their collections. These photos fill important gaps and help in a drawing a more comprehensive picture of instrument production in India.

Astronomical instruments produced in India in the pre-modern period can be classified into two broad groups. In the first group are those with inscriptions and legends in Arabic and Persian. More specifically, the astronomical technical terms are in Arabic, and the inscriptions regarding the manufacture or ownership are often in Persian. These are classified as Indo-Persian instruments, because they were produced in a milieu where Persian was the official or scholarly language. The second group consists of instruments on which the legends are in Sanskrit language and in Devanagari script. These are called Sanskrit instruments. The original prototypes for the Indo-Persian instruments were derived from the Islamic world. Some of the Sanskrit instruments are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and some others are adapted from Islamic models. There is also a small number of Sanskrit instruments derived from European models.

Excluded from this survey are the modern or post-telescopic astronomical instruments which were directly imported from the west and did not undergo any substantial variation in India, even when they were manufactured here. A further distinction between these two groups of pre-modern and modern instruments lies in the manner and scale of production: the former were produced by traditional artisans and each item was a unique product, whereas the latter were industrial products on a mass scale with identical copies. This difference is somewhat akin to the difference between manuscripts and printed books.

This does not mean that modern instruments like telescopes, sextants, transit circles have no historical value. Just as the copies of the first edition of a book are valuable as collectibles, so are also nineteenth century European instruments of historical interest. Universities and other academic institutions in India still possess many such historically interesting European instruments. These also deserve to be catalogued; in fact, even other kinds of scientific instruments and obsolete measuring devices like steel-yards which are scattered in museum stores need to be studied; but it is beyond the scope of the present catalogue.iv

Had I known the enormity of the project, I probably would not have ventured in the first place. But the interest and encouragement shown by scholars and the enthusiastic cooperation of museum directors gave me the necessary confidence to continue with the project. Therefore, the list of persons to whom I owe deep debt of gratitude is rather long.

I am quite conscious of the many shortcomings in this catalogue, caused by my linguistic and technical limitations. But I do hope that this first ever attempt at compiling the information about pre-modern Indian astronomical instruments which are dispersed in many parts of the world will be of some use to the historians of science and to the curators of museums.

Safavid astrolabe makers like Muḥammad Mahdī al-Khādim al-Yazdī (Y008), cAbd al-A’imma (Y009), Muḥammad Amīn (Y010), cAbd al-cAlī (Y011) and others usually engrave on their richly decorated astrolabes a line from the Gulistān of the Persian poet Shaykh Sacdī, which reads gharaḍ nakshīst kaz mā bāz mānad (the intention of this drawing is that it should remain after us), as can be seen in this cartouche engraved on the back of the astrolabe by Muḥammad Mahdī al-Khādim al-Yazdī (Figure Y008.6).

This is indeed the hope nurtured by every astrolabe maker and every author, including the compiler of this catalogue.

i Pingree 1981, p. 21.

ii Sarma 1986-87a

iii I tried to cover all the known collections in India, Europe and USA; in India, the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, Indian Museum, Kolkata, and L. D. Institute, Ahmedabad, are known to own astronomical instruments, but they did not respond to my repeated requests for permission to study the instruments in their collections. New museums are coming up in Kuwait and in the United Arab Emirates, some of which are reported to possess Indo-Persian astrolabes and celestial globes, but I have not been able to contact these museums.

iv National inventories of scientific instruments, both pre-modern and modern, are being compiled elsewhere. In the 1950s, the History of Science Division of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science set up a commission to promote the compilation of an ‘inventaire mondiale des appareils scientifiques historiques’. The first step in this direction was to compile national inventories. Accordingly, several European countries brought out national inventories of scientific instruments: Belgium (1959-1960), Italy (1963), France (1964), USSR (1968), Czechoslovakia (1970; unpublished), Ireland (1990). The last and the most comprehensive in this series is Science Preserved: A Directory of Scientific Instruments in Collections in the United Kingdom and Eire, compiled by Mary Holbrook, R. G. W. Anderson & D. J. Bryden, London 1992.


