Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Kanchi Naina Pillai - Sriram Venkatakrishnan

These are notes from a lecture by Sriram Venkatakrishnan on December 17, 2016, for the South Indian Cultural Heirtage Series, at Tag Center, on Kanchi. Sriram lectures twice every year in December at Tag Center on Carnatic musician. He has authored the book Carnatic Summers, a brilliant collection of essays on musicians and The Devadasi and the Saint, on Bangalore Nagarathnammal and her adoration of Thyagaraja, the doyen of Carnatic composers, and the most prolific of the Tiruvaiyaru Trinity. Sriram writes a column for The Hindu and in the Madras Musings besides several other periodicals.

I have attended at least fifty lectures by Sriram over the last 13 years, since I first heard him speak the Madras Day festivities in 2004, and every one has been a gem. I have also attended perhaps thirty Heritage Walks conducted by him, all of which have been thoroughly entertaining and incredibly informative. He writes more prolifically than I could dream of. I had never heard of Naina Pillai, clearly a vital person in the history of Carnatic music. And the Kanchi Kailasanatha connection was too good to pass up.


Sriram V on Kanchi Naina Pillai
Subramaniam Pillai, popularly known as Kanchi Naina Pillai had no interest in music until the age of 17, even though he belonged to a musical family. The son of singer Mettu Kamatchi, whose sister Dhanakoti, was also a singer - the sisters often performed together. His pet name 'Naina' stuck to him during his career as a musician too.

He was transformed by a visit to the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple, when an unknown person turned him away from his passion for wrestling, weight lifting, cock fighting, pigeon fighting. He practiced in the temple all day long. Pillai's Arangerram took place in Anekatangavadam temple very close to the Kailasanatha temple.

Pillai married two women, Kuppammal and Kuttiammal. 

When Pillai visited Chennai, mathematician and musician, he heard Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer sing at the Tondai Mandala Vellala Sabha in Mint, Chennai. This concert entranced Naina. Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer became the idol and role model for Naina Pillai.

Naina Pillai, in turn, later became a manaseeka guru for DK Pattammaal.

Mannargudi Konnakol Pakkiriya Pillai, a tavil artist who played for nadasvaram artist Mannargudi Pakkiri, his wife Pakkiri ammal and othu was also played by a Pakkiri, gave up tavil and was adviced by Naina Pillai to take up Konnakol. Konnakol is a technique wherein the artist mimics a percussion instrument with the human voice (pardon the simplification). Naina Pillai admired the voice culture and rhythm sense of Pakkiriya Pillai.

Naina Pillai often had full bench concerts, with upto eleven artists performing. Including Kanjira by stalwarts like Pudukottai Dakshinamarthy Pillai, double Violin, Tampura, Mridangam, Gottuvadyam, Konnakol. The tani aavartanam must have been quite a musical feast for the aficionado.

After Chembai 's success, Naina, who sang only in Tamil, became a huge hit in Gokhale hall, which could seat 1500 people in era before microphones. And whole audience could hear listen to his deep voice. Pillaw was 5'9", which was very tall for a South Indian in 1920s.

There are no recordings of Naina Pillai. He took practice seriously and it was rarely a solo act. Practice meant playing four or five hours with full accompaniment!

He learnt Tirupugazh from two people, whom he would teach Thevaram in turn. He took  a train to learn one song from a person, because he liked it so much. Veena Dhanammal was a close friend of Kanchi Dhanakoti ammal, his aunt. And Naina Pillai learnt Thyagaraja kritis from Veena Dhanammal's patron Ramanaiya Chetty. Over time Naina learnt several Thyagaraja kritis and performed them.

Performers of the Thyagaraja aradhana in Tiruvaiyaaru split into two factions, the Periya Katchi and Chinna Katchi, the former becoming a non Brahmin group in Kumbakonam, the latter a Brahmin group in Tiruvaiyaru. Kanchi Naina was popular with Periya Katchi but broke up with them and later organized his own aradhana in Kanchipuram. A wholesale merchant from Erode, EV Ramaswami Naicker, sent funds for the concerts he organized.

His student Kittur Venkata Naidu was named Kittur Subramania Pillai, which was Naina 's original name, by Naina himself!

