Category Archives: history

First published essay!!

The United Nations University had conducted an essay contest last year, and my entry won. Took a long time to get published somewhere. Better late!

http://ourworld.unu.edu/en/expanding-our-moral-universe/

What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,  one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

Mysore and the rhythms of its Geography

Just finished the first volume of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism. It is truly a magnificent piece of work and would encourage anyone interested not just in the tales of kings and queens and their betrayals and affairs to read once in their lifetime.

The first thing you realise when you are done reading the Structures of Everyday life is the different time scales at which human life goes on. The fastest time scales deal with fashion, politics, wars and heroes, and has traditionally been the kind of history we learn. Then comes the structures of society and economy, which change more slowly, and the kind of change that the Marxists like to worry about. As I mentioned previously, movement (of something) is what is of most interest, and it is due to this reason the these two types of history are dominant. The third type, which Braudel’s book brings about is the material life of the masses, what they ate, drank, wore, built houses with, ploughed fields or carved stones with, moved from one place to another with and how these change. These facets of life are shown to change at a very slow pace, and to a large extent these determine what is possible or not. This is due to the fact that however quickly the more ‘enlightened’ people may want the world to change, the change must happen at the level of the majority of the population, and they change very slowly and reluctantly. Only violence on a large scale can change things at the pace the saviors of the world would want it to change, as the world has witnessed often.

Consistent with my views on evolution/history, the question I would like to pose is the following: How did the geography of Mysore determine how its people lived and interacted with each other and with the world around them? What are the constraints they faced, and how did they go about eliminating them or working around them?

The geography of the Mysore region is somewhat acceptable to humans at best. Being on an elevated plateau, the temperature are somewhat tolerable. The Ghats form natural boundaries on the east and the west and the south. If any water happens to flow on the right side of the Ghats, one can hope for life to exist, and luckily, there happen to be a couple of rivers which are the lifeline of the region, mainly the Cauvery, Tunga, Bhadra and the Krishna. However, these are not perennial like the Ganga and this is a huge constraint to the development of human societies by restricting transport and agricultural options. The soil, on the whole is not the greatest unless we look at the river valleys. The land is mostly uneven and thus prevents the construction of large scale irrigation works like canals. Indeed, the Mysore region was known more for its local tank irrigation (which is why there are so many lakes in the region) than for its canal system like in say Tamil Nadu or (for a better contrast) North India. The 1881 census listed more than 20000 irrigation tanks in the Mysore Region. The fact that this region receives rain from both the forward and retreating monsoons probably encouraged water harvesting activities further.

One of the major issues with large scale irrigation works is that it cannot be done by one or two villages — it has to be planned, executed and maintained centrally. My knowledge of Mysore history is not all that great, but I would expect the growth of strong, large kingdoms (native to it, not like the Vijayanagara Empire) to be less preferred as opposed to local chieftains because the local geography did not necessitate such structures. This would imply that there were strong local governance structures, something one has to explore in more detail.

When irrigation is not there, certain types of crops are out, especially rice. In fact, if one looks at the geography of crop cultivation in this region, rice and sugarcane were almost always grown very close to river beds, with the rest of the higher regions being cropped with millets and pulses. Rice, then, would be an unlikely candidate for staple food, and the food habits of villagers even fifteen years into the past bears testament to this fact. Rice was mainly an export item, which was sent to the various ports along the coast.

Agriculture being highly dependent on rainfall, any shortage was always a disaster. This induced people to hoard grains from good years. The population itself would probably have followed the vagaries of the rainfall, with a drought causing a famine and corresponding reduction in population. However, data to support this in precolonial india is simply not present. Also, it would have encouraged cultivation of more hardy crops like millets, giving another reason why ragi and its cousins are very popular in this part of the country. Go to the coast, and people prefer their boiled rice over ragi rottis.

Iron was the only mineral of any consequence during olden times that was found in the Mysore region, and it produced some of the finest steel the world has ever seen. It was exported to Persia (probably in return for Persian horses) and swords made from this steel are supposed to be the reason of the superiority of the Persian army over the Europeans for quite some time.

Thus, it can be seen that the geography and climate play a very important role in shaping the various activities that any culture or civilization has to perform to sustain itself. It constrains the type of polity and economy that can develop. When the British arrived, they probably would have felt suffocated by the economic environment they found themselves in, and resolved to change it to suit their needs. Capitalism arrived on Indian shores like an unstoppable force, only to meet the immovable object of the daily life of its inhabitants. How they managed to get it to move to their rhythms is another story.

