How Medieval Indian Engineers Built Robots Powered By Water And Clockwork

Robots powered by water and clockwork were built by medieval Indian engineers, and multiple courts with whom they interacted also possessed them. These robots are well-attested by credible travelers.

One of the most fascinating, and least understood, aspects of South Asia’s history is the evolution of its technology. With so little evidence surviving from secular contexts, we often have to speculate about how engineering operated in the medieval period. This is all the more frustrating because many sources attest that medieval courts had some truly surprising and wondrous devices: automata, or what we might call robotstoday.

Evidence from stories and travellers

Though I can already feel the readers of our column rolling their eyes, the evidence for the existence of automata is far more credible than other claims made about pre-modern Indian technology, such as UFOs, mercury-powered aeroplanes, and genetic engineering. We can guess that medieval Indians had automata because multiple courts with whom they interacted also possessed them, and they are well-attested by credible travellers. These devices were not the sleek, Bluetooth-operated cleaning or assembly bots that we are accustomed to today. Instead, they were powered by water and clockwork, both of which humans have been using for centuries in watermills, windmills, fountains and similar structures.

The Lokapannati, an 11th-century Buddhist text composed in Burma—a region that had extensive interactions with South India—narrates the story of a young man in the ancient North Indian city of Pataliputra. Dr Signe Cohen explores this story in her article Romancing the Robot and Other Tales of Mechanical Beings in Indian Literature. The man hears tales of strange machines called bhūtavāhanayantra, literally meaning “machines that are the vehicles of spirits,” built by the master artisans of Roma-vishaya, or “Rome-Country”. Eager to learn their secrets, he is reborn in Roma and marries the chief engineer’s daughter. Through a series of adventurous events, including being chased by squads of flying death robots and receiving exposition from wise old Buddhist nuns, these designs finally reach the hands of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, who uses them to create and protect thousands of stupas.

This story may seem rather fanciful, but interestingly, the “Roma-vishaya” referred to in the narrative—probably the Byzantine Empire, the medieval successor of ancient Rome—did, in fact, have automata. In 948, an ambassador from northern Italy described a magnificent Byzantine construction called the “Throne of Solomon”, a bejewelled throne with a gilded tree in front of it. The branches of the tree were adorned with birds made of gilded bronze, and the sides of the throne featured lions of gilded gold with open mouths that roared with quivering tongues.

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