One of his best friends was Tiger Varadachariar, whom he called Tigervaal, both deeply interested in music, more than accolades.

In the early years of the Music Academy, they said they would pay Naina Pillai a reduced amount because they were an Academy not a Sabha. Naina refused to perform for the Academy after that. Once hid his taalam hand under angavastram and  Palghat Mani Iyer stopped playing Mridangam. 

In 1930 Pillai was afflicted with diabetes and tuberculosis. There was no cure for either in those days. Pillai performed less and less and money dwindled. He refused to record his music, offended that it would  be played in barbershops and tea shops and that was lowering dignity of Carnatic music. 

He also refused all titles offered to him, saying his guru was a pandaram and paradesi who had no titles, and he didn't need a title either.

Lost Potential

Naina Pillai's career was contemporary with Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who started a new trend in Carnatic music. Naina was the last of a different era, a different style. One can only imagine how the Carnatic field would have been, if he had lived a couple of decades longer.

All there is today to honor him is a Sangeeta Vidvan Naina Pillai street, in Kanchipuram.

ஆயிரம்திருதிராஷ்டிரர்கள் – சஞ்சய் சுப்பிரமணி கச்சேரி 2016

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

1493 - The Columbian Exchange

Charles C Mann spoke about his book 1493, at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation on 9 December, 2016. These are my notes from that lecture.

There was once a geological era, about 300 million years ago, when all the continents of the Earth were united into a single supercontinent, called Pangaea. Later this continent split up, forming the continents we have today, primarily separating into two large land masses – the Americas on one side and Eurasia and Africa on the other side, separated by the Atlantic ocean one way and the Pacific the other. These two oceans passed huge species barriers. When Columbus sailed from Spain to the Carribean, in 1492, he effectively recreated (or reunited) Pangaea – his ships and its successors bridged the Atlantic, thus providing for a massive biologcal exchange.  Animals, plants and germs from Eurasia traveled into Americas. Alfred Crosby coined term Columbian exchange to describe this.

No domesticated animals like cattle sheep goats chicken horses or equivalent in existed in the Americas, in 1492. This triggered a massive epidemiological imbalance – the native epidemic diseases of Europe were more numerous and more deadly than those of the Americas, and caused a massive genocide of Native Americans, i.e. Red Indians, who had no immunity to European diseases.

The Cold Snap in Europe from 1550s to 1750s, was followed by Dutch paintings of children skating on iced over rivers in April. These rivers have not iced up in the recent two centuries. The massive death of people in the Americas, meant they stopped cutting trees to burn them, so forests grew back and sucked out so much Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, that they caused the Cold Snap, a mini Ice Age. (This is usually not mentioned in newspaper reports about Global Warming).

Europe was poor while China India and Ottomans were rich, until Silver was discovered in South America by Spaniards, mostly in Peru. In fact they discovered a hills of silver.This trebled the world supply of silver. Europe could now buy Asian goods with their silver.

Wheat went from Europe to the Americas and potatoes and chilis from the Americas to Europe. Mann shows photographs of wheat farms, then says, he talked to a group in New York and had to explain that this was wheat - they've never seen farms or wheat plants!

Mann then showed photos of the several varieties of potatoes that are sold in the Andes, to which they are native. He couldn’t believe they were all potato varieties! Neither can we! Ridge and furrows system of ploughing, with snow in furrows suitable for potatoes. Europe and eastern USA are more suitable for potatoes than Andes.  This caused a food revolution - Europe could feed itself for the first time ever.
Potato varieties in the Andes!
Suddenly Europe had more stable governments, since there were no hungry mobs. Potato was the fuel of European empires, said Mann. We don’t usually consider the political implications of vegetables; its not something that seems to interest historians.

In the 1840s,  Europeans discovered islands off the coast of Peru with 200 feet of guano (bat and bird dung), which had very high nitrogen content, and were extremely popular as fertilizer. These mounds of guano were mined by Chinese slaves –this was the beginning of a European green revolution.

Potato blight killed million people in 1845, then another million in 1846. Ireland was worst affected. This was the last major famine before the invention of photography.

Indian culinary history is not as well developed as it should be given its culinary greatness. Gujarati traders probably brought in some crops from Africa, not just Portuguese.

