How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)
As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.
For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited
The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11
When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)
This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.
PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

Unraveling the Cheraman Perumal Myth

(All photographs by author)

This is the board outside the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid near present day Kodungallur, Kerala which proclaims that the mosque was established when Prophet Muhammad was alive. It also means that this particular mosque was established before the first mosques in Iraq (639 CE),  Syria (715 CE),  Egypt (642 CE), and Tunisia (670 CE) thus making it oldest mosque after the first mosques in Saudi Arabia and China. The interesting question is why would a mosque be established so far away from the deserts where Islam was spreading? Who was behind it and more importantly, is the mosque as old as it claims?
There is a popular story behind this mosque which is well known in Kerala even today. Once a king — a Cheraman Perumal — was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and joining back again. Bewildered, he consulted a few astrologers, who confirmed that such an event had indeed occurred and was not a mystical experience. Few months later, he got a few Arab visitors on their way to Ceylon and  from them, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle and he was the founder of a new religion. The king did something drastic. He abdicated the throne, divvied up the kingdom and set sail to Mecca to meet this man. He met the Prophet and converted to Islam and lived in Arabia for a while. Then to spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal returned to Kerala, but he died somewhere along the way.
Later, few of his followers reach Cranganore and it is they who set up the first mosques, including the one at Kodungallur. According to the legend, Saraf Ibn Malik, Malik Ibn Dinar, Malik Ibn Habib, Ibn Malik and their wives and friends were responsible for establishing the first mosques at Kodungallur, Kollam (in North, not Quilon), Maravi (Matayi), Fakanur, Manjarur (Mangalore), Kanjirakuttu (Kasergode), Jarfattan (Karippat), Dahfattan (Dharmatam), Fandarina (Pantalayani Kollam) and Caliyath (Chaliyam near Beypore)
A photo of the old mosque. Taken inside the museum

There is one thing to be noted about Cheraman Perumal. That was not the name of a particular king, but a title. Cheraman was the name of the dynasty of Chera rulers and Perumal meant, ‘the great one’. According to Keralolpathi (Origins of Kerala), written in the 17th or 18th century, following various conflicts in the 9th century, the representatives of 64 settlements in Kerala brought the Perumals from outside Kerala and each one was to rule for 12 years. There have been exceptions, though and once such exception would play an important role in this story.
First, is this story really true?
This story is found in a Muslim account recorded by Sheikh Zeinuddin as well as in the Brahminical narrative, Keralolpathi. The story has been retold countless times by the Portuguese, Dutch; the court chronicles of Calicut and Cochin begin with this narrative. There is epigraphic evidence as well: a Chola inscription mentions that the Cheras took to the sea after they were attacked which historians interpret to mean the Cherman Perumal voyage. There is evidence even from Arabia about the tomb of a king from Malabar who converted to Islam. Thus there seems to be sufficient evidence to suggest that a king from Malabar converted to Islam. That brings us to the second question: When?
This fascinating tale of a Kerala king meeting the Prophet was first recorded in 1510 CE by the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa.  Barbosa, who would later become Ferdinand Magellan’s brother-in-law and would join him on his trip around the world, reached Kerala in 1500 with his uncle and stayed there for five decades.  Quite conversant in the local language and based on his familiarity with the traditions and customs, he wrote the story of this Cheraman Perumal based on what he had heard.
His version goes as follows: Around 600 years before Barbosa’s time, there was a mighty lord named Chirimay Perumal, whose capital was a popular port for pepper trade. The Moors who came for trade had numerous discussions with the king and they converted him to Islam. He went to Mecca in their company and died either there or on the way back; the Malabar people never saw their king again. Barbosa also wrote that the single kingdom which Cheraman Perumal ruled was partitioned into three — Cannanore, Calicut and Quilon — with Calicut having the right of coinage. But pay attention to one little detail: Barbosa mentions that this incident happened 600 years back and not 875 years.
A model of the old mosque

