Indian mariners had first use of magnetic navigational compasses.

Indian mariners had first use of magnetic navigational compasses.

by tonytran2015 (Melbourne, Australia).

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(Blog No. 163).

The magnetic navigational compasses may have been first used by Indian people and may not have been first invented by Chinese people as often claimed.

#compass, #navigation, #lodestone, #Chinese compass, #Olmec magnetic, #Indian, #yantra, #matsya yantra, #maccha yantra,

Indian mariners had first use of magnetic navigational compasses.

1. Claims that China invented the compasses.

Wikipedia said that

“The first compasses were made of lodestone, a naturally magnetized ore of iron, in Han dynasty China between 300 and 200 BC.”[1]

The entry on Han Dynasty said that

“The Han dynasty (/hɑːn/; Chinese: 漢朝; pinyin: Hàn cháo) was the second imperial dynasty of China (206 BC–220 AD).” [2]

Figure: Han Dynasy, from

So the compasses are used in China after 206 BC, but it was initially only for geomancy.

“The magnetic compass was not, at first, used for navigation, but for geomancy and fortune-telling by the Chinese. The earliest Chinese magnetic compasses were possibly used to order and harmonize buildings in accordance with the geomantic principles of feng shui.” [1]

“The compass was later used for navigation by the Song Dynasty”[1]. (Song Dynasty: Chinese: 宋朝; pinyin: Sòng cháo; 960–1279)

So the written records on the use of compasses for navigation in China are made after year 960 CE.

Note that there were South-pointing chariots used in ancient China before year 235 CE [2b, 2c, 2d] but their operation was not based on magnetism. Their operation relied on the differential between the numbers of rotations of the left and right wheels (of same size) of each chariot to give its total yawing angle since departure.

Those chariots may have even been “first constructed by the Duke of Zhou (beginning of the 1st millennium BC) as a means of conducting homewards certain envoys who had arrived from a great distance beyond the frontiers.” [2b].

Figure: Model of a Chinese South Pointing Chariot, an early navigational device using a differential gear. Original file from
by Author Andy Dingley, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

2. Appropriate places to look for records.

Many people look for easily read records. China certainly has many records which have been translated into English and are easily understood by readers in the World.

However, China is a land conquering empire, requiring little use of compasses while India is a sea faring trading empire which may benefit a lot from compasses. The logical place to look for records of first use of navigational compasses should therefore be India, an outreaching seafaring trading empire (as necessity is the mother of inventions). Indian influence is obvious over the vast area of Indian Ocean, Polynesian nations and (mostly South) Pacific Ocean [2e].

Any discovery of earlier use of magnetic navigational compass predating Chinese use should not surprise/disappoint investigators as the people of the trading Olmec nation (on the side of the Gulf of Mexico) has even used lodestones, hematite, magnetite since 1500 BC, one thousand year before any record of Chinese first use of lodestones [3], [4].

It is to be noted that China is on the East of India while Arab countries, Spain, Olmec are spread to its West.

3. Many evidences pointing to ancient use of compasses by Indian people .

The literature of the out reaching, sea faring nation India have many evidence to support its first use of the magnetic navigation compass.

“The compass was first used in India, around 1800 BC, for Navigational purposes and was known as “Matsya yantra” (which roughly translates to fish machine) because of the placement of a metallic fish in a cup of oil.” [5]

However, no evidence have been given in [5] to support the claim of “around 1800 BC”.

Reference [6] stated that
“In the Tamil nautical books, the use of compass is mentioned in the fourth century BC”,

4. Evidence on knowledge of magnetic attraction by Indian people since 500BC.

K. V. Ramakrishna Rao [7] pointed out that:

In Vedas, there is reference to “ayas” implying Iron and “Akarshan” attaction, thus, pointing to Iron-magnet relationship.[7]

Kanada (c.550 BCE) mentions about a needle that moves towards a magnet as –

“Manigamanam sucyabhi sarpanam drastakaranam” (Kanadasutra.V.I.15). In the commentary called the Upaskara, the passage has been clearly explained to signify that the needle goes towards the magnet.[7]. (Wikipedia [8] stated that Kanada was estimated to live between 6th and 2nd century BC.)

Kalidasa (c.500 BCE) records: “Siva’s mind has been fixed steadily because of penance. And therefore, now try to distract his attention just like an iron piece is attracted or drawn towards a magnet (ayaskantena lohavat akarshtum)” (Kumarasambavam.II.59).“[7]

The date of 500 BCE assigned for Kalidasa quoted by [7] may be in error. Wikipedia [9] stated that Kalidasa’s works cannot be dated with precision, but they were most likely authored within the 4th-5th century CE. In any event, it is not important, only the date of 550BCE assigned to Kanada is pivotal to the thesis of this article.

5. Evidence on compass use by Indian people since 500CE.

Milindapanho (VII.2.16) composed during 4th-5th centuries CE, mentions about an instrument used by the pilot of a ship for steering the ship.

“And again, O King, as the pilot put a seal on the steering apparatus, lest any one should touch it”.

Rhys Davis translates the term as “steering apparatus” and it Sanskrit it is “yantra”, a mechanical devise, just like “matsya yantra” working on mechanical and accompanied with other principles.[7]

Mookerji points out a compass on one of the ships in which Hindus of the early Christian era sailed out to colonize Java and other islands in the Indian ocean. The Hindu compass was an iron fish (called in Sanskrit matsya-yantra or fish machine). It floated in a vessel of oil and point to the north (History of Indian Shipping, London, 1912) [7].

The following is what Mr. J.L. Reid, who was a member of the Institute of Naval Architects and Shipbuilders in England, has said in the Bombay Gazetteer, vol. xiii., Part ii., Appendix A.

“The early Hindu astrologers are said to have used the magnet, in fixing the North and East, in laying foundations, and other religious ceremonies. The Hindu compass was an iron fish that floated in a vessel of oil and pointed to the North. The fact of this older Hindu compass seems placed beyond doubt by the Sanskrit word Maccha Yantra, or fish machine, which Molesworth gives as a name for the mariner’s compass”. [10]

6. Conclusions

The thesis of this article is Indian mariners have already used magnetic navigation compass at least since 500 CE while Chinese had recorded usage of them only after 900 CE, a long four hundred years later.

It appears that the out reaching Indian seafarers had the first use of magnetic navigational compasses. Since necessity is the mother of inventions, it is natural to expect this as India had been an ancient seafaring trading nation.




[2b]. Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Part 2. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd., pages 286, 289, 291, 298.








[5]. .







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12 thoughts on “Indian mariners had first use of magnetic navigational compasses.

  1. what a great informative article. didn’t have any idea, not that i lookde, but somehow always assumed it was either the british or the norsemen that had something to do with that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for this late reply due to my unexplanable miss of few comments.

      Compasses and ancient folklore had been deeply embeded in Asian sea-faring societies and some customs have even been kept as secret, sacred customs of the groups (clans). Only now we start to hear about these secrets. I do have learnt some few new societal secrets every year.


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