Wednesday, 28 September 2016

History - three perspectives

Here are three quotes about history, in particular Indian and Tamil history, that I find quite insightful and fascinating, all the more because they seem somwhat orthogonal to each other.

The first is by Bishop Robert Caldwell, famous for writing a book titled “Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages,” which ushered in a new era in linguistics. This particular quote is from his book “The History of Tinnevelly.” Tinnevelly is the British spelling of Tirunelveli, a town and district in the far south of Tamilnadu.

        “It is singular fact, that the Hindus, though fond of philosophy and poetry, of law, mathematics and architecture, of music and the drama, and especially of religious or theosophical speculations, seem never to have cared anything for History.”

This is a very common observation, by most historians. The contrast between the voluminous histories of ancient civilizations like China, Egypt, Rome, Persia and even Sumeria, stands in stark contrast to the lack of a historical sense among the Indian literati.

But here’s a very different opinion, from a contemporary of Caldwell, the American novelist Mark Twain, who visited India in the later 19th century. Obviously, Twain was no historian, but he had a sense of India as a culture that seems to transcend the dry series of events, that often constitute history.

      “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grand mother of tradition.”

 A little hyperbolic, no doubt, but some of Caldwell’s British predecessors, like Sir William “Oriental” Jones, who founded and ran the Asiatic Society, and his remarkable successors like Horace Hayman Wilson, Henry Colebroke, James Prinsep and Alexander Cunningham and Lord Curzon would have wholeheartedly agreed. So would have the stalwarts of the Madras school of Orientalism, like Colin Mackenzie, FW Ellis and Walter Eliot. But the more lastingly famous Brits, like John Mill, Lord Thomas Macaulay and that irrepressible colonialist Winston Churchill would have and vehemently contest this. And it is their legacy that fills our history books, while the legacy of the Orientalists decorate the land and its musuems and the hearts of Indologists.

I give the final word on a sense of history, to one of my favorite historians, PT Srinivasa Iyengar, who begins his book “A History of the Tamils: From the earliest times to the sixth century AD,” thus:

“If by history is meant the story of rise and fall of royal dynasties, on the slaughter of an immense number of human beings on the fields of battle in the name of heroism, the tale of the displacement on the map of the world of large masses of humanity, eager to plunder the wealth accumulated by the patient toil of peaceful people, the narrative of rape of royal maidens and shedding innocent blood in revenge for the outrage, then Tamil India is the happy country, which has had no history to recount upto 600 A.D.

“On the other hand, if history means the slow evolution of the social and religious life of a people, under the stimulus of geographical conditions of the environment and the influence of contact with peoples who have developed different kinds of culture, the description of the slow change in the ways they ate and drank, played and loved, sang and danced, paid court to kings and gods, the relation of the story of development of their internal trade and commerce with foreign countries, far and near, the narration of the evolution of their literature from humble beginnings till a complicated scheme of literary convention was established, there are ample materials for reconstruction of the history of the Tamils from the earliest times upto 600 A.D. This story is attempted to be recounted in this book.”

On September 25th, I gave a lecture on the History of the Early Tamils, for the Southern India Cultural Series, conducted by Ramu Endowments and its founder RT Chari, at Tag Center Alwarpet. And I used Srinivasa Iyengar’s book as a major source for that lecture and my understanding of Tamil history.

If you liked this essay, you might enjoy these too
  1. Caldwell's discovery of the Munda Language Family
  2. The Keezhadi excavation near Madurai
  3. What did Brahmagupta do?
  4. Macaulay Sanskrit and English
  5. The Origin of Modern Chemistry
  6. Madras - India's first modern city

Monday, 12 September 2016

Subrahmanya Bharathi’s Essays and Short Stories - Narasiah lecture

Narasiah spoke about காலம் கொன்ற விருந்து “A Feast that Defied Time”, a line in a poem by Subramania Bharati. It was organized by Swarnamalya Ganesh for Ranga Mandira, August 21, as part of their Madras Week activities and a set of programs whose theme was “Annihilation of Caste.”

“The Bharathi who added Beatuty to Prose”, (இயலுக்கு அழகூட்டிய பாரதி) waxed Narasiah talking of the poet’s lesser known short stories and English essays. Even Bharathi’s career as a Tamil journalist, for magainzes like Swadesamitran and a pioneer in the field, is barely known outside literary circles, for such is his towering reputation as a poet.