The next version of this story was written eight decades later by Sheikh Zeinuddin, a Malayali Muslim with Arab ancestry. In his account, a set of Arab Muslims reached Cranganore on their way to Adam’s foot in Ceylon (See: How did Adam reach Sri Lanka). The king invited them to his palace and in what must be one of the easiest conversion attempts in the world, converted after listening to their conversation. He divided the kingdom and secretly went to Arabia with the pilgrims which agrees with what  Barbosa wrote. Zeinuddin  also mentioned  that this king was ruler of the land from Kasargod to Kanya Kumari and gives an important detail regarding the date. According to him, this incident did not happen during the lifetime of the prophet, but two centuries later.
In 1610 CE, another version of this story came out from another Portuguese writer named Joas de Barros. Barros was an administrator in the House of India and Mina in Lisbon and was responsible for dispatching various fleets to India and his work was completed by Diogo de Coutos. According to his account, Cherman Peruman was a great king and his kingdom was frequented by many Moors for commerce. According to Barros, these Moors were religious fanatics and converted the king to Mohammedanism. He moved to Calicut and the Moors there made him believe that he had to go to Mecca to save his soul, which he promptly did after diving up his kingdom. This was the time when the Portuguese  had to resort to sea voyages to avoid Muslim controlled land route and were in competition with the Muslim traders to gain favours with the kings of Kerala for trade rights. Some of that antagonism is visible in the language.
Coutos then adds a twist to the tale which makes this very interesting. According to him, the Perumal was close to the St. Thomas Christians based in Kodungallur and would not do anything without consulting them. Coutos drops a bombshell by adding that he was converted to their holy faith, implying that the Perumal was converted to Christianity and not Islam. Coutos also mentions that the Perumal died in the house of Apostle St. Thomas in Mylapore and thus disagreeing with the Mecca trip.
Thus within a century, you see the story being retold to based on the convenience of the Portuguese who were doing excellent trade in Malabar. But there is one data point that stands out in the narrative of Barros. He writes that the king, Sarama Perumal  reigned 612 years before “we” landed in India. It is not clear if that refers to the period when Barros’ ships landed in Malabar or if it refers to Vasco da Gama’s first voyage of 1498. Even if you take 1498 CE, the king would have reigned in 886 CE which is two centuries after the date mentioned on the board at the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid. This also agrees with what historian A Sreedhara Menon mentioned in his Survey of Kerala History
This is how the mosque looks now

In 1723, the Dutch chaplain Canter Visscher wrote about this story, with another twist. He agrees that Cheraman Perumal was a great king who distributed his kingdom and undertook a voyage. The journey was, “either to the Ganges in fulfillment of a vow or as the Moors say to visit Mahomet in Arabia for the purpose of embracing his religion” implying that there were multiple theories existing at that time. The Cheraman Perumal story continued in the accounts of Dutch Commander Van Adriaan Moens (1781 CE), Francis Buchanan (1801 CE), Keralolpathi (17th or 18th century) and Granthavari (19th century).
Though there are minor variations and the influence of local politics, the Portuguese and Muslim accounts agree on one thing: a king from Kerala set off to Mecca, but this Cheraman Perumal did not travel in the time period mentioned in the board outside the mosque. But, this should be a relatively simple problem to solve. If this incident did happen, then all you need is  figure out who was the last Cheraman Perumal and that is where temple inscriptions are helpful.
There is a inscription of Vikrama Chola dating to 1122 CE which mentions that while the Pandyas took to the Ghats, the Cheras took to the sea. There are other statements in that inscription which have been proven historically and hence there is some truth to the Cheras taking to the sea as well. Historians read this to mean that the last Chera Perumal, who was Rama Kulasekhara, left by sea.  There is a record from another temple which mentions that a garland was offered to the deity for the benefit of Cheramar Rama which meant that the Rama Kulasekhara lived till 1122 CE.
This points to a date much later than the ones mentioned by the Portuguese and Muslim sources. There is more evidence on this front. According to the tradition the Perumal who reached Arabia sent some messengers to preach Islam in Kerala who established ten mosques, of which one is at Matayi. According to an inscription found at that mosque, it was built in 1124 CE, two years after the disappearance of Cheraman Rama Kulasekhara. Since we know the name of the king, it is easy to find references to other kings who were contemporaries and that can help solve the mystery. Two kings mentioned in connection with the last Perumal are  Udaya Varman of Koluttunad and Kavivamsha of the Tulu kingdom. Based on a inscription, Udaya Varman has been dated to the early 12th century and the Alupa King Kavivamsha ruled in the first half of the 12th century.
This complicates the narrative. From the story taking place in the 8th century, we have moved to the 12th century. Now comes another story which throws a spanner into the works. It turns out that this story was known in Arabia as well.  In 1882, William Logan recorded an incident where 15 years back a man came from Arabia soliciting funds for the repair of a mosque and tomb. This tomb, located in Zapahar in the Arabian coast had an inscription which said that it belonged to Abdul Rahman Saimiri, a king of Malabar. The inscription mentions that this man reached in year 212 of the Hijera. The name in the tomb looks like it was a Samuthiri, but there is no such record of a Zamorin traveling abroad and getting converted.
There is one thing though: this was an important event in Kerala’s history with the disintegration of central rule and the formation of many small kingdoms. But was the disappearance of the king the reason for this change or was the change that happened tagged to the departure of the king?
Lake behind the mosque

