Indian spectacles?

With out any doubt the most well known Indian of the last century was Mahatma Gandhi who led India to independence. In fact he is one of the most well known figures of the twentieth century from any country. The iconic pictures of Gandhi depict him as an older man wrapped in cotton sheets and wearing round nickel spectacles.

Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi always wore hand woven Indian cotton, as an act of political protest and principle against the cheap machine woven cotton imported into India by the British colonial powers, from the cotton mills of Lancashire. However were his spectacles also Indian? By this I don’t mean were they manufactured in India but were spectacles invented in India? An article that next months host of Giants’ Shoulders, Fade Singh (@fadesingh), drew to my attention makes exactly this claim, thereby disputing the usual opinion that spectacles originated in medieval Italy. Although this article is somewhat dated, and in my opinion wrong, it does provide some interesting points for discussion that I now intend to do. The article by Rishi Kumar Agarwal first appeared in the British Journal of Ophthamology in 1971 and can be read here in original with its bibliography. This is according to Wikipedia a peer-reviewed journal but I have serious doubts as to whether this short article was ever peer reviewed.

The European records of the origin of spectacles are very controversial. The suggestion that spectacles were first invented during the I3th century in Italy by an unknown layman of Pisa is not convincing, because there are also references to spectacles in Hindu literature at about the same time.

In the life of Vyasaraya (1446-1539), written in Sanskrit by his contemporary, the poet Somnath, the 74-year-old Vyasaraya is described as using a pair of “spectacles”* to read a book in I520 A.D. at the Court of King Krishna Deva Raya, one of the rulers of the Vijaynagar Empire (1336-I646). The Portuguese traders, well known to Vyasaraya, arrived in India in I498 and were established in Goa in I5I0. Gode (1947) referred to by Pendse (1954) assumed that the Portuguese presented spectacles amongst other gifts to Vyasaraya, but this does not necessarily mean that the Portuguese introduced spectacles into India.

It is claimed that in Ceylon, during the reign of Bhuvanaikabahu IV (1344-1353), lenses and spectacles were made by Devanarayan, an Indian architect, who was originally commissioned from India to build a Buddhist monument at Gadaladeniya. Since this monument is in the Vijaynagar style of architecture, it would confirm that Devanarayan came to Ceylon from the Hindu Empire of Vijaynagar. He must have known the art of spectacle-making in India before he went to Ceylon, and this means that the Vijaynagar courtiers must have known the use of spectacles before the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the I5th century.

Quartz crystals were used for manufacturing spectacle lenses in a South Indian town near Tanjore, which was taken by the British in I77I. It is interesting that Oppert  (I907) also mentioned a South Indian Hindu caste which possessed polished crystal lenses. It is significant that in the South Indian languages the terms for spectacles are very different from those of North India. In the Kannada language of Mysore, South India, the term “Kannadak” is used for spectacles, and two other South Indian languages, i.e. Malayalam and Tamil, use similar words to describe spectacles.

The widespread use of spectacles for presbyopia can be inferred from the popular terminology for spectacles in certain parts of India: e.g. “Chaleesi” and “Chalesa” meaning “forty” in Maharashtra and Orissa, “Chatwar” meaning “fourth decade” in Andhra, and “Betalan” meaning” forty-two” in Gujarat. Ramdasa (I608-82) used the word” Chalasi” to describe spectacles, and requested contemporary scribes to use middle-sized letters to write their manuscripts. This would imply that the use of spectacles was perhaps confined to certain classes, e.g. the Brahmins.

The term used is “upa-lochana” (substitute or secondary eyes), “upa” being a Sanskrit prefix losely meaning substitute or secondary which was widely used in Sanskrit, e.g. the “Vedas” and the “upa-Vedas”. A Marathi poet Vamanpandita (I636-95) used the term “upa-netra” (netra meaning eyes) for spectacles. It would, therefore, be incorrect to assume that the term “upa-lochana” was specially coined to describe foreign spectacles.

The agents of the British East India Company (which received the Royal charter in I6oo A.D.) have been incorrectly credited by some writers with introducing spectacles into India. There is a reference (in a letter dated September 22, 1616, from an English firm “Kerridge, Barker, and Mittford”) to the slow sale of English spectacles in Rajputana, the  modern state of Rajsthan in North India. There are references to spectacles in the Hindu literature much earlier than this, and spectacles are also depicted in some of the Mughal miniatures. The ancient Indian spectacles generally had carvings of a deity, and perhaps Indians at that period did not want to use non-Indian spectacles, which may account for the slow sale of the English importations.


The account of Devanarayan (between I344-I353), the use of spectacles by Vyasaraya (I520 A. D.), the indigenous manufacture of spectacle lenses in South India, the different terms used for spectacles in the North and South Indian languages, and other historical facts all indicate that spectacles were invented in India, in all probability by the Kannada- speaking Hindus. It is therefore most likely that the use of lenses reached Europe via the Arabs, as did Hindu mathematics and the ophthalmological works of the ancient Hindu surgeon Susruta.