China is a country that has to grow rice with almost no flat land and very little water. China has only only 7% of world's fresh water, but grows water hungry crops anyway! Maize is grown all over western China in terraced hills - this began only in the 18th century and is very much an ecological disaster!!!

China still trying to recover from the introduction of American crops in 1850s. India politically fragmented, so such crop adoption was not uniform. But everything was and is done top down in China, so a bad political decision can have an impact that lasts quite long.

Malaria was gifted to Americas via the Columbian exchange. Plasmodium, the germ that causes malaria, can hide in liver or spleen of healthy human for years and then suddenly resurge. It hides in red blood cells where immune system cant detect it and spreads all over body.

Central and West Africans have more immunity against Falciparum than any other people. Also against yellow fever. Falciparum thrives in tropics, can't handle temperate zones. During the Colonial era, there was a Parliamentary enquiry in Lodon- why British soldiers died in African territories (but not so much in the Americas)? The answer was lack of genetic immunity against African diseases.

Adam Smith asked why slavery existed? Indentured workers were quite common in Europe until slavery was introduced, which wiped out Indentured Labor. Mann posits that Malarial Immunity helped growth of slavery - living slaves were better than dead indentured workers, and since Africans who had the genes to resist malaria outlasted the white and native American population who had almost no immunity against these diseases, germs and genes played a major role in the continuance of slavery.
MS Swaminathan and Charles C Mann at the MSSRF
Dr MS Swaminathan added that most Indian food crops like rice wheat mango are not of Indian origin. Globalization of natural resources and husbandry can be quite beneficial for everyone, not just create a system of winners and losers. He congratulated Charles Mann for an excellent speech and excellent pictures, and the wonderful book 1493.

Gopu’s Notes
1. The theory of Tectonic plates and Pangaea are recent developments in Geology
2. Alfred Russel Wallace discovered a species barrier with no seeming geographic logic, in the islands of Indonesia. This is now called the Wallace line.
3. The discovery of guano islands off Peru is a major part of Thomas Hager’s book The Alchemy of Air, which then goes on to describe the Haber Bosch process for producing  artificial nitrogen fertilizer.
4. Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel examines the inequal epidmeological consequences of one aspect of the Columbian exchange and its ultimate causes. I strongly recommend this book.
5. Carbon dioxide and global warming are the reason why Life (and clouds) exists on earth – as opposed to the barrenness of Mars.
6. On the positive side, Mankind is winning the war against diseases. Almost all diseases are on the retreat. This is wonderful news, which doesn't sell magazines or ads, so it won't make it to headlines or public knowledge.
7. Mann's malarial hypothesis of slavery is quite original. But history may be a bit more complicated than that. Indian indentured labor became quite popular when slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire and its colonies, before abolition in the USA. Slavery was not entirely about farm labour, either.
8. This essay (in Tamil) explains how Egypt utilizes water for agriculture. And perhaps has lessons for India.
9. Dr MS Swaminathan was instrumental in furthering the green revolution brought about by  Norman Borlaug.

News links
1.     The Hindu’s report on this lecture
2.     New York times review of this book 1493

Monday, 30 January 2017

MacKenzie Lambton and Buchanan - S Muthiah

These are my note from S Muthiah's lecture in December 2016 at the Madras Literary Society. He spoke about three British men who contributed to Madras and its history

S Muthiah lecturing at MLS

Francis Buchanan-Hamilton added his mother's maiden name Hamilton to his own later in life. The story starts with William Jones who founded the Asiatic society of Bengal in 1784. Jones proposed that the Society study, "Man and Nature, what is performed by one or produced by the other." While in Calcutta the efforts were made under the offices of the Asiatic Society, in Madras, mostly there were individual efforts until the formation of the Madras Literary Society in 1812.

Three things one needs when one takes over and rules a country. An army, an administrative service and an understanding of what the country produces. The British did this well, and the Americans fail miserably at the third of these.

Buchanan moved up from the South to the Ganges studying agriculture, natural wealth and fauna. Buchanan was the third director of Calcutta botanical gardens. Pioneering botanical work was done in Madras before Buchanan, by Dr James Anderson. Experiments were performed first with a Nopalry in Saidapet, then at Anderson Gardens in Nungambakkam, across the current MLS premises. 

