Thursday, November 20, 2008


Another post on Malnad, a continuation of the previous post, if you like. A version of it appeared in Deccan Herald a while ago.
Most people know of Sagar in Shimoga district as the nearest town to the world-famous Jog Falls. But did you know that a mere 6 km from Sagar is a village that was the capital of one of Karnataka’s great empires, a village, moreover, with relics of a 1000 year old history?

In the early 1500s, a certain Chaudappa Gauda of the village of Keladi discovered some hidden treasure. In a dream, he was told that the treasure was his to take provided he offered a human sacrifice. Luckily for him, two of his servants volunteered for the task. Chaudappa used the treasure to build a fort at Keladi and put together an army. Thus began the dynasty that was initially a tributary of the Vijayanagar empire but was independent by the 1600s. At its zenith, the Keladi empire covered most of south-western Karnataka and parts of northern Kerala, commanding the ports of Honnavara, Bhatkal, Bekal and Mangalore, and also included portions of the Ghats and extended to within 60 km of Mysore. The Nayakas were finally defeated by Hyder Ali in 1763, who often cited this win as having established his fortune.

A good place to start exploring the area’s history is the Keladi Museum and Historical Research Centre, established in 1978 by the scholar Keladi Gunda Jois. This museum houses artifacts from the region, including ancient coins (some as old as 2nd Century BC), manuscripts and copper plate inscriptions. The curator is historian Venkatesh Jois. Earnest, committed and supremely knowledgeable (he holds 3 masters degrees and a doctoral degree!), Jois showed us some of the palm leaf manuscripts and the museum’s huge collection of kadatas or ‘black books’ – cloth manuscripts made by seasoning with tamarind paste and charcoal.

Jois spoke passionately about the Keladi empire and its valiant Queen Chennamma, who ruled for 25 long years from 1671 to 1696, no mean feat in those ancient times. Chennamma ruled wisely and ably and earned the love of her subjects. It was during her reign that a special bond was formed between the Marathas and the Keladi kingdom. In those tumultuous times, Rajaram, son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, was fleeing for his life. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had already killed his brother Shambhaji when Rajaram came to Keladi asking for protection. Unwilling to spurn an asylum-seeker, Chennamma granted him refuge, knowing this would invite Aurangzeb’s ire. As expected, the mighty Mughal army soon bore down on the Nayaka kingdom. But amazingly, the local army vanquished the Mughals, who floundered in its hilly terrain.

Keladi served as the Nayaka capital for the empire for fourteen years after which the capital was shifted to nearby Ikkeri. Today, with its 400-year-old houses, all with sloping tiled roofs and moss-covered compound walls, Keladi is a village that exudes the charm so typical of beautiful Malnad. Everyone walks, everyone smiles and everything looks and smells green.

Life here revolves around the earliest monument built by the Keladi Nayakas, the Ramesvara temple complex. Situated opposite the museum, it is a large, long building with pale yellow walls that looks most like a government high school. Inside is a spacious courtyard with two wells and only a handful of people and our first impression was that we had stepped into someone’s house, albeit a very beautiful hou se. The temple complex houses three shrines – the Ramesvara, the Veerabhadresvara and the Parvati shrines, of which the Ramesvara is the oldest and the Parvati the newest. There is a common mantapa for the Ramesvara and Veerbhadra garbha-grihas. The temple is built in a mixture of styles. Whereas the use of granite pillars and the gargoyles are characteristically Vijayanagar, the ceilings, for example, seem to incorporate Islamic influences with their delicate floral and geometric patterns. The Veerabhadesvara temple ceiling has a prominent Gandabherunda, the two-headed eagle that Jois informed us was the symbol of the Vijayanagar kings, the Keladi empire and the Wodeyars, with minor variations. Another notable figure in the temple is a rare representation of Vastupuruva, beside which is an upright, marked rule: the measures of length on this rule were used in land assessment, as also in the geometry of the temple itself.

The adjacent Parvati s hrine is an unusual combination of wood and stone. Severely plain from the outside, it has some uncommon, remarkable wooden sculptures and pillars inside. Venaktesh Jois informs us that the wood used here is the prized red sandalwood (rakta-chandana, Pterocarpus santalinus). The intricately carved wooden ceiling, still retaining a glossy sheen, and the dark red wooden sculptures lining the wall near the ceiling are stunning.

In the temple courtyard is a dwajastambha (victory pillar). At its base is a panel that Queen Chennamma had installed, showing herself, wearing a widow’s garb, flanked on one side by Shivaji’s son Rajaram and his attendant, and on the other by two hand maidens. There is also a figure depicting Shivaji on a horse in the Veerabhadraswamy temple.

There is an other ancient monument at Keladi, a 900 year old Jain temple. Tucked away in a small buildi ng hidden inside a large garden, it is an unprepossessing structure, little more than a single room housing some idols.