The Cheras were under attack by the Chola and Pandya forces and the king would have been forced to make deals with Jews, Muslim and Christian traders for financial and military assistance displeasing the Nairs and Brahmins. The revenue would have been affected and with an ungovernable kingdom, an easy way out would have  been the abdication of the throne. With the Cholas and Pandyas attacking the north and south, many areas would have become independent of the central power and the partition of the land may have been just a formal recognition of the ground reality. The Perumal’s Mecca voyage was a symbolic tale which captured all of this.
The Brahminical narrative, Keralolpathi, has another reason for this departure. First, the Perumal was upset having reigned for a long period the land which was the gift of Parasurama and wanted to make amends. The Perumals were supposed to rule for 12 years and make way for the next one; this one ruled for 36 years. Second, he had the supreme commander of the armed forces killed on the basis of a woman’s words which he regretted later and so conversion to Islam was probably a way out.
As we go through written records, temple inscriptions and legends, this story gets murky. At this point we have two possible dates for this event: the 9th century and 12th century. It is not a difference of a few decades, but a few centuries. Some people thought he took a trip to the Ganges and another thought he was converted to Christianity and not Islam. There is even a suggestion that it was not a Perumal, but a Zamorin. Sometimes, from these different versions you learn more about the writer and his politics than the truth, like a kind of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applied to historiography. Even though the mystery is not solved, it seems that a person some repute reached Mecca from Malabar, and it seems clear that the incident did not happen in the period mentioned in the board.
If you are interested in this topic, please read these blog posts as well.

  1. The Perumal and the Pickle
  2. A tale of two conversions
  3. The myth of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion


  1. Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M.G.S.Narayanan
  2. Survey of Kerala History by Prof. A Sreedhara Menon

Indian History Carnival-78:Bom Jesus, Guruvayoor, Deccani paintings, P N Oak

Guruvayoorappan's Elephants at Punnathoor Kotta
Guruvayoorappan’s Elephants at Punnathoor Kotta (photograph by author)
  1. Maddy has the fascinating tale of Bom Jesus, which left Portugal in 1533 with 18 tons of Fugger’s copper, 4 tons of tin, elephant tusks, gold and silver. The ship went missing and was discovered 475 years later.

    The Nau Bom Jesus was one among them and all of 400 or so tons in displacement. That the Portuguese knew how to build sturdy ships is clear, but you must also understand that the life of such a ship was not more than four or five years. Usage of nails, galagala caulking, lead in the seams, and a final black coat of pine tar from Germany gave these ships a sinister look. The heavy guns and cannons they carried for defense made them difficult to confront. The crew comprised a captain major, a deputy, a captain, a record keeping clerk (the royal agent – like our Barros or Carrera), a pilot and a deputy pilot. Then came the master, the boatswain, ships boys, pages and the sailors or seamen. We can also see chaplains, German bombardiers, stewards, specialist technicians like carpenters, caulkers and barber surgeons in this group.

  2. The Calicut Heritage Forum discusses the origins of the Elephant Race at Guruvyaoor Temple

    There was once some misunderstanding between the authorities of the two temples and Trikkanamathilakam temple authorities wanted to teach the smaller Guruvayur temple a lesson by not sending the elephants for the festival. The elephants were tethered at the Trikkanamathilakam temple after the festival there.  Apparently, the elephants managed to break the iron chains at night and ran all the way to Guruvayur temple, with their bells clanging and reached the temple well before the time for the ezhunnallathu  (the ceremonial procession of the deity).

  3. The Asian and African studies blog has a post containing Deccani paintings from the 17th  century onwards

    Kurnool, some 120 miles south of Hyderabad, became in the 18th century semi-independent under its own Pathan Nawabs. It was captured by Haidar ‘Ali of Mysore, and in 1799 was given to the Nizam at the division of Tipu Sultan’s territory. It was ceded by him to the East India Company in 1800, although the Nawabs were left in charge in return for a tribute to Madras. The last of them was judged guilty of treasonable activity in 1838 and the territory was annexed, although left in the charge of a British Commissioner and Agent until 1858 rather than under the normal Collector and Magistrate of British India. The arts flourished under the Nawabs and an offshoot of the Hyderabad style of painting can be located there (Zebrowski 1983, pp. 272-3). In the 19th century Kurnool produced paintings on leather of both Hindu and decorative subjects, but this painting by Kurnool artist would seem to be a rare instance of a Deccani ‘Company’ painting. The artist has combined a delicate Deccani approach to landscape with the more naturalistic traditions associated with European portraiture.

  4. Koenraad Elst takes to task those who think that Vatican was originally a Shiva temple and has other miscellaneous crazy ideas.

    In fact, the shape of the church is standard, and therefore the claim implies that most classical churches, thousands of them, are really shaped like Shiva Lingams. If your eyes are very hazy, you might indeed get the impression of a similarity. This school is quickly satisfied with a mere semblance of similarity. Thus, a 3-shaped sign in the undeciphered Indus script is declared to be Om/Aum sign; as is a door ornament on the Red Fort, equally deemed to have been “originally a Hindu temple”. But even if a more perceptive look were to confirm this impression of similarity, it doesn’t prove a causal relation. The likeness between vatika and Vatican is claimed to “prove that the Vatican was a Hindu (Vedic) religious centre before its incumbent was forced to accept Christianity from 1st century AD”. No, this phrase merely shows the miserably low standards of proof applied by the Hindu history-rewriters. Also, no evidence is attempted, or known from elsewhere, for the momentous replacement or forcible conversion of this Vedic pontiff.

The 79th carnival will be up on Independence day. If you have any nominations, please leave a comment.

What happened in 825 CE in Kerala?