Why is Mysore where it is?

would be a quintessential question that a geographer would ask. In the case of Mysore, it isn’t clear why this particular site was chosen. Sure, Chamundi is close by, holy site, but not many capitals are also religious centres in India. To make things clear, one must look at a topographical map of the area surrounding Mysore.

Let us take the possible reasons one by one.

A) Economic — not a chance. There is no product of great value other than sandalwood that the whole region produced, and it is more likely that more sandalwood would be harvested in the Ghats nearby, maybe near Periyapatna.

B) Geographic — i.e, it has some geographic features that make it advantageous, for military, trade or some other reasons. This reason also does not hold water. Mysore is quite insulated from the more important trade routes, its climate is not as good as anywhere north or north-west of it. It is not even on the banks of any river, which is always a Good Thing for a city.

C) Religious — Even to this day, Chamundi hills is not a very popular destination for pilgrims. The Dassera is popular, but only in the nearby regions. Nanjangud and Srirangapatnam with the Cauvery flowing by would be my choice if I was to setup a pilgrimage centre.

D) Strategic — Mysore does overlook the Gejjalahatti valley, a pass that leads directly to Coimbator and importantly in those days, to Dharapuram. Dharapuram sits strategically near the Palakkad Pass which would have been an important route between the east and west coasts. However, I would probably choose Chamarajanagar, which is much closer and also covers the other trade route I mapped here. Also, Chamarajanagar is much close to Santemarahalli, which was an important weekly village fair. Easier to get stuff.

For these reasons, I find it hard to believe that Mysore could reach its present state of (relative) importance by any organic means. It remains to be seen whether history validates my doubts. Turns out that it does. Firstly, a little bit about Mysore. Present day Mysore was previously called Puragadi (or Puragiri), and the region it was situated in was called Mahisuru Ashtagrama, consisting of the present Mysore-Hassan region. It was given by Chamaraja Wodeyar the Third to his third son Chamaraja Wodeyar the Fourth sometime in the 16th century. His two elder brothers died, and the whole region ruled by the Wodeyars thus came to be ruled by the person sitting in Puragiri.

However, it was not the seat of power as the region was ruled by the Vijayanagar Empire at the time, and its representative was positioned in Srirangapattana. Once the Empire fell apart, the then Wodeyar took over and shifted his capital to Srirangapattana. Obviously, Mysore was not very appealing to stay back. During the reign of Tippu Sultan, he went so far as to dismantle the fort that stood at the present day Mysore Palace and build a fort at nearby Nazarbad, which he hoped to make into a full-fledged city. So, again, Mysore was simply of no consequence to the people in power. It was only after Tippu was defeated and the Wodeyars reinstated that the fort was rebuilt (after dismantling the fort built at Nazarbad!). This was around 1800. So, for all practical purposes, the history of Mysore begins only 200 years ago.

Mysore did not remain the capital for long, as the British took over in 1831 due to (alleged) misrule by the ruler then, and Bangalore was made the capital, with its climate more suitable for the Europeans, and other things, to be mentioned in a later post. It again was given back to the Wodeyars in 1881, and Mysore again became the capital.

As you can see, Mysore, for most of its lifetime has been an ‘expendable’ city. This seems to be a feature of most Indian cities historically. They lived when they were under political patronage, and died as soon as it was taken away — they had no real base over which they could subsist. Exceptions were the trading ports along the Malabar and Coromandel. Mysore had to be ‘taken care of’ for nearly 50 years, and yet even to this day it is not the place to be if you are on the lookout for a job. Mysore developed in a much more saner and planned fashion due to this, which it will hopefully retain.

To trace Mysore’s trajectory is to trace the development of the Mysore region, which was reasonably isolated geographically by the Ghats on either side and the Krishna/ Tungabhadra on the northern side. That is for later.

Analyzing the City

Obviously, the previous two posts on trade routes from the Mysore State could not have been random posts, else they would have been posted under ‘Random’. They are part of an endeavour to understand Mysore city better, and in India (probably more than anywhere else), the past very strongly influences the present. However, the past here does not just mean political past, who was ruling and which war happened when, but also past climate, geography, customs and many other such factors.