Yet its antiquity is palpable. Here, busy preparing for the temple’s renovation by the Dharmothana Trust of Dharmasthala, were the temple priest and GV Kallapur, head of Research and Publications at the Keladi Museum. Kallapur told us about the bronze images of Parsvanath Tirthankara that were found here earlier this year. Inscriptions on one of the images recorded the installment of the image in the Basadi in 1172 AD, well before the Vijayanagar periods. But even that is not the oldest relic here: Kallapur enthusiastically showed us a well behind the Basadi, made of bricks characteristic of the Ganga period, indicating that Keladi has probably been inhabited for at least 1500 years, if not more.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beautiful Ikkeri

I can never get enough of the Malnad area - hills, winding roads, and everything drenched and saturated green. Here's a piece I wrote for Deccan Herald on Ikkeri, the erstwhile capital of the Keladi/Ikkeri/Nagara Nayakas.

In the 1600s, an adventurous Italian traveller named Pietro della Valle set off from Venice to travel the world. After spending some time in Turkey, Egypt and Arabia, the peripatetic della Valle came to India and in 1623, visited Ikkeri, the capital city of the Ikkeri Nayakas. The beautiful Malnad vistas seem to have soothed his eyes greatly for he writes rapturously of its “delightful verdure”. Of the Nayaka capital, he says its numerous lakes, fields and “goodly Trees” all blended pleasantly, so that it seemed “to consist of a City, Lakes, Fields and Woods mingled together, and makes a very delightful sight”. Visiting Ikkeri nearly four centuries later, I could see why della Valle had been bewitched by the place. Shorn of its status as a capital city and reduced to a mere village, Ikkeri still gently seduces the senses.
In della Valle’s days, the city was enclosed within three lines of fortifications, the first two of impenetrable bamboo and the third a mud wall. No sign of the first two exists now, of course, but historian Venkatesh Jois, curator at the Keladi Museum and Historical Research Centre in nearby Keladi, informed us that traces of the Nayakas’ fort and its moat still exist and that archaeological excavations are underway at the site.
Ikkeri was neither the first capital of the Nayakas nor their last. The dynasty was founded in 1499 at Keladi, near Ikkeri, because of which they are also called the Keladi Nayakas. After some fourteen years at Keladi, the capital moved to Ikkeri, which is 3 km south of Sagar. Incidentally, the legend behind the location of Ikkeri should sound familiar to Bangaloreans – Sadashivappa Nayaka chose the site for his capital when he saw a hare begin to chase his hounds, which is exactly what made Kempe Gowda choose the site for his new fort in Bangalore in 1537. Ikkeri remained the Nayaka capital for 125 years, after which the centre of power shifted to Nagara and then to Kavaledurga.
Inside the fort at Ikkeri, della Valle describes in minute detail the impressive citadel and the palaces of the Ikkeri Nayakas, all made of mud and timber. But he was distinctly unmoved by the houses which, he said, “stand thinly and are ill-built”. We couldn’t have disagreed more. Many of the houses we saw were built of laterite bricks, all had sloping, red-tiled roofs, many had a faint hint of green that bespoke years of standing in the rainy Malnad weather. Without exception, all were exceedingly handsome, adding charm to a landscape that was already intoxicating in its beauty. Venkatesh Jois, whose beautiful abode we visited in Keladi, told us his house was close to 400 years old. Quite possibly then, at least some of the houses we saw at Ikkeri were the same ones that della Valle dismissed so inexplicably.
Ikkeri is best known for its splendid temple, dedicated to Aghoreshvara, the non-fearful Shiva. It is believed to have been built in the early 1500s, probably at the time the capital was moved here. It is built on a slight mound in the midst of a large courtyard and a lawn dotted with colourful wildflowers that seemed to have escaped a careful gardener’s notice. The temple itself stood on a high platform, giving an effect of grandeur to the whole building. It is a remarkable structure for the way it gracefully combines various architectural elements. The temple’s indented platform, for example, brought to mind the Hoysala temples at Belur and Halebid, while its gopura with its small doorways echoed Chola influences. The cavernous pillared hall in the main temple and the pillars in the adjacent small Parvati temple are all typical of the Vijayanagar style of architecture. The resulting blend is a unique style that historians refer to as the Ikkeri school of architecture. Another example of this style is the open Nandi pavilion just outside the main temple. With arches on four sides, a parapet running along the roof, and a large Nandi seated inside the pavilion, this unusual structure is unique to Ikkeri.
During his two-week stay at Ikkeri, della Valle had the good fortune of being present during the celebration of a festival here, possibly Deepavali, for he writes that “an infinite number of torches and candles were lighted” inside the temple, on its outer walls and in the courtyard. The then king, Venkatappa Nayaka, accompanied by two grandsons, arrived at the head of a procession heralded by much singing and dancing, says della Valle. The royals spent an hour inside the temple hall and after more music, dance and presumably prayer, left. Things were far more subdued when we visited the Aghoreshvara temple. No lights adorned its walls and no girls danced around a king, yet the temple was quietly impressive. We admired the temple’s grand doorways, the sculptures chiselled into the hard stone, and marvelled at the size of its hall. Dusk fell as we left the Aghoreshvara temple that evening, and though there were no lights, we could see in our mind’s eye, a king and his retinue leaving the magnificent temple after an evening of celebration and prayer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hospital Waste

Here's an instance of callousness that really shook me: a waste dump on the roadside near Avalahalli which contained not just kitchen waste but also body parts, blood samples, needles and sundry other hospital waste - all untreated, of course. Environment Support Group is following it up. Here's an article I wrote about it for Citizen matters.