Annie Besant, who came to Madras attracted by the Theosophical Society in Madras, later joined the Indian National Congress and called upon Indians to rebel against British rule. In this instance, she called J Krishnamurthy a reincarnation of Krishna. This appalled Bharati and prodded him to write the satire about Besant, titled "The Fox with the Golden Tail," wherein he mocked her as a fox from the Land of the Bees and Ants (a pun on Besant) who introduced the Cult of FoxoBeesAntism. It was a huge hit and there was demand all over India and for a second edition. Ironically, this deeply saddened Bharati, because his Tamil epic poem Paanchali Sabatham (பாஞ்சாலி சபதம்) evoked no such popularity or acclaim. “I've been minting my hearts blood in Tamil poetry and no one to read it and here are these numskulls asking for a second edition of Fox essay,” lamented Bharati.

Editorial Courage
Another incident was the Ashe murder case, when an ardent nationalist and admirer of Bharathi, Vanchinathan killed Collector Ashe on June 17, 1911 at the Maniyachi railway station, and then committed shot himself. While others wept for Vanchinathan, Bharati condemned the assassination of Ashe : "An outrage to the Hindu religion. For the murdered had his wife by the side."

The police came to arrest Bharathi on suspicion of sedition, after the Ashe assassination, with a warrant against the Editor of the Swadesamitran magazine. But Bharathi was officially Assistant Editor, though he wrote fierce anti-British editorials, so the editor the police arrested was Mandyam Srinivasachar, also the publisher. 

Bharathi fled to Puduchery, which was held by the French (and so out of British jurisdictin) in 1908 on the advice of his friends. He stayed there until 1918 and this was the most productive period of his literary life, said Narasiah. He wrote letters in English to The Hindu newspaper, published out of Madras, which printed several of them.

Bharathi was not a blind Patriot but a nationalist was Bharati says Narasiah. The difference is that a blind patriot is an ideologue who supports his country, right or wrong, but a nationalist is someone who wants to build a nation, and shape its thoughts and culture, and is not afraid to voice his opinion even if its unpopular.

One of Bharathi’s letters to the Hindu published during the First world war, said: "We criticize England in peacetime but stand by her in trouble. We are lovers of Humanity."

Bharati's Short stories

He wrote 18 short stories in Tamil. He introduced a new form, he was very experimental. He used short crisp sentences. In a story Kaanthaamani (காந்தாமணி), characters uttered English phrases like “Never mind” (நெவர் மைண்ட்) - an avant-garde style. He was a strong critique of astrology and hypocrisy and domestic cruelty, and several of his stories reflected that.

Another short story, Railway Sthaanam (ரயில்வே ஸ்தானம்) spoke of the dilemma of a Muslim man who's in love with three women and would like to figure out whom he loves most. Quite an unusual plot.

His biographer Va Ra. In 1910, Va Ramaswami Iyengar, who later wrote a life of Bharati, met him. He went to meet Aurobindo in Puducherry and incidentally met Bharati. Bharati was shocked when Va Ra spoke in English. The episode as narrated in Va Ra’s book, is hilarious, and should be read in the original Tami. Bharathi then wrote Maravan Paattu மறவன் பாட்டு, lambasting Brahmins for forsaking Tamil and adopting English language and customs.

But Va Ra’s 1944 book is not a proper biography, said Narasiah. There are no dates or years, more a story. Mahadevan's book is a more proper biography of Bharati.

The Mahakavi Controversy

SS Vasan bought Ananda Vikatan from Bhuthi Vaidyanatha Iyer for Rs 200 in 1927. Kalki was introduced to Vasan by Parali Su Nellaiappar, and he joined Vikatan. The magazine which had struggled to sell under its previous owner, sold 15,915 copies in 1930, a testament to the managerial talent of Vasan. Kalki was a commercialy successful writer with outstanding marketing skills.

Other magazines like Manikodi, Gandhi, Sudandira Changu, Dinamani also came out at this period. Va Ra became editor of Manikodi, a landmark Tamil magazine, which developed Tamil literature in that early period. Manikodi was the nursery of several stalwart writers, like Chitti Sundararajan, CS Chellappa, Puthumaipiththan, Na Pichamurthy, Ku Pa Rajagoplan.
Manikkodi Stalwarts

In October 1934 Va Ra became editor of Veerakesari in Colombo. "Tamil grammar is a perfect example of tail wagging the dog," was a memorable epigram coined by Va Ra. Va Ra wrote that others' writings (such as those of Shelley and Shakespeare and Tagore ) were not equal to even one line of Bharati. Nellai Nesan, (a pseudonym of PC Acharya), opposing this, wrote that Bharati was a Kavi but not Mahakavi.

