Mandala Of Indic Traditions
Review: Ancient Glass and India. Sen, S. N. and Mamta Chaudhary. New
Delhi: Indian National Science Academy. 1985. Pp. 201. Rs. 100/-.
by D.P. Agrawal and Manikant Shah
The term, glass, includes a wide range of products, which
are characterized mainly by their desired rate of cooling from a state of fusion
to a solid state in such a way that it does not undergo crystallization. Generally
glass is produced by melting a mixture of silica (sand: about 10%) with the
required calcium compounds (lime: about 10%), and some metallic oxides are added
as colouring agents.
In this monograph the authors have discussed the occurrence
and manufacture of glass in ancient India, in the backdrop of the world history
The first chapter out of the five in which the book is divided
deals with the historical background of ancient glass. In addition the chapter
deals extensively with the general characteristics, the properties, compositions
and processes involved in the manufacture of ancient glass. The authors do not
wish to evaluate or analyse the history, rather they present it as it is generally
accepted, along with its unsolved questions. They tell us that glass was discovered
around 1500 B.C. in Egypt as a development from faience to glaze to glass. On
the other hand, glass making in the Far East may be traced back to the sixth
The global backdrop given by the authors is however weak.
The correct position is that the Egyptians and ancient Assyrians had glass-makers
even in the third millennium BC. Glass beads have been found in the cemeteries
of Ur III (c. 2100 BC.) and also at Assur under the Ziggurat (c. 1800 BC.) in
Mesopotamia. There is archaeological evidence to indicate that there were glass-producing
factories in Egypt during the XVIII Dynasty in the reign of Amenhotep II (1448-1420
BC.). At Tell el Amarna (1450-1400 BC.) the remains of a glass house and fragments
of glass in several stages of manufacture have been found. There is a series
of Assyrian clay tablets from the library of Assurbanipal (seventh century BC.)
which provide details of glass-making at that time. But the glass industry matured
only during the Graeco-Roman times, specially by the Romans who were well versed
in the art of glass-blowing and sheet-making (Subbarayappa 1999).
The remaining chapters deal in glass with regard to its occurrence
in India. The second chapter deals with the literary and archaeological evidence
of glass in ancient India. The authors point out that mention of glass Kanch
or Kaca is profuse in the ancient texts going back to 1200 B.C., or perhaps
even further beyond. The Vedic text, Satapatha Brahmana refers in a general
way to Kaca, the Sanskrit term used for glass. Under this brief section
of the literary sources the authors have only considered the ancient Sanskritic
texts with a view to establish the antiquity of glass works in India. It was,
however, in the three or four centuries before and after the Christian era that
Indian glass industry began to gain momentum. The rest of the chapter informs
us in detail about the archaeological evidence with regard to the antiquity
of glass in India. The archaeological excavations in Brahmapuri and Kolhapuri
in Maharastra State (second century BC second century AD) reveal that
there was also a glass noted for its drawn beads which were generally cylindrical
in form. Even in the sixteenth-seventeenth century AD, the Portuguese used to
trade in these glass objects with East Africa. In the Deccan, some Satavahana
sites have yielded folded beads, twisted beads as well as cane-glass beads;
Arikamedu, Nevasa, Ter, Prakash etc., were well known for the cane-glass beads.
We are told in the third chapter that despite the wealth of ancient archaeological
specimens of glass in India the scientific studies thereof are very inadequate.
In contrast, the chemical studies of Indian glass specimens have been carried
out in some detail. These physical studies help in forming an idea of the processes
involved in producing the glass that it is. The monograph gives due credence
to Sana Ullah who was the first to carry out the chemical studies of the ancient
glass objects in India after Neumann took up to study the chemical composition
of the glass objects in Europe. The detailed results of such study in India
are reproduced in the monograph.
Indian glass-makers had adequate expertise in the fabrication of beads, bangles
and a few other types. On the basis of various objects excavated at different
sites, it may be inferred that the glass-makers employed such methods as moulding,
folding, twisting and double-stripping. Possibly, what is known as wire-winding
method was also for preparing beads of different types. The beads found at Brahmapuri
indicate that they were probably made by this method by coiling the fused glass
rod around a wire or spoke, and twirling it to obtain the desired shapes. The
technique of preparing what are called the 'multiple-wound beads' of opaque
glass of different colours was also known. Bangles, both monochrome and polychrome,
were produced with great care. Certain patterns were also imposed on them by
skilful methods. As regards flasks, bowls and even bottles which are found in
some archaeological sites, they were by and large, made in the Mediterranean
(Roman) region with which India had commercial contacts from ancient times.
