Afghanistan

While reading the book Solstice at Panipat by Uday Kulkrani over the last few days, I came across an interesting factoid – Afghanistan as a nation didn’t exist until around 1750, which was when the Persian Shah Nadir Shah was assassinated and the Afghan tribal chiefs got together in a “Loya Jirga” (Grand Assembly), where with the recommendation of a Pir, Ahmad Shah Abdali was made king, and given the title Durr-e-durrani (pearl of pearls).

Even during Abdali’s rule, Afghanistan was not particularly united but was only a loose federation of small tribal states. The country wouldn’t become “united” until the 19th Century when both the Russians and the British sought to develop it as a buffer state as part of the great game.

Given this background, it is no surprise that it has been virtually impossible to impose a National Government in Afghanistan without the support of foreign powers. Will be interesting to see what happens to the country after the US withdraws next year.

The Economics of Forts

I had first planned to write this post back in February 2012, when I visited the magnificent Kumbalgarh Fort in Southern Rajasthan (this was part of my bike ride around that state). However, I didn’t have a typing device handy, so I postponed the post, and it got postponed indefinitely until I visited the equally magnificent Chitradurga Fort in Karnataka recently.

The fort in Chitradurga is famous possibly because of the early 1970s Vishnuvardhan movie¬†Naagarahaavu (cobra) which is set in that city. A lot of the action in the movie takes place in and around the fort, and there is a famous song which is picturized in the fort. The song goes back in history, too, to the battle between Nawab Hyder Ali of Mysore and Madakari Nayaka of Chitradurga back in the 1770s, when after multiple attempts Hyder Ali finally managed to capture the fort. The heroine of the song is one “Onake Obavva” who slays a number of Hyder Ali’s soldiers entering the fort through a small gap in the rocks using her pestle, until she is attacked from behind and killed.

The fort at Chitradurga is popularly known as the “yELu suttina kOTe” or “seven layered fort”. This is not entirely correct. The fort has seven “layers” of walls only on the front side. At ¬†the back, where it is bordered by another hill, there are only two layers of walls. However, the terrain meant that the back was not easily approachable for invaders so most invasions happened through the front. In that sense, the name wasn’t so wrong.

I could write this post about the design of the fort itself (and there is a lot to talk about it -from the rain water harvesting to feed the moats, to the L-shaped design of the gates to the attention to detail in the positions of the soldiers and guards, and arrangements for their camps, and so forth). However, I would prefer here to talk about the economics of building the fort.

The Nayakas of Chitradurga initially started off as a vassal state to Vijayanagara. When Vijayanagara fell in 1565 following defeat at the Battle of Talikota, Chitradurga and the Nayakas became independent. The Nayakas ruled for over 200 years until they were defeated by Hyder Ali in the 1770s. During that period they built this magnificent fort. The question that arises, however, is about how they were able to finance it.

Building a fort with seven layers is no joke. Stones had to be quarried, cut and raised to build each wall. Considerable engineering and architectural acumen also went into the design of the fort itself. It apparently took several generations for the fort to get completed. Considering that there was little economic activity in and around Chitradurga those days apart from agriculture, one can only suppose that the state that built the fort was extractive.

On a visit to Bikaner last February, someone pointed out to me about the quality of the craftsmanship that went into creating the stone carvings in the palace there. “You will never get such quality nowadays”, this person surmised. I agreed with him, and my reasoning was that nobody is willing to pay for such intricacies nowadays. It is only in an extractive state where the taxpayer has no control over the state’s finances that a ruler can spend thus to beautify his own residence rather than spending on the development of the state itself. Where there is a “large coalition” whose support the ruler draws to stay in power, he is forced to invest in projects that benefit this large coalition at the expense of those that just benefit himself.

Wandering through the Chitradurga Fort on Sunday, I thought the expenses on developing the fort could be justified as simply a “large defence budget”. However, the problem with this hypothesis is that a fort doesn’t really provide ‘national security’. What a fort instead does is to make the capital city strong and defensible, but this comes at the cost of securing the borders. People outside the fort are perfectly susceptible to plunder and pillage by the invading party. All the fort does is to protect the capital and the treasury, and thus the king.