Kalki rebutted this, in an Ananda Vikatan editorial, that Valmiki Kamban Shakespeare Tagore etc who could be called Mahakavis (Great Poets) were writers crossing national boundaries. And that it was not fair to compare Bharati with them. Poets like Bharati and Shelley were National Poets of their time only. Kalki used a phrase “nirakshara kukshi” which means “illiterate” to describe Va Ra, which worsened the controversy.

But Kalki and Va Ra were much in admiration of each other and it was Kalki who collected funds for the Manimandapam for Bharati and a purse to help Va Ra, when the latter was in financial dire straits. There was no personal animosity between them.

Narasiah covered so many topics I couldn't keep up, I rather chose to enjoy the lecture.

In attendance were stalwarts like author Siddharthan, Nagupoliyan Balasubramanian Natarajan, Narasiah’s cousin Venu Sundar (son of Manikodi stalward Chitti Sundarrajan), the silent dynamo Mr Kannan, epigrapher Ramachandran, Gandhi Rajan, Santhanam, and Narasiah's wife and son.

PostScript I’ve had the pleasure of listening to "Nagupoliyan" Balasubramanian reading aloud several of Bharathi’s English essays and also brilliant short stories like Kudirai Kombu and the autobiographical Chinna Sankaran Kathai. His rendition of Paanchaali Sabatham is unparalleled.

Narasiah’s lecture evinced these aspects of Bharathi in a proper historical context.

If you liked this, you may also like these other essays in my blog
  1. Narasiah on Siddharthan’s book “Asoka”
  2. ரா அ பத்மநாபன் அஞ்சலி
  3. Tagore's poem on UVe Swaminatha Iyer
  4. கோயிலும் கல்கியும் 1 - அறிமுகம்
  5. கோயிலும் கல்கியும் 2 - சிவகாமியின் சபதம்
  6. செக்கு இழுத்தவர்

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Interesting Experiences of a Lawyer and a Judge

Caution I’ve used quotes in places for narrative style. These are my phrasing of what I remember the speaker saying, not verbatim reports.There was a video recording of the  program, for those who want more accuracy.


The Hindustan Chamber of Commerce hosted a program titled Interesting Experiences of a Lawyer and a Judge yesterday, August 31, 2016 at Greams Dugar building on Greams Road, Chennai.

The speakers were retired Justice AR Lakshmanan, who served on the Supreme Court of India (also former Chairman, Law Commission of India) and Mr R Gandhi, Senior Advocate, Madras High Court (also former President, Bar Federation of Tamilnadu and Pondicheri).

They were welcomed by Mr V Murali, President of HCC.
Justice Lakshmanan spoke about allowing a student to write an exam, whom his university said had insufficient attendance. But the student asked that additional classes be counted, which the judge accepted, and ordered the university to allow him to write the exams, to avoid suffering a year's loss. Since a normal judicial order would take ten days to be delivered, the judge ordered the Registrar to read out the order to the Vice Chancellor and Controller of Examinations of the University (by telephone, I presume). This was in the Madras High Court.

He was then transferred to Kerala High Court. Inone case there, he ordered compulsory helmets for two wheelers in Kerala. Similarly, he ordered a ban on the sale of gutka in Andhra Pradesh, as a matter of public health. No court can order that manufacture of gutka be stopped, he said.  When the Mullaiperiyar case came up, I ruled that the dam is structurally, hydrologically and seismologically safe. The Supreme Court in a later hearing used this very phrase.

He was asked to move to Delhi High Court, but he refused as it was a smaller court than Kerala, though it had visibility as the national capital, as it would effectively imply a de-promotion (sic). But later he was appointed Chief Justice of the Rajasthan high court. There, several charges of corrupt subordinate judges were brought to his attendtion. There was a judicial investigation team, but it was headed by a subordinate judge, so he had private investigators look into the matter and ordered disimissal of several judges. The Chief Minister and Governor, accepted his actions, he said and did not raise political issue with them. No such thing happens in the southern states, he quips. And the helmet bans are merrily ignored too, he laments. We only pass these laws for public benefit, should not the public follow them?