It was late afternoon on 3rd November when five men worked by the side of a lonely stretch of road in the as yet un-named land between Anjanapura and Kanakapura Road. The men silently hoed and shovelled the last dregs of a waste heap, shoving the plastic and other indistinct matter into a truck parked nearby, where one of the men stood next to the waste. At first glance, it appeared to be one of the many dumps of domestic waste one often sees on empty plots, full of plastic bags. In fact, it was something much more dangerous – it was untreated hospital waste.

Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group and Sangeeta Gowra, 35, a teacher at a school nearby, were among the first to see the dump and had initially thought it was restaurant waste – among the items that had spilled out of the plastic bags or were lying loose among the waste were coconut shells and coffee shop waste. But then they noticed the blood samples, needles, lab reports, visitor passes, cotton, surgical masks and other items among the waste and realised what it was. Recognising the health hazard the dump posed, Saldanha immediately dialled 108, the newly launched round-the-clock emergency response service for medical, police or fire-related emergencies.

To make matters worse, Saldanha picked up a sheaf of papers from the site which turned out to be requests for biochemical tests and lab reports of particular patients. Each report gives several details including the name of the patient, his or her Universal Hospital Identification Device (UHID) number and a barcode. Such patient details are usually held to be confidential. These reports, as well as 80 investigation slips and some discarded visitor passes that were at the site were all from Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore.

You can see the complete article here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Filmy litter

Do you remember the movie Dil Chahta Hai and that scene where Akshay Khanna meets Dimple Kapadia? There she is trying to heave her luggage into her new flat when the handle snaps on one of her suitcases. Akshay steps in to help the damsel in distress. But what does said damsel do with the broken suitcase handle? Well, she tosses it aside, of course.
Cut to the Kannada movie, Pallaki. Here we had handsome hero Prem crazily in love with heroine Rumanitu Choudhary. You remember the movie’s great hit song, Kannalli neeneyne, of course. A sequence in the song shows Rumanitu walking down the road with a friend when the heel on one of her sandals suddenly snaps. So the disgusted heroine takes off her broken sandal, tosses it aside, and walks on.
I loved how little things were shown in such a realistic fashion in Dil Chahta Hai – how, for example, when they finally get her luggage in, Dimple collapses onto the divan, and then realizes she has landed on her bag and pulls it out from under her. Or how Aamir Khan gives his mike to a technician before he goes out to dance and sing Koi kahey, kahta rahey. Sadly, the scene with the suitcase handle also mirrors reality: most people would have done as Dimple (and Rumanitu) did. She threw her trash aside amongst some plants near a wall. Not in a dustbin. The saddest part is that the heroes in both the movies did not find their lady loves’ littering ways odd or inappropriate. Nor for that matter, did anyone in the audience. Is it any wonder our cities are full of trash? Raise your hands all of you who keep your bus tickets, chocolate wrappers or juice boxes with you till you can find a place to dispose of them. Raise you hands all those who talk to others to stop them littering.
What if the directors had done things just a little differently? Dimple’s character could very easily have been shown throwing the broken handle into a dustbin, just as Rumanitu’s character in Pallaki could very easily have carried her broken shoes home to throw them in a dustbin there, rather than toss them into some bushes along the footpath. Would these minor changes have influenced anyone’s behaviour? Perhaps not with just one scene in one movie. But if all our movies showed our heroes and heroines treating trash responsibly, a standard of acceptable and desirable behaviour could perhaps get set: it’s un-cool to litter.
We can rant all we want about how the administration/ municipality/ politicians/the neighbours/poor people/ auto drivers/tourists/ somebody (other than us, that it) is to blame for the piles of trash that we find everywhere in Bangalore. But the truth is, it is us. We are the ones who dirty our cities.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ah! Chocolate!

You don’t ordinarily see a complicated graph and accompanying instructions on how to eat it when you unwrap a chocolate bar. But then, a 99% cocoa bar is no ordinary chocolate bar.

The first thing you see when you unwrap part of a Lindt’s 99% cocoa bar is a cautionary notice. “Important,” it screams, “The chocolate you are about to have is a chocolate that has a very high cocoa content! To fully appreciate this exceptional chocolate, we invite you to follow our suggestions on tasting.” If the intent is to intimidate, Lindt succeeds admirably. In most cases anyway. But a confirmed dark-chocaholic only drools in anticipation on reading this and feverishly tears off the outer cardboard package. Inside is a golden wrapper with more instructions. And more warnings. “This chocolate brings out all the force and richness of cocoa beans,” it intones, before going on to suggest that you prime yourself, or rather your palate, by first adjusting to 70%, and then 85% cocoa. Been there done that, I think. Next? Lindt suggests you first take a small bite and let it melt on the tongue to savour the flavours. Now we’re talking. Except there is a scary graph that follows which lists the various flavours you can expect and their intensities – bitter, acidic, astringent, fruity. Whew!
Chocolate these days is serious business, I realised, comparable to wine with all its attitude. So to help you appreciate it better, here’s a quick crash course on what goes into making a chocolate bar. Like wine, good chocolate has terroir, which means geography matters. So the true chocolate connoisseur will detect the hints of vanilla in cocoa beans from Madagascar, smoky or earthy undertones from West African beans and fruity or even flowery flavours in those from Central and South America. To savour these differences, single-origin chocolates are all the rage right now in many parts of the world though they are difficult to come by in India. But many a fine chocolate is made of a blend of premium beans. Lindt uses beans mainly from West Africa with a small proportion form South America – the exact blend is a closely guarded secret!

