Traditional Units of Measurement in India

Wooden ruler
Today woodworkers in India use inches or centimetres for most measurements, assuming that the imperial and metric systems are the only systems of measurement available. But that's not quite true; in some societies notably Japan, the pre-Western systems of measurement continue to co-exist with traditional ones. For instance, traditional Japanese rulers are still marked by the ancient length measures such as "bu", "Sun" and so on.

In India too we had the traditional measures of length. Those relevant for woodworkers were anguli (literally finger), haath (elbow to end of middle finger) and gaz. The problem was, unlike in Japan, these measures were not properly standardised and differed according to region.

For instance, the gaz (which is roughly equivalent to the British yard) measured 36 inches in Bengal, 27 inches in Bombay, 33 inches in Madras and so on.  It would appear that Bengalis had the longest arms and the locals of Bombay the shortest but this clearly could not be the case; why these different measures were adopted is lost in history. Perhaps it has something to do with our national character.

For some reason, even during Mughal times, Indians could not decide on a single uniform measure of length. This is one reason why the traditional measure of land, the bigha introduced by the Mughals, continues to vary in actual size in different parts of India. Clearly, Indians have always agreed to disagree.

Traditional toolbox: Accuracy is not a great concern

Yet, at one stage in history Indians were extremely fastidious about the right measure of things. Archaeologists found superb and extremely accurate rulers made of ivory in the Harappan site of Lothal. Historian Ian Whitelaw (2007) writes that a ruler excavated from the Mohenjo-Daro site "is divided into units corresponding to 1.32 inches (33.5 mm) and these are marked out in decimal subdivisions with amazing accuracy-to within 0.005 of an inch. Ancient bricks found throughout the region have dimensions that correspond to these units."

Somewhere along the way we lost the measure of things and our civilisation fell apart. The gaz became elastic as did the bigha and everything else. Our real estate companies continue to cling on to the variable concept of measurement of area, duping millions of Indians in the process.

Fortunately, today a metre of cloth or a yard length of wood is the same size all over the country. If you order a three foot long table you will get one and no one will argue about the variable surface area of the table as do realtors about the carpet area of flats.

Avarice and fraud, notwithstanding we have to thank the government for small mercies.  On April Fool's Day in 1957, the Indian government formally adopted the metric system and thereafter strove to enforce order in measurements throughout the land.

Today, there are numerous laws and punishments for short changing, under weighing and giving less than promised but none of these have proved a deterrent to those Indians who continue to believe in flexible systems of measurements. May their angulis and other appendages shrink accordingly.

Indranil Banerjie
27 April 2015

Comments

  1. Before the definitive adoption of the metric system by France, it is said that there were about 2500 different measures in France. It was different in nearly every town.
    If you have the opportunity, read "The Measure of All Things. The seven-year odissey and hidden error that transformed the world" The Free Press, 2002, by Ken Alder.
    Sylvain

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