Research Areas

The Center for Indian Knowledge Systems will focus on several different research and practice areas that will evolve as the Center grows and formulates over the next several years.

The six areas of study that have been identified at its inception include:

  1. Documentation of traditional knowledge systems in India with a primary focus on Northeast India
  2. Identifying links between the knowledge systems and the community as they relate to capacity building.
  3. The interplay between indigenous and western knowledge systems in relation to economic development.
  4. The study of different factors that influence attitudes and behaviors towards the indigenous knowledge systems.
  5. Diffusion of ideas in the domain of science and technology and traditional knowledge systems of India.
  6. Develop a Communities Educational Partners program.

Research Proposals

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Genealogy and philosophy of technology in India


  1. Genealogy and philosophy of technology in Northeast India
  2. Investigation into the “technological spirit” of indigenous communities
  3. Indigenous ontologies
  4. New frameworks for analyzing Indian myths
  5. India’s influence on western philosophy of technology
  6. Measurement of time in Various ontological system of India

The most important project for any non-western space is to research its ontology with the explicit purpose of proposing a viable world, something which cannot be done without a prior understanding of both the local context and the tools which have global currency and have built western modernity into its universal status. To research the history and philosophy of technology in India is thus to use tools from scriptures, documented rituals, fieldwork, contemporary philosophy, art and political thinking, in order to uncover the technological spirit and set it free, thus composing an ontology which has never existed, yet is truer to this world than anything it has experienced until now.

In any non-western context the ontological system was recorded in the form of myths and cosmogony. For example, in the Assamese case, the eschatology of Vishnu Puranam describes the nature and properties of time through a narrative form, which could easily be inscribed into the mind. It is thus productive to go back to myths, research them and derive affective methodologies, by creating new concepts and frameworks.

In addition, considering the ubiquity of western technology and the manner in which it is generating frames of thought and action across the globe, it is important to understand whether its own genealogy is indebted to non-western elements, in a similar way to the overwhelming non-western influences in the great European movement of the Renaissance. The decolonization of scientific thought has been underway for many decades and it must become an essential component of the research pertaining to the interaction between Indian indigenous knowledge and western formulations.

Orienting bibliography

  • Bose, D.M., Sen, S.N., Subbarayappa, B.V., Eds. (1971). A Concise History opf Science in India. Indian National Science Academy.
  • Raina, D., Habib, S.I. (2004). Domesticating Modern Science. A Social History of Science and Culture in Colonial India. Tulika Books.
  • Thankur, A.K. (2017). Technology of the Tribes of Northeast India. DVS Publishers

South Indian Classical Musical Instruments- A Scientific Understanding

The music instrument creates sound when part of it vibrates rapidly. The column of air inside a wind instrument, the string of a string instrument, or the stretched skin of a percussion instrument all vibrate when played. Sound generated from the musical instruments not only changes emotion but also basic chemistry of the human being.

In the traditional south Indian musical instruments, most of the materials are made out of organic materials, from parts of the plants, trees, animals. Earlier string instruments of south Indian music instruments including venna were made of vegetable fiber, animal gut, silk, horse hair for violin bows. Similarly, traditional percussion instruments were made out of jack wood, rosewood, bone, cowhide leather. The thavil consists of a cylindrical shell hollowed out of a solid block of jackfruit wood. Layers of animal skin (water buffalo on the right, goat on the left) are stretched across the two sides of the shell using hemp hoops attached to the shell. The stick used on the tavil is hard and is made from the purasai tree wood.

There is lot of scope to understand the science behind these materials, treatment for sound generation. Other than material, there is a scope to understand the shape and geometry on the configuration design on the sound generation. In this proposal various traditional organic materials will be taken for the characterisation, various sound creating characteristics at various condition (as received, after specific treatment, and under stretched condition and under various interaction) will be evaluated. Similarly, all these instrument shape, geometry size, and form will be analysis and correlated with sound generation characteristics.


