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Varnam | Indian History Carnival–72: Aryan Invasion Theory, Buddha, Ramayyan Dalawa

Wed, 01/15/2014 - 18:55

Painting of the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha. Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Nalanda, Bihar, India. Circa 700-1100 CE.

    1. Koenraad Elst writes about the Vedic Conference that happened in Kozhikode in January and how the Aryan Invasion Theory still lives on

      Having spent time in the real world, interacting with real scholars, I know the real situation, which is that the AIT is still taught from all the important platforms. People who tell you diferently, live in a fantasy world and only interact with village bumpkins who accept their word for it; so as feedback they ultimately only hear their own opinions. Fortunately, we can ignore recent history including these Hindu will-o-the-wisps, and start work on the really available testimonies to ancient history.

    2. GeoCurrents has the third part of the series of posts on the Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies. The latest one has a section on how it is dealt in India.

      Meanwhile, the legacy of Müller and his peers have came under increasing attack from another quarter altogether, that of Indian nationalism. This school is epitomized in D. N. Tripathi’s edited collection of 2005 entitled A Discourse on Indo-European Languages and Cultures. The various contributors to this volume understandably object to the old narrative of the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent, a story that emerged in the 19th century from a combination of philological inquiry and racial science. According to this account, superior Aryans invaded South Asia in the Bronze Age, conquering and ruling over the indigenous dark-skinned people and then creating the caste system to ensure that the two groups remained distinct and unequal. Support for this theory was supposedly found in the Rigveda, one of humankind’s oldest text. Yet as Trautmann shows, this neat and simplistic narrative of Aryan invasion had actually been opposed by most of the leading European Sanskritologists of the 19th century. It has also been rejected by modern mainstream scholars, who deny stark racial divisions and tend to posit plodding infiltrations of Indo-European speakers into the Indian subcontinent, along with a gradual and complex development of caste ideology. And regardless of the seemingly clear division of South Asia into an Indo-European north and Dravidian south, it has long been recognized that the entire region shares numerous linguistic features, making it a Sprachbund or linguistic convergence zone.

    3. Few months back, there was a popular news article which claimed that new clues from Lumbini pushed back the date of Buddha. Jayarava, after reading the original paper, writes

      There is no doubt whatever that the find at Lumbini is significant and fascinating. But Coningham et al (and Coningham himself) have overstated the claims for what this find signifies. In particular it tells us nothing whatever about the dates of the Buddha. What it tells us about is the dates of human occupation and use of the site at Lumbini. This is intrinsically interesting, but is only an outline that requires considerable filling in. Specifically it tells us nothing about who the occupants were. The authors of the article seem to have been carried away by the minutiae of the discovery and the assumption that all archaeology on an Asokan site is ipso facto Buddhist.

    4. A while back I did a post on the origins of Aviyal. Maddy writes that in Travancore it was also known as Ramayyar kootu and has a post on Ramayyan Dalawa, who was Chanakya and Shakuni rolled into one.

      If you were to study the successful reign of Marthanda Varma, you will quickly notice that there was one person who faithfully tended to him and guided him through those hectic days. In fact that person had been around even before MV took the throne, rightly or wrongly, from his uncle Rama Varma. The shrewd man was not only a Shakuni and Chanakya rolled in one, but also a very able administrator. Krishnan Raman or Ramayyan, that was his name, of Tamil Brahmin stock, was a good cook and a person of stern behavior, great logical outlook and acute intellect. Well, if you were to look at his story, you would be surprised at the involvement he had with the illustrious king, and not only that but you will also come across a large number of anecdotes attributed to him and retold even today. He is also considered to be the inventor of the Malayali dish Aviyal or what is sometimes termed as Ramayyar kootu in Travancore.

That’s the 6th anniversary of the carnival. If you have any links that are to be featured, please send them by any of these channels. The next carnival will be up on Feb 15th.

Related posts:

  1. Indian History Carnival – 51: Aryan Invasion Theory, Chennai, Jim Corbett, Subhash Bose, Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer An often neglected aspect in the Aryan Invasion-Migration debate is astronomy and Vedic chronology. TRS Prasanna, a Professor at IITB has a paper on this. Prof. Prasanna has published an...
  2. Romila Thapar: No Aryan Invasion – II “Few days back”: Romila Thapar in a letter to the editor to The Hindu said that all along she had maintained that there was no Aryan Invasion. I am currently...
  3. Indian History Carnival – 39: Aryan Invasion, Carnatic Music, Victorian Holocausts After attending a lecture on the latest in Harappan excavations, Koenraad Elst writes that there is still no trace of an Aryan invasion. So, a very simple question would be: did...
  4. Romila Thapar: No Aryan Invasion For the many of you who think it was people like Romila Thapar who maintained the Aryan Invasion Theory, here is some news: She was “against it”: all the time....
  5. Indian History Carnival – 43: Sree Padmanabhaswamy, Vasco da Gama, Buddha, Indus Script manasa-taramgini has an interesting post which goes into the question of illiteracy of Indo-Aryans. This TED talk will provide a good introduction to the subject. Indeed when one analyzes the...

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Varnam | Volcanoes: Mount Sinabung, Toba, Hasan Dağı, Pompeii

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 18:36


Mount Sinabung, Indonesia

The above picture shows Mount Sinabung in  Indonesia’s North Sumatra province which has been erupting since last September. The Atlantic has 30 stunning photos of the January eruptions which show in detail the damage a volcano can cause and how it impacts human and animal life. Around 74,000 years back, there was a major volcanic explosion in Indonesia which caused a nuclear winter and a massive reduction in population. Though the destruction it caused was significant, people in Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh survived.

Though no one drew pictures of that eruption, one has been found of another one which happened in 6900 BCE, in the Hasan Dağı twin-peaks volcano located 130 km northeast of Çatalhöyük. A contemporary site to Mehrgarh, Çatalhöyük is one of the best preserved Neolithic settlements.