He also said a case came up where the Income Tax department owed someone Rs 44 lakhs which had not been paid for about 17 years. There was a provision to order the IT department to refund not just the amount but also pay interest at a rate of 15%. “Being from the Nagarathar community,  I know how quickly interest can accumulate he said. The interest amount in this case exceeded due refund, it was around Rs.72 lakh. Now if I order that, I knew that accusations would fly that perhaps the judge also got a cut. So I chose a more appropriate interest rate, around 9%, and ordered payment. I asked the department to deposit the money right away, with a court pending an appeal. Concerned that interest payments could skyrocket on refunds that the department had been sitting on for years, they moved quickly and refund several tax payers in the next few months. At that time, the Finance Minister was P Chidambaram, who is also from the Nagarathar community, and he made an announcement that such refunds would be expedited, and it was prominently reported in the press. But after a few months, I think the situation went back to what it used to be,”  he said. There was both amused and resigned laughter from the businessmen in the audience.

Even I had trouble getting a tax refund and wanted to file a writ petition, Justice Lakshmanan continues, but several people felt it would cause a media sensation. The Commissioner of Tax ordered an immediate settlement, he says. {This reminded me of early 1900s and Madras Governor Lawley losing his money in the Arbuthnotbank failure...}

He regrets that there is no Supreme Court bench in South India. What expense, what difficulty and what high lawyer fees, citizens suffer, because of the distance of Delhi, he laments.

Referring to the Collegium appointing judges, he said, that there is no such word as Collegium in the dictionary. Justice Bhagawati coined the word.

(Gopu’s Note: Collegium is a Latin word, not English in origin. One got the feeling that Justice Lakshmanan was against the Judiciary appointing its own members. Markandeya Kadju, another retired judge of the Supreme Court, has written more critically about this judicial power grab. But, I think even the gutka sale ban, helmet rule judgment are judicial power grabs. Legislatures and executives are happy to let the judiciary make such laws and regulations, because they are protected from popular resentment.)

Rajasthan is extremely beautiful and I urge all of you to visit, he says. I enjoyed my stay in all the places I stayed. I've passed judgment of 1,37,000 cases.

Then advocate Gandhi spoke: “I have terrible handwriting but I answered exams voluminously in college. I can barely read my own handwriting, it is a miracle anyone else can read it. Others wrote five or six pages for their law exams but I wrote eighty pages, most of it illegible. But when I had a good point I would write it in bold letters and quote some Professor Iyer or Iyengar because the north Indian examiners had never heard of Gounders...

“I came second in the University. My brother said it can't be a very good University if you came second.

“Justice Lakshmanan has very beautiful handwriting, unlike me. He is very funny, if we travel together he'd joke and then at the end of the trip he'd say we laughed for 12km today or 18km today.

“I was member of the Syndicate. The syndicate wanted to punish students who copied or cheated in exams. One student who was caught came to me. I used to copy in exams and I knew some judges also copied. Copying is hard, only those who have copied know how hard it is. Syndicate wanted to pass a law barring students for three years for copying, I demanded that it should be reduced to one year. I copied and I'm now a Syndicate member, have I become a bad person? This was my argument. In the spirit of youth, copying is a form of adventure and rebellion, like smoking.” 

The crowd roared with appreciation at this candor and earthiness.

He narrated a case where an innocent man was framed by police for murdering four people. The investigating officer begged me to get the accused off the hook, because he framed the person because he couldn't find the murderer and there was pressure from superiors. The man was hanged. He wrote a book in Tamil, where he decried “The Law is an ass’. This of course, is a famous expression, from the legal community in England. “If I called a judge an ass, it would be contempt of court, but calling the Law is an ass is acceptable form of condemnation,” he quipped.

Gandhi narrated the incident when the DMK government renamed Thilakar Thidal, a segment of the Madras Marina beach, as Seerani Arangam. This was just a ploy to remove Balagangadhar Tilak's name, he averred. Tilak was the first patriotic voice that roared, “Independence is my birthright.” Outraged, that a place where Gandhi and Nehru and Subramanya Bharathi and such great freedom fighters delivered public speeches for India’s indpendence movement should be so contemptuously renamed, he fought in court for the name to be restored. A few years back, when the statue of actor Sivaji Ganeshan was installed on the beach, near Queen Mary’s college, “even though Sivaji was a good friend of mine, and distantly related, I couldn't stand that his statue would show its back to Mahathma Gandhi statue, and I filed a case to change that. How could they try to humiliate the memory of Gandhiji like that?”