Buchanan was followed by Edinburgh doctors Johann of Copenhagen, appointed natural historian of East India company 1779. Then Roxburgh. Later Nolte commissioned local painters to draw watercolor paintings of South Indian plants, flowers, leaves etc. Nolte 's book is a treasure. Hugh Clayborn followed them. Said Nolte, "The Hindus excel in this kind of minute detail. Every detail of every leaf and flowers (250 thousand sketches) was captured by these artists."

Muthiah says we don't know who the descendants of these artists are. This knowledge is still the basis of the Botanical and Zoological surveys of India.

Anderson's house and perhaps Gardens, Nungambakkam
Colin MacKenzie He fought in the last Mysore war. Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, commanded the 33rd Regiment in Madras. He lost his way with the Army on the way to Mysore and Colin MacKenzie rescued him and showed him the right way. Later after the Battle of Assaye, Wellesley marched the Madras Regiment into a hail of Scinidia 's guns. He later said, "there is no equal to the Madras soldier anywhere in the world. "

MacKenzie became surveyor general of India. The practices he laid down are still followed. I was part of the Survey of India (said Muthiah) from 1968-1990 before satellites and GPS and we followed most of MacKenzie practices.

Mackenzie collection at GOML, Univ of Madras

Mackenzie's greatest contributions were to Indology. He collected seven thousand artefacts and number of books, mostly on palm leaves. Most of these were translated, mostly by Kavali Boriah and later, his brothers Ramiah and Lakshmiah. In 1821, three quarters of the collection was sent to Britain but much of this came back. This formed the nucleus of GOML, which added the Leyden and CP Brown collection. Mackenzie was the first of the Indologists of South India. To him more than anyone else, South India owes the records of its history.

Kavali Boriah, who assisted MacKenzie, was called the father of Indian epigraphy and paleography. 
The first Indian to write in English, he kept a journal in English.

William Lambton might make claim to greatest contribution to scientific knowledge about India. Trigonometric survey of India. Gave the shape to the map of India as we know it. Began at St Thomas Mount. First survey from Madras to Mangalore and then Kanyakumari and then the rest of India. One of the greatest achievements of nineteenth century.
Anglo Indians many from St George's school participated in survey. Much more dangerous than conquest of Wild West in America. Heat and dryness and rains and floods and snake and Tiger infested jungles. Lambton died at age of seventy near Nagpur. The trigonometrical Survey was continued by Lambton's assistant, George Everest, who completed the survey at the Himalayas, and was honored by having the highest peak named after him. Joshua d'Penny a Madras surveyor did most of the calculations for TSI for Everest. There is a Lambton peak near Ooty, which is all there is to honor his memory. More recently, a bust of Lambton was installed at the St Thomas Mount, to commemorate his accomplishment.

There is also a Lambton's pillar at the Meteorological office in Nungammabakkam, next to MLS.
William Lambton bust at St Thomas Mount

Lambton Pillar at Meteorological Office

Lambton climbed Tanjavur Big temple with the half ton theodolite, because there was no hill or any elevation in those flat plains to help the TSI. The theodoloite fell and damaged some part of the vimanam, and Lambton to wait months for it to be fixed. Perhaps the European face sculpted on it is Lambton as suggested by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan.

Notes of other lectures by Muthiah

0. William Jones and James Prinsep
1. Ellenborough - Abolition of slavery in India
2. Robert Caldwell - discoverer of Munda language family
3. Francis Whyte Ellis - discoverer of Dravidian language family
4. An Englishman's Tamil inscription
5. Did Macaulay undermine Indian education?
6. Erdos on Madras - A Hungarian mathematician's poem

Sunday, 22 January 2017

கம்சிலோவின் உயிரின கணக்கு

Fascinating graph of Life on Earth - this blog in English 

கடல்வாழ் உயிரினமும் நிலவாழ் உயிரினமும் பல விதம் வேறுபட்டவை. உருவத்தில் மட்டுமல்ல, எடையிலும் அவை பிரம்மாண்டமாக வேறுபட்டவை! எடையா?
தாவரங்களுக்கும் விலங்குகளுக்கும் உள்ள வேற்றுமையும் நாம் யாவரும் அறிந்ததே. இந்த ஒப்பீட்டிலும், எடை வேற்றுமை வியப்பானது!