Am on the verge of finishing the first volume of Fernand Braudel’s monumental series ‘Civilization and Capitalism’, which is called ‘The Structures of Everyday Life’. It is hard to recall when reading any history lit up so many bulbs in the head. The book is great not just because of his scholarship, nor his approach which is highly non-ideological, but also the fact that he holds a sympathetic view of all the objects of his study, unlike Eric Hobsbawm’s ill concealed distaste for the middle class that he describes with such erudition in his monumental series.

Anyways, Braudel’s deep insight into the development of capitalism is this: Capitalism was a product of certain cities of the West, which wielded sufficient political power to govern themselves without the interference of the royalty. This freedom allowed them to experiment, try out new things which finally ended up as the finished product we today call capitalism. Eventually, all these city-states — Venice, Florence, London — came under the State, but they were so influential by that time that the State modelled itself along their lines as opposed to suppressing them. The continental cities were suppressed more than London, since England has had a long tradition of being liberal, which gave it that extra boost.

One of the fundamental features of the urban (as opposed to the rural) is also one of its most obvious ones — movement. The frenetic, mind-numbing movement of people, things and ideas to and from the city is what distinguishes it from any village. Thus, it makes sense to classify settlements based not only number of households, but on `certain features’ that make it urban (as the 1881 census of the Mysore State tries to emphasize). Many features characteristic of any city can be derived from the fact that the city is all about movement — for example, the anonymity of city life, its complete dependence on a market for its survival, the ever-changing fashions and tastes, the relative homogeneity of ideas and culture in and among cities are more or less all consequences that can be arrived at with some thinking.

The more frenetic the pace, the more influential the city politically, economically and culturally. This is apparent from seeing yesterday’s Florence and Venice or today’s Bangalore. Any city that is allowed to grow without restraint has inevitably taken the path to increase this pace for reasons unknown. Examples will follow in a later post. One of the most crippling factors to movement is inhomogeneity — changing currencies, weights and measures or topography, all hinder free movement. Thus, it is inevitable that being in the vicinity of an influential city involves homogenisation of some form or the other.

An example from the history of commerce will best illustrate this issue — the idea of an imaginary currency. Previously, coins of any kind had to have value — they were made from gold, silver or something of known value. Consider the case where a merchant daily transacts X units of coins. If each coin weighed M kgs, this would physically imply moving MX kgs of metal everyday. Obviously, this is not good if you want to move really large amounts of anything. Simple solution — invent a currency that is not real, but whose exchange value with a real currency is fixed somehow. Complete all your transactions and finally convert only the resultant into real money. This was in vogue in all places where commerce had reached such a pace to make MX unwieldy. Erstwhile Mysore also had such instruments. Nowadays, in India this is commonly called the Rupee. In fact the promotion of electronic currencies is simply the next obvious step in this trend, which is why Credit/Debit cards are all the rage nowadays. Here is money at the height of being imaginary — bits on some hard disk somewhere.

The fact that movement is more important than what moves is also implicit in the axiom of infinite substitutability in economics, which is a hotly debated topic within the field. Fisher’s notion of the velocity of money is a formalisation of this notion, and heralded the grand age of the monetary theory of economics.

For Braudel, big cities implied a movement of things and people (commercial towns) or ideas and people (political/cultural centres, like capitals). The classification is mine and not very realistic, but it will serve the purpose. However, in India, movement also serves another purpose — religion. So, we must add pilgrimage centres to this classification to complete the picture of towns and cities in India. Braudel’s contention is that most eastern cities belonged to the latter two boxes, and those belonging to the first category were so firmly held by kings that they simply were not able to get the freedom that the Western cities got, and therefore it was unlikely that there would be anything resembling an Industrial Revolution in the East. Of course, he qualifies this statement well, and it seems to be a reasonable statement. Why did the States have a stronger hold in the East? That is something for a later post, when I illustrate it taking Mysore as an example. Was it good or bad that India/China did not have an Industrial Revolution? We will never know. Going by present environmental trends, I would place my bets on the latter.

Buchanan’s Journey – 1

Buchanan’s Journey through south India immediately after the fall of Tippu is probably the best description of the lands and its people. For a pictorial representation, Robert Home’s ‘Select Views in Mysore’, which was essentially sketches of militarily important places, also done soon after Tippu’s defeat. One part of Buchanan’s journey is shown here, just to continue the previous post, showing another possible trade route, this time from Mysore to a place called Bhavani, very close to Erode, from where the route to Trichy would be similar to the one before. However, from Kollegal onwards was Madras Presidency in those times.