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

Monday, February 26, 2007

Picturing Ice And Snow

Except for the Himalayas and Kashmir, the Indian landmass rarely experiences sub-zero temperatures. Even when the northern plains touch the freezing point in severe winters, there is no snowfall anywhere. Frost does occasionally happen in many places, including the upper reaches of the Western Ghats, down south.

So, it is not surprising that in ancient times, our understanding of the solid state of water and its atmospheric manifestations was somewhat inadequate. Even when Kalidasa describes the Himalayas in (fantastic) detail, he has precious little to say about glaciers and stuff but plenty about the sacred lakes at the very top - from where the 'seven celestial sages' gather lotuses!

Sanskrit has a few words which allegedly stand for snow -'himam', 'tusharam', 'praleyam',... but I am not sure if the latter two really mean snow. 'Tusharam' is most probably dew; I am not sure about 'praleyam' (it appears curiously close to 'pralaya', which means 'deluge'). I do not know the precise word for 'frost' (if it exists) - 'tushar' is itself used in Hindi, apparently. And the Malayalam word 'manju', which (probably) originally meant 'fog' can now mean anything from snow to fog.

I am also reminded of yet another (fantastic) description of snow-fall in a very early (13th century?) Malayalam poem: "like a shower of milk, *praleyam* fell from the skies". That was how 'Krishnagatha', one of the earliest poems in Malayalam, describes a severe winter in Vrindavan. While Vrindavan wouldn't have received even a dusting of snow this side of the last ice-age, a medieval poet who probably lived out his life in steamy Kerala showing even a vague awareness of a white-colored phase of water really is something!

Yes, although snow must have been pretty much unknown, much of northern and central India must have known about ice right from ancient times - from hailstorms. But, down south, especially in Kerala, hail is an absolute rarity ( I never saw a hailstone in over 20 years of living there). Malayalam does have a word for 'hailstone'; and the exotic nature of the phenomenon has bred some weird poetic imagery. Here is a sample in near-literal translation: "Oh, my Beloved, hailstones fall, every so gently, from your delicate lips!"

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Irene, Herself and Me

This is a short episode from the distant past. I am not exactly practising my dialog writing

Background: Once upon time, I was a research student of Physics in (say) XYZ institute - and spent a few years there. Then I left that line and spent some time acquiring a Masters degree in Computer Science at (say) ABC university. At ABC, there was a Masters student of Physics by name (say) Irene. The following is an approximate transcript of our first conversation - we had just been introduced by a common friend at the Chai stall in the ABC campus. I had heard about Irene before - as a bright star of the ABC physics department.

Irene: I have heard about you, you were with XYZ Institute, right?

Self: Well, yes, long ago.

Irene: Long ago? So you must be quite old now, at least by CS Masters students standards...

Self: I think so!

Irene: Anyway, you know Guru (a bright senior research scholar of Physics - at Irene's department) from college days?

Self: Yeah, he was 2 years junior to me.

Irene: 2 years junior to you? Gosh, and he has already achieved so much, isn't it?

Self: Good for him!

(short pause)

Irene: Actually, I am considering whether to join XYZ institute of not for a Ph.D. What do you say?

Self: Well, I am perhaps not the right person.... it depends on your area of interest...

Irene: Susy and...(pauses)

Self: Susy?

Irene: Super-symmetry! Hey, it really seems you left Physics long ago.

(I try a silent smile)

Irene: My problem is that if I apply to XYZ, they will definitely select me, but I am not sure whether they have good work in my area of interest.

Self: Not sure... this Susy thing is particle physics and I myself was doing 'solid state'. So...

Irene: Ah, but then, why did you quit after so many years there?

Self: Well, .... I just figured out that I had learnt nothing much there so...

Irene: That is some achievement, I say! You know Descartes has said...

(short pause as Irene reflects)

Irene: Yes, Descartes; you know, he was a French philosopher! He has said: the greatest thing he figured out was that he knew nothing significant. In your own way, you can say, you too realized your ignorance!

(suddenly a guy, (say) Jake comes and calls Irene. She says, 'see you later!' to self and goes off; I get myself another Chai).

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Stirrup - Some Archeology

Sometime in the year 2000 (several years before I got to know about blogging), I wrote and e-published an article. It was a bit of (very) amateur archeology. The subject was the Stirrup - to argue that it was a 'lost' Indian invention. The article was posted at "" but the host site 'serindian' went down shortly afterwards ( in my native language of Malayalam there is a saying: "Wherever the Sinner goes, Hell follows (with him)"). And worse, I lost the artcle - I had no backup soft copy.

