Thursday, September 2, 2010

#41. Kingdoms on Auto-Pilot

Mahabharat: Kingdoms on Auto- Pilot
Thre are so many doubts and puzzles that Mahabharat throws up. Here I am goig to relate something that has puzzled me for sometime now: kingdoms run by absentee rulers. Two cases come to mind which are quite glaring.
Absentee rulers are a tradition which has come down over the millennia to the 20th century also. One hears of rulers of princely states during the British time who spent their summer in the salubrious weather of England or French reviera. Then there were rulers who spent the winter in Bombay race course. The craze was so much that many of them had their second home in Bombay. In Delhi of course every prince had a huge establishemt: Hyderabad House, Bikaner House, Patiala House. Thanks to them so many govt. offices and institutions did not have to search for a new establishment in 1947. The crown princes studied abroad, and did their schooling in elite private schools which were created for them only. Mayo College, Rajkumar Colleges, Scindia School. Some colleges had separate living accommodation for such princes who stayed with all the paraphernalia and retinue. During the absence of the ruler and the crown prince, the ministers looked after the work, some of them were honest and sincere and some not so.
Go back to Mahabharat days. Let us first decide what governance meant during those days. Realizing tax which the ruler spent either wisely or foolishly, providing security to the public by saving the kingdom from other greedy rulers, general security and making the kingdom safe for the subject that is policing function, punishing wrongdoers from robbers and thieves to murderers and trouble-creators. and creating some basic infrastructure like a few arterial roads, especially in and to and from the capital, I don’t know what other function was performed by the ruler in 2500-1500 B.C.E. For water there were as yet unpolluted rivers and streams, community and private wells: as a matter of fact all the civilizations of the world developed on the bank of some river; for sanitation, well, there were open fields which are available even now in our villages; for transport there were horses (and chariots drawn by them) and bullock carts. Cultivators sweated in the fields, traders did business in towns and a large number who went to the army maintained by the ruler, either for show or for encroaching on the neighbouring state’s land. Farmers paid taxes in kind mostly, and probably there was some sort of levy on the traders, especially when the goods entered the borders of the kingdom. But these seths had fulfilled another obligation: giving loan to the ruler for their luxurious living and harem, or for battles with the next door rulers. On top of that there was the system of Rajsuya and Ashwamedha yajna which was purely a matter of personal aggrandizement. The loan given by the trader to the ruler was mostly non-returnable, and therefore, in a way gift or lumpsum levy paid to the ruler.
Anyway the two cases I have in mind are: Krishna and Shakuni.
Krishna at a very young age (some say at 11 years) defeated and killed his maternal uncle Kansa in wrestling, and became the ruler of Mathura. Kansa had imprisoned Krishna’s parents and had killed all the six elder siblings of Krishna immediately after they were born except for Balram who was not the son of Devaki, Kansa’s sister, but of Rohini (and Vasudeo). However. Krishna’s woes did not end there. The two daughters Asti and Prapti of Jarasandh, the powerful ruler of Magadha were married to Kansa, and after his death went to their father’s place. Jarasandh attacked Mathura 18 times. The first 17 times he was defeated, thanks to Ugrasena, Kansa’s father, whom Krishna had put on the throne, and Akrur who were shrewd military strategists, helped by Vasudeo, Krishna’s father who was the crown prince. On the18th attempt Jarasandh took the help of demon Kaalyavan who created havoc in the Mathura forces. Krishna was already fed up with the frequent skirmishes with Jarasandh, and this time at the brink of defeat and capture, he left the battlefield and decided to shift his base to Dwarika where he set up a new capital. Since then, Krishna is also known by the name of Ranchhoddas. Incidentally I remember visiting a place in Gujarat which is associated with this incident and there is a temple there of Ranchhoddasji.
Now when you read Mahabharaat, Krishna is more often seen in Hastinapur, Indraprastha and later in the forest where Pandavas spent their days of exile. Before Draupadi’s marriage, he went often to Panchal to meet Panchali, his friend who is also known as Krishnaa. With all the roaming around when did he find time for governance? Or was it Balram who was looking after the affairs of the state during Krishna’s frequent absences?
Krishna avenged himself of Jarasadh when the Pandavas decided to go for Rajsuya yajna. Krishna told the Pandavas that it would be necessary for the success of the rajsuya to eliminate Jarasandh who would have refused to accept the suzerainty of the Pandavas. He also advised that it would be impossible for the Pandavas to defeat him in open battle, and therefore some covert means had to be adopted. Accordingly Krishna, Bhima and Arjun went in the guise of Brahmans and challenged Jarasandh to a wrestling match with anyone he chooses. Proud as Jarasandh was, he chose Bhima, and the match went on for 27 days without any result . On the 27th day Krishna by slitting a glass blade in two and throwing the two pieces in separate directions told Bhima abut how he should go about. Bhima understood and tore Jarasandh from the middle, and throwing the two parts in two different directios which were joined by a demoness named Jara when he was an infant, and thereby resurrected the baby.
Shakuni’s case is really pathetic. He was the youngest son of King Suvala, King of Gandhar and therefore the brother of Gandhari who was married to Dhritarashtra. Gandhari’s astro-stars predicted that her first husband will not survive for long and it is only the second husband who had long life. When Gandhari’s marriage wa fixed with Dhritarashtra, she was first married to a goat, and then the goat was sacrificed. Thus technically, a widow she was married to Dhritarashtra. At the time Duryodhan was made the crown prince of Hastinapur, Bhima taunted him that he was the son of a widow. When Duryodhan learnt the real story, he was enraged, and attacked, defeated and imprisoned Suvala with all his 100 sons. In jail they were allowed the ration of just a fistful of rice everyday. Suval decided that as the intention of Duryodhan was to starve them all to death, the rice will be pooled and eaten by Shakuni alone who in his opinion was the cleverest of all his sons, and therefore most suitable for the throne. Ultimately everybody except Shakuni died, and Duryodhan released the sole survivor. Shakuni was devious and cunning, even though he had a good military brain he believed more in covert methods. His brain was more like that of a chess player who thinks of several steps ahead before making a move. When he was released, Shakuni decided to take revenge from Duryodhan and see to it that the entire Kuru clan was finished. But overtly he let everybody know that his goal was to get for Duryodhan the other half of his kingdom which was excised and given to Pandavas by Dhriatarashtra. Pandavas had diligently developed the jungle area into a fine city with a beautiful palace to live in. Shakuni was an expert dice player, and he had a pair of dice made out of the thigh bones of his father which always did his biding. With the loaded dice, he could manage to wrest the kingdom and all the riches from the Pandavas for Duryodhan, and thus made himself the closest to his nephew, whereas all the time in his devious mind he knew that there had to be a fratricidal fight between the two groups of the same Kuru clan which will finish all of them. Even on the side of the victor Pandavas, after the battle the survivors were the five Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki and Yuyutsu. Nobody was left on their side to succeed Yudhishthira to the throne except the child Uttara, widow of Abhimanyu, was expecting. Shakuni went down fighting bravely, and so was his son Ulook, who were killed by Sahadev and Nakul respectivey.
Now the same question. We find Shakuni almost all the time in Hastinapur, scheming and plotting for his nephews. How did he manage his kingdom, and how was it saved from marauders and greedy neighbours? We don’t know anything, although most of his kingdom was hilly, and the population would have been small. Shakuni had another son Kalikeya, and I expect that after the battle he became the king and stayed at Gandhara, the capital of the kingdom. Shakuni’s army fought on Kaurav’s side and was completely decimated. So Kalikeya must have quickly raised another army from amongst the able-bodied subject of his.

