Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Komans of Calicut

I first heard about the Koman family from the writings of Mr Jayaprakash Mallay. I obtained more information later from the blog post, Hamlet in Monsoon. Very little has been known about this family who belonged to Calicut and fought many social disabilities to gain social and political recognition.
The story starts with Meppan Chandroth Koman (M C Koman) who was born in September 1865 to M C Mangathi (mother) from Moonnalingal (which is where the present General Hospital is situated in Calicut) and Malikayil Chandappan (father) who belonged to Thayyil, Kannur. There are no records of his childhood and schooling except that after passing his school final examination, he did a course in Apothecary.
Apothecary is a position just below the qualified physician and combines within it, the skills of a pharmacist, nurse and dresser ( no wonder, compounders in rural Kerala were called 'darasar', in an era when they did most of the doctor's work). In England, apothecaries attended to most of the rural population where the services of a qualified doctor were not available. They had their own regulatory body, and some of the distinguished apothecaries included the romantic poet, John Keats who was admitted to the Apothecaries’ Hall in 1816 after passing the examinations; and the writer Agatha Christie who passed out in 1917. In fact, it is believed that her work as a pharmacy assistant at the University College Hospital, London helped her acquire a good knowledge of poisons which she used effectively in plotting her novels.
When East India Company established itself in India it set up an Indian Medical Service (IMS) exclusively manned by Europeans and dedicated to the treatment of Europeans in civilian and military positions. Parallelly, an Indian Subordinate Medical Service (ISMS) was also formed to provide medical service to the Indian Natives – a service which lasted till Independence.
ISMS consisted of two classes of employees: the Apothecaries (including assistant apothecaries) who were warrant officers, mostly Europeans or their descendants; and Dressers ( including assistant dressers) chosen entirely from natives who ranked equal to private soldiers.
In 1835, a Medical School was established in Madras in order to impart formal education to the above two categories. The Medical School was expected to influence the natives in many ways. Firstly, natives were thought to be averse to modern medicine and depended on ‘the ignorance and empiricism of their own practitioners’. Secondly, introducing them to anatomical dissection (‘a science, which, at present, is absolutely unknown among the Natives of India’) would remove all prejudices in native minds. (The policymakers had evidently not heard of the work of Susruta!) Finally, as all instructions will be imparted in the English language, ‘ripe scholars in that tongue will be formed and thus they may be weaned from the study of their own authors, from whom little but error and superstition is to be gained’.(1)
The 2-year Apothecary course in Madras Medical School ( later designated Madras Medical College) consisted of Anatomy, Materia Medica, Medicine and Surgery. Later, Midwifery, Physiology, Ophthalmology and Chemistry were added and the course was extended to three years.
That Koman, hailing from Calicut and belonging to the fishermen community could get himself selected for such a rigorous course is a tribute to his quest for knowledge which he demonstrated throughout his career.
Koman proceeded to get enrolled as a stipendary student at the Medical School for the Licentiate Diploma (LM&S) which would make him a full-fledged doctor. According to Mr Jayaprakash, the author of Sir Koman’s biography, the Madras Mail of 1884 reported that out of the 10 selected for the Apothecary Examination (presumably from Malabar), 9 were Nairs and Thiyyas and the 10th was Koman, a Mukkuva from the coastal fishermen community.