Archaeometric Analysis of the Ceramic Traditions of Assam

The Ceramic tradition of Assam, an intangible cultural heritage is more than two thousand years old. The earliest handmade pottery in Assam is known from the Neolithic site of Daojali Hading in Dima Hasao district and is dated to 2.7±0.3 ka (LD1728). Intangible cultural heritage is a living form of heritage which is continuously recreated and which evolves as we adapt our practices and traditions in response to our environment. It provides a sense of identity and belonging in relation to our own cultures (UNESCO-2010).

The primary objective of this project is to reconstruct the three thousand year old history of the ceramic tradition of Assam. This will be done by examining the associations of ceramic objects with the stratigraphic features in which they are found, by examining the residues of original contents or surface treatments, by examining the physical properties of ceramic fabrics to assess their suitability for variations functions, such as cooking, building, etc by examining wear marks on objects.

The project aims to modernize the craft by transferring new technologies for bringing changes within the craft for material benefit. This will be done by archaeometric analysis of the terracotta objects to understand the objects ability to contain liquids, to bear loads, to survive sudden heating and cooling, and to withstand impact. These physical, mechanical, and thermal ceramic properties provide information not only on use, but also on the manufacture of the object and the nature of the raw materials. The study of manufacturing techniques of ceramics is useful because ceramic making is an additive procedure in which the sequential stages are noted in the finished products.

If required experiments on modifications in the technique of manufacturing of the product will be undertaken to increase the usability of the product which might increase its market value. With this inputs the ceramic tradition in Assam can be converted it to an organized sector and it will also help in strengthening this traditional craftsmanship. Special attention will be paid for improving the quality of the ceramic products and for increasing the market connectivity. The project aims to propose measures for developing the craft and reinstalling the pride of this dying intangible cultural heritage of Assam.


Swidden Cultivation of Northeast India: An Indigenous Knowledge System

Swidden cultivation is fundamental to everyday life of many communities of North East India. The Swidden cultivators call it a land-use practice that reflects (i) indigenous knowledge accumulated through centuries of trial and error, (ii) an intricate balance between product harvest and ecological resilience, and (iii) an impressive degree of agro diversity. Research have also highlighted the custodial role often played by Swidden cultivator communities in preserving forest ecosystems and natural species and to the tight linkages between biological and cultural diversity. The central purpose of this research is to document indigenous strategies of Swidden cultivation in Northeast India.


  1. To document and evaluate indigenous strategies of Swidden cultivation through a process of research and development.
  2. Identification of promising indigenous practices
  3. Characterisation of the practices
  4. Validation of the utility of the practice for other communities
  5. Extrapolation to other locations
  6. Verification with key farmers and wide-scale extension.

M.S. Swaminathan, father of the green revolution in India, had called the food sector a repository of cultural knowledge. This repository according to him, has provided us with the mechanisms to cope with the various economic, social, and political challenges. Indigenous knowledge is the prime content of this repository. Indigenous knowledge is supposed to be holding the key to solving the problems especially of communities living in remote regions of the world and possessing simple technologies.


Traditional Home Construction Materials- A Detailed Scientific Quantification

Before the invention of cement and concrete, natural materials, including clay, straw, hemp, and bamboo were used for the construction of traditional Indian homes. At present steel and cement are being used for home construction. The carbon footprint (CO2 emission) of these cement industries is very high in addition to the many disadvantages associated with reinforced concrete compared to mud.

In the earlier years, mud houses were widely constructed and people lived in these mud homes were very healthy. The clay dig out from the land for foundation was used for the home construction. In addition, various materials including limestone, cow dung, cow milk, jaggery, sugarcane, were added and left it without disturbance for many days under sunlight to assist fermentation. All these organic material help enhance strength as well as breathable characteristics for maintaining comfortable temperature and humidity inside during summer as well as winter. Though the modern construction materials, cement and steel are also being extracted from the earth, these materials are subjected to excessive pressure and temperature during manufacturing.

In this proposal, standard specimen will be developed with appropriate traditional construction materials and suggested traditional methods. Various types of clay will be considered and similarly various organic materials for the fermentation will be explored based on the availability at various geographical regions. These developed materials will be evaluated for all the required building material characterization including rigidity, compression and shear strength ability to absorb sound, resistance against moisture, insects, water, drag, ability to maintain comfortable temperature and humidity. Developed material will also be evaluated for its earthquake resistance. Developed material will be used for construction of one home with actual size and laboratory condition results of the specimen will be correlated with actual conditions.