Likewise, the milleflori (Latin word meaning 'thousand flowers') glass with
flowery designs, found near Taxila and Ahicchatra (UP) seem to be of Roman origin.
It may be noted that the milleflori technique was a flourishing one specially
in Venice. In the medieval period, the artistic glass specimens of the Mughal
period show the Persian influence inasmuch as Persian glass-makers came to India
with their craftsmanship and were engaged in the production of glass dishes
and dish covers, spittoons, flat-bottomed vessels, mirrors and other objects
like tiles and ear reels. But glass-tiles appeared in India even as early as
the third century BC during the reign of Asoka.
The book gives a summary of archaeological evidence of early glass from various
excavated sites. The main ones are:
AHAR, AHAD, Rajasthan
Glass objects, discovered from Ahar, are beads and bangles. Out of five beads,
two are of plain translucent variety; two of tabular cuprous glass (Period
II 3rd century BC) and the fifth of opaque green colour. The first
two show pulled bubbles and have a very rough surface. They are short tabular,
barrel and globular. Four pieces of glass bangles have been discovered. All
of them are of monochrome category. Of the four pieces, two came from the
phase Ic (Period II) and two were from surface collection. These bangles are
of two types those belonging to phase Ic are plano-convex, and those
of surface collections show a triangular section. The colour of these glass
bangles varies from turquoise blue, sea-green to milky-white. All these bangles
are found to be translucent and full of bubbles. The technique employed for
making these bangles was rather crude as indicated by the uneven thickness.
Due to the leaching out of the alkalis, the bangle pieces are covered with
a whitish filmy patina.
AHICCHATRA, Uttar Pradesh
The glass objects that have been unearthed at Ahicchatra are mainly beads,
distributed practically among all the strata. Their dating extends from c.
300 B.C. to 1100 A.D. More than one hundred glass beads were recovered from
excavations, besides several others from surface collections.
Period II of the site shows the occurrence of the Painted Grey Ware and black-slipped,
black-and red and plain red wares. Among other finds of this period mention
may be made of vitreous paste and beads of glass. The dating of period II
may be regarded as representing a late phase of the Painted Grey Ware culture.
The town-mound at Broach, the ancient Bharukachha of Indian literature and
Barygaza of the classical geographers, was excavated by the Western circle
of the Department of the Archaeological Survey of India. The occupation of
the site may be divided into three periods. Period I (3rd century B.C.) yielded
glass beads in association with the beads of semi-precious stones, agate,
chert, chalcedony and jasper.
ERAN, Madhya Pradesh
Eran (ancient Airkina) is situated in the district of Sagar. Three mounds,
namely ERN-I to ERN-3, were excavated by the University of Sagar. Periods
III (1st century to the 5th century) and IV (16th to 18th century AD) were
found to be rich in glass beads and glass bangles respectively.
HASTINAPUR, Uttar Pradesh
This site is one of the earliest from where glass has been reported.The occurrence
of glass bangles from period II (1100-800 B.C.) is therefore noteworthy.
MAHESWAR AND NAVDATOLI, Madhya Pradesh
Beads. Several fragmentary and eleven intact specimens of glass beads
were recovered from Maheswar. Of the intact ones, eight came from layers of
Phase VI (100-500 A.D.), two from phase V (100 B.C.-100 A.D.) and one from
Phase VII (Muslim-Maratha period). They show a wide range of shapes such as
spherical, truncated barrel, globular, hexagonal, cylindrical and irregularly
circular. Their colours are deep blue, deep green, yellow, sea-green and soiled
Bangles. Bangles are both monochrome and polychrome, the former being
more abundant than the latter. Of the monochrome type six hundred and seventy-three
pieces were recovered, of which fifty-three came from Navdatoli trenches.
Of the bangles unearthed from Maheshwar, 95 per cent came from Phase VI.
NEVASA, Madhya Pradesh
About 350 glass beads were recovered mostly from Phase V (50 B.C.-200 A.D.)
which represents the most flourishing period in the history of Nevasa. Besides
the colouring of glass, these beads reveal various techniques of glass and
PAIYAMPALLI, Tamil Nadu
The excavation at Paiyampalli in the district of North Arcot was carried
out under the guidance of S.R. Rao in 1964. The work has brought to light
the glass beads and bangles of two cultural periods, namely the Neolithic
(Period I, 1390±200 B.C.) and megalithic (Period II, 315±100
Forty-five glass bangles have been recovered from Phase II (6th 1st
century B.C.), Phase III (2nd century B.C. 6th century A.D.), and Phase
IV (6th to 11th century A.D.) and also from an unstratified deposit. The occurrence
of monochrome glass bangles during the pre-Christian era is noteworthy in
About 148 beads have been found in the middens near the megalithic tombs
at Sulur. They are of green (72), red (29), black (11), blue (24), blue zon
(1), yellow (3), opaque orange (1), imitation garnet (2), pale brown (1) white
(1), clear (2) and corroded (1) glass.