Rendering of a wall painting discovered at Shrine 14 during the original excavations of Çatalhöyük by British archaeologist James Mellaart in the 1960s and said to depict Hasan Dagi erupting. Image: John Swogger (Flickr, used under a CC BY-NC 3.0)

Though the interpretation that this was a depiction of a volcanic eruption was controversial, new studies have shown that the the painting was drawn during the time of the eruption and the artists may have witnessed the event.

Now if you want to experience a volcanic eruption in 3D, all you need is wait for the upcoming disaster-adventure movie, Pompeii

Related posts:

  1. Toba Survivors in Andhra Pradesh The journey of man animation on the Bradshaw foundation site shows how man reached various continents moving out of Africa starting around 150,000 years back. According to the journey, humans reached...
  2. Deforestation in India: 73,000 years back (Image from Journey of Man) A new study reveals that the volcanic eruption of Mt. Toba in Sumatra, 74,000 years back, deforested Central India. The volcano ejected an estimated 800...
  3. World's Oldest Wheat Wheat, which resulted from a sinful relationship between einkorn and emmer, was previously thought to be 6000 years old, but now.. A series of DNA analyses conducted on ancient wheat...
  4. Lost & Found: Mini Continent Mini-continent discovered A mini-continent that was formerly joined to India has been discovered deep under the southern oceans by the world’s most powerful ice research vessel, said German scientists. They...

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The Broad Mind | Manifesto Ideas for AAP

Mon, 01/13/2014 - 02:52

The Aam Aadmi Party is still preparing its manifesto and has invited suggestions, so here are a few that would appeal to its core platform:

  1. Since Arvind Kejriwal loves making concrete number driven promises, why not promise to take India from an abysmal bottom ranking in the Ease of Doing Business to within the top 50 in all categories. A ranking of 182 of 183 in taking a construction permit must surely be on account of procedures encouraging corruption. This can be the number one corruption reduction contribution by AAP. Also, lack of ease in doing business creates a unfair playing field in favour of large companies that have the wherewithal to handle cumbersome procedure. This is totally against Aam Business Wallahs. If new entrants can’t challenge incumbents, it reduces market efficiency and increases prices.
  2. Promise expedited defence procurement. India is one of the largest defence buyer in the world but the snails pace of procurement due to fear of kickbacks and corruption is hurting the functioning of armed forces. AAP could claim that its corruption free practices will speed up defence procurement by 50%. This could be its first major promise on the national security front.
  3. Completely transparent eProcurement portal for all government tenders. This is a no-brainer since it is totally aligned to AAP’s platform of transparency and corruption free government. AAP could promise to make sure that tender terms will not load the tender in favour of only large companies.
  4. Implement the equivalent of the Paperwork Reduction Act. This is inline with its promise in Delhi to simplify VAT compliance. Less paperwork reduces corruption and makes life for the Aam Aadmi much simpler.
  5. Promise a reform of Labor Laws after consultation to give a boost to manufacturing in particular and number of jobs in general. Giving any specific proposals here is risky but even an announcement of intent will be a huge positive. AAP also has the right consultative ethos to navigate this tricky set of laws and regulations.

None of the above suggestions can be objected to by the wide spectrum of people joining AAP and will allow AAP to set the agenda for other political parties to react to.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra

Pratyaya | The Private versus Public schools debate

Fri, 01/10/2014 - 17:54

Both public and private participation is essential for reforming our education ecosystem. Both need a root-and-branch restructuring.

While responding to an audience question on Public Vs Private schools, Prof Karthik Muralidharan explained the phenomenon with a joke. It is worth reproducing here in full :

Two men are walking through a forest.  Suddenly, they see a tiger in the distance, running towards them.  They turn and start running away.  But then one of them stops, takes some running shoes from his bag, and starts putting them on.

“What are you doing?” says the other man.  “Do you think you will run fast than the tiger with those?”

“I don’t have to run faster than the tiger,” he says.  “I just have to run faster than you.”

While studies repeatedly indicate that the learning outcomes (in absolute terms) in both public and private schools are shockingly low, most of our discussions on education policy are about which system is less awful than the other. Instead of focusing on designing a good school system which benefits the children, we are more interested in winning ideological battles.

The champions of private school theory first declared that the private schools were doing exceedingly well and then went on to explain that accountability, competition, consumer choice and other market based factors were the secret mantra behind their success. They argued that private schools are cost effective and government should fund them through vouchers instead of running a broken public education system. This theory was uncontested will 2005. Pratham revolutionised the education policy space with their Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) and Prof Karthik Muralidharan of University of California enriched the policy space with much needed evidence based analysis on various interventions like vouchers and performance based pay for teachers. These reports for the first time revealed that most of the children in both public and private schools are unable to read simple text and perform basic arithmetic.

Prof Muralidharan recently came out with a comprehensive study which involved more than four years of planning and execution to implement vouchers among a target group and then continuously monitoring their performance with respect to a control group. The findings of this study can be read here. It concludes that, after adjusting for socio-economic conditions, the performance of private schools is only marginally better than public schools. To quote:

However, in spite of the superior performance of the private schools on most measures of school processes, we find at the end of two and four years of the school choice program that lottery winners do no better than lottery losers on tests of Telugu (native language of AP) and Math. Our data from school time tables suggest that a likely explanation for these results is that private schools spend significantly less instructional time on Telugu and Math, and instead spend more time on English, Science, Social Studies, and Hindi. We conduct tests in these subjects at the end of four years of the program and find positive (but insignificant) effects of winning the voucher on test scores in English, Science, and Social Studies (of around 0.1σ each), and positive (and highly significant) effects on test scores in Hindi (of 0.5σ).

