ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

The Prahar: measuring time and space in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century South Asia


Wright Samuel - Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, Germany


24 – Timely Histories: A Social History of Time in South Asia


 Units of measure are often connected with specific places. One only needs to consider debates on metric versus standard units of measure to appreciate such a connection in contemporary times. But this was equally so in the past. In the case of South Asia’s past, a principal unit of measure was the prahar. The prahar (also yāma) was primarily a system of measuring time wherein the day and night were each divided into four equal parts: one prahar thus equaled about three hours, although this varied according to latitude and season. The system was often used in conjunction with the water clock; and the passing of a prahar was often marked by the striking of a drum.

Yet, despite the fact that the prahar was widely used in South Asia as a unit of measure, the history of its use remains understudied. This paper attempts to provide a social history of the prahar in South Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While the prahar was largely displaced in the colonial encounter by mechanized devices, it was used extensively during this period. For example, the prahar was used in recording times of birth and to mark time in marriage functions. In addition, although less known, the prahar was also used as a measure of distance—a usage that continued into the nineteenth century, as exemplified in court records.

In this paper, I explore these various uses of the prahar as presented in documentary, and occasionally literary, sources. And, in attempting a social history of the pr