He recollected when advocate VL Ethiraj, who founded Ethiraj college in Egmore, asked for a murder case to be dismissed five minutes before a guilty sentence was to about be passed on a person, because he realized that the FIR of the murder had been filed an hour before the actual murder was committed. Ethiraj was the Public Prosector at that time, and even the Defence Counsel had missed this detail, for which he apologized in Court and thanked Ethiraj for his uprightness.

Someone asked about entrance with veshti / dhoti at the Tamilnadu cricket club, which Gandhi fought for. The Club rules only say that members and guest must be decently dressed, Gandhi retorted. Do the clubs argue that dhothis are indecent dress? Tamilnadu legislative assembly passed a law that dhotis must be allowed in club and any club refusing will be fined and its license revoked. This was the only law passed by the TN Assembly, where all political parties were united, he said

Similar essays

  1. Henry Ford's trial
  2. On Macaulay  
  3. A poem about the Madras High Court (Tamil)
  4. Lady and Gentlemen

Saturday, 20 August 2016

The origin of Modern Chemistry

Say physics and Isaac Newton comes to mind. Say biology, and Charles Darwin comes to mind. Who comes to mind, if you say Chemistry?

To me, it used to be Dmitri Mendeleev. Nowadays, it is Antoine Lavoisier.

Lavoisier changed human understanding of nature as fundamentally as, if not more than, Newton and Darwin. But he seems far less known than the other two. Chemistry in general, seems less glamourous than Physics or Biology. It was not always so.


After he discovered Gravity, the Three Laws of Motion, invented Calculus and wrote a book on Optics, Isaac Newton spent several years of his life experimenting with Alchemy. One of the goals alchemists in those days, was to discover a way to turn ordinary metals like lead, iron or copper into gold. Europe was full of superstitious legends of great alchemists in India and Arabia who knew such secrets in the past, and some European alchemists tried to rediscover such things. One of the Europe’s legendary wizards of earlier centuries, had apparently discovered something called the Philosopher’s Stone, which could alchemically turn lead into gold and also made its owner immortal. His name was Nicholas Flamel, which should be familiar to anyone who read the first Harry Potter book, called, Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. Flamel, Newton and another legend, Leonardo da Vinci, feature in yet another best selling novel of recent times, Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code, as members of the Priory of Sion.

In such romantic times was Antoine Lavoisier born, to an aristocratic family in France, in 1743, a few years after Newton’s death. Newton failed dismally as an alchemist.

Four Elements and Phlogistons

The standard belief in Europe was that all substances in Nature were made of four elements – Air, Water, Fire and Earth. In fact, this was common belief among all the major civilizations from time immemorial – India, China, Arabia, Persia, Greece, Egypt. In India, a Fifth element called Aakasha, along with these four Vaayu (Air), Aapa or Jala (Water), Agni (Fire) and Prithvi (Earth) was believe to be the five basic Elements : the Pancha Bhoothas. European Alchemy was an offshoot of Arab experiments and science, centered around Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries. Al-chemy, Al-kali, Al-gebra, are words of Arabic origin, which are now part of the scientific vocabulary in European languages.

But around the same time that Newton was figuring out gravity and the laws of motion, a German scientist, Johann Becker, suggested that flammable substances had inside them a substance called phlogiston, which enabled them to burn.  This conjecture quickly became accepted among all scientists, though nobody could prove the existence of a phlogiston.

Experiments with Air

About a century later, a Scottish professor, Joseph Black, found from experiments that when limestone is heated or mixed with acids, it releases a type of air, which would not support flame. This air, which Black called “fixed air”, would also dissolve in certain liquids.  Black soon discovered that fixed air was also produced by respiration and fermentation. In 1766, Henry Cavendish isolated inflammable air, produced by the action of dilute acid on metals. In 1772 Daniel Rutherford showed that removal of fixed air from air depleted by respiration or combustion left a new type, noxious air.

A few years later, an English scientist, Joseph Priestley, performed some marvelous experiments, and discovered seven new “airs”. But they continued to believe that Air was a fundamental element.

It’s important to understand the historical significance and originality of these experiments. People across different cultures have known that water comes as fresh or salt water, but understood that salt is merely dissolved in water. Though air surrounds us, neither the Egyptians who built the pyramids, nor Indians who composed Vedas and built Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples, nor the Chinese or Greeks or Sumerians ever experimented with Air or tried to understand it. These experiments of the late eighteenth century were momentous and unprecedented.