It is indeed true that private schools are cost effective and are producing the same learning outcomes at much lesser cost ( the cost of a voucher is 40% of the cost incurred per student in public school according to this study). If private schools spend as much as public schools, will they be able to significantly outperform public schools? As Prof Muralidharan explains, the relationship may not be linear and more research needs to be done to ascertain this. However, If teacher absenteeism, lack of accountability (teachers cannot be fired easily in public schools), lack of school choice are the reasons for the failure of public schools, the advocates of private schools fail to explain why private schools did not perform significantly better than public schools since they do not face any of these drawbacks. Ironically, that did not stop some columnists to invent evidence from this study to establish a “conclusive case for school choice

Abhijeet Singh did a similar study on the lines of what Prof Muralidharan’s research, and the results are the same. According to his study too, there is no significant private school effect in urban areas. This finding is in line with what Pratham observed in Mumbai.

This conclusion is not drawn from just one or two studies. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) did a comprehensive review of school choice programs among OECD countries and concluded that:

Overall, only a few studies find a link between increased choice and enhanced student outcomes, and when they do exist, the effects are quite small and not always statistically significant, partly due to methodological difficulties. However, cross-country correlations of PISA do not show a relationship between the degree of competition and student performance. Among schools systems in the OECD countries, the proportion of schools that compete with other schools for student enrolment seems unrelated to the school system’s overall student performance, with or without accounting for socio-economic background (OECD, 2010a; OECD, 2011).The majority of the evidence suggests that different schemes of school choice (open enrolment, charter schools) do not, through the competition they create for local schools, induce them to improve, nor does it improve the student achievement of those who take advantage of more school choice and opt out of their local school as the evidence reviewed shows.

Andreas Schleicher, Division Head and coordinator of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently echoed the same views:

My organisation [the OECD] is very strong on choice, enabling citizens to make choices, and you would expect that systems with greater choice would come out better. You expect competition to raise performance of the high performers and with low performers put them out of the market. But in fact you don’t see that correlation… Competition alone is not a predictor for better outcomes. The UK is a good example – it has a highly competitive school system but it is still only an average performer.

If competition and accountability is sufficient to run educational institutions, then how does one explain India’s TET results? In India, 85% of the B.Ed colleges are private but only 1% teachers qualify the Teachers Eligilibility Test (TET) every year. Similarly, most of the Engineering and Management colleges in South India are run by private management but not even a single institute can claim to compete with NITs/ IITs or IIMs. Why are market-forces not bringing the best out of these institutes?

This is not to say that public education system is the better alternative. As research suggests, both the systems are completely broken and need root-and-branch restructuring. The point that needs to be underlined is that both public and private participation is essential for reforming our education ecosystem. Given the resource constraints (both financial and human), private schools can play an important role in primary education space, but not in their present form. There is very little evidence that school choice or performance based pay or accountability or standardised testing has transformed school education. We should try to understand how countries like Finland reformed their primary schools to achieve equity and excellence. If we are just interested in ideological positioning, we can carry out even more experiments to drum on the same issue, but then, as Einstein famously said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.

PS – In the next blogpost, I will list our some of the reasons why school choice did not increase the learning outcomes as much as its votaries had hoped for. I will also try and look at some of the features of the best performing school systems.

Terra Nullius | My lord, don’t preach

Wed, 01/08/2014 - 18:52

We need impartial, precise, logical and reasoned judgments that can with time reflect in the society.

The Indian judiciary needs reforms. These range from reforms in the overall infrastructure, employment and appointments, increment in pay scales, mandatory retirement age of judges among others. But prior to that, to uphold its augmented stature in the nation, the judiciary needs to reform its rationale behind many of the judgments that it passes.

Of late, we have seen multiple judgments that have been passed, stained with an illogical moral code stemming from flawed pride in a dead national culture and value system. Take for example, the recent judgment on Section 377 that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Section 377 is based on the archaic IPC dating back to 1861, designed when India was still under the auspices of colonial (and Victorian) Britain. The fact remains that in our contemporary reality, homosexuality and bisexuality are as much a way of life for an individual as heterosexuality. Sexual orientation, like religion is a matter that is in the private space of an individual, directly and primarily impacting his or her own life. A judiciary, out of all the institutions in the country, is expected to respect and protect this fact. Criminalising an act between two consenting adults, in their own privacy, shows that our judiciary is unable to keep up with the realities of the Indian society and is in denial about the individuality and freedom of its citizens. It also shows that it lacks the maturity to evolve with the times.

Recently, with regard to a case of rape, filed by a girl in a Delhi court, while acquitting the accused, the judge said  “When a grown up, educated and office-going woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise …

“He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows premarital sex,” the court said while acquitting an employee of a multinational company of the charges of rape.”

It is fatuous judgments such as these that reduce the gravity of the Indian judicial system. Among other things, the main problems with such a judgment are:

One, it assumes that ‘rape’ is not a criminal offence if the woman knows the man and has had consensual sexual encounters with him before. The idea of ‘consent’ and ‘force’ is discounted in the assumption for what constitutes a rape or that each case and each incident is different from the other.

Two, the reasoning for the acquittal primarily stem from paternalistic and parochial notions of gender, society, religion and morality. Had the primary reasoning been on the lack of concrete evidence against the accused, or the inability of the victim to prove her complaint, such an acquittal may have made sense. The judgment would have concluded on rational grounds. But here the fact that stands out is that the judgment blatantly shoulders the idea that premarital sex is ‘immoral’ and then explicitly puts the onus of this immorality on the woman. It ignores the fact that in such a case, there are two parties involved- one male and one female. The onus, if any, of morality (which within itself is flawed) should thus be equally shared.

Three, it assumes that ‘marriage’– a legal contract signed between two consenting adults in the presence of witnesses– makes the biological act of sexual intercourse (something, not yet criminalised for adults in India prior to the marriage contract) ‘moral’ to a judiciary. This judgment also indirectly emphasises on a more problematic idea– that a court deems post marital sex OK for a woman. However, if a married woman is forced into it against her consent, by her own husband, it is not legally recognised as ‘rape’ or a criminal offence.