In this work, traditional floor tiles (Athangudi) will be developed through handmade process and surface temperature of tile under various climate conditions will be measured and compared with machine made modern ceramic tiles. Cold surface temperature of the tile can significantly affect blood circulation in foot, which can cause floor foot nail. Clay roof tiles (Teracotta) having different shape and geometry will also be developed and its heat resistance, weather durability and insulation characteristics will be measured and compared with brick roof.


Herbal Plants as source of Phytomedicine or Diet

The North East India is characterized by dense forests and inaccessible terrains with rich unexplored ecosystems. In spite of the advancement in modern healthcare facilities, traditional medical practice still continues to be an integral part of the culture in North East India. More than 200 tribes of different ethnic groups, this region is endowed with a variety of medicinal plants and rich traditional knowledge of herbal healing. Some of these herbal medications are consumed as food, while others are taken in the form of decoction, infusion, powder or paste depending upon the ailment. However, a lot of medicinal plants found here still remain unexplored and not properly documented. Ethnomedicinal plants are extensively being investigated to curb the development and spread of numerous diseases. It also serves as a vast resource to support the necessity for more effective novel drugs. Additionally, the phytocompounds identified from these plants also serve as a base for the synthesis of pharmacologically active synthetic analogs for treating various ailments. One such family of medicinal plant widely used in north east India and of great economic value is Zingiberaceae. Alpinia nigra which is a favorite vegetable diet in Assam are being cultivated due their high medicinal value. Kaempferia rotunda and Curcuma angustifolia are well known for its use in ethnomedicine as demulcent, anthelmintic, antipyretic and blood coagulant. It was found that the boiled water extract of rhizome is used for the treatment of diabetes. Zerumbone isolated from Hedychium coronarium showed potent promising cytoprotective effect potential and antiulcer activity. Potent antibacterial and antifungal phytochemicals are identified from the extract of Zingiber zerumbet. Hedychium spicatum also forms an integral part of the local cuisines in northeast India. The rhizome decoction and root powder of H. spicatum are traditionally used in treating foul breath, nausea, bronchitis, fever, vomiting and indigestion. It has also been reported to exhibit antibacterial against methicillin and vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and fungal cultures. Hence, the formulation of these plants may serve as a safe and effective oral hygiene aid to effectively reduce the formation of dental plaque and its associated dental problems. Thus, medicinal plants are vital for pharmacological research and drug development. Project needs to be initiated on the ethnomedicinal investigation and scientific validation of the medicinal plants of north east India.


Proposal for an anthology of abhangas from the Varkari bhakti tradition of Maharashtra in English translation

The Varkari tradition of Maharashtra retains an enduring continuity. From at least the middle of the 13th century down to contemporary times, this bhakti tradition has existed in an unbroken continuum. It is a continuity of not only customs and rituals including a bi-annual pilgrimage, the vari, that crisscrosses the length and breadth of the entire Marathi-speaking region, but also a body of literature with which the Marathi language, history and identity are deeply implicit. The pilgrimage is to the shrine of Vitthal at Pandharpur in southern Maharashtra. Etymologically Varkari means one who performs the vari. The literature of the Varkari bhakti tradition comprises of the hagiographic lives of the saint-poets associated with this tradition as well as the rich fund of poetry written by them in the form of the abhanga. Singing the abhangas composed by the poet-saints, pilgrims walk on foot in groups called the dindis on the pilgrimage to Pandharpur, therefore mapping the linguistic on to the territorial. The abhangas are routinely sung and performed on the pilgrimage as well as in kirtans and bhajans. Performance therefore is an intrinsic aspect of this poetry, which has been preserved through the centuries through oral and written forms.