ஒட்டுமொத்த உயிரினங்களின் எடையை எப்படி அளக்கமுடியும்? கருத்து கணிப்பு போல் இதுவும் புள்ளிவிவரங்களை ஆராய்ந்து கணக்கிடும் விவரம். சராசரியாக ஒரு சதுர மீட்டரில், ஒரு சதுர கிலோமீட்டரில் எத்தனை உயிரினங்கள் உள்ளன, அவற்றின் தனிப்பட்ட எடை என்ன, இதனால் ஒரு சதுர கி.மி.யில் அவற்றின் எடை என்ன, இந்தந்த பிரதேசத்தில், நாட்டில், நிலப்பரப்பில், நீர்பரப்பில் என்று கணித்து வகுக்கும் அளவுகள்.

“உயிர்மண்டலத்தின் பரிணாம வளர்ச்சி” (Evolution of the Biosphere), என்னும் நூலை எம்.எம்.கம்சிலோவ் (MM Kamshilov) ருஷிய மொழியில் எழுதி, ஆங்கிலத்தில் மின்னா ப்ரோட்ஸ்கயா (Minna Brodskaya) மொழிபெயர்த்ததை, சில வருடங்களுக்கு முன் படிக்க நேர்ந்தது. மீர் அச்சகம், மாஸ்கோ, 1972 வெளியீடு. டைனாசர் காலம் சென்று பாலுண்ணி காலம் தோன்றி, மனித இனம் பூமியை ஆண்டுவருவது நம் கர்வம் கொண்ட கற்பனை. உயிரினம் மலையெனில் மனித இனம் அதில் ஒரு மடு. ஏன் விலங்கினமே மடு தான்.

உண்மையில், மரங்களே பூமியின் மிகப்பரவலான உயிரினம். பூமியில் முக்கால் பரப்பு கடலும் கால் பரப்பு நிலமும் இருப்பதால், உயிரினங்களும் அதே விகிதாச்சாரத்தில் இருக்கலாம் என்பதே நமக்கு இயல்பாக தோன்றும். இனங்களின் எண்ணிக்கையில் (வகைகளில்) தாவரங்களை விட விலங்குகளே அதிகம். ஜே.பி.எஸ்.ஹால்டேன் என்ற உயிரியில் வல்லுனர் தீவீர நாத்திகவாதி. அவரிடம் ஒரு நிருபர், “கடவுள் இருந்தால் அவரை நீங்கள் எப்படி வர்ணிப்பீர்கள்?” என்று வினவ, “கடவுள் இருந்தால் அவர் அளவற்ற வண்டு பிரியர்,” என்றார் ஹால்டேன். நாற்பதாயிரம் வண்டினங்கள் உள்ளன. மற்ற எல்லா இனங்களை விட, இனவகையில் மிக்க வாழ்வது வண்டு இனமே. .

இதோ கம்சிலோவின் கணக்கு!

நிலம்வாழ் உயிரினம்
தாவர இனம்
விலங்கினமும் நுண்ணுயிரும்
டன் * 10^12

கடல்வாழ் உயிரினம்

தாவர இனம்
விலங்கினமும் நுண்ணுயிரும்
டன் * 10^12

எண்ணிக்கையில் விலங்கினமும் நுண்ணுயிரும் அதிகமாக இருப்பினும், பெரும் மரங்கள் உயிரினத்தில் தொண்ணூறு சதவிகிதம் என்பது, வியப்பை அல்ல, எனக்கு பிரமிப்பை ஊட்டுகிறது.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Rediscovery of Brahmi, Asoka, and Indian History

The Road Roller of Bihar
While building a road in Bihar, in the early nineteenth century, the supervisor of the construction project noticed that the road-roller seemed to be narrower at one end and broader at the other. On closer inspection, he found some inscriptions on its side, which that Brahmin pandit of the nearby village was unable to read. He could not even identify the script (which he called the pin-men script) or the language of the inscription. It seemed to be a pillar from some monument. The road workers told the supervisor that the pillar had a lion capital, which they cut off, so the pillar could be more useful as a road-roller. Such was the fate Samrat Asoka’s pillar!