The significance of this may be lost on many readers today. But,  one has to compare the caste relations which existed in Malabar with that of Travancore which still practised a rigorous caste system which discriminated against the so-called lower castes.
Around the same time, an Ezhava youth named Padmanabhan Palpu qualified in the entrance examination for admission to the Travancore Medical School but was denied admission on account of his being an ‘avarna’. He proceeded to Madras and joined the Medical College in 1885 and obtained LM&S in 1889. But even that did not help… Travancore did not offer him a medical job for the same reason. This was long before Swami Vivekananda toured Kerala and described the place as a lunatic asylum (for details of the Swami’s tour and his statements, one may refer to
Dr Palpu went on to found the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) with the blessings of Sri Narayana Guru. 
After passing the LM&S diploma in 1887, M C Koman, served his bond period of three years (as required by the terms of his scholarship) in several municipal dispensaries. He was then posted as the Vaccination Superintendent at the Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy, Madras, where he was in charge of the manufacture and supply of smallpox vaccine. He was succeeded by Dr.Palpu who worked with the Madras Medical Department for about two years before shifting to Mysore Medical Service.
Dr Koman had worked at the Government General Hospital, Madras for a decade (1890-1900).
He was then posted as Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Madras Medical College. Dr Koman was quite active in the Freemason Lodge activity and became the Mastermason on three occasions. He was only the second Indian Mastermason of the Lodge, the first being Prince B R Thondaiman.
In 1921 Dr Koman was knighted with the title Rao Bahadur at a function presided over by the Duke of Connaught. He passed away in 1925 at the age of 60.
Dr Koman is remembered today for his report on indigenous medicine. As we saw above in the constitution of the Indian Medical Service (IMS and ISMS), there was always a bias in favour of western medicine and a degree of contempt for indigenous medicine due to its lack of scientific methodology. This bias was used as a weapon by the Empire to promote its hegemonic objectives, by de-legitimising indigenous medical knowledge.
However, as World War I progressed it became evident that whatever supplies of European medicines were available,  had to be diverted to the battlefront and India would not be able to get sufficient supplies. This, coupled with incessant complaints from the practitioners of indigenous medicine about being neglected by the colonial regime, led the Madras government to appoint a committee to direct the research and investigation of the pharmacological action of Indian drugs.
Initially, Dr Srinivasamurthi was entrusted with the task, but he had to be drafted for military duty. It was in his place that Dr Koman was appointed on 12th July 1918 to conduct the investigation. He studied all the available literature on Ayurveda in Malayalam, Tamil and English and visited many ayurvedic physicians to understand their drug manufacturing practices. He also tried out many of these medicines on his patients in the General Hospital, Madras, taking care not to try it on serious patients.
In his first of three reports, he found that of the 53 patients on whom he tried indigenous drugs, 35 patients benefitted. Ultimately, in his final report submitted in August 1920, he recommended the inclusion of 40 indigenous drugs in the lectures on Materia Medica at the Madras Medical College.
Nevertheless, Ayurvedic practitioners strongly reacted to Koman's report, particularly his method of trying out the efficacy of drugs. Critics also pointed out that he covered only the south and west of the country and did not explore the rich heritage of indigenous medical knowledge in Bengal.
Particular objection was taken to Koman's statement in the report that 'the science of Hindu medicine is still sunk in a state of empirical obscurity'. Again, he stated: 'I am constrained to observe here that their hypothesis with reference to the classification and aetiology of diseases is entirely out of date and will not stand the test of the rational science of the present day'. Ayurvedic vaidyas and their bodies accused Koman of trying to please the colonial masters by denigrating the age-old science of longevity and wellness.
Dr Koman passed away in Febrauary, 1925.

                                 *                                   *                           *                                 *