This is the photo of the Malayalam calendar hanging in my house and as per that calendar, the year is 1189 which means that something important happened in 825 CE. Wikipedia mentions that the important event was the establishment of a Nestorian colony. Maddy has written about various other events and that is covered in A Survey of Kerala History by A Sreedhara Menon as well.  The book Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan deals with these issues and comes up with an answer while refuting few others.

But before getting to the origins of the Malayalam calendar, called the Kollam Era, it is important to understand how events were recorded in India. The date on which the event occurred was mostly tied to a seminal event such as the establishment of a temple or an important marker like the beginning of the Kaliyuga or the Hijra. The position of Jupiter, the position of sun, the date, the week day and the nakshatra were noted while recording events.  Another popular way of recording events was to base it on reginal years of the king. Thus, if you were writing about the recent Indian elections, you would write, “In the 1st year of Rahul Gandhi being the Vice-President of Indian National Congress, it had just enough MPs under the Whatsapp group limit” or “In the 9th year of Prakash Karat’s tenure as CPI(M) general secretary, the party won seats which could be counted using both hands.”

The problem with reginal years or the establishment of a temple is that the events were local and that makes it hard for people outside the region to make sense of the date. But sometimes a local event can achieve such significance that it can live on for a thousand years and one such event happened in the southern part of Kerala.

Quilon - Dutch drawing from 1682 CE
Quilon – Dutch drawing from 1682 CE

Around the 8th century, there existed the region between Tiruvalla and Nagercoil was known as Vēṇāṭ with its capital at Vizhinjam.  In the 8th century, the Pandyans made an expansionist move and to counter that the Cēra forces moved to the south. They took over Vēṇāṭ, absorbed it into the Cēra kingdom and established Kollam as the capital. This was an important victory for the Cēra’s with political and economic consequences. Kollam was a harbor city and remained important from the 9th to the 12th centuries and it was from here that the Chinese trade really took off. Eventually that trade would move up to Cochin and then Calicut. Marco Polo visited Kollam in 1294, Jordan Catalani in 1330 and  Ibn Batuta in 1343 an all of them mentioned the Chinese presence there. As Kollam bought in prosperity, its establishment became significant and what started out as a local era, was used in Vēṇāṭ and eventually the whole of Kerala, though the port of Kollam became less important to Calicut eventually.

There are two inscriptions from this period, found in Kollam, which mention the phrase “Kollam tonri” implying that the event happened after the inauguration of Kollam.  Some historians have suggested — based on letters by the Nestorian Patriarch of Babylon — that the city of Kollam existed before 825 CE. Narayanan writes that this is based on an arbitrary and erroneous reading of Latin. Another suggestion is that “Koulam Male” was mentioned in Cosmas Indicopleustes by a 6th century Alexandrian merchant. Narayanan thinks that this refers to Kolam or Kolapattanam in North Kerala. Ma Huan wrote that the Tang dynasty knew about Kollam, but it may be about knowledge closer to the 9th century.

The Nestorian date is related to the settlement of Christian traders under the leadership of Mar Sapir Iso and that has been advanced by historians. According to them, if modern India could adopt Christian era, then it was possible a millennium back as well. Narayanan dismisses that argument; according to him, the establishment of Kollam as an important city came first followed by the establishment of the Nestorian colony. Narayanan writes that this incident would not have been universally acceptable compared to the founding of the city. He also dismisses the theories that it was associated with the departure of Cheraman Perumal to Mecca (a myth) or with Shankaracharya.


  1. Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M G S Narayanan

Earlier date for Malayalam

By around 800 CE, the language used in Kerala was a local variation of Tamil. The language known as Malayalam did not exist. Ilango Adigal (who wrote Silappatikaram) and Kulasekhara Alwar (responsible for devotional literature) were Malayalis, but wrote in Tamil. By around the 9th century CE, Malayalam evolved into a separate language under the heavy influence of Saṃskṛtam. As it became a new language — the youngest among the Dravidian languages — it discarded the earlier script and started using the script used for writing Saṃskṛtam.
But some data from Edakkal caves is changing our understanding of the evolution of Malayalam language. It seems the language started evolving much earlier than the “brahminical period”.

