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...