1. Abbreviations





















terrestrial longitude






not dated



private collection



present location unknown






sub voce









terrestrial latitude


instruments which I have personally examined



(semi-colon) mark of separation in sexagesimal system between degrees and minutes of arc and between hours and minutes of time

All linear measurements are in millimeters

Material of almost all instruments is brass; in a few cases, it is wood or wood and ivory. Only such cases will be mentioned in the catalogue. Where no material is mentioned, it should be understood as brass.

2. Other Abbreviations and Expressions



Sharon L. Gibbs, Janice A. Henderson & Derek de Sola Price, A Computerized Checklist of Astrolabes, Yale University, New Haven 1973. Astrolabes are identified with the serial numbers given here.



David Pingree, Census of Exact Sciences in Sanskrit, Series A, vols. 1-5, Philadelphia 1970-1994.



Charles Couston Gillipse (ed), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 16 vols, 1970-1980.



Emilie Savage-Smith, Islamicate Celestial Globes: Their History, Construction and Use, Washington, D.C., 1985. ESS followed by a serial number refers to the globe under this serial number in the catalogue part of the book.



Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London



Museum of the History of Science, Oxford



National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Répertoire = Alain Brieux, Francis Maddison, avec la collaboration de Ludwik Kulus et Yusuf Ragheb, Répertoire des Facteurs d’Astrolabes, et leurs oeuvres. Islam, plus Byzance, Arménie, Géorgie et Inde Hindoue (in press). I use the 1993 version. Here the instrument makers are listed alphabetically and under each name the instruments by this maker are listed chronologically with serial numbers. Répertoire, followed by a serial number, refers to an instrument made by the instrument maker concerned.

India, Indian = refer to the Indian subcontinent

Indo-Persian = and/or academic language refers to artefacts produced in India where Persian was the official

Islam, Islamic= refer to the culture of the Islamic world and not to the religion.

3. Chronology



Anno Domini, Christian era



Hijrī era (lunar)



Śaka era (luni-solar)



Vikrama Saṃvat (luni-solar)

Dates in Hijrī era are converted by the CALH (Calendar conversion program) developed by Benno van Dalen.
https://www.bennovandalen.de/Programs/programs.html [also https://goo.gl/gFvLXO, last accessed in April 2017]

Dates in Śaka and Vikrama Saṃvat eras are converted by the ‘Pancanga’ program developed by Michio Yano and Makoto Fushimi https://www.cc.kyoto-su.ac.jp/~yanom/pancanga/index.html [also https://goo.gl/MN37FC, last accessed in April 2017]

4. Languages

The language of the engravings on the Indo-Persian instruments is mainly Persian with Arabic technical terms. The transcription of these Arabic terms is somewhat peculiar. Because of the limited space available for engraving, or even otherwise, the Arabic definite article al- is often omitted. Epithets in masculine gender are added to nouns even when the latter are feminine. The term ra’s (head) is generally transcribed as rās. In order to retain the peculiarity of the language, the engravings are transliterated exactly, without making any attempt at assimilation or vocalization according to the usage either in Arabic or in Persian.

As will be explained in the introduction to Sanskrit astrolabes, unlike in the Islamic and in Indo-Persian milieu in India, no professional class of Sanskrit instrument makers developed. Hindu or Jaina astronomers or astrologers, who used Sanskrit as the language of learning, when they wished to have instrument, themselves prepared the technical designs and the text of engravings and asked the willing brass worker, who may be barely literate, to prepare the instrument. Consequently, the Sanskrit engravings of star names and even place names are often incorrect. Therefore, I have added the correct version in most of the cases, for the sake of intelligibility.

5. Transliteration

Arabic/ Persian

Transliteration Sanskrit

6. Numerical Notations

Abjad | On Indo-Persian instruments, the numerical quantities are transcribed mostly in the Abjad alpha-numeric notation and occasionally with the common Arabic/Persian numerals. Khareghat published a very convenient table of the Abjad notation which is reproduced below. v