Priestley put a candle in a closed glass jar, and noticed that its flame died after a particular amount of time. He put a mouse in a closed glass jar and noticed, that it also died after some time. From these experiments, Priestley concluded that both the candle and the mouse used up some part of the air, which he called dephlogitsicated air.

Priestley tried another experiment where he put a plant in a jar, and a lighted candle. Much to his surprise, the candle burnt longer than it did normally before it went out! After a while, the burnt candle could be relit and it would burn again. Priestley suspected that plants somehow produce dephlogicticated air. When atmostpheric air was deprived of dephlogisticated air, it left behind what he called phlogisticated air, which was unfit to support flame or animal respiration. Priestley seems to have done these experiements before 1772, as he mentions in his book Experiments and 1774 book Observations of Different Kinds of Air.

Priestley did not work in isolation. He quotes several other scientists researching the composition of air, namely Dr Hales, Dr Brownrigg, Mr Lane and Mr Cavendish.

The Polymath Lavoisier

Meanwhile in France, Antoine Lavoisier also experimented with air. Lavoisier came from a wealthy aristocratic family and studied Law, even though he was more interested in science. In his time,in France, Law was prestigious, similar to the prestige of engineering or medicine in India, in recent decades. But Lavoisier was an energetic and curious student – while studying Law, he also studied geology, physics, astronomy, mathematics, botany and anatomy! From Nicolas Louis de Lasaille, an astronomer who sailed and mapped the southern skies, he learnt mathematics. The rigor and clarity of mathematics, and their absence in chemistry which he simultaneously learnt, troubled Lavoisier. From Lasaille he learnt the value of instruments and their accuracy.

Lavoisier also learnt physics from Abbe Jean Antoine Nollet, a marvelous lecturer and public demonstrator. Nollet advocated a view of scientists as a Republic, with an obligation to serve the public good, besides exploring the unknown. These and Nollet’s avid experimentation, were ideas and values that heavily influenced Lavoisier.

Bernard de Jessieu taught Lavoisier about the world of plants, and they wandered around Paris on botanical collecting expeditions. Jean Etienne Guettard taught him geology; the analysis of minerals and waters were the foundations of Lavoisier’s experiments in chemistry. The French Government appointed Guettard and Lavoisier to conduct a Geological Survey of France.

In 1773 Lavoisier explained his experiments on fixation of Air at the Royal Academy of France. Lavoisier was assisted by Pierre-Simon Laplace, a brilliant mathematician. Meticulous measurement and superior instrumentation, lessons he learned from Lasaille, marked his experiments.

Lavoisier started with one big idea – that the fixation of air converted flammable substances into acids. His early experiments showed that when phosphorus or sulphur were burnt, they absorbed some part of the air and turned into phosphoric and sulphuric acids, respectively. He didn’t burn them in the open, but in closed jars – and he measured not just the weight of the air before and after burning (combustion), he measured the weights of the flammable phosphorus or sulphur and the acids they produced. He noticed that the weight of the air lost during combustion equalled the increase in weight between material and its acid.

He then experimented by burning metals like lead and tin. This produced a substance called calx – and this burning of metals was called calcination. Calcination also caused a gain in weight. This phenomenon puzzled Lavoisier deeply – it is obvious to all that burning is a destructive process. How could a destructive process increase weight?

It October 1774 Priestley visited Paris, met Lavoisier, they conducted some experiments together, and no doubt had wonderful conversations with each other. But Priestley like every other chemist of his time firmly believed in the phlogiston theory, which said that flammable substances emitted these phlogistons. Lavoisier, decided that phlogistons no longer made sense. Far from losing phlogistons, all burning substances seemed to be gaining something –they were absorbing dephlogisticated air (which Lavoisier called vital air).

Lavoisier offered this new hypothesis – that combustion was a process that involved the absorption of dephlogisticated air. Since dephlogisticated air generated acids (which was called oxys in French), he renamed it Oxygen. And he called his hypothesis the Oxygen Principle.

Meanwhile in England, Cavendish had discovered with another experiment, that dephlogisticated air combined with flammable air in a closed glass jar, mysteriously, some dewdrops appeared on the inner surface of the jar. It turned out to be water. Lavoisier repeated this experiment with similar results, but no longer troubled by phlogistons, he concluded that water itself is a combination of these two airs. Since flammable air generated water (hydro in Latin), he called it Hydrogen.

Lavoisier had proved that three of the old elements – Air, Water and Fire, were not Elements at all. Fire is the addition of oxygen to flammable substances. Air consisted of different substances, which were perhaps truly more basic. And Water consisted of two types of Air – Oxygen and Hydrogen.