The judiciary is an institution responsible for upholding law and order in the country outside the ambit of societal morality and other dictates. If something is not legally criminalised or banned in the country, then all moral code attached to it should be immaterial to a court of law. The array of judgments passed with irrelevant complementary opinions from those in the highest institutions governing the country, along with the emphasis on a shaky code of morality, grossly dilute the significance and stature of the judiciary. That aside, laws and judgments define the code of conduct for a country. We do not need preaching, lectures and moral epigrams in judgments. Neither do we need enforcement of culture, traditions and values, irrelevant to the ambit of a case. What we need are impartial, precise, logical and reasoned judgments that can with time reflect in the society. That can portray the sophistication and maturity in the interpretation of laws governing the country. These judgments become the foundation stones of a slow, evolving and pragmatic change in a society in transition.

Varnam | A Course on Mathematics in India (From Vedic Period to Modern Times)

Tue, 01/07/2014 - 18:19

In 662 CE, a Syrian bishop named Severus Sebokht wrote

When Ibn Sina (980 – 1037 CE) was about ten years old, a group of missionaries belonging to an Islamic sect came to Bukhara from Egypt  and he writes that it is from them that he learned Indian arithmetic. This, George Gheverghese Joseph, writes in The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics shows that Indian math was being used from the borders of central Asia to North Africa and Egypt.

Though there is a such a rich history, we rarely learn about the greatness of Indian mathematicians in schools. Even our intellectuals are careful to glorify the West and ignore the great traditions of India. A prime example of that was an article by P. Govindapillai, the Communist Party ideologue, in which he lamented that the world did not know about the contributions of the Arab scientist al-Hassan. In response, I wrote an Op-Ed in Mail Today in 2009.

Thus it is indeed great to see that NPTEL ran a course on Mathematics in India – From Vedic Period to Modern Times. The entire series of around 40 lectures is available online. It is there on YouTube as well. It starts with Mathematics in ancient India with the Śulbasūtras and goes past the period of Ramanujam. It goes through various regional scientists including the members of the Kerala School of Astronomy and covers the difference between the Greco-Roman system of proofs and how Indian mathematicians did it. Kudos to Prof. M. D. Srinivas, Prof. M. S. Sriram and Prof.K. Ramasubramanian for making this available to the general public.

PS: @sundeeprao points to this course on Ayurvedic Inhertance of India

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The Broad Mind | A test of conviction

Sun, 01/05/2014 - 19:14

Now that AAP has passed the test in the assembly and is guaranteed at least 6 months in Delhi government, the next steps from all parties will demonstrate the conviction they have in what they themselves have espoused.

Starting with BJP: their reaction on AAP has been of the proverbial khisyani cat that couldn’t get the mouse. The complete discourse has become reactionary to the agenda that AAP has set. By choosing to raise trivial issues such as Arvind Kejriwal’s CM residence, it is diluting the ‘Good Governance’ message that was being projected till now. It is fairly easy to counter AAP at a policy level and BJP could present alternate water, electricity policies to showcase the superior governing experience that it has. BJP still controls the MCD and could show action at the ground level in urban governance if it wants to.

For a moment it seemed like BJP was running a final victory lap but perhaps memories of 2004 are coming back haunting. Obviously, the AAP phenomena has put a major spanner in the works. Its own conviction in the message Mr Modi has been spreading in speeches throughout 2013 suddenly seems weak. By announcing ‘Modi for PM’ as the main campaign slogan, it has revealed that it would rather project Mr Modi as a personality who means different things to his various fans – good governance to some and viraat hindu to others or a combination thereof. The lack of conviction in the ‘Good Governance’ plank despite successful chief ministers in multiple states who enjoy this reputation, will create a lot of mistrust. Many folks will now be able to claim ‘Good Governance’ as a convenient facade on top of the real agenda of ‘Hindu Majoritarianism’. BJP’s dream of forming the government is in real danger if it doesn’t course correct.

Congress Party’s convictions seem to be a mystery even to themselves. However, their slogan ‘Congress for the Aam Aadmi’ has been totally usurped by AAP now. The fact is that they would still be the second largest party in 2014 elections but more because of inertia rather than anything else. Their challenge is to find a conviction other than sycophancy.

AAP has stormed into politics without an ideology or dogma guiding them. Even though a lot of the leadership is leftist, Arvind Kejriwal’s message has been about policies that work with a theme of decentralisation. This involves breaking the clutch of existing vested interests and disrupting many gravy trains in operation. However, his convictions will now be put to test when some of the policies put forth don’t stand the scrutiny of time and facts. It is easy to stay put on policies guided by ideology but by definition policies that work best have to evolve and iterate. The initial proposals may all turn out to be incorrect. The true test of Arvind Kejriwal’s political acumen will be in being able to shape public opinion such that it is not a political suicide to modify proposals once they don’t work. He has repeatedly said that all he says may not be correct but his intentions are honest. Honest intentions will want to course correct when new facts come to light and that will be test of his convictions.

[to paraphrase Ravi Shastri] Whichever party wins the elections is immaterial but if the nature of the debate evolves to issues, policies, and ability to experiment with and iterate policies to get to what works then the Indian public would surely be the eventual winner.

Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra

Varnam | Kon-Tiki (2012)

Sun, 01/05/2014 - 18:53

Painting of the Kon-Tiki raft

One of the most dreadful accounts of people stranded helplessly in the ocean that I have read is in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. In this true story, Louis Zamperini, whose performance in the 1936 Olympics caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, crashes into the Pacific on a search mission during WWII in a B-4. While the crash killed eight of the eleven men on board, Zamperini and two of his colleagues float in the open ocean on a life raft. For 47 days, they caught fish, evaded sharks and Japanese bombers and miraculously survived (One of them, Francis McNamara, died after 33 days) to wash up into a Japanese POW camp in Marshall Islands.