The type of cocoa beans used can also affect the ultimate taste experience. The three varieties of cocoa beans are Criollo, Forastero and a hybrid of the two called Trinitario, named after Trinidad where it originated. Criollos are considered the best beans for making fine chocolates, on account of their fruity flavours, but they account for only 10% of the world’s cocoa crop. Most of the world’s chocolates are made from Forastero beans.

And then there’s how the beans are processed. Cocoa pods are harvested twice a year. The pods have to be split open to get the beans which are inside. The beans are then fermented either by spreading them out and keeping them covered with banana leaves for four to seven days, or by keeping them in leaf-lined covered baskets. Too less fermenting and the beans can become bitter and astringent; too much and you can get other undesirable flavours. Then they are dried and shipped off to chocolate manufacturers who will roast the pods to get the nibs – the meat of the cocoa bean – out. The nibs are ground until the friction and heat of the milling reduces them to a thick chocolate coloured liquid, known as 'mass' or chocolate liquor, which contains 53-58% cocoa butter. This is the basis of all chocolate and cocoa products.
Not all chocolate is created equal. Milk chocolate can have anywhere from 25 to almost 50% cocoa (although some American chocolates can have far less) and as the name suggests, it also generally has milk, milk powder or condensed milk, along with sugar and emulsifiers. Dark chocolate, sometimes called bittersweet chocolate, contains a lot more cocoa, upwards of 60% and much less sugar. If you’re wondering how it is different from simply eating cocoa powder, the answer lies in the fat. Cocoa, or to be more precise, cocoa solids, include cocoa butter and cocoa cake. Cocoa powder is made from cocoa cake alone, while chocolate also contains cocoa butter.

While the sweetness of milk chocolate has almost universal appeal, dark chocolate is not your everyday comfort food. Like wine, it can be an acquired taste and needs a refined palate to truly appreciate its nuances. Which is why Lindt’s suggestion that you educate your palate in stages actually makes sense.

So to get back to the 99% percent cocoa bar. The not-so-fine-print and the daunting graph and instructions past me, I finally take a bite and wait to be transported to chocolate heaven.

Heaven is bitter. And somewhat dusty, initially. But patience has its rewards and a few short moments later, as the chocolate melts, I can feel the myriad flavours of the cocoa beans coming through. There are the hints of acidity, lots of fruity notes, a whisper of sweetness, and finally, a creaminess that, once the experience is over, begs for an encore.

A slightly modified version of this article appeared in Deccan Herald some months ago.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The plastic bags problem

Does the rampant use of plastic bags bother you? It certainly bothers me, which is what prompted me to write this piece, which was published in a modified form in Deccan Herald a couple of months ago. It was really nice talking to Mr Khan of KK Plastics. I'm glad to see his plastic roads are really taking off in Bangalore now.