Lavoisier had killed Alchemy, and in its place developed Chemistry.

He had repeated the experiments of others before him Priestley (and Carl Wilhelm Scheele), Cavendish, Joseph Black  – the discoverers of Oxygen Hydrogen and Carbon-di-oxide - and explained them better than the discoverers.

Cavendish was the first of the English scientists to follow Lavoisier, in rejecting the phlogiston theory and accepting his Oxygen principle. Priestley stubbornly refused to abandon phlogistons – he wrote a book in 1794, compiling his Lectures on Experimental Philosophy particularly including Chemistry.

Lavoisier meanwhile had launched another program to develop a new vocabulary for chemistry. And published a book in 1787 Methode de Nomenclature Chimique (Method of Chemical Nomenclature). In the succeeding century, several new elements were discovered, showing that fourth Old Element, Earth, was far more complicated than the other three Old Elements.

An Anglo American bias

I studied in schools in Madras, India, where the language of study was English, in the 1970s and 1980s. English has the been the dominant language in colleges since the 1850s when the British first established Presidency Colleges and Universities in the three Presidency cities – Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. But most Indian schools used to teach in Indian languages. This situation changed rapidly. Sometime during the 1980s, English became the preferred language in most urban schools. In the 2000s, English began to replace local languages as the meidum, mostly in the Southern states – Tamilnadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh  and Karnataka. This is now spreading to other states of India too. I studied my own mother tongue Tamil, as a second language, and for a few years, Hindi, as a third language. What does this have to with Physics or Chemistry?

Note that the first two scientists I mentioned in my opening paragraph are English, by language and nationality. The others are not; but they are European. While my school education exposed me to history and fiction and culture from various parts of the world, the science was exclusively European. What I didn’t realize then, was that the bias was strongly English, not just European.  It continues to be biased thus, even though we have Indians, not Englishmen, setting the syllabus. The stories of Newton’s apple and James Watt brewing tea, don’t have equivalents for French or German or Swedish scientists. The global ignorance of non-European scientists is nothing less than academic apartheid.

The world should celebrate Lavoisier.


1.     Vital Forces by Graeme Hunter
2.     Elements of Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier
3.     Lectures on Experimental Philosophy particularly including Chemistry by Joseph Priestley
4.     Lives and Times of Great Pioneers by CNR Rao, Indumati Rao
5.     Wikipedia on Lavoisier 
6.     Wikipedia on Priestley 
7.     Wikipedia on Cavendish 
8.     The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

Some hopefully relevant links
1.     Insulin Man – Fred Sanger
2.     CNR Rao on GN Lewis 
3.     The Alchemy of Air - Haber and Bosch 
5.     Non-European scientists : What did Brahmagupta accomplish?

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Kanchi Kailasanatha Vimana sculptures

I visited Kanchi last week, and took some photos of the sculptures hiding in the vimaana (or athimaana, to use Rajasimha Pallava’s term) of the Kailasanatha temple. For some strange reason, these vimaana sculptures have not attracted much attention, it seems. The scarcity of  books on this marvelous temple is astounding. Even among the mini shrine sculptures, there are quite a few puzzles.

The most comprehensive treatment of this temple is Alexander Rea’s Pallava Architecture, published in 1909 (with reprints by Asian Educational Services). Rea’s book has a pencil sketch practically every other sculpture in the temple, but the vimana sculptures are not represented among the sketches. From the photographs in Rea’s book, it is obvious that the roof was in a perilous state. We are fortunate that the ASI took over this temple and restored it to a state of safety, and accessible to visitors. While the ASI’s efforts in the 1960s to safeguard the Pallava paintings were successful (as listed in an article in South Asian Studies, Ed: Dr R Nagaswamy), the attempts to improve the sandstone sculptures are nothing less than a travesty. In most but not all cases, the lower level sculptures continue to be iconographically similar to the the sketches in Rea’s book. We have a much worse situation with Tripurantaka temple, now called Amaresvara, where the modern cement sculptures have nothing to do with the sketches in Rea’s book.

In Kailasanatha, we can only presume that the iconographicy of the vimana sculptures have not been altered, though the rendering leaves the aesthetics wanting. The sculptures on the lowest tala of the vimanam are hidden away behind the shaalas blocking them, and not easy to spot, view or photograph from the ground level. One marvels at the perfectionism of Rajasimha’s sthapathi and silpis – for their efforts in depiction that are practically invisble to a visitor on the ground level.