Five years after Zamperini’s unplanned voyage across the Pacific, a Norwegian explorer and writer named Thor Heyerdahl, set off on a voyage from Peru to Polynesia. Heyerdahl had a theory that Polynesia was populated not from Asia, but from South America. The early explorers to Polynesia had found pineapple, which was indigenous to South America. Also, certain sculptures found in Polynesia resembled the ones in pre-Columbian Peru. Though his theory was dismissed by academics and the National Geographic Society, because people at that time did not have boats required for such long distance travel, Heyerdahl believed that the rafts they had were sufficient and the ocean current would have favored such a travel; he believed that ancient Peruvians did not see water as a barrier.

To prove this, he decided to travel 5000 miles in the Pacific, on raft made of balsa wood and assembled using the same materials the ancient explorers would have used. With private funding, supplies from the United States Navy, and with a crew of six people, he set off to prove this theory. This Norwegian movie is about that voyage and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards. Heyerdahl did not go full commando on this voyage; the crew carried radio equipment, watches, charts and sextants, but that did nothing to minimize the dangers of the voyage.

There was the possibility that a storm would wash them back into South America or taken them into Galapagos. They survive few storms and soon encounter giant sharks which swim below the raft; there is some stunning photography at his point as the camera goes below the waves. They survive the shark attacks, even going as far as harpooning one and bringing it on board. While there were concerns that the wood was absorbing water and becoming heavy, they eventually figure that they are along the right path. Soon they spot land, and just few days before India got independence, they land at Raroia.

Though Heyerdahl proved that you could travel 5000 miles in the open ocean in a balsa wood raft the his theory that Polynesia was populated by South Americans never found acceptance. The dominant theory seems to be that Polynesia was populated from South-East Asia.

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Catalyst | The Growth of Bangalore

Sat, 01/04/2014 - 22:39

The city of Bangalore grew from about 5.7 million people in 2001 to 8.7 million in 2011. Earlier, the official city area was 226 square kilometres under the erstwhile Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP) which expanded to 716 square kilometres in 2007 with the creation of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike.

However, these area numbers only reflect the official administrative boundaries, and are not always reflective of the organic growth of cities in various directions. Below are two land use images from ISRO’s Bhuvan portal of Bangalore from 2005-06 and 2011-12. Built-up area in the region is marked in red.

Source: Bhuvan

In the period of five years, Bangalore has grown in area mostly only on the southeastern side. It has grown considerably along Hosur road, forming a continuum between the city, spanning Electronics City until the edge of the state boundary. The bulk of the rest of the growth has happened along the southeastern section of the outer ring road.

We can rail against ‘unplanned’ growth all we want, but this misses the point that people and companies are essentially free agents who move to places conducive to their requirements. Urban planning in India often centers around rigid control in things like land use, where the state has little capacity to enforce anything, and gets subverted. If instead urban planning favours nudges and incentives (the setting up of electronic city in Bangalore in the late ’70s is a great examples of the latter) then it might have a better chance of working. Official actions are largely unresponsive to the housing needs of incoming migrants and increasing wealth of our cities’ residents. “Irregular” colonies and housing but spring to meet the legitimate need.

Besides, as Karthik Shashidhar finds, Bangalore’s fastest population growth rates were actually in the 1940s and 1970s.

This was a part of my lecture on an ‘Introduction to the Bangalore Municipal Ecosystem’ to B.CLIP students on December 7, 2013.

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Varnam | Six ways to follow varnam

Thu, 01/02/2014 - 18:33

If you have been following this blog regularly by visiting this website, you may not know that there other ways of following varnam using various social networks. Here are few ways by which you can follow the blog

  1. By e-mail. This link takes you to Feedburner which manages the e-mail subscription. Every time a post is made, you get the contents via mail.
  2. If you use Feedly, this link will take you to the page to add the feed.
  3. If you use any other RSS reader, this is the feed link
  4. If you are a Facebook user, here is the page to follow
  5. If you are a Google+ user, here is the profile page
  6. Finally, here is the twitter feed.

You can find the widgets for all these subscriptions on the sidebar under “Subscribe”. Please connect and share the posts.

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Varnam | In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?

Wed, 01/01/2014 - 18:23

(This article was originally published in Pragati)

The discovery of the relation between Sanskrit and European languages by Sir William Jones resulted not only in the birth of comparative philology, but it also initiated the search for the Indo-European homeland. There was no consensus on homeland location. In The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, Edwin Bryant writes, “The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Rusia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe and eastern Europe.”

During the time of William Jones, scholarship was focussed on reconciling Indian history with theBible. In 1790, Jones reaffirmed the “sanctity of the venerable books (of Genesis)” and put the origins of Indian empire within the safe confines of Bishop Usher’s creation date of 4004 BCE. Under Max Muller, who claimed that Genesis was historical, the biblical heritage survived with the narrative that superior civilisations of Europe, Persia and India had one language family. Though India was initially considered as the homeland, by the 19th century that was no longer the case. Bryant writes, “The Indomania of the early British Orientalists did not die of natural causes; it was killed off and replaced by an Indophobia initiated by Evangelism and Utilitarianism epitomised by Charles Grant and James Mill respectively.”

The 19th century was also a period of racial science and it was encouraged by Orientalists in Madras who discovered that South Indian languages were not derived from Sanskrit. Following this discovery, Vedic texts were interpreted to read that white-skinned Aryans subdued dark-skinned and snub-nosed dasas. The similarity of Indo-European languages along with such heroic conquests led the search for the mysterious homeland from where these aristocrats set forth. With this the British could explain their presence in India as yet another wave of Aryan invasion, similar to the many waves that happened before. Once scholars started searching for the homeland, it turned out that you could throw a dart at a world map and there was a theory of origin from that place.