Dr Koman had two sons and one daughter. The elder son, Meppan Chandroth Balachandra Koman (Balachandra Koman in official records) was born on 14th May 1897. He matriculated in 1917 from Presentation Convent School, George Town, Madras. After graduating from Madras Christian College, he proceeded to become a Barrister-at-Law from the Middle Temple, London. Simultaneously, he qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1923 and was at the Queen's College, Cambridge as a probationer. Back from his training in England, Balachandra Koman did the usual field as well as Secretariat postings in the erstwhile Madras province. In 1935, he was deputed to the judicial wing of ICS where he continued till retirement. 
Balachandra Koman ICS was elevated to the Madras High Court as an Additional Judge in 1945. Within six months he was shifted as Judge of the Sessions in Madras. Madras then had a strange system of a High Court Judge presiding over the Sessions Court where heinous crimes like murders were tried.
It was when Balachandra Koman was presiding over the Sessions that the Alavandar Case came before him. An appeal was filed against Koman's judgement to the division bench presided over by ASP Ayyar. ( The rich details of the case has been given by Maddy in his blog
For some strange reason, Koman was not made a permanent judge of the High Court, unlike his many other colleagues in the ICS like Rajagopal, ASP Ayyar and P T Raman Nair. There are suggestions that Koman, the handsome bachelor was romantically involved with the daughter of the then Governor-General and this proved to be undoing. Anyhow, he retired as District Judge in Chingalpet in 1958.
Calicut remembers Balachandra Koman for his generous gift of 7 1/2  acres of land in Moonnalingal for construction of the Government General Hospital on the beach. The land, named Mukkuvathodi (fishermen's plot) was probably a poramboke land in the possession of the nearby temple of which Koman was a trustee. Anyhow, it was surrendered to the Government without compensation. 
Koman's elder sister, Dr Vijayalakshmi Koman (1894-1975) also had a cosmopolitan education. After graduating from Madras, she proceeded to Cambridge University for higher studies. On return, she joined the Madras Education Service and worked in the field of teacher training at the Lady Willingdon Training College, Madras. She then became the Professor of English at Queen Mary's College. She was appointed the Principal of this college in July 1950 and continued in the post for five years, retiring in May 1955. Her presence encouraged many aristocratic families of Calicut and Kannur to send their daughters for college education to Madras Queen Mary's.
The younger brother, Major Somanatha Koman was also sent to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Camberley where British army officers receive their initial training. Somanatha Koman passed out as a lieutenant and served the Indian Army with distinction.
What an illustrious family!

[1] All quotes from The Madras Journal of Literature and Science,(1838) edited by J C Morris pp.265-66
Read more ►

Friday, May 1, 2020

Dr. Pulney Andy in Calicut

Calicut has had a long list of distinguished visitors. We all know about the visit of Ibn Batutta, Cheng Ho (Zheng He), and Vasco da Gama, as their visits had been well- advertised and documented. Then there were some who did not choose to publicize their visits. Among them were Somerset Maugham, the poets Laurence Hope, Keki Daruwala and Virginia Jealous, and most recently, writer Aravind Adiga ( frequently).

Then there are those who came to Calicut for work and distinguished themselves later. One of them was Lachlan Macquarie who was a junior captain of the British army posted in Calicut. He built a house here ( Staffa House, named after his native village in Scotland) and settled down with his young wife Jane. He had no inkling that he would, later on, become the Governor of New South Wales and be honoured as one of the architects of modern Australia. (more on him at

Dr Pulney Andy was one among them. He came to Calicut in 1860 as the Inspector of Vaccination, but within three years he had published some research papers and sorted out his spiritual and emotional dilemma by seeking conversion to Christianity and even founding a new nationalist church!

In these times of the pandemic Covid 19 caused by the SARS-CoV-2, it is important to recall that the world had been ravaged by many epidemics even before the first pandemic was recognized in the shape of the Spanish Flu (1918-20). In fact, before the flu, smallpox was the major epidemic which used to decimate large segments of the population in Malabar, as in the rest of the world. Although smallpox was worshipped as the gift of Goddess in some parts of the country, it was also treated as a disease for which indigenous remedy existed in the shape of variolation.

Representation of Smallpox

Variolation was the practice of infecting humans with tiny bits of smallpox pustules so as to gain immunity. This was practised in Eastern India from time immemorial and was probably introduced from China. Itinerant Brahmins, mostly from Odisha, were the traditional practitioners of this form of inoculation.

We had come across the surgeon John Zephania Holwell (1711-1798) in another context as the grossly untruthful survivor and narrator of the notorious 'Black Hole of Calcutta' which provided an excuse for the East India Company to stage-managed event called the Battle of Plassey in 1757.(Please see
However, the Irish surgeon was more truthful in his description of the practice of variolation in East India. 
The paper published by Holwell in 1767 describing the practice of variolation in mid-eighteenth century Bengal is believed to be the most influential account of the practice. According to Holwell, variolation was conducted by a specific group of itinerant Brahman inoculators. Up to a month before variolation the “patients” were prepared through a diet that excluded fish, milk and ghee (clarified butter). The Brahmans preferred to variolate males in the arm and females in the shoulder, and the operation itself was described as follows:
The operator takes a piece of cloth in his hand … and with it gives a dry friction on the part intended for inoculation, for the space of eight or ten minutes; then with a small instrument he wounds by many slight touches, about the compass of a silver groat, just making the smallest appearance of blood. Then opening a linen double rag, (which he always keeps in a cloth round his waist,) he takes from thence a small pledget of cotton charged with the variolous matter, which he moistens with two or three drops of the Ganges water, and applies it to the wound, fixing it on a slight bandage, and ordering it to remain on for six hours without being moved, then the bandage to be taken off, and the pledget to remain until it falls off itself.