Our author starts with a very provocative claim:

The European records of the origin of spectacles are very controversial. The suggestion that spectacles were first invented during the I3th century in Italy by an unknown layman of Pisa is not convincing, because there are also references to spectacles in Hindu literature at about the same time.

Not only does he claim that spectacles had their origins in India he appears to be casting serious doubts on the claim that spectacles first appeared in Pisa in the late 13th century so let us first examine the evidence for this claim.

There are two independent written accounts that place the first appearance of spectacles in Europe in Northern Italy in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, both of them are considered reliable. One of them from 1306 actually states that spectacles were first produced by a monk in Pisa some twenty years earlier giving the now accepted date of 1286 for the invention of spectacles. These accounts are backed up by the fact that the glass making guilds of Venice were already issuing written regulations concerning the manufacture of glass spectacle lenses in 1300 showing that the manufacture of spectacles had already become industrialised by this date. If our author wishes to shift the invention of spectacles to the Indian subcontinent then he must produce solid evidence for their manufacture in India before 1280. It might be claimed that because this article is more than forty years old our author may not have known just how certain the evidence for the appearance of spectacles in Europe at this time is. He could have done as the research on this is contained in Edward Rosen’s legendary paper The invention of Eyeglasses from 1956[1]. This paper actually established Rosen’s reputation as a first class historian of science, even if somewhat of a cranky one.

Before we examine his evidence, the appearance of spectacles in around 1280 in Europe throws up two very interesting questions for historians of optics that I would like to sketch first. The first of these is what connection, if any, is there between the appearance of spectacles and the renaissance of geometrical optics slightly earlier in the same century? The main Greek and Arabic text on geometrical optics, including the most important Book of Optics of Ibn al-Haytham, became available in Europe around the beginning of the thirteenth century and Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham and Witelo all wrote their highly influential works on the science of perspective, as it was then known, around the middle of the thirteenth century.  Is it just coincidence that spectacles first appeared immediately after this almost explosive rebirth of geometrical optics in Europe? The simple answer appears to be yes, it was a coincidence. Thorough examination of the sources have found absolutely no connection between the theoretical study of geometrical optics and the manufacture of spectacle lenses earlier than the work of Franciscus Maurolycus and Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the seventeenth century. This being the case how were spectacle lenses invented?

The simple answer is we don’t know but we can speculate. The Swiss mathematical astronomer and historian of optics Rolph Willach[2] has produced an interesting and plausible hypothesis based on his researches. As part of his investigations into the origins of the telescope, of which more shortly, he examined, measured and analysed the optical properties all the pre-seventeenth century lenses in Europe to which he could gain access, making him the world’s leading expert on medieval and early modern lenses. During the High Middle Ages the monks in monasteries began to construct elaborate decorated cases to house the saints finger bones, pieces of the true cross and other holy relics that the Catholic Church was busy collecting. These cases, known technically as reliquaries were often decorated with semi-precious and precious stones cut and polished in the shape of plano-convex lenses (flat on one side, spherical on the other).

Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion

Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion

Willach applied the same analysis to some of these stones that he had applied to his lenses and was able to establish that some of them had the same optical properties as the lenses used in early spectacles to cure presbyopia, the need for reading glasses in old age. Willach assumes, I think correctly, that one of the stone polishers realised that the stone he had just polished enabled him to read the text that he couldn’t see clearly before because of his presbyopia, common amongst elder monks, and then developed this discovery through a process of trial and error into the first spectacles. Till now nobody has come up with a more plausible explanation for the invention of spectacles.

The second optical problem thrown up by the invention of glasses is that if lenses for glasses were invented in the late thirteenth century why was the telescope, which was invented by a spectacle maker, first discovered only three hundred years later at the beginning of the seventeenth century? Now one reason is that the early Dutch or Galilean telescope requires both a plano-convex and a plano-concave lens and the first spectacles only had plano-convex lenses. However we know that glasses with plano-concave lenses were being manufacture on an industrial scale by 1450 at the very latest, which still leaves a one hundred and fifty year gap before the emergence of the telescope. Why? The old theory was that the quality of lens making didn’t reach a high enough standard until the beginning of the seventeenth century, because of their closeness to the eye spectacle lenses don’t have to be very high quality to be effective. Willach’s research on the optical quality of lenses in the early modern period effectively disproved this theory because there was no measurable improvement in the lenses between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries and the spectacle lenses at the beginning of the seventeenth century were still too poor in quality to function as a telescope as they were. According to Willach the solution is a diaphragm placed before the lens covering the outer edges. The middle of the lenses is usually good enough for telescopes, if the distortions caused by the badly formed outer area of the lens are bended out by the diaphragm. Because of the proximity the eye only uses the well-formed middle of the lens in spectacles. It is known that Galileo employed diaphragms on his telescope for just this reason. Because of the demand for telescope lenses there was a rapid improvement in lens grinding and polishing techniques in the seventeenth century.