Eminent epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan contends that Edakal-5 provides important evidence that the common people of Kerala were already expressing themselves in Malayalam at about the end of the 4th century c.e.
The inscription (Edakal-5) is engraved just below and to the left of a tall, imposing anthropomorphic figure, which is part of the much earlier prehistoric engravings covering the rock walls of the cave (Picture 1). It appears that Edakal-5 is a label inscription engraved by a casual visitor to the cave recording his impression of the anthropomorphic figure he saw there.
The language of Edakal-5 is Malayalam. This becomes clear from the first word i (this), which is a pronoun in Malayalam standing for someone or something nearer the speaker. In Tamil, i has the same meaning, but does not occur as an independent word unlike in Malayalam. That the language of the inscription is indeed Malayalam is made clear by the second word pazhama which corresponds to pazhamai in Tamil, meaning “that which is ancient or old”. The text in Malayalam and its nearest rendering in Tamil are juxtaposed below to bring out the distinction.
i pazhama (Malayalam)
idu pazhamai (Tamil)
‘this (is) ancient’ (translation)
The most important result from the revised reading is that Edakal-5 is by far the earliest inscription in Malayalam and the only one in Brahmi. It may be assigned to late 4th or early 5th century c.e. on palaeographic evidence discussed below. The next earliest inscriptions in Malayalam occur much later from about the beginning of the 9th century c.e. and are in the Vatteluttu script.
Edakal-5 provides important evidence that the common people of Kerala were already expressing themselves in Malayalam at about the end of the 4th century c.e. However, Tamil was also retained by the elite as the literary idiom in which great works like Silappadikaram were composed. Eventually, of course, the people’s language prevailed in the region and Malayalam became the medium of communication for all purposes from about the beginning of the Kollam Era (early 9th century c.e.).[The earliest inscription in Malayalam (via Nikhil Narayanan)]

But then this is just one data point and one cannot generalize anything about what was happening in Kerala just from this.

Sree Padmanabhaswamy and Subhas Chandra Bose

In 1941, a British official in Chennai received an anonymous letter which claimed that Subhas Chandra Bose had returned to India and was living in the premises of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The letter was forwarded to the dewan Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer who immediately put a close watch around the area.

The letter, received by British officials in Calcutta and passed on to Murphy, said “Bose is in the near vicinity of Sree Anantha Padmanabha of Travancore and still further in the Rameswaram side..It then continued ‘he (Bose) has gone to find out the truth of Lord Sree Krishna’s teaching.'”
According to a docket in the Kerala State Archives, on seeing the letter, the then British Resident for the Madras State, Lieutenant Colonel G P Murphy, forwarded a copy of it to Dewan of Travancore Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer requesting to “closely watch” the area around the grand temple.
The request was immediately complied with but no clue whatsoever of the possible visit of the Netaji, as Bose is endearingly called by his followers and admirers, was found around the temple complex.[British wanted Padmanabha temple watched for Subhas Bose]

PS: The Economic Times article claims that “The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was built in the 18th century by King Marthanda Varma of the Travancore royal lineage”. They are off by more than a millenia.

Marxists and Museums

Now that wealth of staggering proportions has been found in Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, various suggestions have come up on what to do with it. Some want it to be taken over and used for “social good” while others want it in a museum while there is no case for monetizing this treasure or confiscating it.
One point is missing in this debate: religion. The artifacts found in the cellars were offerings made to Sree Padmanabhaswamy by devotees and there is no reason to detach it and place it in a secular setting. In this Op-Ed piece P. Parameshwaran looks into why communists are obsessed with turning devotional items into museum pieces and where it has led them.

High profile Marxist academicians of Kerala have been taking very keen interest in the sensitive issue of the new findings in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. Most of the party leaders have been prudently reticent, obviously for fear of public anger. What the intellectual giants want is to keep all the valuable articles found in the temple vaults in a state museum, for public exhibition. There is nothing unexpected about this, because for them religion, temple and spirituality are all meaningless and dangerous superstitions. Of course the large followers of the party are not with them in this anti-religious attitude. But the intellectuals are a different class. They hardly communicate with the masses, as they still live in an ivory tower of irrelevant theories and obsolete ideologies.
This is neither a new phenomenon nor something peculiar to Kerala or Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. This is inherent in the communist psyche all over the world. They have put in practice this ideology which prescribes places of worship and religious and devotional items to be exhibited as artefacts in museums. This has happened in the Soviet Union and communist China (both in the mainland and in Tibet). But, in the twists and turns of history in the communist countries the entire process has been since reversed and instead of sacred places turning into museums the party itself has become a big museum, while temples and churches have emerged more powerful than ever.[Marxists as museum pieces via Michel Danino]

The Unknown Synagogues of Kochi

Entrance to Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi, Kerala (Photo by author)

When tourist brochures in Kerala mention the Jewish synagogue, they all refer to the one in Jew Town, Kochi. It turns out that there are other synagogues — the Kadavumbhagam and Thekkumbhagam — which are older and perfectly neglected. (H/T Yashwant)

The structure which is believed to have been constructed around 1200 AD, was rebuilt in 1700 AD as a replica of the first temple in Jerusalem with its 10 windows symbolising the Ten Commandments.
“We try to keep the Synagogue in proper order using as much funds as our pockets permit since the government does not seem to be interested in protecting this heritage site,” says Josephai, one of the last remaining members of the congregation of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue. Though the usage of the holy structure as a shop might sound outrageous to some, it seems to be the only reason that keeps the Synagogue standing.
Right around the corner of Kadavumbagam Synagogue lies the Thekkumbhagam Synagogue, which is inruins owing to disuse and neglect.[Monuments, a picture of neglect]