Variolation picked up in Malabar also. From a mere 859 cases covered between 1800 and 1802, the coverage increased to 4408 in the next two year. However, it was with the introduction of cowpox (brought out in 1798 by Edward Jenner) that the speed of vaccination picked up all over India including Madras province under which Malabar fell. Alexander Mackenzie, the garrison surgeon at Fort St. George, Madras showed missionary zeal in ensuring that not only the European troops but every Indian civilian should be covered by the vaccine. This culminated in Mackenzie being appointed the first Superintendent of Vaccination for the Madras Presidency. 

As the campaign got more intensive, an Inspector of Vaccination for Malabar was appointed and Dr Pulney Andy was ordered to proceed to Calicut to occupy the position. 

But, who was this Dr Pulney Andy? He was born as Palaniandy at Trichinopoly in 1831. After passing his FA ( equivalent to the Intermediate course) from Madras Christian College, he joined the Madras Medical College for a medical degree. Between 1850 and 1857, the medical degree awarded was known as Medicinae Baccalaureus et Chirurgiae Magister (MBCM). It was only from 1857, when the Madras University was founded, that the degree of MBBS came to be awarded. 
At the Madras Medical College, Andy came under the influence of Dr Hugh Francis Clarke Cleghorn who was the Professor of Botany and Materia Medica.  The Scotsman is more renowned as the person who developed Forestry as a science in the Madras Presidency. Andy proceeded to Scotland after his graduation and obtained the MD degree from the University of St. Andrews in 1870, just five months after his arrival in the UK. He also qualified for Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS).

But those five months were sheer torture for Andy. He used to unburden his travails in long letters he would send to his mentor Dr Cleghorn which are preserved in the 'Cleghorn Papers' at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He was short of money and had approached his people in Madras. Instead of sending money, his relatives threatened him that he would be excommunicated if he did not preserve his caste! He had to borrow from his mentor to arrange his admission in Scotland. He faced many prejudices from his teachers as well. He desperately wanted to join the Indian Medical Service, but he was not even invited for the examination. Ultimately, he managed to get an appointment as Inspector of Vaccines, Calicut, a post specially created because of the severity of the epidemic in the area.

The series of disappointments did not deter him from working towards alleviating the misery of the local population. Apart from launching a vigorous vaccination campaign, he found time to undertake original research in the curative properties of local herbs. In this, he was probably influenced by the keen interest showed by his mentor in the field of botanical research. 

He published a booklet entitled 'The protective influence of vaccination', a paper on 'The use of margosa leaves in smallpox ( published in the Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, Vol eleven, 1867), and a paper titled 'On branched palms in southern India,' published in the Linnean Society of London (1869).

 His paper on Margosa (neem) gives an idea of how meticulously he had researched before announcing his findings. He was then working as the Vaccination Superintendent of Travancore and he noticed the large number of smallpox cases in Alwaye. He picked up a few cases where the relatives had abandoned the patients to their fate, by leaving them in thatched sheds away from habitation. Andy tried a concoction of neem leaves and liquorice root and made pills to be administered to the patients. As per his paper in the Madras Quarterly Journal, out of the 14 patients administered this pill, 12 had not only survived but had a less painful recovery. Of the two who died, one had other complications, while the other was already in a very advanced condition before treatment could be initiated by Andy.

While Andy was engaged in his professional tasks, often beyond the call of duty, he was also going through considerable emotional and spiritual stress. He had promised his mother before leaving for the UK that he would remain a Hindu as long as he was abroad. Despite this, his family continued to taunt him for having given up their caste by crossing the seas. 