The next time you see a magnificent palace or a fort, think of the economic conditions in the state that built it. Think of how the structure might have been financed, and if so much could be spent on a structure such as this what the total size of the royal budget might have been. Then imagine what the tax rates might have been if the royal family managed that large a budget, especially when the kingdom in question was a rather small one like the ones at Chitradurga or Kumbalgarh. Then decide if you would have wanted to live and do business in that age.

After two hundred years of solid resistance, the Chitradurga Fort finally fell to Hyder Ali, in the old fashioned way. Hyder Ali simply bribed some of Madakari Nayaka’s officers, and got them to switch sides. A path through the back that was normally used to supply milk and curd to the fort was discovered, and with the complicity of some of Madakari Nayaka’s officers, Hyder Ali invaded through this route. And the fort fell.

Radhakrishna, the tourist guide who showed us around the fort on Sunday put it best. “Of what use is two walls or seven walls”, he said, “if you can’t exercise control over your own officers?”

 

Rice to coffee to programming

I just finished reading Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of Seven Rivers, a book on the history of India’s geography. In most places it turns into a book on history rather than a book of geography, but has lots of interesting fundaes (using that word since I’m unable to find a perfect synonym in English). It is basically a retelling of Indian history with a focus on how what we currently know as India came to be, and the various expansions and contractions in the country over the years.

This is not a review of the book (unless you consider the preceding paragraph as a review). The purpose of this post is about one interesting concept I found in the book. Sanyal mentions that the traditional name for Java (the Indonesian island which houses Djakarta, among others) is “yavadwipa”. Now, while online dictionaries that I just consulted say that “yava” is the Sanskrit word for “barley” or “barleycorn”, the only other time I’ve come across the word has been while performing my parents’ death ceremonies – where the priest chants something to the effect of “offer yava” and then asks you to take some rice in your hand and wash it off with a spoonful of water. It is possible, though, that “yava” simply means “grain” and can refer to any kind of grain, including rice and barley.

Earlier in the book, Sanyal mentions that while wheat and barley originated in the fertile crescent (in and around modern Iraq), where they were first cultivated, rice has an eastern origin. Rice, he mentions, was probably first cultivated in South East Asia and came to India from the east. Taking this in conjunction with the fact that the Sanskrit name for Java is yavadwipa, can we posit that it meant “island of rice”? It may not be that rice originated in Java, but it is fully possible that Ancient and Medieval India imported rice from Java, thanks to which the island got its name.

So over the years “yavadwipa” became simply “yava” which I posit that the Dutch wrote as “Java” (considering that in most of continental Europe J is pronounced as Y), which gives the island its current name. What makes this nomenclature more interesting is that Java is now a major producer of coffee, and if you go by Wikipedia, some Americans refer to all coffee as “java”. It is interesting how the same island which was known for a particular kind of food in the ancient and middle ages is now known for another name of food!

Maybe I should start a brand called “rice coffee”.

The Bangalore Advantage

Last night, Pinky and I had this long conversation discussing aunts and uncles and why certain aunts and uncles were “cooler” or “more modern” compared to other aunts or uncles. I put forward my theory that in every family there is one particular generation with a large generation gap, and while in families like mine or Pinky’s this large gap occurred at our generation, these “cooler” aunts’ and uncles’ families had the large gap one generation earlier. Of course, this didn’t go far in explaining why the gap was so large in that generation in the first place.

Then Pinky came up with this hypothesis backed by data that was hard to refute, and the rest of the conversation simply went in both of us trying to confirm the hypotheses. Most of these “cool” aunts and uncles, Pinky pointed out, had spent most of their growing up years in Bangalore, and this set them apart from the more traditional relatives, who spent at least a part of their teens outside the city. The correlation was impeccable, and in an effort to avoid the oldest mistake in statistics, we sought to identify reasons that might explain this difference.