However, there is a lack of a substantial body of Varkari poetry in English translation, when compared with translations of bhakti poetry from other Indian language-cultures such as Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, etc. Apart from Dilip Chitre’s Says Tuka published by Penguin in 1991, and my own translations of Chokhamela, On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela (New Delhi: 2002 and AltaMira Press: 2005 in a revised edition) there exists no composite volume of translations of, if not all, at least the major poets. Papers and books on the historical/religious aspect do attempt some translations, but there is still no anthology of Varkari poetry in English translation.

The proposal is to translate some of the most major and significant Varkari poets in a volume of around 250-275 odd pages. It is hoped that this anthology will fulfil a long-felt gap in literary and historical scholarship.


Ancient Temple Architecture of Assam

Architecture is created by the human body, seeking its own sense of movement and of its extensions into space (Schmarsow 1893). By studying concepts of spatiality and their structural model, it is possible to access the pattern of rationality which created them (Criado 1999). Our proposal seek to study built space from a structural, functional and symbolic point of view, attending to their multidimensionally, deconstructing it, with the objective to integrate it in a general pattern of understanding.

In Assam there are no standing ancient or medieval structures. All the structures are in ruins. A few of them which are standing has been renovated in the pre-modern or modern period. Reasons cited for this situation are earthquakes, high rainfall, destructive vegetation, conquest etc. etc. On the basis of epigraphical records it is established that temple building activity began in Assam in the 5th Century AD (Umachal Rock Inscription in Kamakhya, Guwahati). Studying the ruins in Kamrup, Sonitpur, Nagaon districts of Assam archaeologist have established that there have been a number of temple building phases starting from the 5th Century. The temple ruins of Daha Parbatiya in Tezpur, Sonitpur district exquisitely carved in the best tradition of Gupta art has been stylistically dated to 7th Century AD. The ruins in Bamuni Hills of a stone temple again in Tezpur, have been dated to 8th-9th Century AD. The ruins of Madan Kamdev Temple near Guwahati, the ruins of Sri Surya Pahar in Goalpara and the ruins at Na-nath, Dabaka in Nagao talk about continuous temple building activity in the region till the 12 century. The temples were mostly built in the North Indian “Nagara” style, of stone with high plinths.

The primary aim of this research proposal is to document this material evidence and establish the practice of the use of canonical ancient literature of India for temple building in ancient Assam.


Engineering and Scientific Study of Heritage Structures

India is blessed with countless historic structures showcasing incredible craftsmanship and architectural beauty. The Ajanta and Ellora caves of Aurangabad, Taj Mahal of Agra, Sun Temple of Konark, the Vijayanagara remains of Hampi, etc. are only a few examples amongst the numerous golden feathers in the crown of ancient Indian engineering and construction raised centuries ago. Ruled by the powerful kings of Pallavas (600-900 AD), Cholas (900-1150AD), Pandyas (1150-1350 AD), Vijayanagara (1350-1565 AD) and Nayakas (1600-1750 AD), Ahoms (1228–1826), Chaulukyas (940 and 1244 CE) India is dotted with many great architectural marvels which are famous not only for their exquisite sculptures but also for the unbelievable proportions. Methods adopted by them for raising such extreme buildings are unknown to the present generation of engineers and therefore hold a lot of fascination. For example, the Brihadeeshwara temple of Tanjavur district in Tamil Nadu is a fine example of Dravidian architecture and represents the Chola empire ideology. The temple was completed in 1010 AD, under the reign of the king Raja Raja Chola I (985 AD-1014AD), as per the Vaastu Shastra and Agamas. The temple Vimana is a hollow, pyramidal structure, 66 m tall and is one of the tallest temple towers on the earth. The placement of the intact granite capstone or cupola weighing 80 tons atop the Vimana of the temple is the marvellous engineering feat. The use of temporary ramps to take up the capstone with the help of elephants is one of the widely believed methodologies. The slope stability of the temporary ramps under the moving loads and rainfall conditions is a challenging aspect. Similarly, the site selection, construction methodology, and foundation details of these heritage structures from the modern perspective is not known and is an interesting study. The objective of the project is to study the engineering and scientific aspects of the heritage structures. Several modern methods such as ground penetrating radar (GPR), electrical resistivity method (ERM) will be used to find out the adopted foundation methods in the ancient times and analysed based on the present knowledge.