Frustrated, he left his religion and got baptised at the Basel Evangelical Mission at Calicut in 1863. At least, this one gesture pleased his mentor, Cleghorn. On hearing about Andy's conversion, he wrote to his friend ( and probably Andy's benefactor), John Balfour who was the Keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh:

My dear Balfour
By this mail I send you the Report of the Basel Evangelical Missy. Society for 1863 – at p. 45 you will see a notice of the baptism of Dr Pulny √Éndy – Inspector of Vaccination & formerly one of my pupils in the Madras Medical College – I recd. the intelligence a fortnight ago – and it has filled my heart with joy – Perhaps you remember my receiving several letters from him, when I was under your roof in 1861. He was then in London in pecuniary difficulties – his Hindoo relatives having cut off his allowance because they were told that he lived in lodgings in Smithfield and they intimated that he cd. not recover his caste on return to Madras. After consulting you and Mr W. Elliot I sent him £5 – and wrote several times expressing a hope that his visit to England might be blessed to him – I afterwards found him out in London & again in Madras – and we hear that he appears to walk worthy of his calling and to set a bright example to his countrymen. He long ago repaid the money wch. was required to pay his graduation fees at St Andrew's.
H. Cleghorn

Andy soon got disenchanted with the Western traditions of Basel Evangelical Mission. In an attempt to wean away Christianity from such practices, he established his own National Church of India based on  Indian symbolism and culture. This was much before the National Movement which had started in a modest manner with the establishment of a western-inspired Indian National Congress in 1885. However, this brave act of reformation was short lived. By 1898 Andy's church faded almost into oblivion.

Andy's frustration increased with the failure of his experiment as much as with the continued hostile attitude of his near ones. He sought retirement in 1886 and left for England where he settled down after marrying an Englishwoman. However, he still kept in touch with his National Church which did not survive his death in 1909.

Andy was survived by a son Stephen Andy who lived in Pondicherry and a daughter. He passed away in England in 1909.

1.   Variolation, Vaccination and Popular Resistance in Early Colonial South India; Niels Brimnes, Ph.D
2. 'Pathbreaking Indian doctor'; Muthiah, The Hindu, 11 March 2013
3. 'First Indian doctor with foreign degree', A Raman, Madras Musings, Feb 16-28, 2013
4. Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, Vol.eleven, 1867 

Read more ►

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Different Sort of Mission - The Story of Basel Mission in Malabar

When Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498, he had made clear his agenda - 'Pepper and Christ', in that order. He had been commissioned by the his King to look for a secure and economical source for pepper, to break the monopoly of the Venetian middlemen and the Moorish traders. Then there was the Papal directive to look for the Christian kingdom in the East, ruled by the fabled Prester John. 
Gama was true to his word. Despite the initial set backs, the Portuguese voyages made enormous profits from the trading of spices. The peaceful trading days of Arab merchants had ended for ever; in its place the Portuguese had sought to impose a monopoly backed up by  gun power. A dispassionate observer like Voltaire stated that, after the year 1500 there was no pepper to be obtained in India that was "not dyed red with blood". As M N Pearson had recorded, around 1515, Portugal made about one million cruzados from the trade in spices, equal to all of its ecclesiastical revenues and double the value of its trade in gold and metals.
The Jesuits who came with the Portuguese had their own agenda of proselytisation which they pursued, with force, where warranted. Interestingly, the Society of Jesus also traded in spices and it seems nearly 16 per cent of the Jesuits' annual income in the seventeenth century was derived from eastern spices!
The British who stepped in as the rulers of Malabar after the defeat of Tipu Sultan also continued their colonial strategy of revenue farming which they had perfected in Bengal a few decades earlier.
It was into this exploitative milieu that a new Mission with very different ideas made its entry. A heterogenous group of believers in the remote German-Swiss town of Basle were inspired by the Moravian Mission experiment of autonomous community living at Labrador, Canada and by the tenets of the Pietist Movement, and had established a society called Evangelical Missionary Society in 1816. The group included clergymen, businessmen and bankers. Their basic objective was to train evangelists.
When the first three missionaries landed in Calicut on 14th October, 1834, they had no grandiose plans for establishing an industrial community. But in time, they not only introduced modern manufacturing into Calicut but also attempted - not very successfully- to introduce social transformation of the caste ridden Malabar society. How this Mission grew in time from its modest beginnings to an industrial complex, owning at its peak several factories in almost a dozen locations is the subject of a fascinating book authored by Jaiprakash Raghaviah. The book, 'Faith and Industrial Transformation', was released the other day in Calicut by Prof. M G S Narayanan, eminent historian and the President of Calicut Heritage Forum.
The book is a scholarly work which sequentially deals with the origins of the Basel Mission, its arrival in Malabar and South Kanara, its successful experiments in converting indigenous crafts into organised industrial ventures and its attempts at social engineering. The study also makes an assessment of the Mission in other fields like health care, linguistics and education.
Although the product of years of painstaking research - into original sources of the Mission records hitherto not accessed - the book reads like a breezy novel. It is indispensable reading for anyone who is interested in the history of Calicut during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Read more ►

