Sunday, June 13, 2021

Little known facts about the Government Musem, Chennai


Little-known facts about the Government Museum, Chennai

·         The first suggestions to start a museum for Madras were made by the Secretary of the Madras Literary Society in 1843. Since 1828, the Madras Literary Society had been accumulating a collection of geological specimens. In a letter to the Chief Secretary of the Madras government on November 10, 1843, the Secretary of the Madras Literary Society suggested that the government start a museum for economic geology.

·          In a letter to the Chief Secretary of Madras dated December 5, 1843, Major-General W. W. Cullen, the British Resident at Travancore,  also suggested the opening of a central museum at Madras city with branches in all the districts, if possible, at the district collectorates.

·         The next year viz 1844, Henry Chamiers, a member of the Governor’s executive council discussed the two letters and recommended the setting up of a museum linked to the proposed University of Madras. The recommendations were accepted by the Government of Madras which forwarded the proposals to the Board of Directors in England.

·         In 1846, the Board of Directors of the East India Company who generally took administrative decisions over the Company’s territorial possessions, sanctioned a museum to be opened in connection with the University of Madras.

·         The Government Museum was opened on April 29, 1851 at the College of Fort St George (present DPI Building) in Nungambakkam with Surgeon-general Edward Green Balfour as Part-Time Superintendent. The visiting hours were between 6 AM and 9 AM and 2 PM to 6 PM.  For reasons that aren’t clear, the University of Madras was kept out of the project. Till 1885, the post of Superintendent was a part-time job and the Surgeon-General had to manage the museum in addition to his other responsibilities.

·         By 1853, the museum had so many specimens that the building of the College of Fort St George couldn’t support the weight of the cases. Requests were made to move to a bigger and stronger building. In December 1854, the Madras government offered the “Cutcherry of the Madras Collector” which was then located in a building in Egmore called the “Pantheon”. The Government of Madras inspected the building in company of Surgeon Balfour and approved the building.

·         Towards the end of 1854, a live cheetah and a tiger were exhibited at the museum grounds (I’m not able to confirm whether this was the College of Fort St George or the Pantheon as the shifting was done around the same time).  This exhibition was a huge success and people thronged to the Museum to see these animals alone.  So, the museum started acquiring and exhibiting a collection of live animals. In December 1858, an albino elephant was exhibited. In 1861, the corporation planned to open a zoological gardens at People’s Park and from 1861 to 1863, most of the animals at the museum were moved to People’s Park. However, not so well known is the fact that the museum continued to exhibit some small animals till 1921.

·         In keeping with the museum’s aims, Surgeon Balfour got support from the Madras government to start district museums that were under the administrative control of the Madras museum. By 1855, there were district museums at six places – Cuddalore, Coimbatore, Mangalore, Bellary, Ootacamund and Rajahmundry. By 1861, five of the six museums had been closed. The last surviving museum at Rajahmundry was closed in 1875.

·           In 1860, Balfour’s successor and the second Superintendent, Captain Jesse Mitchell wrote to the Madras government asking for funds to start a library. The museum library was opened to the public in June 1862 and access  was free. The library moved to a new library and lecture hall building opened by the then Governor of Madras in 1876. In 1896, the Connemara Library was founded and the book collection was moved to the Connemara Library building where it formed the nucleus of the library’s collection.   From then on and until 1935, the library and lecture hall building housed the Mackenzie collection of manuscripts. In 1935, the Mackenzie collection was moved to the University of Madras and the lecture hall building is now used to house exhibitions. The Superintendent of the Madras Museum was also the Superintendent of the Connemara Library from 1896 till 1939.

·         On February 1, 1866, Captain Jesse Mitchell changed the museum’s visiting hours from 6 AM to 6 PM to 9 AM to 6 PM.

·         Surgeon George Bidie, the third Superintendent of the Madras Museum, promoted cinchona and cocoa cultivation in the Madras Presidency. In 1873, the museum started giving free lectures and starting from the time of Henderson (1920-1940), tours of school students were organised.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The man who measured skulls of living people

Edgar Thurston (1855-1935), who was Superintendent of the Madras Government Museum from 1885 to 1908, was also perhaps the most flamboyant of the lot. He was a champion of the science of anthropometry and eyewitness accounts from the period testify that he would invite visitors to the anthropometric section of the museum to have their skulls measured. Today, Thurston is remembered for the monumental seven volume Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909) that he compiled with the assistance of K. Rangachari. Though science has invalidated many of the anthropomoteric techniques he used, the work is still frequently consulted by scholars for the wealth of information it contains. He also authored a work on the omens and superstitions of southern India.

As part of his research work into his Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Thurston took skull measurements of a few individuals from every caste/tribe. Based on these sample measurements, he would calculate cephalic indices (which is the ratio of the breadth of a skull to its length) and nasal indices. People with long or dolicocephalic skulls (those with low cephalic indices) were considered to belong to the Indo-Aryan race back then while those with broad or brachycephalic skulls (those with high cephalic indices) were believed to belong to the Dravidian race. Thurston writes in his preface that often people would run away when he arrived to measure skulls for many suspected that he was a recruiting officer for the Boer War. A group of Paniyan women refused to participate in the experiment as they feared he might kill them and stuff their bodies for the Madras Museum.