As of 2013, there are three homeland theories that are prominent. The first one — the Anatolian-Neolithic — proposes that Indo-European originated in Anatolia and spread through Europe along with the spread of farming. The spread of the language towards India was explained using two models. The first one proposed that the language spread eastward from Anatolia to India and the second one suggested that it was a later southward migration from Central Asia that bought the language to India. After going back and forth between these two models, the present version argues that Indo-European spread symmetrically westward to Europe and eastward to India. The second theory suggests that the homeland was not in Anatolia, but to the south of the Caucasus. The spread of the language did not happen with the spread of farming, but at a much later date. This theory also posits a secondary homeland located north of the Black and Caspian seas. The third one suggests that the homeland was located between the Volga and Dnieper (The Pontic-Caspian) during 4500–3000 BCE.

In a 2013 paper titled Twenty-first century clouds over Indo-European homelands, J P Mallory used the common notion that Anatolian was one of the first languages to split away in the proto-Indo-European framework to evaluate the three homeland theories. In the Pontic-Caspian model, the ancestors of Anatolians leave the region north of the Black Sea and move to Anatolia. Indo-European develops later in the Pontic-Caspian region and the speakers disperse both east and west in the Bronze age. The Near Eastern model presents crazy travel plans. First the Anatolians move out of Anatolia into the Balkans and Indo-European develops in that space. Before the Anatolians move back to their homeland, the Indo-Europeans move out requiring carefully choreographed movements of peoples. In the Anatolian Neolithic model, the Anatolians do not travel back and forth to the Balkans, but stay put. Instead the Indo-Europeans disperse around the world.

For each of the homeland theories and their paths of dispersal there are sufficient counter arguments that make it untenable or look ridiculous. To give an example, a theory presented in 2012, required two linguistic groups, and separated geographically for 2500 years to have similar linguistic changes. Mallroy writes, “the statisticians who devised this model seem to require some form of mutual contact at a distance, one of the stranger aspects of quantum theory that Einstein once dismissed as Spukhaftige Fernwirkung (“spooky action at a distance”) ”

A second problem with all these migration theories is this:  If agriculture was the source of language expansion, did the region from Anatolia to the Indus speak the same language at some point? Very often historians tell us that the invading/migrating Aryans changed the linguistic landscape of North-West India. If the agricultural spread theory is true, then it was not just the Indus languages that were changed. In the 2500 km distance from Anatolia to the farming community of Mehrgarh in Balochistan, there were four other non-Indo-European speaking regions (Hurrian, Semitic, Sumerian and Elamite) and the migration model requires major language shift in all these areas. Mallroy writes, “In any event, all three models require some form of major language shift despite there being no credible archaeological evidence to demonstrate, through elite dominance or any other mechanism, the type of language shift required to explain, for example, the arrival and dominance of the Indo-Aryans in India.”

One possibility is that the language did not spread through invasion or the current favourite — migration — or due to elite dominance, but due to demic diffusion. Peter Bellwood looked at the farming hypothesis and coupled it with new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic plains, and proposed last year that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West two millenia earlier than expected. This gave possibility to the development of Vedic language in the region and not in Central Asia. It also provided the ability for the language to spread slowly rather than suddenly. Later in his life Max Müller questioned the concept of a single Proto-Indo-European language. Martin Lewis, a historical geographer at Stanford University, writes, “He [ Müller] further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland.”

To paraphrase an Indo-European scholar, the right question to ask these days is not where the Indo-European homeland is, but rather, where do they put it now?  Since Indian history has been deeply tied to the movement of Indo-European people, it is important to understand the debate that is going on. If one has to be cynical of the whole enterprise, it has to come from an understanding of the complexity and not through a simplistic denial of the theory. In her book History of Ancient and Early Medeival India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century Upinder Singh wrote that most historians have abandoned the idea of an Aryan invasion for a ‘several waves of migration’ theory. Though no one knows where they came from or which path they followed, Indian history is still firmly rooted in these external origins.

The problems with two centuries of linguistics do not end with diverse homelands or inconclusive paths of migration. There are fundamental issues on what languages belong to the Indo-European tree.  Where does Graeco-Armenian or Italo-Celtic belong? Is Tokharian an orphan or should it be associated with the German branch? A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeastern Spain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. These doubts, (See  An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India) which exist in Indo-European linguistics, is absent in Indian history narratives. There is not an iota of scepticism and a simplistic model still seems to be the norm.

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RQ | Visas to India

Mon, 12/30/2013 - 19:11

Between January 2012 and October 2013, India issued over 34000 employment visas. Where did these 34000 foreign workers come from?


Notice that the number of people with employment visas from Japan and Germany outstrip all other countries, by a long way! The United States is not even in the top 12! The other notable exception? Bangladesh!

What about tourists? Where do India’s tourists come from? Between January 2012 and October 2013, India issued about 4.5 million tourist visas. And where did these tourists come from? This graph here shows the percentages:


And which country contributes the maximum number of tourists to India? Bangladesh! 800,000 or almost 18% of India’s tourists in these 22 months came from Bangladesh! And they didn’t come here for medical treatment – that has been taken care of in another category of visas!

Go figure.

Varnam | Tipu Sultan- The Tyrant of Mysore by Sandeep Balakrishna

Mon, 12/30/2013 - 18:46

In A Survey of Kerala History, Sreedhara Menon summarizes the impact of Tipu Sultan’s brutal raids on Kerala and concludes that it introduced modern and progressive ideas to Kerala. These progressive ideas include collecting taxes directly from the peasants and building roads which connected various remote parts of Kerala. Menon also credits Tipu Sultan for creating a social revolution in Kerala by attacking Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Nairs. By declaring Nairs as the lowest caste and by forcefully converting them into Islam gave the lower castes a sense of prestige and position. As to the drawbacks to Tipu’s wars in Kerala, Menon writes that the wars halted black pepper cultivation and thus destroyed the economy. The ports became empty and unused and the foreign currency that came from trade relations which spanned a millennia came to a halt pushing people into poverty.

Fortunately Menon does not call him a freedom fighter, but many many historians and politicians and literary types like Girish Karnad and Bhagwan Gidwani consider him so. They also consider him to be a great warrior, a humanist, the son of Kannada and a tolerant ruler. Sandeep, by going through copious amounts of primary sources on Tipu finds that a fictional narrative has been constructed regarding every aspect of Tipu’s life and the tale which was spread by bards who relied on bakshish, now is spread by modern bards for various nefarious reasons.