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

How Abu Hasan from Yemen reached Calicut


Calicut was the favourite destination of Yemeni merchants even after the Europeans arrived. Traders from Hadramaut came in large numbers, attracted by the favourable climate for trade and the warm welcome accorded to them by the Zamorin. Barbosa has recorded in some detail the approach of the Zamorin to overseas traders: “the king gave each one (Moorish merchant) a Nair to guard and serve him, a Chetty scribe for his accountant and to take care of his property and a broker for his trade”. These Hadrami traders were followed by preachers who also settled down in Calicut. 

Abu Hasan was from Kaukaban in interior Yemen, not far away from Tarim. The story of how he reached Calicut is one of the 1001 stories of the Arabian Nights. We follow the 1885 edition of ‘The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night’, by Richard F Burton (Shammar Edition).

This collection of (mostly bawdy) tales contains the story of ‘How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’. The hero, Abu Hasan belonged to the Fazli tribe in the city of Kaukaban in Yemen. He had left the Badawi life and had settled down in the town. He had become quite prosperous through trade. His wife had died young and his friends persuaded him to marry again. As was the practice, he approached the old women of his locality who procure matches. His marriage was solemnised with a beautiful young girl. It was the night of the wedding-banquet.

It is best now to borrow from the extravagant description of the scene which only Burton can conjure up: The whole house was thrown open to feasting: there were rices of five several colours, and sherbets of as many more; and kids stuffed with walnuts and almonds and pistachios and a camel-colt roasted whole. So they ate and drank and made mirth and merriment; and the bride was displayed in her seven dresses and one more, to the women, who could not take their eyes off her. At last, the bridegroom was summoned to the chamber where she sat enthroned; and he rose slowly and with dignity from his divan; but in so doing, for that he was over full of meat and drink, lo and behold! he let fly a fart, great and terrible.Thereupon each guest turned to his neighbour and talked aloud and made as though he had heard nothing, fearing for his life. But a consuming fire was lit in Abu Hasan’s heart; so he pretended a call of nature; and , in lieu of seeking the bride-chamber, he went down to the house-court and saddled his mare and rode off, weeping bitterly through the shadow of the night.

Burton thought it appropriate here to explain the ‘fearing for his life’ in the above description. Why should anyone who heard the loud report pretend as though he had heard nothing? Burton finds it ‘curious and ethnologically valuable’. For, according to him, the Badawi who eructates as a civility, has a mortal hatred of crepitus ventris; and were a by-stander to laugh at its accidental occurrence, he would at once be cut down as a “pundonor”. 

Getting back to Abu Hasan: In time he reached Lahej where he found a ship ready to sail for India; so he shipped on board and made Calicut of Malabar. Here he met with many Arabs, especially Hazramis, who recommended him to the King; and this King (who was a Kafir) trusted him and advanced him to the captainship of his body-guard. He remained ten years in all solace and delight of life; at the end of which he was seized with home-sickness;….

