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Tag Archives | Kerala

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.

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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]

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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]

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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)

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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)

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