Jay A. Waronker has a brief history of the Lost Synagogues

The first synagogue built in the Cochin region predated the resettlement of the Kerala Jews en bloc in the sixteenth century as a result of Portuguese aggression. Dating from 1344 and attributed to Joseph Azar, it was located in a village called Kochangadi (near Mattancherry), now a part of the city of Kochi. It was most likely built when the Jews abandoned an area in or around Cranganore after the Perriyar River flooded. This synagogue in Kochangadi was apparently razed by the army of Tipu Sultan during the Second Anglo-Mysore War in the 1780s. The building was never rebuilt, and the Jewish community is thought to have moved to nearby Kochi no later than 1795. They carried with them the inscription stone verifying the fourteenth century date of construction and placed it in the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Mattancherry. Today it can be found inset in the east wall of the courtyard of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry.[Lost Kerala Synagogues]

Trading Hubs of the Old World – Part 2

(The Arabian Sea Network)

(Read Part 1)
In 1881, the Theosophist Henry Steel Olcott, said, “We Europeans..have a right to more than suspect that India 8,000 years ago sent out a colony of emigrants[6].” New evidence suggests that Olcott was right about the time, but wrong about Indians emigrating in the Old World.
During the third millennium BCE that trade relations between India and Mesopotamia prospered: Burial sites in Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. Also the Gujaratis were exporting hardwood  and there are even unverified reports of spices from the Malabar coast reaching Mesopotamia. But now there is a debate over if a colony of Indians lived in Mesopotamia — in a Meluhhan village — at that time[7].
The interesting news is that these trade relations happened much earlier than was previously believed. The important question is: did Harappans have knowledge of the monsoon winds to travel to Mesopotamia?
Soon trade with Mesopotamia declined because Oman developed as a trading hub; the Harappans did not have to travel as far as Mesopotamia for trading. Oman imported both luxury goods and basic commodities: wood, carnelian, combs, shell, metal objects, seals, weights and possibly large volume storage jars. What was considered luxury – copper, cereals — became common goods with coastal communities playing a major part.
The bitumen coated reed boats of the third millennium BCE were replaced by the plank-built wooden boats by the second millennium BCE. Instead of a few major players, there were many minor players creating a distributed network.
While there is evidence for sea-faring Harappans traveling to the Persian Gulf, there is no archaeological evidence of Mesopotamians reaching India during that period. Since no large ports, warehouses have been found in Harappa, it is assumed that the trade involved small-scale ports belonging to local communities; the Lothal dock and warehouse is of late Harappan period.

The other interesting development is the trade with East Africa. The Arabians and their neighbors in Levant and Mesopotamia used wheat and one species – the bread wheat – came from the Indus and the other – emmer wheat – from Africa. The pearl millet which was domesticated in Mali and Mauritania around 2500 BCE was found in Gujarat  by 2000 – 1700 BCE. African crops like sorghum and Ragi started appearing in South India after this period, possibly via Gujarat. There was a Western transmission of crops too: moong dal (third mil BCE), urad dal (2500 BCE), pigeon pea (1400 BCE), sesame (2500 BCE), and cotton (5000 BCE) made their way to both Africa and Arabia.


By 2000 BCE, the the Harappan maritime activity shifted to Gujarat. Around that time the trade between Africa and India intensified. While crops moved from Africa to India, genetic studies have shown that the zebu cattle went from India via Arabia to Africa.  These Bos Indicus, who reached Africa, met some Bos taurines and before you knew, sparks were flying, setting the African Savannah on fire. There is also evidence of the migration of zebus from Indus to Near East via Iran in the late third millennium BCE. Some of this zebu movement involved travel by boats along the Arabian coast and points to a trade on a much larger scale. Thus the transportation of a giraffe in 1405 by Zheng He’s fleet from Africa to China does not look that far fetched.

The Omanis developed wooden boat technology and deep-sea fishing around the time the African crops reached India. If they had knowledge of monsoons, the Omanis could reach India directly, else they had to travel around the Makran coast and reach India via Iran. It is also possible that the Omanis got their wooden craft technology from Indians; after all they imported wood from India.

(Ramses II)