Fixing the date of the Arabian Nights is problematic. Scholars observe that the origins of this wondrous collection could be traced to Indian and later Persian collections. During the 900 odd years that the stories of Arabian Nights have grown, a large number of additions and interpolations got included. 

It is now accepted that the Abu Hasan story was one such interpolation successfully carried out by Burton who had a keen eye for the scurrilous and the putrid, particularly in Oriental norms and mores. Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights - A Companion (Tauris, 2010) is categorical : “As far as I can tell, there is no Arab original for the story of ‘How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’ ( which appears in volume five). It is a European story, which Burton naughtily smuggled into his translation of the Nights.” 

Jim Dawson, the author of ‘Who Cut the Cheese? - A Cultural History of the Fart (Ten Speed Press, 1999) similarly observes: “Some scholars even claim that “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’ didn’t exist in the original Arabic book, but rather was fabricated by Richard Burton himself”. 

While doing so, Burton appeared to have included his local knowledge. For instance, he had visited Calicut in 1848 and had heard the stories about the Zamorin’s cosmopolitan governance and the Hadrami presence. 

The Hadrami Sufi migration to Calicut ( they followed the trading community) is quite recent. The Jifri  family of Thirurangadi were the first documented migration and this was around the 1740s, hardly 100 years before Burton himself visited Calicut. (Please see our blog post The most interesting twist in Burton’s story is the reference to Calicut - in other versions of the story, Abu Hasan was stated to have boarded the ship to the Indies.

In our preoccupation with Burton, we seem to have forgotten the climax of the story. A home-sick Hasan returns home after ten long years spent in Calicut. On landing in  Makalla of Hazramaut, Abu Hasan dons the rags of a religious man and proceeds to his native place of Kaukaban. He was obviously not recognised by the villagers, but yet he kept listening to chance conversations to make sure that every one had forgotten about his disgrace ten years ago. Let Burton complete the story: Allah grant that my case be not remembered by them! He listened carefully for seven nights and seven days, till it so chanced that, as he was sitting at the door of a hut, he heard the voice of a young girl saying,”O my mother, tell me the day when I was born; for such an one of my companions is about to take an omen for me”. And the mother answered, “thou was born, O my daughter, on the very night when Abu Hasan farted’.! Mortified, Abu Hasan, returns to India forever.

Read more ►

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Nila School of Mathematics

One has heard of the Kerala School of Mathematics and its lone stellar performer, Madhava of Sangramagrama. He and his disciples and grand disciples( if one may say so, to refer to the lineage of disciples) , Parameswara, Neelakantha Somayaji, Jyeshthadeva, Sankara Varier, Achyutha Pisharoti and others worked on trigonometry, calculus and geometry centuries before these branches were known to the western world.