The shikhara is at the fourth and highest level of the vimana. Immediately below it, at the third level or tala is one shaala and two karna kutaas. Below this at the second tala or level, are two shaalas and two karna kutaas. Neither of these have any sculptures, except some faces in the nasis of the shaalas. At the fourth tala of the vimana are three shaalas and two karna kutaas. On all four faces of the vimaana, there are sculptures only on the shikara (first level) and the fourth or lowest level. Sculptures adorn the wall on either side of the central shaala on each face of the vimaana.

These shaalas themselves have interesting mini sculptures of Siva dancing in various poses.

South Face

The south face depicts a Dakshinamurthy on the shikara, perhaps in alignment with the magnificent Dakshinamurthy panel on the wall below it. There is an older rishi to Siva’s right and a younger rishi to his left. Instead of a banyan tree, there are vague botanical attempts over his head. Two of the four rishabas (bulls) on the shikhara are visible, whose zoology is much superior to the aforementioned botany.


L: Vishapaharana - R: Chouri bearer
Eight armed kneeling dancing Siva in Naasi

L: Chouri bearer   R: Siva

Siva's foot on a figure

At the fourth level, the right side – eastern segment – has Vishapaharana, and a chouri (fan) bearer female. The left side – western segment - has a dancing Siva on top of an unidentifiable antagonist and another chouri bearer. The south face is the only one with chouri bearers; the other three faces have male dvarapalakas on the extremes. The naasis of the shaalas have eight armed dancing Siva, kneeling on one leg, reminiscent of the large sculptre on the western wall of the temple and the Panamalai painting.

I took these photographs from the tar road flanking the temple.

West Face

The west side of the temple is occupied by locals who have built some houses. I managed to take these photographs without intruding on them, but the approach angles are not simple and the residents may not take kindly to too many visitors.

West face of Vimana

Vishnu on Shikhara

Back: Kalarimurthy
Naasi: Unknown
Below: Skanda or Kubera?

Back: Bhikshatana with rishi / rishipathnis
Naasi: Vinayaka
Below: Narasimha

The shikhara here has a seated Vishnu with conch and discus (shankhachakra). The lowest level has a Bhikshatana murthy, with a rishi and two rishipatnis on the northern left segment behind the left shaala, and a Kalarimurthy with a gana on the southern right segment behind the right shaala. The left shaala has Ganapathy in the nasi, and Narasimha seated below. The right shaala has an unidentified characted in the nasi and either Kubera or Skanda below him.

North Face

I forgot to take a photo of the sculpture on the shikhara here.

The left segment on the fourth level here seems to have Tripurantaka and the right segment seems to have Gangadhara. The naasis of the shaalas in front of these have Kalarimurthy and Gajasamharamurthy respectively. I took these photos from the northern corridor, better photos must be possible from the lawn outside.
Naasi: Gajasamharamurthy
Back: Tripurantaka
Nasi : Kalarimurthy

East Face

The east face is somewhat difficult to photograph, because the Nayak era mandapa blocks some of the angles. The shikhara has a seated Siva with an axe and deer in right and left hands, respectively.
Back: L - Dvarapalaka and R - SivaNaasi:  Kneeling 4-armed Siva

Back: L - Vishnu and R - Dvarapalaka
Naasi:  Kneeling 4-armed Siva
On the fourth level, on the right side (northern) segment are Vishnu and a dvarapalaka. To Vishnu’s left is a standing Sridevi or Bhudevi. In the naasi of the shaala is a four armed Siva, dancing while kneeling on his left knee, right arm across his chest; below him is Vinayaka. On the left (southern) segment, are a dvarapalaka and Siva (the left hand holding a deer is visible). In the naasi of the shaale before him, is a mirror image of the image on the other naasi, i.e., there is a four armed Siva, dancing while kneeling on his right knee, left arm across his chest.

Hopefully better photographs will help understand these.

Related Links
  1. காஞ்சி கைலாசநாதர் கோவில் வாழ்த்து
  2. Lecture on Kanchi Kailasantha temple (video –in Tamil)
  3. Pallava Grantha alphanet in Kanchi Kailasantha temple
  4. Rajasimha Pallava’s calligraphic script
  5. சிற்பத்தில் இந்திரன்
  6. Tripurantaka temple காஞ்சி திரிபுராந்தகர் கோவில்
  7. கல்லிலே ஆடவல்லான்
  8. கோயிலும் கல்கியும்