“Can I have another plastic bag, please?” And with that, you may have just sounded the death knell for a fish, seabird, whale, cow, lion or sea turtle. Not only do discarded plastic bags decimate animals in the wild, they accumulate in the environment, pollute, cause floods, are aesthetical eyesores, and are filling up overflowing landfills. This week, Britain joined a growing list of countries that have started weaning themselves off plastic bags. It is time we in India did the same.
Plastics are synthetic polymers made from hydrocarbons. They are durable, cheap, strong and lightweight so that an extraordinary range of items is made of this versatile and valuable product. Though they have been around for over a century, it is only in the last few decades that their consumption has skyrocketed. Worldwide plastic production was a mere 1.5 million tons in 1950, but 245 million tons in 2006. Per capita use ranges from approximately 100 kg each year in Europe and North America to 20 kg in most of Asia.
Of all the plastic in the world, none is more ubiquitous than the lowly plastic bag. So widespread is its use that in parts of Africa, it has earned the sarcastic sobriquet ‘national flower,’ while in China it is called white pollution. Worldwide, the number of plastic bags used is a staggering 4 to 5 trillion every year, and growing. The tragedy is that most are discarded after a single use. A report in the British newspaper Daily Mail recently estimated that in Britain, the average bag was used for 20 minutes before being thrown. Apart from the waste of fossil fuel – approximately 480 to 600 million barrels of oil are used to produce those bags – a more serious problem derives from plastic’s durability. Experts estimate it takes from 200 to 1000 years to degrade. Which means that all the plastic bags ever manufactured are potentially still around. And therein lies the problem.
Improperly discarded plastic bags are just about everywhere – dumped by the road, adorning trees and telephone wires, floating down rivers. And they wreak havoc. Mumbai’s disastrous floods of 2005 and Bangladesh’s floods of 2002 were partially linked to discarded bags blocking drains. They provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes. They can be fatal to animal life. In India, we have grown inured to the sight of domestic animals chewing plastic bags, but several animals in the wild, including African lions, succumb to this menace.
Perhaps the most vulnerable are marine animals. Sea turtles mistake floating bags for jellyfish and end up swallowing them, as do several species of fish and whales. Researchers have recovered trash can liners, bread wrappers, chips bags, plastic sheeting, plastic cups, plastic thread and assorted trash from the stomachs of dead whales and fish around the world. Ingested plastic interferes with fat deposition, blocks gastric enzyme secretion, leads to reproductive failure, reduces food uptake, or blocks intestines, resulting inevitably in death. Seabirds and mammals also get entangled and trapped in plastic bags and then either drown or starve to death. Researchers estimate that at least 267 marine species are affected by plastic bag debris.
A safe solution to disposing bags has yet to be found. Incineration is suspected to release toxins into the air, while their sheer volumes simply choke landfills.
Recognising the environmental threat, several countries have adopted measures to curb plastic bag use. In 2002, Ireland introduced the popular PlasTax, a 15 cent tax on shopping bags, previously available free at most shops. The effect was dramatic – a 90% reduction in the use of plastic bags and a concomitant reduction in littering. South Africa introduced similar measures in 2003. Bangladesh, Rwanda and China have banned the bag. Italy and France propose to ban them by 2010. Britain joined the ban bandwagon last week when it announced legislation would be introduced by 2009 imposing a charge on shopping bags if retailers do not take action voluntarily. Meanwhile, communities in several towns around the world have successfully campaigned for bags being phased out.
Such eco-consciousness has caught on in Bangalore in very small ways. Lalbagh is to become plastic-free from 24 March, but meanwhile, most people seem content dumping their waste in empty plots. Almitra Patel, an expert on solid waste management whose PIL resulted in the Government formulating the Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2000, says “Plastic carrybags are too useful for bans to work. But charging for them will have a wonderful impact, as will dropoff bins where clean bags can be returned for reuse”.
Meanwhile, two enterprising Bangaloreans with a social conscience may have a solution. Says Ahmed Khan, who along with brother Rasool, founded KK Plastic Waste Management, “We felt a social obligation to end this menace.” The brothers have devised a patented process for plastic roads. Waste plastic is cleaned, shredded and added to the bitumen used to lay roads. The resulting roads are said to be smoother and more crack-resistant than ordinary roads. After getting their method evaluated and endorsed by the Central Road Research Institute, Delhi, and the Department of Civil Engineering, Bangalore University, the brothers have now tied up with the BBMP. They now collect and use 2-3 tons of the 35 tons of plastic waste that Bangalore generates everyday, paying Rs. 6 per kilogram of waste. According to Ahmed Khan, Bangalore has 1600 km of roads, of which 5-600 km are re-laid every year. The plastic-road method uses 2-2.5 tons of plastic for every kilometre of single-lane road, which means, says Khan, “ultimately, we can use all the plastic waste that Bangalore generates.”
Meanwhile, there are things we can all do to reduce plastic bag abuse. First and foremost, avoid using them in the first place. Cloth bags are trendy, sturdy, washable and environment-friendly. Carry them with you whenever you go shopping. If you must use a plastic bag, re-use it, for lining the dustbin, for example. Several stores use bags made of newspapers, often made by destitute women. Talk to your favourite store’s owners and see if you can convince them to make the switch. Ask for a dropoff bin where clean bags can be returned for reuse. Try and organise your community to segregate wastes – organic material can eventually be composted while the plastics can be reused in roads. Together, we can keep our environment and our city safe and beautiful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Cave records of the monsoon

At the laggardly rate I am going, it is going to take me forever and then some to eventually post all, or at least a decent number, of my articles here. Anyway, here’s a story that appeared in Deccan Herald earlier this year. I found the whole idea of using stalactites and stalagmites – those things we usually ooh and aah over in caves – to study monsoon history just fascinating. Read on…