The road supervisor was James Prinsep, who discovered that the language was Pali, the script Brahmi,the capital destined to become India’s national emblem, the the king and his dynasty forgotten, by a country with teeming not just with history, but with people who cared not a whit about it. Ironically, most of us schooled in independent India are now familiar with Asoka and his pillar and utterly ignorant of Prinsep.

When Prinsep stumbled upon the pillar, he was a member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which had been founded in 1784 by Sir William “Oriental” Jones, a polymath of tremendous accomplishment, to whose contribution to India was immense, and who is almost as spectacularly forgotten as Prinsep.

Sir William "Oriental" Jones

Jones & the Asiatic Society of Bengal

The East India company and later, the British government, were the funnels through which India was enriched by Western science and industrialization. The Asiatic Society was the funnel through which new fields in the humanities, like Geology, Numismatics, Archaeology, Anthropology, Economics, Art History, all recently evolving in Europe, enriched India. Jones, a child prodigy, master of 28 languages, and scholar of law, was appointed as a Puisne Judge of the Calcutta Supreme Court in 1783. He formulated an agenda to study the law, sciences, mathematics, history, geography, medicine, trade, manufacture, agriculture and religions of not just India, but all of Asia. He surmounted obstacles to quickly learn Sanskrit, and found such a similarity between it, Persian, Latin and Greek, that he proposed that they all had a common ancestry.

His oft quoted passage from his third lecture is : “The Sanskrit language, whatever its antiquity is of a perfect structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than Latin, more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both a stronger affinity, in roots of verbs and forms of grammar, than can have possibly been produced by accident. So strong that they…must have some common source…reason to believe Celtic, Gothic, old Persian also had the same origin as Sanskrit.” This heralds the beginning of Modern Linguistics and the discovery of the Indo-European Language Family.

Jones went on to translate the Manu Smriti to English to better administer justice. He also translated Kalidasa’s plays like Abinjana Shakuntalam, which took Europe by storm. He discovered that Chess and Algebra had Indian origins, wrote a treatise on Music, and studying Greek and Indian history, proposed that Sandrocottus mentioned by Megasthenes was Chandragupta. On further study, he also established the river Erranaboas was the Sone (originally called Hiranyabahu) and that Chandragupta last capital Palibothra must have been Pataliputra, now Patna, in Bihar (overturning Prayag, Kannauj, Varanasi etc as candidates). Jones also told a thrilled Europe that India had an ancient God called Buddha, perhaps of African origin, who founded a religion called Buddhism in India,now forgotten. Europe soon discovered that Buddhism was alive and well in the rest of Asia, but Jones’ discoveries launched an earnest inquiry into India and Asia’s history, that primarily relied on literature for the next three decades.

James Prinsep

And then James Prinsep arrived in Calcutta in 1819. A prodigy very different from Jones, with far humbler origins and far less accomplished youth, Prinsep nevertheless made dramatic impacts on the Asiatic Society and scholarship. After working in mints and civil administration, he turned to history in 1832. He transformed the field from ‘scholastic archaeologists’ to ‘field archaeologists’ or ‘travelling antiquarians.’ His intellectual successor Alexander Cunningham said of Prinsep, that between 1833 and 1838, “more of India’s history was reconstructed than before or since.”
The Society faced bankruptcy and a shutdown by Macaulay and Mill, who called Oriental studies “waste paper and accumulation of timber.” But Governor General Auckland restored its funding.

James Prinsep

Coins and PinMen

An army of Orientalist coin collectors, including Horace Wilson, Col James Tod, Charles Masson, General Ventura, helped unravel several aspects of history. Masson collected thirty thousand coins, which brought to light a number of Indo-Greek kings from Theodotus (225 BC), Apollodorus, Menander, Eucradites, Antialkides, Agathocles and Kanerkos (who was later identified as Kanishka by Prinsep). Some of these like the coins of Agathocles had legends in both Greek and Sanskrit (Rajane Agathakulasya). The Sanskrit script was the same as the pin-men script, in Prinsep’s road roller.

