Yarghu, the Mughal era cannon cleaner

Akbar, considered by some to be the greatest of the Mughal emperors, was not an educated man. He could not read or write like his grandfather or father before him. But he did make it a point to surround himself with men of high caliber. Men like Fathullah of Shiraz, who was a hand-picked favourite.

The Iranian inventor was an accomplished genius even by the elevated standards of the city he was born in. Shiraz, present day Fars province, Iran was fabled for its ingenuity, this side of medieval Persia. The sprawling urban centre was revered as a nursery of experimental ideas and free thinking. Poetry, science, mathematics and mechanics ebbed through its elegant veins while theological debates and philosophical discourses echoed within its palatial buildings and hallowed domes. The multi-talented Fathullah was possibly the city’s greatest export in the 15th century.

It was an age when cannons decided the outcome of a battle.

Embellished with motifs, a set of Mughal era cannons appear to hang in the air. In reality the cannons are upheld by long iron shafts (fitted with iron bristles for cleaning) running through the barrels.

When cannons first came to India, they quickly gained a fearsome reputation. Their use panicked the mighty war elephants, battered the strongest of walls and created gaps in enemy lines with frightening ease.

Babur the first of the Mughal emperors, won his empire on the strength of cannons. On the plains of Panipat (modern day Haryana, India) he stood his ground against an Afghan army twice his size and routed them in a head on fight. Then repeated his success with even larger enemy forces. Firearms gave him the edge every time. His grandson, Akbar the great, increased the artillery divisions and relied on the iron and bronze tubes to pound his opponents into submission as he embarked on aggressive military campaigns to expand the empire.

But for the gunners who mixed the gunpowder and lit the fuse, things could get risky. Unlike modern artillery, these ancient predecessors were dangerous to handle and often self exploded killing those who manned them. Cleaning the barrels was one of the necessary precautions to minimize occupational hazards as well as to keep the battle winners, primed and battle worthy.

Man vs. Machine.

Fathullah was a scientist and inventor, likewise his solution was a mechanical contraption that eliminated the need of human effort and made the cleaning of the barrels more thorough. The Yarghu was as unique as its inventor, and it is thought to be an all iron and steel beast. Using iron bristles densely packed together as cleaning brushes it could clean sixteen cannons simultaneously and do a much better job than the strongest man in the army.

What the contraption looks like.

The reconstructed Yarghu model in the picture offers visitors a glimpse of how the machine actually looked like when fully assembled. The contraption would be dismantled for transportation and set-up near the battle site for quick service. Dedicated teams assigned to the Yarghu, mounted and dismounted cannons for cleaning while an ox operated its wheel.

Yarghu is a cumbersome machine but not a complex one. An octagonal iron rim supported by eight iron legs constitute the frame of the machine. Inside the octagonal iron rim, is a huge wooden wheel with an axle in the center and tooth like projections on its upper surface. Eight long shafts that can be detached when needed criss-crosses the top of the wheel, with the outer ends fitted to the octagonal iron rim and inner ends fitted to the axle. The detachable iron shafts are joined in the center by a pinion. Which is positioned on top of the protruding teeth present on the wheel. A rotating iron leg stands at the center of the axle.

How the machine works.

A series of protruding teeth (visible in the photo) lines the upper surface of the wooden wheel. When the wheel turns, the pinions positioned right on top of the teeth rotate the long iron shafts fitted with iron bristles to clean the cannons.

When N. Ramdas Iyer, curator and head at the National Science Centre, reveals how the machine works, the first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that the Yarghu wasn’t meant to be rooted at one spot. It could be dismantled and assembled again for active duty. During the time of Akbar, teams of men would transport the contraption in pieces to the battlefield in bullock carts and assemble it on site, in a suitable place for operation, not far from where the cannons stood.

How were the cannons cleaned?

The wheel with the help of a rope pulley was brought down to ground level so soldiers could easily mount the cannons on top by sliding the barrels over the long iron shafts, one after the other. Once this was done with, the wheel was hoisted back up again using the same rope pulley and the outer ends of the iron shafts fitted into the empty sockets present on the inside of the iron octagonal rim.

Then an ox was employed to turn the central leg fixed to the axle for rotating the wheel. The teeth of the wheel interlocked with the pinion in turn rotated the long iron shafts, making the iron bristles scrape away the carbon residue.

How many men did it take to operate the machine?

N.Ramdas Iyer, curator and head at the National Science Centre demonstrates the workings. In the absence of information, Iyer speculates a team of 6-8 men would have been required for the job.

No one really knows, but N. Ramdas Iyer hypothesizes teams of perhaps 6 to 8 men were entrusted with the artillery. The mid size cannons were not unusually heavy. Ranging from three to three and a half feet in length and with a diameter of 18 inches, they would have been easy to transport and easy to mount. The cannons cleaned by the Yarghu were a more regular feature in the army than their larger versions.

If Yarghu was so effective, why was it not evolved further?

The inventor Fathullah Shirazi as he was affectionately called by the Mughals, lived roughly about seven years in Akbar’s court chiefly serving as the imperial minister of finance, till his death in A.D, 1589. His inventions including the portable cannon and the multi barrel gun (also reconstructed for display at the National Science Centre) were widely used during this time alongside the Yarghu.

Yet inspite of firearms having proved their mettle as battle winners, the Mughals had their reservations. For instance, and from what can be gleaned from attested sources, the cavalry contingents continued to prefer the use of the bow and arrow even when firearms were deeply entrenched in the Mughal system of warfare.

Though cannons were still in use as attested by innovations that occurred during the reign of Aurangzeb, it is possible the use of larger guns complimented by the lighter swivel gun and matchlock might have made the Yarghu (that cleaned mid-size cannons), a non required part of the arsenal. In any case, Mughal military engineers probably did not think it important to evolve the Yarghu or failed in their attempts to do so.


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