The Indian monsoon is notoriously unpredictable, foiling most intelligent attempts at modeling it. Now, a stalagmite in a Chhattisgarh cave has provided researchers with a record of rainfall from 600 to 1500 AD which shows that the monsoon may be even more variable than we thought. The data showed severe monsoon failures of a magnitude not known during the 150 years that rainfall has been measured, deficits which tallied with historical accounts of famines and droughts.
India’s economy and the lives of millions in the subcontinent are closely tied to the vagaries of the monsoon. Recognizing the need to understand the phenomenon which sustained the region, the British began recording rainfall in 1813, when the first recording station was set up in Chennai. By 1871, 306 stations around the country recorded monthly rainfall, providing today’s meteorologists with ~150 years of instrumental records to study the monsoon and its variations. This instrumental record shows fairly strong variations from year to year and place to place. But though the record has been useful in helping us understand the phenomenon better, the summer monsoon still remains difficult to simulate and predict.
Enter the speleologists. Cave formations like stalactites and stalagmites (together called speleothems) that have us lay people marveling at their fantastical shapes, have been a boon to scientists studying past climate conditions. Speleothems are essentially calcium carbonate deposits and their formation depends on rainfall. In brief, rainfall, which contains some carbon dioxide dissolved in it, dissolves small amounts of limestone (essentially calcium carbonate) as it percolates through soil. When it enters a cave, the dissolved carbon dioxide is outgassed, leading the calcium carbonate to precipitate out. Over years, this leads to the formation of a speleothem. Because their rate of formation depends on the amount of water available, speleothems are petrified records of the climate of their period.
But the reason speleothems have become a focus of paleoclimate research is because they can be dated accurately. The water percolating into the cave contains trace amounts of radioactive uranium, which gradually decays into thorium. Since thorium itself is insoluble in water, any thorium in the speleothem can only have arisen from radioactive decay of uranium. Because we know their half lives (i.e., their rates of decay), we can use the uranium-thorium ratio in the speleothem to accurately date the structure back to several thousand years.
This is essentially how Dr Ashish Sinha of California State University, Dominguez Hills, Carson, USA and colleagues from the USA and India dated and measured rainfall using a speleothem in Dandak Cave in Kanger Valley National Park, Chhatisgarh. Co-author Prof R Ramesh, Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, who has been working on cave-related research since 1995, says they were directed to the Dandak cave by chance, which proved useful because the cave has not been used by modern man and is closed to tourists. The cave has two chambers with a small connecting passage between the two, which researchers had to crawl through to get to a 27-cm long stalagmite from the second cave, some 220 m away from the cave entrance.
Their paper, published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, has some astounding, if disturbing, results. Analysis of the stalagmite revealed that substantially poor monsoons occurred during the 14th and 15th centuries with rainfall deficits in the range of 30%. Though shortfalls of this magnitude also occur in the modern instrumental record, the difference is that the failures lasted several decades. Strikingly, several famines or droughts in India for which we have historical reports correspond with a decreased rainfall record in the Dandak stalagmite. One of the earliest recorded famines in India occurred in 650 AD, at which period the Dandak stalagmite shows the monsoon had failed for about three decades. In the late 1330s and early 1340s, Ibn Batuta records how towns and districts were depopulated by famines and people were reduced to eating animal hides and human flesh – the Dandak record shows that the rains had failed since about the late 1320s. The infamous Durga Devi famine (1396 to 1407 AD) which devastated the country and led to vast tracts of land being left uncultivated for several years coincides with the most severe monsoon deficit in the 900-year record, spanning several decades.
The authors sound a note of caution based on their findings, pointing out that in a region where the population has grown exponentially since the 1500s, multi-decadal monsoon failure of the sort reflected in Dandak would have disastrous consequences, particularly since we have no preparedness for such events. Prof Ramesh, who is an IPCC member and authored a chapter on paleoclimate in the recent IPCC report, feels “an integrated societal response” is required to deal with severe monsoon deficits. He outlines some simple measures that may help sustain us through rainless periods. “Agriculture will be the first thing to be affected so we have to strengthen our storage of food grains,” he says, adding wryly that stories of rats eating stored grain will have to go. “Small changes in food habits could help; we could switch to crops that are less water demanding instead of depending on rice which is water intensive,” he says. Though Prof Ramesh adds the caveat that “there are always uncertainties regarding climate predictions,” common sense declares it would be wiser to be well prepared for the whims of our capricious monsoon.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Quotable quotes

Two one-liners that I like:

India is not a superpower.It’s just super-poor. 
- Arundhati Roy

We are not high-tech, we are high-talk.
- my hubby!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sultanpet cemetery

A version of this piece appeared in Deccan Herald some months ago.

