'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Entering 2007

Hello All,

Let me wish all bloggers and all non-bloggers a very happy and successful New Year!

Looking back at 2006, I have had a typically mixed year - a job change, sporadic efforts at understanding more of Geometry, some equally sporadic efforts in running (the highlight being finishing a 10 km segment of the Pune Marathon), success in reaching a century of posts here (including the parallel 'Tech Musings' blog), a general decline in reading (no work of fiction was been read over the last year and more) and music appreciation (attended only one quality concert this year - when Rajan-Sajan Mishra visited Pune) and failure in the six kilo weight reduction effort which lasted the whole year but ended with the machine showing two kilos more than it did at the beginning. Traveling and trekking took a back-seat with only a drive into North Karnataka to show for the entire year (I have written about it elsewhere in this blog).

In 2007, I would love to do a lot of more Geometry and algorithms and to travel a bit more (and yes, I renew the resolution to kick those extra pounds). This blog is very likely to see less posts - hopefully I will be able to compensate somewhat by adding more serious stuff to 'Tech Musings'. In general, the blogging activity all over has ebbed from the crest of 2005 (and even prolific blogs like 'Locana', a serious immediate inspiration for self, have largely fallen silent) and I am only drifting with the trend...

Anyways, that is it, guys. Take care and be Good!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Hair Or Shells? - Buddha's Coiffure

From the time I used to read the Amar Chitra Kathas, I have wondered why Buddha did not tonsure his head - apparently, all his disciples did, including the women. And since his 'sangha' was reputed to be an 'egalitarian' organization, such a distinction, even for the Master, was rather puzzling...

Not very long back, I happened to read that Buddha had a small protuberance (called the 'usnisa') on top of his head - one of the many legendary 'Mahapurusha Lakshanas' that mark out enlightened masters. That triggered the following thought: "Perhaps it would be odd to show Buddha with a shaven head with a little bump on top. So, what is shown as a nice top-knot of hair in pictures actually is a 'cover'!". There the matter rested, for a while (I did remember seeing some statues showing Buddha's hair as not hair at all, but a mass of squares or spirals packed together; but I decided they were 'mere' stylizations).

A few days back, I came to know about the Buddha's alleged debt to snails from this page , which I referred to in an earlier post here as well. In brief, this is the story: during a severe summer, a group of snails crept onto Buddha's head and shielded him from sunstroke - and gave up their lives in the process; and as a mark of gratitude, the Master bore their shells on his head for the rest of his life. Oh, yes, then, what looked like a mass of spirals on some statues was indeed a mass of spirals, all those snail shells sticking to his head! And of course, there was no special problem due to protuberance on the head - some of the the snails had sat on top of that as well. And but for the snails his head would have been bare - devoid of hair. So, it looked plausible that someone in comparatively recent times mistook those snails shown in ancient statues for hair and the modern 'topknot Buddhas' came to be made.

However, things were not so simple; for there indeed are many ancient statues of Buddha which show him with actual hair tied in a graceful topknot. And some of these were Gandhara-style statues and the earliest of Buddha images - (with coiffure resembling that of the famous Greek statue of 'Apollo Belvedere'). The hair versus shells issue is thus not quite resolved.

The plot thickened further when I read yesterday that the word 'kaparda' in Sanskrit means either a small shell (a cowrie shell) or hair worn in a top-knot shaped like such a shell (source: the online Monier-Williams dictionary). Where does that leave us? Buddha wore a 'kaparda' but that could be (a mass of) shells or a topknot. It could be either - or both!

And things got murkier when I found that there were somewhat divergent legends on what Buddha did to his hair when he renounced the world. One story says he cut his hair down to two inches length (very modern!) and another says he got rid of them totally!


Some speculations: Buddha grew up a prince. And princes and royals in those days used to tie their hair in kaparda style. Perhaps, when, a few centuries after his passing, people thought of making his statues (the earliest known Buddha images *post date* him by at least 3 centuries) they showed him as basically a prince who chose to be a monk. Hence the hairstyle of the Gandhara images (this implies that his being of royal lineage did count for something - and the Sangha was not purely 'socialist' - at least in those days). Then, someone came along and thought up the snail story, smartly using the 'ability' of the word kaparda to mean 'shell' and this new story became popular and so the hair turned to a mass of shells in subsequent Buddha images.

And it appears that just like Buddha's own life-trajectory, the legends surrounding him got 'de-elitized' over time - he came be seen to have completely abandoned all princely attributes to lead a purely ascetic life. And simultaneously, these legends incorporated superhuman and supernatural elements as well.

For the proper academic take on Buddha's 'hairstyle' and its artistic representations, here are some links (yes, this has been a subject of very intense study and many, including Ananda Coomaraswamy, have written at length on the matter):


Note 1: Just like 'kaparda', the Sanskrit word 'usnisa' is ambiguous as well. It could literally mean a turban-like headdress (again a royal trapping) and it is an 'esoteric' matter to interpret it as a cranial prominence. (Strangely, the Monier-Williams dictionary does not contain this word). Indeed some more of the Mahapurusha Lakshanas are 'royal' - for instance, the elongated ear-lobes - these can be attributed to the heavy golden earrings worn by Buddha when he was a prince.