But back to spectacles and India. There is no doubt what so ever that spectacles were available in Europe in the late thirteenth century but were they, as our author claims, available earlier than this in India? To back up his claim one would expect him to bring some fairly solid evidence but if you read through his article you will find that this is not the case. The only statement in his article that comes anywhere near his claim is in the third paragraph:

It is claimed that in Ceylon, during the reign of Bhuvanaikabahu IV (1344-1353), lenses and spectacles were made by Devanarayan, an Indian architect,…

Now this is three quarters of a century later than the confirmed date for the appearance of spectacles in Europe and whereas Rosen in his article produces reams of exacting research and documentation to back up the European claim our author just provides an unsubstantiated statement for his Indian case, not exactly convincing. He then goes on to compound the shakiness of his argument a couple of lines further on:

He must have known the art of spectacle-making in India before he went to Ceylon,…

Why and what proof do you have for this speculation? Not exactly the stuff of solid historical argument. In the whole article the author provides no further arguments what so ever to support, let alone to prove, his claim. What he does do is to put in question earlier claims for the introduction of spectacles into Southern India by the Portuguese and North India by the British at least making his article useful in this sense. However all this means is one must look for other means of transmission not that spectacles were invented in India. Given the extensive North Italian trade along the Spice Road and Arabic trade across the Indian Ocean much more plausible explanations than an independent Indian invention of spectacles are available.

I fail completely to understand why differing regional names within India for spectacles should be an indicator for Indian invention. We know that within Europe spectacles emerged in Northern Italy but every European language has its own name for them. In the early phase there were even several differing terms for the new invention in Northern Italy. The situation is no different to the naming of the telescope when it was first invented and even today we have two different names in English glasses and spectacles as well as two for the telescope counting the still used spyglass. I did find the Southern Indian use quartz crystal for spectacle lenses interesting, as this practice was also widespread in Europe. The German word for spectacles is Brille, which is a corruption of the word berille Old German for Beryll, English Beryl, a naturally occurring crystal.

The author’s conclusion, It is therefore most likely that the use of lenses reached Europe via the Arabs… is quite extraordinary because this would indicated an Arabic use of lenses and spectacles before their appearance in Europe and no evidence for such a usage exists. Or does are author think that the Arabs passed on Indian glasses to Europe without trying them out themselves?



[1] Edward Rosen, The Invention of Eyeglasses, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 11, 1956, pp. 13-46, 183-218

Also very useful in this context is Vincent Ilardi, Renaissance Vision From Spectacles to Telescopes, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2007. The definitive account!

[2] Rolf Willach, Der lange Weg zur Erfindung des Fernrohres, in Jürgen Hamel and Inge Keil ed., Der Meister und die Fernrohre: Das Wechselspiel zwischen Astronomie und Optik in der Geschichte, Acta Historica AStronomiae Vol. 33, Verlag Harri Deutsch, Frankfurt am Main, 2007.

English: Rolf Willach, The Long Route to the Invention of the Telescope, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2008.


Filed under History of Optics

4 responses to “Indian spectacles?

  1. An interesting post. I agree entirely, the evidence for Italy is too strong.
    One thing that I was wondering about medieval lenses, typing as a re-enactor who needs spectacles to be able to do much, is that they seem to be of uniform size, 30mm or so in diameter. This is also about the size of the small pocket mirrors of the time. So one reason to keep them small is simply that the lense is not of good quality, which makes sense. But are there any other reasons, to do with strength or manufacturing capability or suchlike?

    Also have you any thoughts on Robert Temple’s hypothesis that the ancients in Egypt and greece etc had lenses of sorts and kept them as a great secret, thus retarding the spread of knowledge? It seems plausible to me, much more so than his Sirius related ideas, especially given the actual lenses that have survived.

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  3. Bart Dale

    There Wikipedia article with an entry showing the Indian claim to have invented eyeglasses to be false. There was a German scholar at the beginning of the 20th century , using old Chinese document to claim that eyeglasses that said eyeglasses came from Ceylon, to show that they must have been invented in India before Europe, since the document in question was composed before eyeglasses would have been invented in Europe. However, the famous Chinese scholar Joseph Needham showed that the earliest copies of the Chinese document did not have a reference to eyeglasses, and the reference to eyeglass were added during the Ming dynasty, after eyeglasses had been invented in the West.

    Without that false reference, the unmistakable evidence is that eyeglasses were invented in Europe. The earliest pictures of them, as well as the earliest physical examples are all found in Europe, and despite India lies to the contrary, there is no evidence for eyeglasses in India until centuries after we have evidence for them in Europe.

    In addition to earlier picture and valid written records (not late interpolations added centuries after the fact) the earliest physical example of reading stones, the precursor to eyeglasses, are found in Europe as well (example Visby stones).

  4. I think the when of spectacle invention is much more intriguing than the who. It is remarkable that it took human civilization nearly 5 millennia to come up with a viable solution to poor vision. And even then, it only became popularly available in the 17th/18th century ?

    Poor vision is almost ubiquitous at old age. And a quite significant proportion of younger humans displayed myopia (even before the recent explosion in myopia), with huge effects on life quality and economic productivity.

    We know that the ancients displayed a keen interest in medicine, even ailments like cancer were attempted to be cured, but why such little interest in vision ?

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