An interesting development happens in 1200 BCE. Among the dried fruits kept in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II was pepper and there was only one place in the world where pepper was produced. While this points to the first contact between the Malabar coast and Egypt and the origins of the spice trade, what is not known is how the pepper reached Egypt.
The Harappan trade meanwhile shifted from Oman to Bahrain — Mesopotamian textual sources start mentioning more of Dilmun than Magan — and so Dilumn became the transit point for goods to Mesopotamia from India, but this change in the transit point did not affect the goods. Many millennia later when When Ibn Battuta visited Calicut, the chief merchant was an Ibrahim from Bahrain with the title shah bandar (the port master or chief of harbor)[5].
This is the point we see the rise of an early capitalism with private Mesopotamian citizens funding seafaring merchants who operated in a complex exchange system. Business was risky, but Dilmun communities thrived on the profit.
Then slowly we see the merchants in Dilmun adopting Harappan administrative standards. Thus goods were sealed with the Harappan style stamp seals and not the cylindrical Mesopotamian ones. The Indus weight system was also used and it was known as the standard of Dilmun. Meanwhile certain seals found also in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, which were inspired by the Sumerian seals
By Iron age, there was a technological break through with the mastery over monsoons. The Arabians were already using monsoon winds to reach India. At the same time the Egyptians too started doing the same — with boats with sharp bows and triangular sails — skipping the middlemen in Arabia due to which South Indian ports gain prominence over Gujarati ones.
Since our minds are locked in to the “Aryan migration/trickle down” 1500 BCE time frame, we rarely look into the interactions before that period. A recent paper in Nature, on the origins of Indian population, showed that the rise of Ancestral North Indians and South Indians was connected to human. Between these two events, Indians had extensive trade contacts with the Old World and hence the door was not closed after the ANI and ASI established themselves. There was movement of people, animals and plants, both into India and out of India for many generations. It is worth investigating what impact this interaction had in the cultural transformation of the subcontinent.
A painful lesson India and Africa learned is that trade usually ends up in colonization. But looking at the trade network of this period, there is no such evidence, even in a place like Bahrain which was central to the global trade. Trade, free of colonization, would take place even during the medieval period till the Portuguese showed up in Calicut in 1498 looking for “Christians and spices.”


  1. Himanshu Prabha Ray, The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  2. Nicole Boivin and Dorian Fuller, Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula, Journal of World Prehistory 22, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 180, 113.
  3. Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (Vintage, 2005).
  4. Jacques Connan, “A comparative geochemical study of bituminous boat remains from H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait), and RJ-2, Ra’s al-Jinz (Oman),”Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 16, no. 1 (2005): 21-66.
  5. Mehrda Shokoohy, Muslim Architecture of South India: The Sultanate of Ma’bar and the Traditions of Maritime Settlers on the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts, 1st ed. (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
  6. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  7. C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky,Archaeological Thought in America (Cambridge University Press, 1991).


  1. Most of this article is based of Reference [2].
  2. From Wikipedia: “In 1974, Egyptologists visiting his tomb noticed that the mummy’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. They decided to fly Ramesses II’s mummy to Paris for examination. Ramesses II was issued an Egyptian passport that listed his occupation
    as “King (deceased)”. The mummy was received at Le Bourget airport,
    just outside Paris, with the full military honours befitting a king”

Images: (via Wikipedia)

Op-Ed in Mail Today: Kerala Astronomers and Eurocentrism

(This op-ed was published in Jan 25, 2009 edition of Mail Today/ PDF)
To commemorate the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, P Govinda Pillai, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) ideologue, in an article in the Malayalam newspaper Mathruboomi, examined the legacy of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. He also bought out an important topic – Eurocentrism in history writing – due to which we know about the work done on telescopes by Galileo, Hans Lippershey and Roger Bacon, but almost nothing by the Arab scientist al-Hassan.
Mr. Pillai stopped there. He wrote nothing about the contributions of mathematicians and astronomers from his state, Kerala, in developing the heliocentric model and calculating planetary orbits. It is not Mr. Pillai alone who is at fault. This apathy, this ignorance, this refusal to acknowledge Indian contributions — all point to a deep malaise in our historical studies. For perspective on this issue, we need to understand the contributions of Indian astronomers and decide if we should be like Confucians during the time of the Ming dynasty or 21st century Peruvian archaeologists.
The Kerala School of Mathematics
In 1832, a paper, “On the Hindu quadrature of a circle”, was read at the Royal Asiatic Society. This paper by Charles M. Whish of the East Indian Company Civil Service described eight mathematical series quoting from a text called Tantra Sangraham (1500 CE) which he had discovered in Kerala. These series were also mentioned in Yukti Dipika by Sankara Variyar and Yukti-Bhasa by Jyestadevan; both those authors had learned mathematics and astronomy from Kellalur Nilakanta Somayaji, the author of Tantra Sangraham. Some of those series were linked to Madhavan of Sangramagramam (1340-1425 CE). These mathematicians who lived between the 14th and 16th centuries formed the Kerala School of Mathematics and were proof that Indian mathematics did not vanish after Bhaskaracharya.
The importance of the Kerala school can be appreciated only by understanding the Copernican revolution. The contribution of Copernicus was two fold: first he improved
the mathematics behind the Ptolemaic system and second, changed the model from geocentric to heliocentric. The heliocentric model was proposed as early as the third century BCE by the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos and so it is the math that made the difference.
In his Tantra Sangraham, Nilakanta revised the Indian planetary model for the interior planets, Mercury and Venus and for this he formulated equations to find the center of the planets better than both Islamic and European traditions. He also described the planetary motion in which Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn moved in eccentric orbits around the Sun, which in turn went around the Earth. Till Nilakanta, the Indian planetary theory had different rules for calculating  latitudes for interior and exterior planets. Nilakanta provided a unified rule. The heliocentric model of Copernicus did not alter the computational scheme for interior planets; it would have to wait till Kepler (who wrote horoscopes to supplement his income).
In their propensity to solve astronomical problems, mathematicians of the Kerala school developed concepts like Gregory’s series and the Leibniz’s series. The hallmark of earlier texts, like those of Madhava, were instructions and results without proofs or explanations. It is believed that the proofs and explanations were passed orally and hence rarely recorded. Yuktibhasha, the text written by Jyesthadeva, contain proofs of the theorems and the derivations of the rules, making it a complete text of mathematical analysis and possibly the first calculus text.