The part that Sreedhara Menon whitewashed s expanded by Sandeep and that is not for the faint of heart. Tipu hunted down the Nairs who rebelled against him and forced them to surrender. Here is the what happened next:


Another account of Tipu’s march through Calicut records that both men, women and children were hanged; churches and temples were desecrated; women were forced to marry Muslim men. Proud of his accomplishments in Calicut, he wrote a letter gloating about this massive conversion. He also congratulated his commanding officer for circumcising the captives and converting the others. As he marched to Travancore, burning towns and villages, he was halted by the Nairs and extreme cruelty by Tipu caused an exodus of people from Malabar. This is the level of progressiveness that is attributed to Tipu by a writer who had a good idea of what really happened as he was the former editor of the Gazetteer of Kerala. The trend seems to be to not let facts get in the way of a progressive interpretation.

Another myth that prevails is that Tipu was a freedom fighter because he fought against the British. Less mentioned is the fact that he working on replacing one colonial power for the other for his own personal gain. In various letters written to the French,he conveyed the notion that he was friends with the local Muslim rulers and with the combined French army, they could rout the British. To entice the French, he promised half the territory that would be taken away from the British and he had correspondence with Napoleon himself. Napoleon was not the only foreigner with whom he bargained. He wrote letters to the Caliph, to Zaman Shah of Afghanistan, and to other foreign Muslim rulers, inviting them to wage the battle against the infidels.

Besides revealing such less mentioned facts, the book begins with the crux of the problem which is the problem with historiography in India. These narratives are not written with a focus on revealing the truth, but for subverting certain truths. There is a revealing conversation between S L Bhyrappa and G. Parthasarathy, a Nehru-Gandhi family acolyte, who lead a committee to foster national integration through education. Parthasarathy tells Bhyrappa, who at that time was a philosophy lecturer, that teaching about the iconoclasm of Aurangzeb and Mahmud of Ghazni would poison the minds of the students, offend the minorities and “cleave the society”. Hence it was important to use “maturity and discrimination” in selecting the narrative.

In 2009, I wrote a piece for Pragati about these biases and one of the solutions was for us not to leave the history to historians.

Lawsuits, protests, activism—these can be an effective tools, but there is also a need to popularise the discourse. Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough are masters of the popular history genre in the West. Barring a few honourable exceptions, in the Indian context this genre consists of writing more biographies of Nehru and Gandhi. There is a need to add more voices to this discourse—to explain how the invasion theory evolved to migration theory to Aryan trickle down theory—because this Aryan-Dravidian race theory still has serious social and political implications in India.[Op-Ed in Pragati: Getting Objective about it]

Sandeep’s book is a good step in that direction.

Tipu Sultan – Tyrant of Mysore, Rare Publications; 1st Edition 2013 edition (November 30, 2013), 186 pages [Kindle Edition | Flipkart| Amazon India]

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RQ | Pricing railway safety

Sat, 12/28/2013 - 12:33

Yet another railway accident has happened. As someone on twitter pointed out,

Another train accident.23 dead. So what ? Ex-gratia will be announced, netas will go on accident tourism. Three days later all forget!

— Prashanth Bhat (@prashanthbhat) December 28, 2013

The problem with the Indian Railways is that there is no real measure of safety. How do we know how much safer the trains and tracks are compared to last year? Given the way the Railway finances are put out currently, there is no way to figure this out. Without the railways putting out more disclosures, is there a way to put a number on how safe the Indian Railways are? In other words, is there a way to “price” railway safety?

As you are well aware, and as the above tweet points out, it is standard practice in Indian Railway accidents for the Railway Minister to announce an ex-gratia payment to the families of the dead and the injured in case of any accident. I’m not sure if there is a formula to this but one cannot rule out the arbitrariness of this amount. As I had pointed out in an earlier post on RQ, accident compensation needs to be predictable and automatic. Can we use this to price railway safety?

First of all, we need to point out that the railways follows a cash accounting system, and thus doesn’t need to account for any contingent liabilities such as ex-gratia payment (last weekend I sat through an awesome lecture by Prof. Mukul Asher (councillor to Takshashila) on public finances, and he pointed this out). Hence, it would be prudent on behalf of the Indian Railways to hedge out this contingent liability.

How do you hedge a contingent liability? By buying insurance! What the Indian Railways needs to do is to buy group accident insurance – all the ex-gratia payments will then by paid out by the insurance company, and the railways will only pay a premium to these companies, thus hedging out the risk! And this process will help put a price on railway safety!

How is that? Let us say that given the railways’ bad record in safety, and its continued promises that safety will be improved each year, the railways decides to take up group accident insurance on an annual basis. Let us say that there is a competitive bidding process among general insurers in India (both public and private sector) to provide this insurance (railways is a large organization, and insuring them will be a matter of prestige, so companies will bid for it). The premium as determined by this competitive bidding process is the price of railway safety!

We can do better – instead of buying one overall policy, the Railways can think of insuring different routes separately, or perhaps zones. This will help put a price on the safety of each route or zone! There will be some transaction cost, of course, but price discovery will happen, and we will be able to put a price on risk!

But then, this is all wishful thinking. It is unlikely this will happen because:

1. Given the cash accounting system followed by the railways, there is no incentive to hedge contingent liabilities
2. Buying insurance means increasing scrutiny. The railways will not want to be scrutinized too hard. It is currently an opaque organization and it will want to be that way.
3. Given the railways are wholly government owned and there are government owned general insurers, there might be some collusion which might  result in underpricing the risk.
And so forth…

Nevertheless, the point of this post is that it is possible to put a price on safety!

Varnam | Why Christianity spread through Europe

Sat, 12/28/2013 - 01:36

Since it is Christmas time, the celebration of two important pagan festivals appropriated by Christianity, it is interesting to read Bernard Cornwells’s article at Omnivoracious on how Christianity spread through Europe.