Note 2: These 'Lakshanas' are also part of Jain mythology. The Tirthankaras are often shown with a something like a topknot (or a stylization thereof) and elongated ear-lobes (and unlike the Buddha, they are also sometimes shown with a tonsured 'plain' head). Of course, tradition says many of the Jinas also were princes. The snail story, of course, seems an exclusively Buddhist invention.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Wanted: 'Roman Malayalam'

"One who does not love his language is worse than putrid fish"
- a Tagalog proverb.

Saw that Wikipedia has come up with a Malayalam edition: Although it could be called an interesting development, the 'Mallu' characters appear badly garbled, at least on my browser; rather sad, since a considerable amount of effort might well have gone into this activity of Wikifying Mallu (or Mallufying Wiki).

At least part of the problem seems to be the 'standard' Malayalam script - with its many letters and ever so many different ways of joining them. And this difficulty with the language has beens known for a long time. Governmental action(?) some decades ago led to a new simpler (and somewhat clumsier looking) script for quick printing (this new 'printing script' is NOT supposed to be the standard for writing - writing in it used to be penalized(!) in school examinations). But, even with this new script, typewriters could not really manage - typewritten Malayalam has always managed to look *terrible*.

Well over a decade ago, the late writer M.P.Narayana Pillai proposed an English (Roman) script for Malayalam. His intent probably was to make the language IT-enabled and printer-friendly and also to enable non-resident Mallus (who know the language but are uncomfortable with the script) read literary works in the language. (aside: even the majority of Mallus who *formally* learnt the language cannot write all letters in the proper script correctly!).

Pillai even proposed a simple scheme of transliteration of Malayalam into English. If I remember right,he talked about using upper case English letters for retroflexed Mallu letters - 't' in 'tala' (means 'head') and 'T' in 'paTa' (means 'army'). This would imply Malayalam would have to be written 'malayaaLam' since the second 'l' is retroflexed).

I don't think Pillai's proposal received any attention from anyone of consequence although the idea was by no means outlandish or revolutionary. Turkish, Indonesian and so many other languages had adopted or switched to Roman letters much earlier. In fact, well before Pillai's article, at least a few Mallus had started writing at least emails in Malayalam with Roman letters. And I was among them.

I remember picking up the idea from some folks who were writing mails in Marathi(!) in English letters. From idea to implementation was an easy step. And over many years, I have tried writing emails in Malayalam to many fellow-Mallus, well-known to me. I had no fixed scheme of transliteration. And there was no prior warning: "Watch out, I am gonna write in Malayalam!". I did not see the need for any warning: I was writing to people who apparently knew the language well.

Let me list from memory some of the initial responses I got from various people, who will remain unnamed. The stuff in brackets is mine.

1. "I find this style of malayalam unnatuaral(sic). and this thinking in Malaylam, then translating into english fond(sic), i find it is a long and waistful (sic) process!"

2. "I am afraid I did not really read the part of your mail where you froke out with Malayalam. Of course, I remain fully literate and comfortable with my mother tongue but I would prefer Malayalam to be read and written in Malayalam."

3. "Thante mail innale vaayichu (Translation: "saw your mail yesterday") Well, I just typed that one line in 'Engalam' and am switching to proper English. I find Mallu in English awkward and I dont believe it is mandatory for two Mallus to communicate only in Mallu. What is SO great about Malayalam anyway?"

4. "Look boss, just translate the above stuff into proper english and send again, if you really want me to read it. You and your mallu fanaticism!"

5. "njan aadyamaayanu ingine type cheyyunnathu. aadyam vicharichathra buddhimuttilla. satyam paranjaal sangathi kollaam!" (Translation: "this is the first time i am trying this. and when i tried it, it was not difficult at all; it was in fact fun!")

I need to mention another individual who had no comments but replied in detail in elegant English to whatever I had written in Malayalam. And yes, there was yet another One who too made no comment whatever but wrote to me only in Malayalam thereafter

Note: I initially thought 'Mangalam' (= Malayalam + 'Aangalam', the word for 'English' in Malayalam) would be a good name for Malayalam written in English letters. But now, I would say there is no need for a new name whatsoever. Almost every language - Malayalam included - has experimented with different scripts during its evolution; so just using the Roman script to write Malayalam would not make it any less of itself!

Business As Usual...

An 'African Tulip' tree stands next to our office building, its foliage is at the same level as a window opening out from my cubicle and one can always see little birds with long, curved beaks fluttering around the clusters of garishly red flowers. Hanging limp from the bare branches below and scattered on the ground farther down are remnants of the same flowers - like pieces of torn balloons.

In a very sheltered niche below one of the office windows, two pigeons built a nest sometime back. There were two eggs in there and then two fledglings, huddling close to one another, throbbing with fresh life. Then one day, one of the fledglings lay very still while the other still seemed to shiver... and the next day, neither was moving. The two pigeons were still siting around. Now, the nest appears more or less abandoned, the pigeons are rarely seen, and the fledglings have crumbled into amorphous lumps of down..