Another question is thrown up. It is said that Mahabharat happened because of the spontaneous and foolish utterance of Draupadi that blind beget blind, after which Duryodhan took revenge on her by disrobing her in the assembly before everyone which further ensured the inevitability of war. Should it be right to say that it was actually Shakuni and not Draupadi's utterance and her subsequent insult by Duryodhan which precipitaated the great battle? Well, you decide.
Did the Yadu clan destroy itself in fratricidal fight because Krishna was not always around to exercise a firm and benevolent control over his clan and subject? That is a moot point.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

#40. Food Draupadi Cooked

Food Draupadi Cooked
I have been exploring for some time as to what food was cooked during the time of Mahabharat. Or to be more exact what food did Draupadi cook for her five healthy husbands including one who was a glutton. I will tell an apocryphal story about Bhim at the end. For the present, let us explore what foodstuff was available during the period 1500-1000 BC which is the approximate period of the story of Mahabharat.
Flesh of various animals was of course available in plenty. Deer and ducks were the favourite hunt. Other birds like partridges and quails (teetar and bater) are available in plenty in the country even now so it should be available even then. Krishna was shot dead by mistake by the arrow of a professional hunter who lived on what he could get and kill in the forest in the daytime to be sold in the market later in the day. Salt was there, but probably of the mineral variety. The area now in Pakistan has salt hills. Among other condiments and spices, India has been a source of cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, pepper and turmeric in the spice trade with the west for ages, and those should have been there at that time also. But the real question which bothered me was about the cereals. Well, wheat farming spread to Asia about 4,000 BC. Simple domestic grinding stone was probably there for making wheat flour. Unleavened or non-yeasted chapati is made in India even today. Rice is native to India and has been there for 10,000 years., so are cucumbers and gourds including small Indian gourd known as parval. Among the minor millets, sorghum (jowar) is a more recent introduction to the country. . But barley (jau), bajra, kodo, kutki and saawaan should have been very much there. A vaidic writing mentions barley and rice as “two immortal sons of heaven.” Maize was developed in Mexico about 7000 years ago, but it is said that it has spread to Asia only about 5 centuries ago. Whatever be the case, parched grain was quite popular and it could have been used as a snack. Sugarcane is also a native of India. So gur or jaggery would have been there. Honey was known. Milk and milk products were there.
Goat was domesticated long time back, from the time settlements came into being in place of nomadic existence. As for deep and shallow frying, and lacing dal, chapati and rice with fragrant fat, butter and ghee (clarified butter) are milk products. The other source of oil was mustard oil which reportedly has been in the country for over 3000 years. Green peas, masoor and kesari have been in India since 1800 BC to 2000 BC. So have probably chick peas (chana) and pigeon peas (arhar). Wild tubers (kand-mool) including wild onions and fruits like muskmelon or cantaloupe were there and some green vegetables. Garlic and water melon were probably not there. Banana, a native of Malaysia, is mentioned in the Buddhist Pali writings of 6th century BC. This also may have been there. At least Alexander took it from India in 327 BC. This could have been there during Mahabharat times. Among other fruits wild mango, wild berries (ber), and wood apple (bel or sriphal). Tamarind is a native of tropical Africa, but has come to India long long ago. It also was there probably in wild conditions, but whether its use as a souring agent was known at that time or not, I haven’t been able to find out.
So the menu is complete. The normal menu of Draupadi contained plenty of animal or bird flesh cooked with ghee or oil, rice, dal, chapati laced with butter, and the curries spiced with the basic condiments like onions, turmeric, pepper, cloves, and of course, salt. For vegetables, gourd, cucumber and tubers. For the dessert, yoghurt with honey or gur, and sweets like wheat flour mixed with gur syrup and deep fried. And kheer or payas sweetened with gur (milk pudding). Come to think of it, the menu has hardly changed over the millennia for an average Indian.
And what was vanvaas or exile which the Pandavas had to undergo after losing in the gamble where the dice were loaded, courtesy Shakuni? Even now in the tribal areas of Central India, forest adjoins the habitation, so Pandavas must have gone a little away from the habitation, in the forest area, maybe in the fringe and not very deep inside.
It is interesting to remember that the Portuguese brought to India potato, tomato, cauliflower, tobacco and surprise of surprise, red chillies. Another surprise item which has probably been brought by the Europeans to India is pumpkin, which is a native of South and Central America. Good old days in the conservative Brahman family of ours, if you ate vegetables like cauliflower and tomatoes, you had to do penance. This included some rituals including eating a small amount of cow dung. Most priests were satisfied if you touched it with your lips! One story that my uncle (bless his soul) used to relate of his young days was that of a kinsman who had to undergo such penance in the presence of a priest, and as the priest was also a kinsman, after the penance when they went to his house people saw the same vegetables being cooked at his home. Soybean as a source of edible oil came to India only after independence and sunflower even later.
Now the joke. It is said that a sage gave a blessing to Bhim that Bhim will eat and Shakuni will shit. Once Bhim ate an entire tree. Imagine the distress Shakuni was in next morning!