Anyways, the other day, some googling (a bit of e-Archeology?) fetched me this page: - some benevolent soul has cared to quote at length (with some slight modifications, it appears) from my article, and has thus 'returned' nearly three-quarters of it back to me.

The following is a 'reconstruction' of the full article, from the above page and from fading memory - only for those with oodles of patience.
The Stirrup - A 'Lost' Indian Invention?

The stirrup is often said to have been the most significant military invention before gunpowder. Its use is said to have amplified the strike power of horse cavalried manifold and irreversibly altered the very history of the world. Strangely enough, given the very obvious way in which the stirrup facilitates riding and equestrian maneauvres, it was a very late invention - Alexander the Great (4th Century BC), though a skilled horseman, never knew about stirrups and neither did the Roman emperors until well *after* Christ. And I find it still stranger that it is hardly common knowledge that the stirrup was, very likely, invented right here in India, some time *before* Christ.

Of course, many other countries and peoples claim the stirrup as their invention. For example:
-Some scholars suspect that the Scythians of the central Asian steppes invented stirrups some time in the 3rd century BC (so says David Attenborough in his book, 'The First Eden'). The evidence for this seems to be thin.
-Documents released by the 'International Museum of the Horse' via their web site say the earliest evidence for stirrups is in Korea in 5th century AD.
-The book 'Chinese Science and the West', based on a BBC serial on Chinese contributions and innovations, shows a Chinese terracotta of a rider with stirrups (dated at 300 AD) and claims it to be the earliest existing evidence for stirrups. Claims have been made on behalf of the Magyars of Hungary and the Huns.

In an older edition, the Encyclopedia Britannica says that the 'toe stirrup' was probably first used in India (in this supposedly earlier form, only the big toe and perhaps one more toe of the rider are supported by the stirrup - particularly suited if the rider is barefoot; Indians were generally barefoot, the climate here being hot). Then the Chinese adapted it and developed the full ‘foot stirrup’ (this supports the foot and not the big toe; suited to the booted riders of the much cooler China) by about 300 AD. Then the stirrups reached Europe via central Asia and were developed to their full (destructive) potential – heavily armed and armored knights ramming into one another in battle or jousting in tournaments.

In its latest CD edition, the same Encyclopedia gives two variants of the story: (1) the stirrup was invented in Eurasian steppes, probably, in 2nd century BC. (2) The stirrup was first used about AD 500(!), again, in the steppes. India is not in the picture at all.

I could consult a few more references and by and large, all seem to ‘favor’ China. Against this backdrop, one would like to make some observations and raise some questions:

The Bhaja caves, which were excavated in 2nd century BC (most sources I could consult give this date), are near Lonavla, Maharashtra. Here, in cave no. 19 (the ‘Vihara cave’, as it is also called), there are three relief carvings of horsemen. One of them shows toe stirrups very clearly. Another, unfortunately somewhat eroded carving seems to show the stirrup gripping the rider's foot, very close to the middle {a toe stirrup would grip the foot close to the front end (the big toe)}. Does this indicate the use of a foot stirrup? These carvings predate most of the claims listed above – a crucial assumption made here is the carvings are not later day embellishments to the caves.

There are equestrian sculptures in Srirangam (Tamil Nadu) and elsewhere showing barefoot horsemen with full foot rather than toe stirrups. These are admittedly, medieval rather than ancient, but they do seem to question the absolute nature of the ‘barefoot rider - toe stirrup correlation’. A barefoot horseman could also use a foot stirrup. So, the (old) Encyclopedia Britannica statement that in India, we ‘stopped’ with the toe stirrups simply because we had no footwear is not very sound.

Moreover, Indians did have footwear from very early times. Britannica itself has the photo of a pre-Christian 'Gandhara' sculpture of a Bodhisatva who is depicted wearing sandals. The Kushan Emperor Kanishka's (fl. 100 AD) head-less portrait statue found in Mathura shows him in a coat and proper boots; and the same ruler appears booted in his coins. There is a somewhat later (9th century) Chola bronze of 'Kannappa Nayanar' - the hunter-saint - who is shown wearing sandals of very considerable sophistication. These are apart from literary evidences, the most obvious, perhaps, being Bharata worshipping Rama’s 'padukas'. Moreveor, not all of India is always hot. Half of the country has winter temperatures approaching zero and much of our countryside is very rocky and thorny. So, footwear would have been a necessity rather than a luxury right from the beginning. In such circumstances, the toe stirrups could have naturally and necessarily evolved into foot stirrups, right here.