Several other pillars including the famous Feroz Lat in Delhi, Lauriya Nandangarh in Bihar and in Allahabad had been discovered, with the same pin-men script. The Allahabad pillar, for example, also had two other inscriptions, one of Samudragupta in Sanskrit in Nagari script and Jehangir in Persian. Comparing transcripts Prinsep realized that all three pillars had the same text, not just the same script! The script had also been found at slabs in Bodh Gaya; a stupa at Sanchi; and at Dhauli and at Udayagiri-Khondagiri, both near Bhubaneshvar. The Samudragupta, son of Chandragupta of the Allahabad pillar was of the Solar race, whereas William Jones’ Sandrocottus was of the Lunar race. 

Asoka's Pillar and Buddhist stupa in Vaishali, Bihar

Rock with Asoka's Pali edict in Brahmi script
at Dhauli, Orissa

Brahmi inscription at Karla caves, Maharashtra
Lower line reads "daanam" ( दानं )
Studying the Sanchi inscriptions, Prinsep observed that several of them ended in the same set of three characters. He brilliantly guessed that they were records of donations, based on similar later inscriptions at other stupas in Buddhist nations. Perhaps they were the phrase “-ssa daanam.” (-’s donation). Now he was confident that the language was Pali, not Sanskrit. With intelligent guessing, and dedicated effort, he decoded the script in six weeks! The Brahmi script was now readable, nearly 1500 years after it had been replaced by its daughter script Nagari.

Most of the pin-men (Brahmi) inscriptions began with the phrase “Devaanaampiya PiyaDassi laaja hevam aaha” (“Thus spake King Beloved-of-the-Gods PiyaDassi”), but, who was this king? That continued to be a puzzle. There seemed to be no PiyaDassi in Indian literature. 

Concurrently, Turnour, an Orientalist in Kandy was given a copy of the Mahavamsa, the History of Sri Lanka, by the Thero of the Saffragam monastery. He came across this passage : “King Devenampiya Tissa, induced Dammasoka, Ruler of several kingdoms of Dambadiva (Jambudvipa) to depute his son Mahindu and daughter Sangamitta to Auradhapura to introduce religion of Buddha.”

The Thero also gave Turnour the Dipavamso, which threw a flood of light : “218 years after MahaParinnirvana of Buddha, Piyadassi, son of Bindusara and grandson of Chandragupta, Viceroy of Ujjaiyini was inaugurated king.”

Thus, Devanampiya Piyadassi was revealed to be Dammasoka or Dharma Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya. The wide spread of his pillars and edicts, from Afghanistan to Andhra Pradesh, showed how vast an empire he ruled; it gave details of the Kalinga war, and of Asoka’s change of heart; and of his sending emissaries to spread Buddhism across the world.


Inscriptions of the period 300 BC to 300 AD turned out to be in the Brahmi script, in Prakrit or Sanskrit, and so, suddenly, six hundred years of history stood revealed, including the dynasties of the Kshatrapas, the Kushanas, the Shungas, the Satavahanas. The Hathigumpha inscriptions were of king Kharavela of the Mahameghavahana dynasty.

In the twentieth century, Tamil inscriptions in the Tamil Brahmi script were also discovered. The field of palaeography was enriched when it was realized that the Brahmi script is the parent script of both Nagari and Grantham scripts, the latter of which was the parent of scripts of the South East Asian languages like Thai, Burmese, Sumatran, Cambodian etc.

1. Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen
2. The Asiatic Society of Bengal by O.P. Kejriwal
3. The Powerpoint presentations of S Swaminathan
4. Essays by James Prinsep, Journal of the Asiatic Society

Video of INTACT lecture Rediscovery of Asoka - lecture in 2013
Audio of 2016 DUJ Lecture on Rediscovery of Brahmi and Asoka - Part 1
Audio of 2016 DUJ Lecture on Rediscovery of Brahmi and Asoka - Part 2

My blogs on Western Orientalists
1. Ellenborough - Abolition of slavery in India
2. Robert Caldwell - discoverer of Munda language family
3. Francis Whyte Ellis - discoverer of Dravidian language family
4. An Englishman's Tamil inscription
5. A mathematician's Poem about Madras
6. Did Macaulay undermine Indian education?
7. Madras and its American connections

My History blogs
Three Perspectives on History - Caldwell, Mark Twain, PT Srinivasa Iyengar
Novel on Samrat Asoka - some speeches
Timelines of Gujarat and Tamilnadu
Timelines of Karnataka and Tamilnadu

Origins of Chemistry
Beginning of Electronics