There is something appealing about cemeteries – it is as if the past adheres to them, unwilling to let go. On the road from Sultanpet to Nandi Hills, about 55 km from Bangalore, is a 200-year-old graveyard that is particularly alluring, perhaps because it feels like the place has not had a visitor in a 100 years. With no sign to suggest its existence, nor any defining compound wall, it is easy to miss, though it lies only a few feet off the road. The cemetery is tiny, with only 12 graves. The oldest marked grave dates back to 1805, the most recent, to 1904. Together, the graves evoke nostalgia, sadness and a sense of mystery, besides providing a glimpse of British life in the area 200 years ago.
The (British) Indian army had a presence here since 1791, when Cornwallis successfully ousted Tipu from the almost impregnable fort at Nundydroog, now known as Nandi Hills. They were stationed at Sultanpet and at Nandi Hills between 1799 and 1808. With Tipu’s defeat at Srirangapattana in 1799, the British set about the business of empire building in earnest. But life for ordinary soldiers and the intrepid wives who traveled to India with them was hardly a bed of roses. If the heat and mosquitoes didn’t get them, diarrhea, cholera and host of other tropical diseases probably would.
Is that what happened to Elizabeth, wife of William Prichard, who died in 1807 and lies buried in Sultanpet? The curt epitaph provided no details and I wondered if Elizabeth had been in India for long? Did she die of dropsy, hysterical mania or some other affliction peculiar to those times? I stumbled through the weeds to the oldest marked grave, that of Lt Col Ridgeway Mealy, who died at Nundydroog on 19 Sept 1805, aged 44. The newest grave, marked by a cross, was of William Henry Price, a driver in 25 Battery, Royal Field Artillery, who drowned in Wonaikal Tank in 1904, aged 28. The epitaphs of these soldiers were brief, yet poignant. Was it because the dead were all snatched early, in the prime of their lives? Nearby, lay Major John Edward Gabriel of the Wallajabad Light Infantry, who died in 1815, aged 35, and whose grave was “erected as a tribute of affection and respect by his disconsolate widow.” As I read the simple words of the brokenhearted widow written some 200 years ago, I could almost hear the ancient echoes of her sobs, and I felt a lump rise in my throat.
A family seemed to be buried here, with a group of one adult (parent?) and three children buried next to each other, their graves sharing walls. We will probably never know what took their lives since their memorial plaques have long been gouged out by vandals hungry for the granite or metal. Although all 12 graves in the cemetery are still intact, no trace of any ornamentation remains on any of them. All but five have lost their tablets or headstones and some are in a state of disrepair. The cemetery appears to have gone to seed, quite literally. Eucalypt saplings thrive around the graves and dot the spaces between them, and weeds grow wild everywhere. According to Barry Lewis, Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the UK High Commission in India abandoned the cemetery in 1963. Lewis, who is currently researching the history of medieval chieftains in the Mysore region, visited the cemetery in 2003, and in the hope of making contact with descendants of those buried here, put up a webpage on the cemetery at his site. But though thousands of genealogists and family researchers from the UK explore their links with the subcontinent, none have so far contacted him about the twelve graves here. The trail of the Sultanpet soldiers and their families appears to have gone cold.
As I left the cemetery that afternoon, it was with a sense of foreboding that the little cemetery would not exist much longer. The dead would fall prey to the thirst for land. Would the graves still be there the next time I passed by or would a small piece of our history have been built over?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The peepal tree

On a road near where we used to live a year ago stood a large peepal tree. The school bus stopped here in the mornings to pick up my son Rajat. The Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under a peepal tree. While we were certainly not similarly blessed, we did spend many pleasant mornings laughing and learning under our peepal’s leafy branches as we waited for the school bus.
Legend has it that Emperor Ashoka so revered the peepal under which Gautama gained enlightenment that he lavished necklaces of gems and pearls on it. Our peepal also sported adornments, albeit of a different sort, including signs for PG hostels, one for the JMJ beauty salon for men and women and a tyre advertising a “puncher shop”.
Rajat and I usually sat on a stone platform under the tree as we waited for his bus, often watching kites alight in the upper branches before swooping down on unsuspecting victims. The morning breeze sometimes set the leaves fluttering and occasionally sent some floating down, to be eagerly picked up by Rajat. We talked about different leaf shapes and how Ruskin Bond likens the peepal leaves to the perfect male physique: from the neck-like stalk, the leaf edges run out straight like broad shoulders to either side before curving around and tapering to a waist-like tip. We talked of drip tips – the pointed leaf tip – and how they helped leaves stay dry. When we read about seed dispersal in one of his books, Rajat was tremendously excited the next morning when he spotted some bird droppings under the tree with some seeds in them. Would they grow into more peepals?
One day, Rajat was suddenly alarmed: “Amma, look, the tree is dying. Its leaves are falling off on some of the branches.” Relief flooded his face a couple of days later when tender pink leaves began peeping out, leading to another round of questions starting with why the young leaves were red.
Summer came around, school closed and with it, the peepal was forgotten. And then all too soon, it was June. School re-opened and as we reached our bus-stop, we stopped dead in shock and disbelief. Work was progressing at a frenetic pace near our bus-stop. Bull dozers roared, road rollers screeched and men in hard hats supervised the tarring and widening of the service road. Of our regal, genial and generous peepal tree, there was not a trace – no stray leaves that had escaped the carnage, no roots, no wood, not even a stump. It had disappeared almost overnight.
I still remember the date: 5th June, World Environment Day.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Here’s an article I wrote about a little village called Aretippur, near Kokkrebellur. We went there earlier this year. This piece appeared in Deccan Herald a couple of months ago. I thought I’d start with this because I really loved Aretippur. It is beautiful - haunting, sad - but beautiful.