Many references say that the key Chinese contribution in stirrup development was the introduction of the solid iron stirrup (the earlier versions were made of materials like leather and hung loose and limp from the saddle). But it is quite possible that the Indians had used solid stirrups made of some perishable material, wood, say, before the Chinese iron stirrup. The fact that there is probably no archaeological evidence need not rule this out. Climatic and other circumstances mentioned above could have led to the development of the solid stirrup in India itself; moreover, we had plenty of time- at least 400 years separate the Bhaja carvings and the earliest archeological evidences of solid stirrups in China. Moreover, in the Kushans (who were Central Asians anyway), we have 'booted' candidates who could have 'transmitted' the stirrup to China from here.

So, it is very likely that the Indians invented not only the toe-stirrup but also developed the full foot stirrup (and perhaps even the solid stirrup). Of course, the credit for the invention was lost. Our cavalries never evolved into world-beaters either. And even more strangely, memories of having made the innovation faded away - no Indian language seems to have a native word for it; for instance, in Marathi, the language spoken at present, near Bhaja caves, the word for the stirrup is 'rikib', a loan from Persian. One of the words for the stirrup in Tamil is 'ankappati' - approximately 'the step on the flanks'. Does this indicate a full foot stirrup? How old is this word? I dunno!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Irinjalakuda - A Confluence Of Memories

(This post grew out of an email exchange with old colleague and friend Anil Kumar and is dedicated to our old B.Sc (Physics) batch from Christ College, Irinjalakuda)

"'Iringaalakkuda', 'Koodalmaanikyam', 'Tachchudayakkaimal' - beautiful words, so full of music!" - that was 'Changampuzha', famous early 20th Century Malayalam poet.

The words above, definied: Iringaalakkuda, spelt in English as 'Irinjalakuda' is a small town in central Kerala - about 15 km from my home-town of Chalakudi. 'Koodalmaanikyam' is the name of the presiding deity of an ancient temple of the same name which still flourishes there. 'Tachchudayakkaimal' appears to have been an honorific title borne by the chief of the board of trustees of the above temple.

I spent most of my teenage years as a student at Christ College, Irinjalakuda - once upon a time, according to urban legend (one that I tend to agree with), "one of the best EIGHT colleges in India".

The place name used to puzzle me quite a bit. In Malayalam, 'kuda' alone means 'parasol' or 'umbrella', but 'Iringala' does not seem to make any obvious sense. And why would a place be called an umbrella of any kind? For self, the compound name used to evoke vague pictures of an old and hunched man with an olakkuda (an umbrella formed from palm-leaves).

In our time, Irinjalakuda was a sleepy backwater (unlike Chalakudi, which bustled with plenty of trade and traffic). At 'Thana(vu)', the central road junction, there stood a traffic island, usually unmanned; there was a metallic, umbrella-shaped structure to shield the (non-existent) constable from the elements. This structure was badly rusted and near collapse. Once a newspaper article, criticizing the local civic administration, showed a photograph of it with a caption: "Is this THE Iringaalakuda?" - an obvious pun on the place-name (*)

Our college stood serenely amidst a sprawl of gardens, atop a hill to the north of the town (this hillock, called 'Mangadikkunnu' was said to be a place where, in the 'good old days', those unfortunate folks who died in epidemics were hastily buried). The plan of the building was said to be in the shape of an 'X', short for 'Christ'. It looked more like a distorted 'H' though; and I have a lingering suspicion that the at least the front elevation was conceived to be a scaled-down copy of the Moscow University Main Building - yes, that show-piece of Stalinist architecture.

The serenity of the place was disrupted only by occasional student 'strikes', which seemed to generally fall on Fridays when new movies would be released. Memories of the college tend to cluster around the 'Mandaram' tree, under which students from Chalakudi used to congregate, the canteen (which served rock-solid 'undamporis' and hefty 'pazham roasts' among other delicacies) and the 'Toddy shop', a small building in an obscure corner of the campus where some of the Mathematics and Latin classes used to be held; and yes, the clock atop the main building which never used to run (for several years, getting it back to running condition was a promise made by candidates in College Union Elections). And from the top of this building, one could take in sweeping panoramas of the countryside all around. Once, after a 'second show' at 'Prabhat', we had spent a whole night up there; it was winter - and a full moon. Everything looked ethereal - dense stands of coconut palms with a strange glitter on the fringes of their swaying fronds, the distant 'kol' fields fading into the light fog... and there was a subtle aroma of coconut oil in the air - rising from a 'country mill' not very far away.