But, Nila School? This was the topic of a stimulating lecture by Dr. N K Sundareswaran, Professor, Department of Sanskrit, Calicut University. Hailing from Palakkad, he was initiated into Sanskrit and Yajurveda by his father in the traditional manner. Later he graduated in Mathematics and obtained his Master’s and Doctorate in Sanskrit from Calicut University. He has been teaching and guiding research for more than a quarter of a century. His doctoral thesis is on Nilakantha Somayaji’s contributions to astronomy.
He took us through the main dramatis personae of the Nila School, which in effect, comprised all the above worthies, excluding Madhava of Sangramagramam. How did this happen? A lone genius from Irinjalakkuda and all his disciples and successors from a remote group of villages more than 50 kms. north of the place?
 We know about Madhava (c.1340-c1425) mostly from the work of later mathematicians. Traditionally, he was believed to have been an Embranthiri ( a Tuluva Brahmin) from Aloor, near Irinjalakkuda in Trissur district. Most earlier writers had given a convoluted interpretation of the name ‘Sangramagramam’ to mean Irinjalakkuda/Koodalmanikyam.
 But, Prof. Sundareswaran, following Prof. P P Divakaran (formerly of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) would prefer to interpret Sangamagramam to mean Kootallur, a village close to Ponnani. The literal translation of Sangamagramam is Kootallur. Also, the village and more particularly, the Namboodiri Illam ( Kutalloor Mana) has a long tradition of learning even to the present century. It is situated at the confluence of the rivers Nila and Tootha, which suggest the name Kootallur, a village at the confluence.
If it is accepted that Madhava of Sangamagrama belonged to Kootallur, then everything falls into place, as all the other mathematicians were from neighbouring villages such as Tripparangodu, Trikkandiyur, Alathiyur etc. (Incidentally, Prof. PPD suggests that Tirunavaya also used to be and is sometimes still referred to a Trimurtisangamam on account of the presence, on either bank of the river, of temples dedicated to the Hindu trinity.)
Madhava’s chief contribution was the discovery of the infinite series for the trigonometric functions of sine, cosine, tangent and arctangent. The same series were developed in Europe for the first time by James Gregory in 1667, more than two hundred years after Madhava. The world of mathematics has acknowledged this and the series is now known as Madhava-Gregory-Lleibniz series.( Leibniz only re-obtained the formula for pi which had already been obtained by Madhava.)
Vatasseri Parameswara ( c.1380-1460) hailed from Alathiyur, near Tirur and was the direct disciple of Madhava. He was an astrologer as well and suggested improvements to the findings of Aryabhata, Bhaskara, Govindasvami and others through his copious commentaries. He was also known as the father of the Drig ganita system which is a system of astronomical computations considered more accurate that the then existing Parahita system. His contribution was in proving theories through observation. Damodara was the son and pupil of Parameswara and was also a notable mathematician and astronomer.
Nilakantha Somayaji ( 1444-1520?) was Damodara’s disciple. Born in Kelalloor mana in Trikkandiyur, Nilakantha was closely associated with the Sree Rama Temple in Alathiyur, (which is more famous for its upa devata, Hanuman.
Nilakantha’s major work was the Tantrasangraha written in 1500 which was principally an astronomical treatise. His theories are, however, without proofs or explanations of the logic. For this, we have to turn to his disciple, Jyesthadeva.
Jyesthadeva (c1500-c1575), the disciple of both Damodara and Nilakantha was the next great mathematician. He was also from Tripparangodu, another nearby temple-village. His biggest contribution was the Yuktibhasha, written in Malayalam. It offers detailed analytical commentary on Nilakantha’s Tantrasangraha. His contribution was in providing the process and the derivations for arriving at many of his guru’s theorems.
Sankara Varier, who was a contemporary of Jyeshtadeva, was the sole non-Brahmin mathematician whose works included Yuktideepika and Kriyakarmakari.

The question came up – did this knowledge travel from Kerala to the West, or were the scholarships parallel and unconnected?. Calicut Heritage Forum had the privilege of hosting,  a few years ago, Dr. George Gheverghese Joseph of Manchester University who was posed the same question. His reply was equivocal, to put it rather bluntly. But his own writing about there being plenty of opportunities for the Jesuits, who swarmed the area in the sixteenth century, to carry the new knowledge to the West, betrays his views. According to him, there was a strong motivation for this transmission: Pope Gregory XIII had set up a committee to look into modernising the Julian calendar. The German Jesuit, Clavius was on this committee and he had been repeatedly requesting his brethren spread over the world for information on how people constructed calendars in other parts of the world. The Jesuits who were in numbers in Vettathu kingdom ( they had even managed to convert the Vettath King to Christianity, and Antonio Gomez who replaced Francis Xavier in India was a frequent visitor to Tanur) could hardly have missed the opportunity to pick up the astronomically accurate calculations made popular by the Nila school of mathematicians.
Prof. Sundareswaran, however, preferred not to comment on this. Instead, he focused on how knowledge was being transmitted from generation to generation in an unbroken chain of succession. His concluding statement - that only around 7 per cent of this fund of knowledge had been deciphered, the rest waiting in numerous cadjan leaf manuscripts to be unravelled - reminded one of the poet A K Ramanujam's perceptive observation : Even one's own tradition is not one's birthright; it has to be earned, repossessed.

Read more ►
Powered by Blogger.