#39. Mahabharat: The Greatest Tragedy Ever Quilled

Mahabharat: The Greatest Tragedy Ever Quilled

People talk of Greek tragedies. After reading and reading for 65 years I have come to the conclusion that there is no greater tragedy written in the history of mankind than our own Mahabharat. Nor was there any story ever told of more epic dimensions. Let us get down to the barest outlines. The characters are human, vibrant, and full of foibles. Not as weak as they are in Ramayan as they are all idealistic in the latter. Anyway my idea is not to compare the two great epics but to talk about Mahabharat. Do you know that in Indian homes womenfolk were not supposed to read Mahabharat. They were of course supposed to know Sunderkand of Tulsi's Ramcharitmanas by heart. This was about Sita in Ashokvan in the captivity of Ravan. The reason was simple. All the women in Mahabharat are amoral and independent: Ganga killed her seven children by drowning, Kunti had 4 children born out of wedlock, Draupadi had five husbands, and Krishna had a harem to beat any Mogul empereor. Draupadi was proud and insulting, and she paid for it by being stripped in front of everybody and ultimately rescued by Krishna, and she in turn never combed her hair till she washed her hair with the blood of the person who dared disrobe her. This was done for Draupadi by Bhima, but she had her heart on Arjun as compared to all his brothers. Which conservative household in India would like their daughters and daughters-in-law to go through such stories and get ideas? And the end of the story. The battle of Kurukshetra lasted for 18 days. Kauravas started with 11 akshauhini and Pandavas with 7. Each akshauhini is a chaturangini force consisting of charioteers, horsemen, elephants and foot soldiers. The total comes to a mind-boggling 2,18,700 in an akshauhini (if you include mahouts and chariot drivers the figure comes to 2,62,440) and the total of Kaurav and Pandav forces to be a mind-boggling figure of about 47 lakh. This is obviously an exaggerated figure, and has to be discounted. My own guess is that they started with armies of 75 and 50 thousand. But at the end of eighteen days you were left with only a handful. The one hundred Kauravas were finished, all the army on both sides almost completely wiped out, and Draupadi's five children (by five respective husbands) treacherously killed by Ashwatthama. And the Pandavas. Ultimately Abhimanyu's wife begets a child who was born dead and was brought to life by Krishna (blue baby?). Parikshit. Come to the ancestors. In their last days Kunti, Dhritrashtra and company started living deep in the forests, and then one day they all perished in the jungle fire. Pandavas perished on the way to don't know where in the Himalayas. Only Yudhishthira stayed alive, and went to golok which means he died some time later, though peacefully. And the worst was to come to Krishna. His clan fought among themselves and perished. At that time the sea rose in height and submerged the kingdom (it is proved now by undersea archaeological remains) which Krishna had built so assiduously over the years away from Mathura where he was troubled by the frequent incursions by Jarasandh. He entrusted his womenfolk to Arjun. On to way to a safe hideout, the caravan was attacked by bandits. Arjun was confident that he could beat back the entire horde by his famous Gandiva. But lo and behold, he couldn't even string his bow. And almost half of the ladies were looted away right in front of his eyes. And Krishna: forlorn, dejected, alone was sitting under a tree where he was killed by the arrow of a professional hunter. After the Pandavas left for Himalayas the throne went to Parikshit who it seems was killed by snake bite. Not true because he was probably killed by Nag tribals. And his son Janmejaya had a Nag-yagya, which would mean that he hunted and killed whichever member of Naag community he found. I remember, in Chhota Nagpur area of Bihar (now Jharkhand) there are some Nagvanshi Kshatriya who were landlords and minor ruling princes. To sum up, whenever I think of Mahabharat, it fills me with sadness and sometimes moves me to tears. Which tragedy can equal this great epic of ours? To end the story on a farcical note. To think that Devilals and Chautalas are the descendants of the same Kauravas and Pandavas!

(This was originally published in the e-magazine SAWF)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

#38. The Mahabharat War Widows

The Mahabharat War Widows
The battle of Mahabharat lasted for 18 days. The Pandavas had seven akshauhini and the Kauravas 11 akshauhini army. An akshuhini is a chaturangini army consisiting of 21870 chariots, equal number of elephants, 65610 horse-mounted warriors, and 1,09,350 infantry (in the proportion of 1:1: 3:5). According to this, the Kaurvas had about 24 lakh and Pandavas about 15.31 lakh, totaling almost 40 lakh soldiers. I don’t believe that such large number gathered at ‘Dharmkshetre Kurukshetre’. My best guess is about 75 thousand and 50 thousand. It was 1500 B.C. and conceiving such large number of warriors in Aryavarta is an absurdity. The total population of Aryavarta at that time should not be more than 5-6 lakh.
2. The entire armies were annihilated. It is interesting to note that on the Pandava’s side, the survivors, apart from five Pandavas were Krishna, Satyaki and Yuyutsu, and on the Kaurva’s side Kripacharya, Kritavarma, and Ashwatthama. The total comes to 11!
3. The Yadava clan in Dwarka fought among themselves, and whole clan was wiped out (Remember the Nepalese royalty which was assassinated en bloc at one go by the heir apparent himself!). Krishna entrusted the ladies of Dwarka (including his own consorts) to Arjun to take them safely to Indraprastha. On the way the group was resting at a place. Some robbers came and tried to forcibly take away the womenfolk.. Arjun challenged them, and tried to string his bow Gandiva. He could not, he was too old weak to string his famous bow. And in front of Arjun’s eyes, the robbers took away almost half of the women accompanying him. The balance could anyhow reach Indraprastha. The point I am making is that a very large number of widows gathered at Indraprastha, and also at the various small principalities spread throughout Aryavarta. What happened to them? There is a brief mention in Mahabharat that after the battle was over, Yudhishthira ordered proper cremation of dead soldiers. One does not know what would have happened to a large number of those maimed, as it is mentioned that the total force on both the sides perished, which is very improbable. About widows, there is mention that Yudhishthira ordered that they should be looked after properly. What actually happened to them? Polygamy was prevalent, and many would have become wives to the already married. What about the older women. There must have been created a large force of ladies whose status was no better than that of slaves.
4. The other point that has bothered me is the logistics during the time of the battle. The armies came from different places, some near some far. I have tried to place the various principalities to their locations in Aryavarta. It is an approximate and imperfect exercise, and I am open to correction.
Gandhara: Afghanistan. Gandhari and his brother Shakuni came from here.
Madra, Kekay, Sindhu: Pakistan, mainly in the Indus valley.
Dwarka, Avanti, Saurashtra: Gujarat
Matsya: Rajasthan
Panchal: Bihar. Draupadi came from here. That is why she is known as Panchali.
Vatsa: Bundelkand in U.P.?
Chedi: Northern M.P.
Kashi: Eastern U.P.
Kosala: North-central U.P. (Faizabad )
Mall, Magadha: Bihar.
Anga: Bengal.
It must have taken them week to 10 days to reach Kurukshetra (in modern Haryana). Even after the armies reached the battleground, a few days were spent in arranging the armies (sort of dress rehearsal). So the provision had to be arranged for about a month. It is not out of place to mention here that one of the main reasons the Marathas lost the Third Battle of Panipat was that the Afghans blocked their supply lines, and they were forced to fight or face the rebellion among their own people.
5. Each army which reached Kurukshetra must have carried a lot of provision with them. I don’t know where did such large gathering of fighting forces got the firewood. And then there was forage for the horses of horsemen and chariots. Sadly the numbers in the armies depleted very quickly during the battle, and proportionately, the need for provision as well as firewood.

