There are many stories in medieval Indian literature about flying machines. Thus in Bana’s Harsa-carita there is the story of a Yavana who manufactured an aerial machine that was used to kidnap a king. Likewise, Dandl’s Avanti-sundar tells of an architect named Mandhata who used an aerial car for such casual purposes as traveling from a distance to see if his young son was hungry. His son, by the way, was said to have created mechanical men that fought a mock duel and an artificial cloud that produced heavy showers. Both of these works date from about the 7th century A.D.
In the ninth to tenth centuries, Buddhasvamin wrote a version of the Brhat-kathd, a massive collection of popular stories. Buddhasvamin spoke of aerial vehicles as dkdsa-yantras, or sky-machines, and he attributed them to the Yavanas, a name often used for barbaric foreigners. It was quite common for flying machines and yantras in general to be attributed to the Yavanas in Sanskrit texts.
Some scholars take the Yavanas to be the Greeks, and they attribute Indian stories of machines to a Greek origin. For example, Penzer thought that the Greek philosopher Archytas may have been the “first scientific inventor” of devices resembling the Indian yantras, and he pointed out that Archytas “constructed a kind of flying machine, consisting of a wooden figure balanced by a weight suspended from a pulley, and set in motion by hidden and enclosed air.”
No doubt there was much exchange of ideas in the ancient world, and today it is hard to know for sure where a given idea was invented and how highly developed it became. We do know, however, that fairly detailed ideas concerning airplanelike flying machines were known in medieval India.
Bhoja’s Samardngana-sutradhdra states that the main material of a flying machine’s body is light wood, or laghu-ddru. The craft has the shape of a large bird with a wing on each side. The motive force is provided by a fire-chamber with mercury placed over a flame. The power generated by the heated mercury, helped by the flapping of the – wings by a rider inside, causes the machine to fly through the air. Since the craft was equipped with an engine, we can speculate that the flapping of the wings was intended to control the direction of flight rather than provide the motive power.
The Vaimdnika-sdstra is a highly detailed description of vimanas, and it is given great credence in a number of books and articles. These include the writings of Kanjilal, 2 Nathan, 2’ and Childress. In particular, the Indian ufologist Kanishk Nathan wrote that the Vaimdnika-sdstra is an ancient Sanskrit text that “describes a technology that is not only far beyond the science of the times but is even way beyond the possible conceptual and scientific imagination of an ancient Indian, including concepts such as solar energy and photography.”
In fact, there are good reasons for thinking this might be the case. The text of the Vaimdnika-sdstra is illustrated by several of the drawings made under Subbaraya Sastry’s supervision. These include cross sections of the rukma-vimdna, the tripura-vimdna, and the sakuna- vimdna .These cross sections show the kind of crude mechanical and electrical technology that existed in the period just following World War I. There are large electromagnets, cranks, shafts, worm gears, pis- tons, heating coils, and electric motors turning propellers. The rukma-vimdna is supposedly lifted into the air by “lifting fans” that are powered by electric motors and that are very small compared with the size of the vimdna as a whole.