While some of the more “traditional” relatives had grown up in villages, we discovered that a large number of them had actually gone to high school/college in rather large but second-tier towns of Karnataka (this includes Mysore). So the rural-urban angle was out. Of course Bangalore was so much larger than these other towns so size alone might have been enough to account for the difference, but the rather large gap in worldviews between those that grew up in Bangalore, and those that grew up in Mysore (which, then, wasn’t so much smaller), and the rather small gap between the Mysoreans and those that grew up in small towns (like Shimoga or Bhadravati) meant that this big-city hypothesis was unfounded.

We then started talking about the kind of advantages that Bangalore (specifically) offered over other towns of Karnataka, and the real reason was soon staring us in the face. Compared to any other town in Karnataka (then, and now), Bangalore was significantly more cosmopolitan. I’ve spoken on this blog before about Bangalore having been two cities (I’ve put the LJ link rather than the NED link so that you can enjoy the comments) but the important thing was that after independence and the Britishers’ flight, the two cities got combined into one big heterogeneous city.

Relatives growing up in Mysore or Shimoga typically went to college with people from large similar backgrounds. Everyone there spoke Kannada, and the dominance of Brahmins in those towns was so overwhelming that these relatives could get through their college lives hanging out solely with other people from largely similar family backgrounds. This meant there was no new “cultural education” that college offered, and the same world views that had been prevalent in these peoples’ homes while they were growing up persisted.

It was rather different for people who grew up in Bangalore. Firstly, people from East Bangalore didn’t speak Kannada (at least, not particularly fluently), which meant English was the lingua franca. More importantly, there was greater religious, casteist and cultural diversity in the classroom, which made it so much more likely for people to interact and make friends with classmates from backgrounds rather different from one’s own. Back in those days of extreme cultural conservatism, this simple exposure to other cultures was invaluable in changing one’s world view and making one more liberal.

It is in the teens that one’s cultural norms are shaped, and exposure to different cultures at that age is critical to formation of one’s world-view. In our generation, this difference has probably played out in the kind of schools one goes to. However, the distinction in conservatism (based on school/college/ area) isn’t so stark as to come up with a unified theory like the one we’ve come up here. Sticking on to the previous generation, what other reasons can you think of that makes certain aunts and uncles “cooler” than others?

Vishnu and Shiva temples

This post may add to Aadisht’s contention of Shaivism being superior to Vaishnavism. Earlier this month I’d gone with family to this place called Avani, some 100 km east of Bangalore. The main centre of attraction there was this 10th century Shiva temple that had been built by the Gangas.

As we got off the car, I was pleased to see the signage of the Archaeological Society of India. I’m in general not a big fan of temples. I find them to be overwhelmed with “devotees”, and way too noisy, and more importantly for some reason I’m not allowed to use my camera inside temples. So I was pleased that this being an ASI temple there won’t be any worship in there and so I can take pictures peacefully.

As we entered, though, I saw a number of priestly figures standing around the entrance, and one of them shouted “no photo in temple, no photo in temple” (i was in bermudas and a t-shirt, and wearing a backpack and camera bag so looked foreign types). I just nodded and went on. And then another priest accompanied us, and performed the pooja to the idol.

The temple at Avani is that of Ramalingeshwara, a version of Shiva. Now, the studness with Shiva temples is that the idol is extremely simple. It’s just a penis. And it’s not hard to make, and more importantly it’s hard to break, since it’s monolithic, and usually without any portions that can easily break off. Contrast this with Vishnu temples, where the idols are of actual human figures, with arms and legs and ears and noses and fingers – all made of relatively thin pieces of stone, which makes it easier to break.

So think of yourself as an invader who for some reason wants to defile a temple by destroying its idols. The very nature of idols in a Vishnu temple makes your job simple. All you need is to give one strong hit which will break off a nose or a toe or a finger – not much damage, but enough to defile the temple and render it useless for the purpose of worship. But get to a Shiva temple, and you see one large penis-shaped stone in there, and you realize it’s not worth your patience to try break it down. So you just loot the vaults and go your way.

And hence, due to the nature of the idols in these temples, Shiva temples are more resilient to invasion and natural disaster compared to Vishnu temples. Aadisht, you can be happy.