A lone statue stands atop a little hill, aloof from the rest of the world, wearing an expression of such serenity, such calm detachment, it almost causes envy. Nearby, on another hillock, beheaded statues, legless idols and broken pillars lay scattered among the rocks and thorns on the banks of a little lake. These are the remains of one of the most important Jain pilgrimage centres of a millennium ago, a site unique in all of Karnataka for its carvings and sculptures, but one where, for want of care, history is rapidly being lost.
Karnataka has had a strong Jain tradition ever since Chandragupta famously came to Shravanabelagola with his preceptor 2300 years ago. For several centuries after this, Jainism enjoyed the patronage of the courts. Several royals built Jain temples or basadis, which were places of worship but also living quarters for monks.
Three kilometers from the world-famous Kokrebellur Bird Sanctuary, the village of Aretippur has the remains of several such basadis, dating back to the Gangas. The hamlet of about 150 houses does not figure in any modern map but finds mention in several inscriptions including some that are 1,500 years old. In the early 10th Century, during the reign of Nitimarga II, a certain Manaleyara built a basadi at Kanakagari hill in Tippeyuru as it was then known. The basadi flourished and was patronized by the Gangas and later, the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagar empire.

The collapse of Vijayanagar spelt the doom of Aretippur. Only merest traces of the once-thriving Jaina tirtha have survived the centuries of neglect. Perched precariously on a pile of rocks atop the partly-quarried Kanakagiri hill is a beautifully proportioned Parsvanath idol that looks out onto Aretippur. It is one of the few idols here that is almost intact. Not far from the blue board proclaiming the monument’s protected status, a beheaded statue of a tirthankara lies among thorny bushes. A legless torso of a tirthankara, the torso-less legs of a seated person, the head and torso of a chauri-bearer, all lie strewn about the hill. Interestingly, none of the figures are of females, which experts believe could indicate the site belonged to an early orthodox Jain tradition that avoided female representations. A long stone inscription from Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana’s times also stands on top of the hill. Remarkably unbroken, the Kannada inscription records the grant of the village to a Jaina teacher.

Despite the easy availability of stone and the Gangas’ mastery over stone-building techniques as evidenced elsewhere, Nitamarga II chose to continue with a brick building tradition here. According to the renowned scholar of Jainism, Dr Hampa Nagarajaiah, Aretippur once had four brick basadis. These were oriented north-south, with a spacious garba-griha, open pillared mantapas and brick walls that were neatly plastered with stucco finish. There may also have been some square-roomed monasteries. But while these details could be gleaned from the site even 20 years ago, today, the extensive constructions of yore have been reduced to broken bricks scattered over the hillside.
At the bottom of Kanakagiri hill is a little pond which historians believe served the ritual needs of the Jain monks. Thimmegowda, a resident of Aretippur, corroborated this when he told us that although there were no Jains in Aretippur anymore, swimming in the pond or otherwise defiling it was still prohibited as it was used only for puja purposes. On the western rocky face of this pond are fourteen bas-relief sculptures of tirthankaras, some seated, some standing, some left unfinished. Although we did not know of it when we visited Aretippur, I later learned that there are also some shallow caves cut into the rocks, some with carvings of Adinatha and other Jain deities. According to historians, these rock-cut carvings as also the statues on the hillside are in a style of Ganga art datable to the late eighth or early ninth century, suggesting than when Nitimarga II built a basadi here, he was adding to what was already a sacred site. Significantly, this specimen of Ganga period rock-cut architecture is the only one of its kind in Karnataka.

About half a kilometre from Aretippur is a bigger hillock which also houses a historical treasure. Neither path nor steps lead to the summit. A short climb of about 30 minutes ending in a scramble up a steep rock face took us to the top. And there stood a relief sculpture of Bahubali, about 10 feet high, with an aureole etched around his head, and an arresting expression of calmness on his face. With neither a roof over his head, nor walls on his sides, the solitary statue nevertheless imparted a sense of sanctity to the place. The sculpture beautifully depicted the countenance of one so immersed in contemplation, he did not notice the creepers twining up his legs. Where Shravanabelagola’s Bahubali is grand and imposing, Aretippur’s is humble and approachable, yet beautiful. According to Dr NS Rangaraju, Professor of Ancient History at Mysore University, there could be some truth to the common belief that this relief carving was a prototype for the statue at Shravanabelagola. “Although there is no inscriptional evidence to support this, the style appears to be of an earlier period than the matured style seen at Shravanabelagola,” he explains.
Although it felt like we were the first to set eyes on Bahubali, unpleasant inscriptional evidence proved otherwise. Devraj, Muniswamy, Sommanna and a few other blighted souls had recorded their names and dates of arrival for posterity on the rock, right in front of the divine image. Bahubali also receives occasional visits from worshippers as shown by the stray packets of milk and broken coconut shells they had thoughtfully left behind. Conspicuous by its absence was a board proclaiming the monument’s protected status, by either the ASI, or the State Archaeology Department – the statue appears to be entirely unprotected. The base of the hill is currently abuzz with quarrying activity. I wondered how long it would be before the entire hill was quarried away and recalled the impassioned plea of Dr Hampa Nagarajaiah, “All ancient sites belonging to all religions need to be preserved.” Amen.

First post

After months of toying with the idea, I’ve finally taken the plunge. So here’s my brand new blog. I plan to use this space to put up articles that have been published, articles that have been rejected (plenty of those too, unfortunately!) and of course, other random thoughts and observations.  So here goes...