One answer is that Christianity proved more profitable. There is a telling story about King Edwin of Northumbria, a powerful pagan who ruled what is now northern England and southern Scotland in the 7th Century. He probably worshipped the Norse gods like Thor and Woden, but at some point he encountered a Christian missionary who suggested that success in war and material prosperity would follow a conversion. Edwin put that to the test and god came through with a battlefield triumph and massive amounts of plunder. The king’s chief pagan priest told Edwin that the old gods had never shown such favor and that Northumbria should therefore convert, which it duly did. The story echoes the experience of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who converted because the Christian god gave him victory over Maxentius. It is a common enough tale. In the early 10th Century a Viking named Hrolf took land in what is now Normandy and the treaty confirming his possession insisted he became a Christian. ‘Paris,’ Henry IV of France declared when he changed from Protestant to Catholic, ‘is worth a mass.’ The Duchy of Normandy (which led to the throne of England) proved well worth a mass too.[Bernard Cornwell, Author of "The Pagan Lord," Muses on the Path to Christianity]

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RQ | Commute Distance and Prosperity

Fri, 12/27/2013 - 21:25

There is an interesting report on The Hindu Blogs about commute distance and prosperity. Referring to a World Bank report in 2005, the blog post talks about richer people commuting longer distances to work. Rukmini S, who has written the piece, also finds from the latest NSSO data that richer states in India have a higher proportion of people commuting more than 5 km to work.

I didn’t like the visualization (or the lack of it) in Rukmini’s article, and hence this post. I thought the point about long commutes to work and richer states would be better made in a scatter plot, and that is what I produce here:


On the X axis is the proportion of the Urban population in each state that commutes over 5 km to work each way. The data is from the latest NSSO Survey (page 28-29). On the Y axis I have a measure of the level of economic activity in a state – the per capita Gross State Domestic Product. The advantage of this measure is that it takes out from the equation the size of the state itself, and instead focuses on the level of economic activity per person. The figures are from 2011-12 and the numbers are based on 2004-05 prices. The data is from the RBI website.

The correlation is clear – barring a few small states, the above plot clearly shoes that more the proportion of people that commute long distances to work, the greater the economic activity in that state. The question, however, is whether there is a causal effect and if so, in which direction – does people traveling longer distances cause greater economic activity or does greater economic activity lead to people commuting longer distances?

The world bank paper proposes that the more well to do commute longer distances only because the cost of local transport in Mumbai is high and the poor cannot afford that. This is a view that Rukmini endorses in her piece in the Hindu. The argument doesn’t particularly make sense, though. Do the world bank researchers intend to say that transport costs outstrip housing costs in prime areas in Mumbai? If so, it is extremely hard to believe.

At the state level, one possible reason why people in richer states travel more is because greater economic activity happens in bigger urban agglomerations. The economic activity of a town or village is a super-linear function of the number of people living there. And when you have larger urban agglomerations, people tend to live farther from their workplaces, and thus commute more.

Again – this is a chicken and egg problem – a level of economic activity in a town or village leads to increase in population, which results in greater commutes. Increase in population leads to even greater economic activity, and this sets off a virtuous cycle. The 20-fold increase in Bangalore’s population in the last 70 years can be attested to this cycle, and it is hard to put a direction of causation to it.

The above explanation, however, doesn’t explain the following graph. This graph is identical to the one above except that here we look at the proportion of rural residents who commute over 5 km to work. And this is again positively correlated with economic activity!


What can possibly explain this? One way to explain this is that when people stay close to a town or city with high economic activity, they might prefer to participate in that rather than working in the village itself, and thus they might be commuting longer distances. States with high economic activity are likely to have a larger number of villages close to urban/semi-urban centres of high economic activity, and thus people are likely to travel longer distances.

When more people are willing to travel longer distances for work, it leads to people coming together to work at a higher rate than it normally happens in a village, and this leads to higher economci activity! Again, it is hard to put a directionality to the causation!

Catalyst | Toilets and access

Fri, 12/27/2013 - 11:48

The National Sample Survey Office released new findings this week from the 69th round of the National Sample Survey conducted in 2012, providing the latest state-level data on sanitation, water supply and electricity access.

The last set of reliable numbers on rural sanitation came from the 2011 census, where we found that about 30.7 percent of rural Indian households had their own toilets in 2010. As covered by The Transition State, this had improved in the previous decade by about 9 percentage points.

Broadly consistent with that rate of increase, the NSS round from 2012 reports that 31.9 percent of rural households had their own toilets in 2012, an increase of ~1.2 percent in two years. What the NSS press release dwells on at greater length is the number of rural households with access to toilets, which is a significantly greater number in most Indian states.

This access is self-reported by surveyed households and can mean that they share or use a neighbour’s toilet, have access to a community/public toilet or perhaps have access at their workplace, especially if they live close to towns and cities. However, the access data is likely an overestimate as there is nothing to prove that every member of the household avails the use of toilets, or uses them all the time.

Nationally, 40.6 percent rural households have access to toilets, as opposed to about 31.9 percent of them owning or having exclusive access to toilets. Since there is a two year lag between the two data points collected (as shown below for all states) this gap can be treated as a minor overestimate.

As one can see, there is a phenomenal range of differences between households owning toilets and households having access to them. A state like Karnataka has almost no difference, implying that toilets are treated as private, household goods in the southern state. Meghalaya is the other extreme, where the number of households with access to toilets is almost double the number of households who own them. If only access were to be measured, states like Nagaland, Delhi, Sikkim, Mizoram and others could declare themselves to be free of open defecation today.

The chart below illustrates the difference between the ranking of states on rural sanitation between the two measures.

As one can see, most of the change happens in states with higher toilet ownership. Delhi, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are the biggest gainers when access is considered, with Kerala, Manipur, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh losing the most ground.

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