Lessons from Peru
Our education system, based on content from Western textbooks, have rarely questioned Western accomplishments. But Peruvians thought differently. When Peruvian archaeologists revisited the history written by the victors they discovered that the romantic tales woven by the Conquistadors were – well, tales. According to the original story, Francisco Pizarro, a Spaniard arrived in Peru in 1532 with few hundred men. Few weeks after their arrival, in a surprise attack, they killed the Inca king Atahualpa and took Cusco, the Inca capital. Four years later the Inca rebellion attacked Cusco and the new city of Lima.
On August 10, 1536, while Copernicus and the Kerala school were revolutionizing the world of astronomy half a world away, Francisco Pizzaro watched as tens of thousands of Incas closed in on Lima. With just a few hundred troops, Pizzaro had to come up with a strategy for survival. The Spaniards lead a cavalry attack and first killed the Inca general and his captains. Devoid of leadership the Incas scattered and once again the Spaniards won.
Recent archaeological excavations found a different version of this story. Out of the many skeletons found in the grave near Lima, only three were found to be killed by Spanish weapons; the rest by Incas. A testimony by Incas who were present in the battle was found in the Archive of the Franciscans at the Convent of San Francisco de Lima, which mentioned that it was not a great battle, but just a few skirmishes. Pizzaro was helped by a large army of Indian allies and the battle was not between the Spaniards and Incas, but between two Inca groups. It was also found that size of rebels were not in tens of thousands, but in thousands and there was no cavalry charge.
Thanks to the work of native archaeologists dramatic accounts of a small band of heroic Europeans subduing the Incas has a new narrative.
Lessons from China
Instead of following such examples and popularizing the work of Indian mathematicians, we have been behaving like Confucians at the court of the 15th century Ming emperor Zhu Di who erased evidence of the large fleets that sailed as far as the Swahili coast. While the world knows about the accomplishments of Europeans like Vasco da Gama, Columbus, Magellan and Francis Drake, little is known about Zheng He who arrived in Calicut eighty years before da Gama commanding a fleet of three hundred ships carrying 28,000 men; Vasco da Gama arrived with three ships and less than two hundred men.
Between 1405 to 1433, Zheng He’s fleet made seven voyages —- three to India, one to Persian Gulf and three to the African coast — trading, transporting ambassadors, and establishing Chinese colonies. Following the death of the emperor who  commissioned these voyages, the Confucians at the court gained influence. Confucius thought that foreign travel interfered with family obligations and Confucians wanted to curtail the ambitious sailors and the prosperous merchants.
So ships were let to rot in the port and the logs books and maps were destroyed. The construction of any ship with more than two masts was considered a capital offense. A major attempt at erasing a proud chapter in their history was done by the natives themselves.
Appreciating our stars
The goal is not to diminish the accomplishments of Copernicus or Galileo but to note that no less important accomplishments were achieved by the Kerala school either before or around the same time. Interestingly in the West, Copernican revolution was considered a movement into science to which the Church, obstinate in religious dogma, would take umbrage. In India no one was burned at the stake or put under house arrest for proposing a heliocentric model.
Instead of accepting the astronomical concepts of the Church on faith, Galileo investigated them and found new truths. Extrapolating that to historical studies we need to critically examine the Eurocentric history like the Peruvians and popularize the work of our ancestors. In this International year of astronomy, if we do not inform everyone about our great astronomers, who will ?
Postscript: In the midst of all this Eurocentric history, as a surprising exception to the norm, the only educational institution where one can take an elective course in The Pre-History of Calculus and Celestial Mechanics in Medieval Kerala is Canisius College, New York.
References: This credit for this article goes to Ranjith, a reader of this blog. He alerted me to Govinda Pillai’s article and then sent various research papers and articles about the Kerala School. He made me read Modification of the earlier Indian planetary theory by the Kerala astronomers, 500 years of Tantrasangraha, Madhavan, the father of analysis, Whish’s showroom revisited and The Pre-History of Calculus and Celestial Mechanics in Medieval Kerala.
Dick Teresi’s book Lost Discoveries, which I first read in 2003, covers the ancient roots of modern science and has sections on Indian mathematicians and astronomers. I remember buying The Crest of the Peacock and lending it to a mathematician friend; the book is now inside a singularity. The Great Inca rebellion was covered in the excellent PBS documentary of the same name. References for Zheng He can be found in an earlier article. In 2000, the University of Madras organized a conference to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Tantrasangraha. The papers presented at this conference can be found in 500 Years of Tantrasangraha
Finally, Rajiv Malhotra on Eurocentrism of Hegel, Marx, Mueller, Monier Williams, Husserl.
(images via wikipedia and indiaclub)