Monday, August 2, 2010

#37. Don't Miss This Rainy Season

Every year lakhs of trees are planted in the month of July as part of Van Mahotsav, but the results have never been encouraging, the mortality bring more than 90%. Obviously we need some other measures to plant more trees. I am told that in Chamoli district (Uttarakhand) when a bride goes to the husband’s place after marriage, she plants a tree in her father’s place, and it is the responsibility of her parents and brothers to maintain that plant. This is an imaginative way to add one more tree to the environs.
Several pretexts can be found to plant trees. At a number of places Smriti vans have been developed where a person can plant a tree in the memory of his near and dear ones who are no more. He has to give a small amount to the organisation for meeting the cost of the plant and the upkeep of the tree, at least till it is big enough to fend for itself. Elsewhere in this blogsite, I have added a small write-up on Nakshatra Van where some trees have been associated wirh the birth Nakshatra of the person and it is concerned auspicious and beneficial for the person to plant a tree of the variety. This can be done collectively as well, and Nakshatra Van can be developed with plants earmarked for the 27 stars, ( At another place I have added a write-up listing trees suitable for planting in Central India/ Gwalior (
Recently in Dainik Bhaskar, Pt. Pushkar Raj has listed trees according to Rashis of Hindu astrlogy (not Nakshatrs). The list as given by him is as follows:
  1. Mesh and Sinha: kadamba and ashuplalak ashok (Probably he means Polyalthis longifolia, as the tree is also known by the name Ashupal).
  2. Vrishabh and Tula: Yagyiya or Brahmavriksha or Palash (Butea monosperma).
  3. Mithun and Dhanu: Ashupalak
  4. Karka, Makar and Kumbh: Gamhiri (He probably means Gamhar_Gmelina arborea) or Sriparni (Is it Bael_ Aegele marmelos?)
  5. Vrishchik and Kanya: Mango
  6. Meen: Vatvriksha_ Ficus benghalensis
He has also mentioned that in Shivadharma Purana (5/118-121) it is said that the Shiv Garden should be beautified with:
-Bilva (Bael or Aegle marmelos)
-Chameli ( Jasminum grandiflorum or J. officinale)
- Vijai
- - Rajark (Could be aak_Callotropsis gigantea)
- -Karvir
- -Kamal (lotus)
- Kuljak
- -Punnag
- -Nag
- -Bakul (Maulshri)
- -Ashok (Saraca asoca)
- Utpal
- _Champa (Michelia champak). Could also mean Plumeria.
- -Kadli (Banana)
- -Hemguthap
Panditji has used Sanskrit words. I have tried to mention the common devnagri names wherever I knew. I will welcome if for other names somebody helps out.
I have been searching for a list of non-browsable trees for a long time. Up to now I have found the following trees belonging to the category:
Karanj ( Pongammia pinnata)
Teak (Tectona grandis)
Laxmi Taru (Simaroba glauca)
Chiraul (Haloptelea integrifolia)
Kanair_Thevetia bush
With roaming cattle the bane of our towns and even cities, these could be tried. I would welcome addition from any body in the list.
So, plant a sapling this rainy season. You will be happy to see it grow. What does it matter if it is not within the homestead, but around your house, in some park or roadside! And remember, please see it through. You will have to water it for 2 years, especially during summer. Good luck.

Monday, July 19, 2010

#36. A Page from My Young Days


In my own mofussil town, I was considered to be a brilliant student, bordering on genius. I completed schooling (10+2), and throughout I topped the class, with good ranks in the State in both High School and Intermediate exams. So when I landed in the University for the undergraduate degree course, I had a pretty high opinion of myself.

2. Throughout the summer vacation, I was of two minds whether to go for science stream, or change over to arts stream which attracted me because of my love for literature. Then I had started hating Physics, as I considered it a little boring and too taxing. In some topics, due to lack of guidance, my weakness was apparent. As in numericals. The teachers never taught it, and once my Chemistry teacher advised me that I should do the numericals on my own, which I did only as a formality, as the advice I got was at the fag end of the session when the final exams were near. Similarly for Physics, I hardly practised the numericals which was necessary to get a modicum of confidence to solve any type of questions in the final exam. Here probably one can say something in favour of the coaching classes. In my time about half a century ago, there were no coaching classes or tutorials. Some students did go for private tuitions – but it was expensive, and good students looked down upon the practice. Yes, sometimes one did go to some favourite teacher for sorting out some difficult topics, but as I remember, it was more so upto 10th class. After that one was largely on one’s own.