In those days, there were no girls on campus - Christ turned co-ed only recently - and they were safely concentrated in St. Joseph's college (must be one of the very few women-only colleges named after a man) which stood at the opposite corner of the town.


'Koodalmaanikyam' is another mysterious name. Here is a story I have heard: The material with which the main idol of this temple (a Vishnu-like figure, it is said to represent Bharata, Rama's brother) was moulded allegedly had some special properties which enabled it to be (potentially) used as some kind of touchstone for gems. A certain bigwig had a ruby ('manikyam') which he wanted to evaluate; he forced the priests to rub the jewel against the sacred idol and lo, the precious ruby suddenly merged with the idol and was lost in it. So, the idol and the temple came to have the name 'koodalmanikyam', the one into which a manikyam merged....

The temple is vast and atmospheric and and very rich in legends (one of them relates how the lord is prone to stomach trouble and has to be kept in good health with offerings of an Ayurvedic medicine based on eggplants). The temple tank is among the largest I have seen and is a sanctuary for a huge population of fishes, believed to represent the 33 crore Gods - bathing is prohibited. Within the inner enclosure, one of the walls used to have a cosmogonic chart - showing the Earth (with its concentric arrangement of 7 islands and the 7 oceans) and the six heavens above and the seven netherworlds below, leading all the way to the depths of the Vaitarani river in hell. There was also a declaration written (in English) on the inner sanctum walls - 'My devotee shall never perish' (Pop remarked on seeing it: " It would have been much better to say ' My devotee shall always flourish!'". But it seems the temple has scriptural backing - from the Gita).

And this is ALL I know about 'Tachchudayakkaimal': the post traditionally used to have great powers vested in it so (it appears) it used to be deliberately kept vacant by the local Kings!

The major festival (apart from the annual festival at the temple) of Irinjalakuda is 'Pindi Perunaal' , 'the Feast of the banana stalks', a grand celebration at the local Catholic Cathedral. In front of every house, a banana stem is planted - and decorated with colorful flags sticking into it - and there are fireworks displays, processions,... I don't know anything about the legend behind this festival. And come to think of it, I know precious little about even the 'Feast of Arrows' celebrated at the Cathedral in my own Chalakudi. Arrows symbolize the martyrdom of St. Sebastian - and indeed effigies and statues of the saint, showing him riddled with arrows are erected and venerated all over the place. But how Sebastian acquired such a strong relevance to Chalakudi is mysterious (**).

Yes, I remember attending 'Kootiyattam' performances at the 'Ammannur Gurukulam'. There would be frequent power outages ('load shedding'); but the actors, in their resplendent costumes and faces strinkingly painted, would continue to perform well into the night - in the pulsating glow of flickering oil-lamps to the rhythms of the 'mizhavu'...

(*)Recently, I heard that 'Iringaalakkuda' is a trimming down of 'Iru Chaal Koodal', which meant 'confluence of two streams or two canals'. The deity of the Koodalmanikyam' temple is also called 'Sangameswara' in Sanskrit - which translates to 'lord of the confluence'.

Problem: there are no rivers of streams of any kind anywhere near the place. Explanation: The rivers of Kerala are fast flowing and perennial and were prone to floods and frequent course-diversions, so the two streams which gave the place its name would have moved away somewhere. And yes, the Malayalam name of the temple could mean "The jewel of the confluence...", a pure figure of speech.

And, if one were to stretch this confluence argument a bit further, even 'Chalakudi' might be a confluence of 'chaal' and koodal', and might end up meaning the same as Irinjalakuda! At least Chalakudi has a river flowing past it, although there is no confluence there at present.

Centuries ago, there used to be a great Mathematician called 'Madhava of Sangamagrama', one of the leading exponents of the (then) famous Kerala School of Mathematics. The precise location of Sangamagrama is not known but from the literal meaning of the word ("village at the confluence (of rivers)"), claims have been made on him on behalf of Irinjalakuda.

(**) Perhaps, the Pindi Perunaal is also in memory of St. Sebastian. The banana stems pierced by those small flags might symbolize the saint and the arrows that killed him. Sebastian was greatly venerated in Europe (especially Italy) as a protector from epidemics (especially plague). His popularity in Kerala might be for the same reason - with smallpox and cholera the most dreaded mass-killers here. It is also possible that the rituals surrounding the banana stalks hark back to some old local fertility rites - am vaguely reminded of the cult of Jokumaraswamy (Karnataka).