A pair of owls - bigger than crows, smaller than kites, brown to deep brown wings, dirty white bellies with black marks, ashen, heart-shaped faces, smallish beaks like pieces of plastic sticking out of the mouths - sit on a tree facing our office, oblivious of being stared at. They look bored; their eyes are often closed and they often sway back and forth gently as if dozing. They sit there all day, day after day..

Update on December 26th:
Pigeons have built a new nest in another window-niche. Today morning, there were two freshly laid eggs in there, in all their innocence. And the old 'ruined nest' is being reused as well; just saw, among the withered remains of those poor fledglings, yet another very fresh egg!

Note: Did a bit of googling on 'nest reuse' among birds. It appears to be a much studied and rather complex subject, although I am totally new to it. The reuse could be at different levels - the site may be reused or the actual structure of the nest may be reoccupied. Moreover, a nest may be reused in the same season - as is happening at our office - or in a future season (in the case of flimsy pigeon nests, a distant future reuse may not be feasible). And it is not clear if the reuse I am seeing is by the same pair of parent pigeons or if there has been a takeover.

In general, nest reuse involves a complex tradeoff - it saves effort but increases the risk of infections and parasites. And the Wikipedia article on pigeons does not mention nest reuse.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Buddha, Jealous?

This post is not quite about the Buddha (nor does it concern the present Bong chief for that matter); it is about a statue of the Master, His 'but' to use an Urdu/Persian word meaning statue/idol (which apparently derives from 'Buddha')! And yes, this post IS also about what turns one green!

Check out this Japanese story . To those who find the preliminaries therein a little too long: it has a very interesting twist in the end.

The 'Daibutsu of Kamakura' featured in the above story is a very real bronze monument; and it has actually turned green (groan!) - over the centuries. And to be precise, the statue *does not* show the historical Buddha. It represents the Bodhisatva Amitabha/Amida (Wikipedia). Aside: this story appeared, a very long time back, in 'Tinkle', the desi Children's magazine.

The story of the Daibutsu given in the above-linked page (which has links to many other Japanese stories as well) was a retelling by American orientalist William Griffis (1843-1928). Griffis appears to have known Japan and its culture in depth and wrote extensively about them. But his relationship to Japan appears a tad like that of Macaulay to India (in the 'White Man's Burden' tradition). Griffis hailed from a solid 19th century American Christian background - and he was deeply into religious preaching. And his times were those in which (for instance) the Roget's Thesaurus used to refer to 'Mahomet' and 'Bouda' (not sure about the spelling of the latter) as 'false prophets'. So the flavor of irreverence that permeates the retelling (even the title: "The IDOL and the Whale") might have sprung from the reteller's background. Of course, it is also possible the original Jap version was just that way 'only' and Griffis was merely being a faithful translator. Either way, 'iste bunu seviyorum'!

Friday, December 01, 2006

The 'Smoking Brain'

The following is a quote from the Wikipedia article on 'History of the Brain':

"...the Ancient Greeks developed differing views on the function of the brain. It is said that it was the pythagorean Alcmaeon of Croton (VI and V centuries BC) who first considered the brain to be the place where the mind was located. In the 4th BC Hippocrates, believed the brain to be the seat of intelligence (based, among others before him, on Alcmeon's work). During the 4th century BC Aristotle though that, while the heart was the seat of intelligence, the brain was a cooling mechanism for the blood . He reasoned that humans are more rational than the beasts because, among other reasons, they have a larger brain to cool their hot-bloodedness..."

Even the ancient Egyptians had thought the brain to be mere 'stuffing' and used to throw it away during mummification.

The body language of a person in deep thought indicates plenty of activity within the cranium - the screwed up/staring eyes, the taps/scratches on the head, the creased forehead, the head couched in the palms or supported by a clenched fist,... Wonder how anybody could have even thought of thinking happening somewhere else!

But then, all these expressions of thought could be very 'modern' - springing from modern education and conditioning, which teach us from childhood about the brain being the seat of reason. And, perhaps, in ancient times, folks who grew up 'learning' that the heart does the thinking, had a different body language - a classical Greek statue of the 'Thinker', if it were ever made, might have shown him rubbing or tapping his chest! And even if the thinking ancients went thru all or most of the motions of the moderns (in other words, if the body language of thinking is something very basic and universal and unconditioned by education), it might have been then attributed to the brain working overtime to cool the blood!

Anyways, it still is remarkably intriguing that something which we now take for granted was not at all obvious even to the best minds of antiquity.

Wikipedia says phrases such as 'learning by heart' hark back to the olden days when people used to credit heart with intelligence. Back home in Kerala, people say "his/her head is SMOKING!" when someone is in intense thought. Does this phrase reflect an understanding that the grey cells are firing furiously or spring from the (Aristotelian) concept of brain as a 'radiator', emitting vapors/smoke when overloaded?