3. But in retrospect I find that the level of teaching those days was fairly high. Teachers came to the class, and did justice to the allotted forty five minutes. I still remember having rainy days in 11th class for a full week, and after that the Maths teacher (Ram Bali Pande) took extra class one Sunday in the month of July itself. Coming to Science vs. Arts, I had almost decided to go for the arts stream, but at the eleventh hour, I changed my mind due to the advice of a teacher who expressed his concern that getting first division was difficult in Arts, and that way Science stream would be better. Those days in the Arts stream, in the entire University there were only a few first class in the final exam, and the number rarely exceeded single digit.

4, The saga of my admission in the Allahabad University is also an interesting story. I was staying at Ghazipur, and Allahabad was a mere 123 miles away. The admission form of the University used to cost one rupee only, and was easily available from the University counter. My Uncle gave me just twelve rupees to go to Allahabad, stay with his uncle (and therefore my grandfather), fill up the form at the university, and come back. The railway ticket was 3 or 4 rupees, and I was supposed to use bus for going to the university. My grandfather’s abode was at Daryaganj, not very far from the destination station of Allahabad City. But in any case the money was much less than was required. The train was in the night, an my Grandmother realizing that I will run short of money gave me a few one rupee coins which she had kept in her Puja room. And so ‘the Chhora Ganga kinare wala’ started his journey. There was a minor mishap at the destination station of Allahabad City. I had a friend traveling with me, so keeping the luggage in the waiting room where I intended to take bath before I went to my Grandfather’s place, I went out of the gate to see him off surrendering the railway ticket. When ultimately I came to the gate bag and baggage, the TC at the gate insisted for the ticket which I had already surrendered. I tried to explain, but in vain, and he wanted to collect fine and fare charges which would have been devastating looking to my financial reserve. We argued back and forth and ultimately I was rescued by another colleague of the TC who persuaded his colleague not to take any action. Anyway, I reached my grandfather’s place, and from their to the University to fill up the form for admission to B.Sc. (PCM). But I still had my doubts, and so on the next day went and filled up another form for Arts stream. I had to get a hostel also, and I did not have a clue as to which hostel I should apply to. In the sultry July heat of Allahabad, I suddenly saw the gate of Muir Hostel with a discreet marble plate at the gate mentioning the name. Well, I went to the office. The clerk asked me about my marks, and assured me that I would have no problem in finding a seat in the hostel. I filled up the form . My comedown from the high pedestal started from there itself. I casually asked the clerk as to what was the highest marks obtained among the applicants to the hostel. He informed that it was 440 (out of 500), and that boy (Anil Kumar) was expected to top. I had secured a measly 376 in comparison. Anyway mission accomplished, I came back to Ghazipur to wait for the admission card, which did come in due course by ordinary post both for Science and Arts streams. However, for Arts stream, they had given me some stupid combination which had Geography as one of the subjects. That resolved all my doubts about sticking to the Science stream. In the meantime, the hostel admission also came, and I was probably asked to report there on 15 July. I started by the morning train on the 14th, and reached Allahabad by the afternoon. For the train journey I thought that shorts would be more comfortable, and I landed at the hostel in long khaki shorts and white shirt (typical RSS style). I got down from the rickshaw and was looking for the hostel attendant to take my luggage to the allotted room (Room 54, a double seated room—a fresher got only a double-seated room in Muir Hostel). Right at the entry to hostel building, I met another fresher student who had come a day earlier. He was horrified to see me in shorts, and asked me to change over to trousers immediately. I did not like his curt tone but did change over as told.

5. Next day there was the formality of an interview in which both the Warden and the Superintendent of the Hostel asked you questions before you were asked to deposit the fees.

6. The evening I landed in the hostel, I got the second jolt to my ego. I met another fresher, one Kamla Prasad Pande from Jaunpur I think. I asked him about the marks obtained by him. 396, twenty more than I had secured. Then I thought that at least in Mathematics I would score over him as I had got 98%. He said 100. I was completely deflated, like a balloon pricked.

7. Hostel ragging started the next day, and it continued for the entire session. I was told that after the students came back from the Dashera holidays, things would become normal. Hardly. Farshi (accosting in the typical Mogul style), and asking humiliating questions were the norm. The freshers got dirty or amusing titles. One of the freshers who had stood 3rd in the Arts stream was given the title ‘Ramu ki Chuhia’. He had a thin voice, with strong Western UP accent, and many a time he was asked to repeat his title in his shrill voice, to the amusement of everybody. There was no ‘Dada’ among the freshers in ‘3 idiots’ style. A question asked from almost every fresher was ‘Are you a boy or a girl’. Many kept mum. When I was asked this question, I undid the top few buttons of my trousers, and my punishment for this cheekiness was fifty ‘faarshis’. The incident gave me quite a notoriety, although I had no intention of going all the way in stripping. However, everyday for 2-3 days some hefty senior used to come and give me a shout. I was a weak, thin boy, having a severe case of acne during those days. Anyway, telling you about the college ragging is not the objective of this blog. But those days, physical violence was a no-no. The worst and the extreme was pillowing, where some of the nastier seniors hit the fresher with pillows. On the academic front what had happened to me was that suddenly I was a nobody from being a top student. It was bad for the ego, but worse, it took away the will to do well, to excel. On top of that, I started taking things easy.

8. Maths was OK, but the significant point was that the entire morning was used up in solving the sums of algebra, integral and differential calculus, and I hardly could get time in the morning to attend to other subjects.