Alien Weed of North-East India for Engineering Applications

Ageratum houstonianum (flossflower), Chromolaena odorata (Siam Weed), Eichhornia crassipes (water hyacinth), Parthenium weed, and about twenty varieties of invasive alien weeds in India are the most dominant invaders of the Assam vegetation since several decades. Similarly, Mimosa invisa, Mikania micrantha (the “mile-a-minute” vine), and Ipomoea carnea (pink morning glory) are threat to the rhino habitats in Assam. These weeds have havocked the farming community and indigenous vegetation through their serious interference in different cropland and forest ecosystems. These driver species are responsible for declining the indigenous species and alteration of native ecosystems. These weed biomass is cellulosic in nature and quickly biodegrades upon disposal in the environment. A sustainable strategy to manage these weed varieties is either to convert to biochar by pyrolysis and co-pyrolysis process with the limited supply of nitrogen or oxygen under intense heat conditions or use them with soil temporary reinforcement and geotechnical field applications. The application of these weeds in making the prefabricated vertical drains (PVDs) for facilitating the better drainage in soft ground under preloading conditions. As the application of PVDs is temporary, the natural PVDs from the weed would be ideally suited for the engineering applications. Further, the natural geonets and geotextiles from the weed would be useful for the slope protection and erosion control works in the hilly regions of the northeast India. The biochar is useful for (i) soil improvement (to restore soil fertility and improve soil physical properties), (ii) waste management, and (iii) bioenergy generation. This project explores the application of the aforementioned weed varieties in different forms for various engineering applications.


A Proposal for a Museum at IIT Guwahati on “Indian Knowledge and Traditions”

Starting from the time of Indus Valley Civilization, India has been rich in knowledge and wisdom. India contributed a lot to mathematics, astronomy and metallurgy until the beginning of Mughal period. Because of the foreign invasions, Indian traditions faded to some extent but could never be wiped. During Mughal and British period, required encouragement was not provided for flourishing the ancient Indian traditions and culture. The traditions could survive to some extent in the places where the aforesaid foreign rulers had less effect. This is evident from the preservation of classical music, Vedic education and temple-architecture in South India in comparison to that in North India. Similarly, Northeast India could preserve the old traditions till the middle of British period.

Northeast India is a land of ancient Indian tribes; some of them originated in neighboring countries like Thailand and Myanmar. Unlike Mughals and British, tribes coming from these neighboring countries did not destroy the Indian culture, rather they enriched it. Also, these civilizations merged in the ocean of Indian civilization. Talking about Northeast India in particular, there are still some Indian practices that are surviving but need the support of society at large and government. Some of these are as follows:

1. Traditional Medicines: Several tribes are practicing herbal medicines in this region. There are a large variety of plants and herbs, which are not available in other parts of the country. Enough documentation is available for traditional healing practices of the tribes. There is a need to showcase and preserve those practices.

2. Tantric practices of Assam: Assam has been known as a land of tantra. A village in Morigaon district known as Mayong is believed to be ancient capital of king Ghatotkacha, the son of Bhima. The village used to practice tantras. There is a famous museum called “Mayong Central Museum and Emporium”, which was opened in 2002; it houses some texts on Ayurveda and tantra. In public domain, little is known about the mystic tradition of tantra. There is a lot of scope for scientists and psychologists to research on it.

3. Vedic schools: There were a number of Gurukuls in Assam to impart Vedic education. Some of them are still continuing, particularly in lower Assam.

These are just a few examples. There is a strong need to preserve the ancient texts and sculptures related to these Indian traditions as well as to disseminate this knowledge to masses. The sensitization of public about ancient knowledge will help in further research in some of the good practices.

Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati is a premier educational institute in Guwahati. The campus is having a land of about 285 hectares and is a scenic place. It is about 22 km from the airport and 18 km from railway station. A number of academicians and students visit it for short as well as long durations. If a Museum on Indian Knowledge and Traditions is set up at IIT Campus, it will encourage academic tourism. IIT Guwahati being a technical institute, in a position to apply scientific technology to museum.