According to Beck, there is no evidence of glass at Taxila before the 7th
and 6th century B.C. The glass objects that have been recovered from Taxila
comprise beads, bangles, small vessels, tiles and some miscellaneous articles.
The glass beads from the fourth stratum of the Bhir Mound (c. 5th century
B.C.) are twenty-five in number. Most of the beads are colourless and iridescent.
Those that are coloured are blue, black, green, very dark green, grey, opal
white, amber, etc. Two more glass objects, other than beads, which came from
the same stratum are an ear-ornament decorated with a rosette on one side
and a part of a miniature casket. Both were made of a fine variety of black
or very dark green glass, which has the appearance of obsidian and is free
from quartz grains or other impurities. The glass beads found in stratum III
(c. 4th century B.C.) are 217 in number.
UJJAIN, Madhya Pradesh
The excavation at Ujjain, in Central India, yielded a number of glass beads,
ear-reels and bangles belonging to the period c. 500 B.C. to 1st century A.D.
Of the few ear-reels, the most interesting feature on one specimen is the
decoration of impressed coils representing 'eyes'; the decoration appears
on one side only. A squarish seal resembling a specimen from Maheswar, is
of black glass with a green tinge and bears on one side the symbol of an elephant.
The specimen appears to be of 300 B.C.
There are many other sites given in the book.
Chapter four, which happens to be the last chapter in the monograph deals with
furnaces, tools, and various techniques for fashioning glass objects in ancient
The authors tell us that though glasswares have been unearthed from various
archaeological sites in India yet the findings do not help in recreating the
technology in the past. The authors say that the glass making in India did not
advance beyond the first and the very rudimentary stage. The furnaces that were
used could not produce heat in excess of 10000 C. Moulding was one of the techniques
used in India for the production of glass objects. Blowing was introduced in
India towards the end of the first century.
The chemical analyses of glass objects found in over 15 sites of different
parts of India indicate that the Indian glass-makers knew the importance of
metallic oxides or other compounds for imparting the desired colours to the
glass objects. Minerals containing iron like haematite, copper, cobalt, managanese,
aluminium or lead were used along with the silicates in a desired way and in
appropriate quantity for the production of various types of glass beads, bangles,
tiles and bottles. The monograph is full of useful technical details, with chemical
tables of the glass objects found in India. Tables of archaeological objects
found are also given. It is a work that more or less presents the status of
research in ancient glass objects in India.
We would like to end the review with some very perceptive remarks by Subbrayappa.
In India, however, glass did not have a social value similar to that of metals
and pottery which was preferred to glass vessels in some religious functions,
and in iatro-chemical practices as well. There was commercial contact, now
and then, between India and the Greco-Roman world. The foreign glass objects
found at Arikamedu (first second century AD) reveal not only such contacts
but also their wide use in the Greco-Roman culture. Yet, glass played an insignificant
role in the Indian socio-cultural life. The rasavadins (alchemical-cum-medicinal
chemists) did not somehow choose to employ always glass vessels for their
chemical operations involving distillation, steaming, mild heating and the
like. Their apparatus was by and large earthen which did not permit them to
observe the way in which the chemical processes as well as the fabrication
of glass apparatus, like those which placed chemistry on a solid foundation
in the West in the 18th century. Around this time the West had developed what
are known as tank furnaces for large-scale commercial production of glass.
The fabricating methods were also standardized; more importantly, by using
the finest raw materials silica and compounds of sodium, magnesium
as well as calcium, and, employing the pot method, optical glass having a
required degree of hardness, desired refraction and dispersive powers, was
produced. Lenses, prisms, mirrors, glass tubes and vessels played a notable
role in the new experimental methods that led to the growth of physics, chemistry
and biology in the West. In Indian ethos, however, the importance of glass
was hardly recognized (Subbarayappa 1999).
Subbarayappa, B.V. (Ed.) 1999.. A Note on Glass in India. In Chemistry and
Chemical Techniques in India (Ed.) By B.V. Subbarayappa. Vol IV Part 1.
New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilization. Pp. 323-336
Dikshit, M..G. 1969. History of Indian Glass. Bombay: University of