9. Chemistry again was OK, but it was Physics which really got my goat. Heat was taught by Prof. Rajendra Singh (of RSS fame). He was a good teacher. Murli Manohar Joshi was also on the staff of Physics dept. but he did not teach us. Even those days (1958) they kept themselves busy in RSS activities. Some students were attracted to the organization, but to the credit of the two, there never was any attempt on their part to their proselytize any of their students. Things, however, were very different in Optics and practicals. Optics teacher had only a few months to go before retirement, and he used his own formulae to explain the topics. This was not found in any book. He was not a bad teacher but if you missed a few steps of the analysis or you missed a class, damage was permanent. Photocopied handouts were absent then, they came only a few decades later. But the worst part was yet to come. After his retirement, the subject was entrusted to a fresh M.Sc., and he made a complete mess of the subject. He had poor command over the language, and his knowledge of the subject was at best mediocre. The result was an unintelligible torture of 45 minutes. After a couple of weeks students used to leave the class after attendance, and I was often one of them. I should have normally read the subject from a book, and in worst case scenario mugged the portion which I did not understand, but I did not do that. The only book available in the market on the subject explained the concept cursorily followed by long formulae which had to be mastered. My classmates did that, but I don’t know how I gave up completely. One of my classmates of school days Arun was bad in Mathematics, and much later in life he admitted to me that one of the three papers of Maths he left completely blank in the final exam (12th). Arun changed over too Arts and joined Lucknow University from where he joined the Air Force. Something similar to what happened to Arun in Maths happened to me in Optics paper when the final exam came. I had studied the subject all through the night, and when I went to the examination hall, got the question paper and got down to attempt the few questions that I knew from the previous night’s study, I found that my mind was complete blank. I was so confused that I could hardly attempt any of the questions, and left them after writing the introduction, without analyzing any of them.

10. Physics practical was another story. There were a few prescribed experiments, and for each experiment, there was only one set of equipments in the lab. Thus most of the students did the practicals of the subject they had not studied in the theory class and so what done was only mechanical, without understanding fully the essence and objective of practical exercise. I don’t think that the situation is any different now in our colleges. Theory and practical subjects do not go simultaneously at the undergraduate level, and I don’t think that for any practical, large number of sets would be available so that the students do the experiment of the subject they have already been taught in the theory classes. Again it needed application on the part of the student, in the sense that before doing the practical the theory chapter has to be studied and understood in a general way so that what you do in the practical class does not go over your head, and you are generally aware of the principles behind that experiment. But as I mentioned, I had already given up, and did not bother to work hard. I whiled away my time in gossiping, roaming about, seeing movies and generally kept myself away from one of the three subjects which were the components of course.

11. Thus in the final exam, failure was looming large but still I went through the motion of appearing in all the papers. The last paper was Physics practical. The experiment was allotted to the candidate by a lottery system, there were two or three experiments written on top of the answer books kept face down on the table, and the student had to draw one. I was allotted an experiment which I had not done in the class, though it was not very difficult and I could have attempted it. I thought over it. This would bring me only marginal marks. And Optics I was going to fail, so there was no point in continuing with the practical exam. As for Maths and Chemistry, I had done tolerably well, but not brillantly. I informed the incharge teacher. He was sympathetic and tried to persuade me to complete, But I had made up my mind that there was no point in continuing, and leaving this paper was an escape route, in the sense that I could always say that I ‘dropped’, instead of failing.

12. Much later in life I was doing a post-graduate course in Development Economics in a British university. It was a regular course, and they believed in teaching economics through mathematics. I was much wiser then, not a teenager. I had a limited background in Maths, having dome only 10+2 in the subject. Some subjects where a lot of Mathematics was used were beyond me. I could manage to find a way out. On the subject I found some books in the library where it was explained and analysed in not so difficult (read mathematical) way. I did not have any difficulty in passing the exam, though I had to put in a lot of labour.

13. What happened after my drop could be anticipated. Humiliation for me, and consternation on the part of teachers and erstwhile classmates who had gone to colleges and universities elsewhere. My father who was in the village was positively nasty in letter he wrote to my uncle (I was staying in our ancestral home with my uncle). I was at a point in my life when it was difficult to take a decision as to the future course of action. My scholarship was going to be frozen, and for highter studies at least a minimum of resources were required. My father would have been too happy if I had joined a bank in Calcutta which was an easy proposition because of a relation who worked there. Banks were nationalized much later. He wanted me to support him for a few years, which meant putting my ambitions in cold storage for a few years, which would have completely broken me. One of my uncles had the tasteless suggestion of my seeking a job as a primary school teacher..

14. Ultimately I realized that it was only I who had to take a decision. I also realized that some sort of compromise would have to be made. I went to one of my old teachers Mr Subedar Mishra who had a soft corner for me and requested him to arrange a tuition for me. I decided that I would join the local Degree College which had started functioning only a couple of years back, and which had only arts stream. I informed my Uncle who was happy to see that I could reach a decision which under the circumstances was the best ppppossible. That I had to work hard what with a tuition to do was expected. I did well in the new College, got back my scholarship, and went again to the same University proved mainly to myself that I had not lost my basic touch.

15. The year’s experience was traumatic and it left a permanent mark on my psyche. Even now after more than half a century, I sometimes dream that the exams are near, I have hardly read anything in Physics, and am thinking of going to the market and getting help books on the subject which would allow me to get through. Thank god this experience of a blank mind in the examination hall happened at a relatively early stage in life so that later in life I was more cautious. I remember with sadness and disgust the remark of my younger uncle that I should seek a primary teacher’s job. And I also remember the quiet understanding and support I got from my Uncle and my old teacher who helped me get over the temporary setback.

16. Another incident which I still remember is related to my father. After that vituperative letter after my failure, we were not in touch with each other. When in B.A. Part I, I had a good result, I thought that I would inform my him. I wrote a postcard in handwritten italics without mentioning my name. My father thought that the letter was written by one of my cousins who was at Calcutta and who was a dullard. In reality he had failed that year, and when he got the congratulatory letter from my father, he politely informed him of his result and guessed that it must be me who had informed him. Net result was that he was wild and wrote me a postcard using the choicest abuses. It was sent on my home address, and was a matter of amusement to everybody. I also took it lightly, thank God!

17. One lesson I got, though I fully realised it much later that you cannot be at the top always. At some point in life, you find people who are smarter and more intelligent than you and most importantly are willing to work for more hours than you are used to. They could be more successful than you are, and you have to accept the place you deserve, it could be one in the crowd.

