What The Ancients Did For Us - The Indians

Find out more about The India programme, part of the BBC/OU's 'What the Ancients Did for Us' TV series

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

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Adam under a crane Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

India is one of the oldest and richest civilizations in the world. It is home to the world's first planned cities, where every house had its own bathroom and toilet five thousand years ago. The Ancient Indians have not only given us yoga, meditation and complementary medicines, but they have furthered our knowledge of science, maths - and invented Chaturanga, which became the game of chess.

According to Albert Einstein, they "taught us how to count", as they invented the numbers 1-9 and 'zero', without which there would be no computers or digital age. Unfairly we call this system of counting Arabic numbers - a misplaced credit.

Two thousand years ago the Indians pioneered plastic surgery, reconstructing the noses and ears on the faces of people who had been disfigured through punishment or warfare. They performed eye operations such as cataract removal and invented inoculation to protect their population from Smallpox, saving thousands of lives.

To create images of their gods they invented a technique of casting bronze called 'Lost Wax', a five-millennia old process still in use today. India was one of the first civilizations to successfully extract Iron from ore and they quickly learnt how to cast huge structures with it - some of them surviving. Their metallurgists went on to invent steel which they called Wotz. Although apparently mentioned in Beowulf, it would take the British until the 19th century to rediscover same substance.

In 1790 the Indians defeated the British Army in the battle of Pollilur with a secret invention – the rocket. The British eventually stole the idea and used it against Napoleon's fleet.

But perhaps the most important invention the Indians have given us is cotton. 3500 years ago whilst we were lumbering around in animal skins and itchy wool they were cultivating a plant and weaving it into a material that would revolutionise Britain. They also pioneered the printing and dyeing of cotton in a staggering array of colours and invented the spinning wheel - something Europe wouldn't catch up with until the Middle Ages. The mechanisation of this simple device by Hargreaves and Arkwright led to the industrial revolution and turned Britain into a superpower.

Take it further

Read more about ancient mathematics

Discover how yoga and meditation are used in modern medicine

First broadcast: Wednesday 16 Feb 2005 on BBC TWO