18. Why this childish account of something which is significant only for me? Maybe somebody who is passing through the same stage and upheaval as I did learns something!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

#35. Gotra System in Modern Context

Hindu Gotra System
Media been giving wide coverage to the Khap Panchayats and their unreasonably rigid and inflexible stand on the question of same gotra marriages.
What What is gotra and how did it come about? It was the Brahmins who first tried to classify themselves according to gotra. This later on got extended to other varnas (Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra)) as well. To understand the concept, let us confine to gotra system in Brahmins. Each gotra takes the name of a famous rishi or sage, who was the patrilineal forebear of the clan. The original rishis after whom the gotras were named were eight in number namely Angiras, Atri, Gautam, Kashyapa, Bhrigu, Vashishtha, Kutsa and Bharadvaj. Gotras were further subdivided into ganas and sub ganas. Another concept is that of Pravars or Pravar Rishis who were 3 or 5 most excellent sages belonging to that gotra. Each Brahmin was known by his gotra, pravar, sutra and shakha. Thus introducing himself one has to say “I am XYZ of Srivatsa gotra of Apstamba sutra, of Tathiriya shakha of Yajurved, of the five Pravars named Bhargava, Chyavan, Aapnavan, Aurva and Jamdagnya.” (Example taken from Wikipedia).
While the gotras were initially classified under eight rishis, pravars were classified under seven rishis named Agastya, Angiras, Atri, Bhrigu, Kashyapa, Vashishtha and Vishwamitra.
Marriage between close relations increases the chances of congenital birth defects through an increase in the frequency of homozygots. A case in point is the Habsburg lip which by intermarriages was aggravated to the point that Charles II of Spain could not even properly chew his food. Even during those olden days in India, our ancestors were aware of the deleterious effect on progeny of marriage between close relatives. With a small population those belonging to the same gotra generally were related either closely or remotely either from the paternal side or the maternal side. And therefore, sagotra marriage or marriage within the same gotra was prohibited. It was a simple way of keeping the younger members of your family healthy both physically and mentally, so that he is fit to work in the fields, or fight in a battle, or work as a priest (I am talking of all the varnas together).As the population increased so did the number of gotras. Jamdagni descended (and got separated ) from Bhrigu, and so did Gautam and Bharadwaj from Angiras. Some other sages formed their own gotra. But then the number count stopped. At the last count there were about 119 gotras. No separate gotra for Ramtirth, Dayanand, Ramkrishna, Vivekanand or Ambedkar.
Later some types of relaxation were made for marriage between relatives, mainly for property considerations. Like South Indian Hindu society allowed marriage to maternal uncle’s daughter, or paternal aunt’s daughter., But marriage to father’s brother’s daughter was not allowed, as they belonged to the same gotra in the patrilineal society. (cross cousins vs, parallel cousins). With the increase in population, a short cut was evolved which allowed sagotra marriage by the maternal uncle adopting the bride. In matrilineal society of Kerala, the type of marriages allowed in patrilineal society was not allowed, as the gotra descended from the mother’s side.
So are the Khap Panchayats justified in taking an aggressive and sometimes violent stand against same gotra marriages? They have now extended their demand to ban same village marriage as well on the argument that generally the villages were originally settled by one extended family only. I do not think that the Khap are justified in taking this reactionary stand. It is a throwback to the times not by a few centuries but a few millennia., distorting the meaning of a good system for reasons which are beyond understanding. When the population of the entire country (India+Pakistan) was less than a crore during the days of Mahabharat, banning marriages in the same gotra had some justification, but it is hardly justified for a burgeoning Hindu population of about 900 million and which is still growing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

#34. Some Poisonous Plants of India_ A Sequel

Thevetia peruviana

callotropsis gigantea


Acacia concinna_shikakai

Euphorbia Tirucalli

Added on Tuesday 11 May ‘10
Some more information on poisonous plants around us.
It is said that Madar milk (calotropsis gigantea) mixed with mother’s milk was used for infanticide during olden days. (My impression upto now was that Madar or Aak is not poisonous.)
Thevetia peruviana was used the same way. These plants are toxic to most vertebrates as they contain cardiac glycosides. Many cases of intentional and accidental poisoning of humans are known. A few bird species are however known to feed on them without any ill effects. One man's food is another man's poison!

Acacia concinna (Shikakai) which is used all over the country for its cleaning quality, especially for hair where it also acts as a detangler, is used in Bengal as a fish poison. The plant parts used for the powder are the bark, leaves or pods. The bark contains high levels of saponins which act as foaming agent. The saponins, apart from potent marine toxin has also spermicidal effect against human semen.
Of the two more plants which have come to my notice, the first is Diffenbachia. It is a very common potted plant seen in homes and offices all over the country. It is also a dangerous plant if the leaves are taken internally. The tongue gets thickened combined awith intense pain and a child can can choke to death in a minute or so with an adult taking about 15 minutes. Its sap if it goes in the eye can cause blindness.
More than quarter century ago when my daughter was a toddler the local civil surgeon had come to my official residence, saw a potted plant and advised me to immediately have it uprooted and burnt. He said that its sap if it goes in the eye can cause blindness. Today I searched for it in Bose's book . It is EUPHORBIA TIRUCALLI. Bose has written in the description that "it is extremely poisonous."

Most of the plants that I have mentioned in my blog are common household plants found in many home gardens. Poison is not difficult to find! Human life is so precious, but with nature strewn poisonous herbs all around it is so easy to poison somebody or to get poisoned himself.
Note: Some material is based on Wikipedia free encyclopedia.

Monday, May 10, 2010

#33. Acacia

Prsosopis juliflora......Vilaiti keekar

Acacia melanoxylon
Acacia mangium

Acacia tortilis

Acacia auriculiformis

Acacia Sengal

. Acacia catechu......... .Kattha,Khair

Acacia nilotica flower

Acacia nilotica in flower
(Picture credit Wikipedia, Blackwood image from the google search engine)

The Story of Babool

One hears about and sees babool all around in our country, but never know anything beyond the basic facts about the plant. I started my search on the net and some of the interesting facts I came to know for the first time. Acacia is a genus of trees and shrubs which has about 1300 species, about 960 native to Australia and the rest to the tropical and warm-temperate regions of Africa, South Asia and the Americas. In such a large group, obviously some would be good and useful to the human kind, and some of their cousins not so . A reputed quasi-religious organization of India has given a list of 3 no-no plants which are: Acacia, mangium and nilgiri. Mangium is Acacia mangium, an invasive but useful plant. Nilgiri is Eucalyptus, and it is admitted now openly or otherwise that its transpiration rate is high, and lowers the water level. But to condemn Acacia as a genus would not be fair. Some varieties are useful, and have been so for millenniums. Let us think about at least the prominent among them.
Acacia nilotica is our native babool. I am fond of it because it is the favourite of birds, as they find it safe for perching, roosting and nesting because of its large thorns. You can sometimes see a colony of baya nests hanging on it , and many a tree of this variety reverberate with the chirping of various birds like house sparrows, prinia, bulbul and other smaller birds. Its wood is used in villages for agricultural implements, and other minor furniture, and interior villages also use it for protecting trees from kettle during the first few years.
After delivery, the mother is given heavy protein in the form of sweets made of nuts, and dry fruits. Also included is laddoo made of gum and sugar which they say thickens the milk. Well, gum in the earlier days was collected from so many trees, but the best gum was obtained from Gum Arabic (Acacia Senegal). From the name it is clear that it is a native of Africa. It is found in West Africa from Senegal to Nigeria. Acacia arabica (a synonym of Acacia nilotica) tree is the gum Arabic of India, and gives gum of inferior quality. To add to the paradox, A.nilotica has become a species of serious concern in Australia as it is currently invasive in nature there.

What is Indian food without paan (betel leaf). Paan is laced with kattha and slaked lime. Betel nut, scented matter, and scented tobacco (for those who like it) are added to it to make it more tasty. Kattha is made from boiling the stem of Acacia catechu which generally grows wild in Indian forests and is jealously guarded by the forest officials. The tree is allowed to be cut only after it attains maturity.
Acacia melanoxylon (Blackwood) is a highly valued temperate acacia species. It is a native to Tasmania, South Africa and Chile. It can go upto 45 metres in height, and is used in construction and furniture making.
Acacia mearnsii (Black Wattle) is also an important temperate acacia.

Acacia modesta (Phulai) is a native of West Pakistan, Afghanistan and India (Punjab and U.P.). Wood is hard and durable, and is used in the villages for cane crushers, Persian wheels and other agricultural implements.

Acacia tortilis (Israeli babool) is the dominant tree of many Savannah communities. It grows wild in Sinai desert. Flowers are highly aromatic, and it can tolerate extreme arid condition. It is also known as Umbrella Thorn and is a staple browse for camels and goats. One tree gives 14 to 18 kgs of pods and leaves in the year. It is a Biblical tree, and it is believed that its wood was used for the Ark of the Tabernacle. This tree has been recommended for the reclamation of Rajasthan deserts, and I think it is an excellent idea.
Sweet acacia (A. farnesiana, Needle bush) is a weedy plant. Its roasted pods are used in sweet and sour dishes. Flowers are processed through distillation to produce a perfume called cassia. It is considered a serious weed in Fiji and parts of Australia.
Acacia planifrons (Umbrella thorn) is a native of southern part of India and Srilanka. Apart from its wood, there is not much to say about this specie.

Now we come to the more controversial species. The first is Acacia mangium. It can go up to 30 meters. It is a native of Australia (Queensland), Molluccan islands, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Large scale plantations have been developed in Indonesia and Malaysia. However, it is invasive in the sense that it replaces the local trees. In Tamilnadu the Forest department is cutting these trees. A. mangium is a fast growing species with numerous seeds and therefore it outperforms other trees. Each tree produces a kilogram of seed per year which is about 80,000 to 110,000 seeds. The result is that it stifles the growth of the native trees and disturbs the ecological balance. The tree has been found invasive in Sabah, Africa and Melville Island in Australia. The plus point of the specie is that it has rapid growth, and is tolerant of very poor soils. It can go upto 30 meters, 15m and 40 cm girth in 3 years and 23 metres in 9 years. Wood chips are used as paper pulp, and timber is used for building and furniture. A hybrid of A. mangium and A. auriculiformis has been found to be more vigorous and has better timber.
Leucaena leucocephala (Acacia palida), a native of Australia, was brought to India with much fanfare. It is an excellent proteinous fodder, and Indira Gandhi was so impressed with the plant that she said that it should not be called kuabaool' but subabool and the name stuck. It is a spindly tree and is easily spread by seeds grown in abundance. It spreads quickly in clumps in surrounding areas and it is difficult to get rid of.
Acacia auriculiformis (Earpod Wattle) is another variety which has recently been introduced in India. It is non-browsable and fast growing, and therefore liked by the Forest department. It is leguminous. It was used as an ornamental plant in Florida , but was found to have invaded pinelands, scrub and hammocks in South Florida, and thereby, displacing native vegetation and threatening to shade out rare plants. Its use as an ornamental plant has also been restricted because of the litter it produces. Overall, in spite of some good points, I do not think it is worth encouraging by the Forest as well as Horticulture departments.
A species which is often mistaken for acacia is Prosopis juliflora. This is a thorny shrub or small tree, native of Mexico, South America and the Caribbean. There was a time when for the reclamation of Chambal ravines near Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh its seed was sprayed by helicopter. The programme succeeded in the sense that it got established in the ravines but it also spread to the nearby areas. Soon it was found to be highly invasive in nature. It spreads on its own. Birds do not like the tree because it is so dense that it is unsuitable for roosting and nesting. In a study conducted in Kenya where it was imported, it was found to be not beneficial to the herders as it stifles the favoured grasses in spite of its being a source of livestock fodder in pods. It was found to be invasive into cropfields, grazing areas and wetlands which are useful for dry season grazing. Apart from the fuelwood use and fencing in a basic way, it was not found to have much use. On the whole, another useless plant.

The perception of the people about the invasive species is influenced by how they weigh their benefits against the harmful effects. The invasive plants have some good points but it is better to be cautious before introducing them to a new area. The invasive plants mentioned above have more minus points. The native varieties are always better. We have several instances of exotic plants brought to India with much hope and hype, or for their beauty, and have been found to have more harmful effects. Water hyacinth, lantana, ipomoea, parthenium, eucalyptus are all exotic, and they have had negative influence on our ecological balance. On the other hand, potato, tomato, cauliflower, green chillies, tobacco and sorghum are all exotic plants. So are apple and grapes (from the olden times).