Thurston's tenure as Superintendent was also an eventful period in the history of the museum. The Connemara Library and the Victoria Technical Institute were opened and the discoveries at Adichanallur made their way to the museum during this time. Thurston also carried out a great deal of research work and a list of papers he had published is provided below.


  1. Aiyappan, A. (1951), "Hundred years of the Madras Government Museum", Madras Government Museum Centenary Souvenir, 1851-1951.
  2. Thurston, Edgar (1909), "Preface to the Castes and Tribes of Southern India", Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Volume I.

Picture Source: Madras Government Museum Centenary Souvenir, 1851-1951.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yatha ahu vairyo ... A brief look at the history of the Zoroastrian religion

As India's Parsis celebrate the Udvada festival between December 23 and 25, I thought of writing an article on the Parsi faith and its history. The post's title  Yatha ahu vairyo is derived from from the most sacred Zoroastrian prayer the Ahuna Vairya or Ahunwar which is as important to Zoroastrianism as the shahadah  or declaration of faith to the Muslims, Om mani padme hum to the Buddhists and the Gayatri Manthra to the Brahmans.

The text of the Ahuna Vairya reads

Yatha ahu vairyo, atha rathush
ashad kit hakha
Vangheush dazdha manangho
skhyothnanem angeush mazdai
Kshatremcha ahurai a
Yim dregubyo dadad vastarem

The shloka has been translated with different meanings by different scholars who have till  now not been able to arrive at a common consensus. but the most authoritative interpretation was given by Martin Haug

As a heavenly lord is to be chosen
So is an earthly master.
for the sake of righteousness, 
to be a giver of the good thoughts of the actions of life towards Mazda; 
and the dominion is for the lord (Ahura)
 whom he (Mazda) has given as a protector for the poor

Note the striking resemblance to the shlokas of the Gita. This is because these hymns are written in a language called Avestan, an Indo-European language that was used in Iran, two thousand and five hundred to three thousand years ago corresponding to the Sanskrit of the Hindus. Like Sanskrit, Avestan was never used for inscriptions or charters, the edicts of Achaemenid kings being written in a more simpler spoken language called Old Persian in a cuneiform script written left-to-right and probably adapted from Akkadian,  just like how kings like Ashoka used the different Prakrits and those of later kings, the Parthians and Sassanians inscribed in Middle Persian in a right-to-left script called Pahlavi derived from the Semitic Aramaic. The Avestan is named so because it is the language used in the Avesta, the holiest  book of Zoroastrianism, which is often mistakenly referred to as the Zend-Avesta. In fact, the true name of the book is Avesta and the Zend only denotes the commentary (usually written in Pahlavi, a Middle Persian language used from the 3rd to the 10th century AD) that accompanies the Avestan hymns. These commentaries brought the Avesta within the ambit of the common man to whom, the Avestan language was unintelligible. But various irregularities existed even in these commentaries due to the prevalent custom of using outdated Aramaic logograms for corresponding Middle Persian words. For example, the Persian would write malkan malka in Pahlavi script but read the same as shahenshah, its exact Persian equivalent meaning "king of kings".  

Born and brought up in a proud and orthodox South Indian city which had, but a sprinkling of Parsis tucked away in solemn prayer in an old, decaying quarter content with their cultural anonymity in an overwhelmingly alien society, I first heard of this religion from the television as a boy of eight or nine. But this little nugget of learning was soon confined to the recesses and had to wait for years to be rediscovered. Actually I knew next-to-nothing about the Parsi dogma till early 2001, when I stumbled on the basics of the religion in an internet article called "Antiquity and Continuity of Indian history" by one Prasad Gokhale.  While Gokhale's article was remarkable for its lack of objectivity and dismissed outright by academics as revisionist Hindu right-wing propaganda nevertheless, there were still a few claims about Zoroastrianism and its historical relationship with Hinduism which intrigued me back then. For example, Gokhale writes that a Zoroastrian work called the Vendidad lists seventeen lands that were created by the Parsi God Ahura Mazda and that the sixteenth of the seventeen lands was India which was mentioned as Hapta-Hindu (which I found from neutral sources to be true). Excited, as if I had stumbled upon some little-known civilization, I waited till the end of my Matriculation board exams and then, downloaded the whole of the Vendidad from the internet followed shortly later, by the rest of the Avesta. Fortunately, my college had an excellent library and I spent all my time acclimatizing with Iranian history and discovering strange, pre-Islamic kings with names that you now typically associate with Islam (I later learnt that they were called the Sassanians) from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, when I should actually be reading programming languages and electronics. A few years later, social networking sites like Orkut cropped up and I was able to interact with expatriate Iranians living in the UK, US, and elsewhere, some of them, acclaimed scholars. So, that's how my interest in Zoroastrianism grew and it has been almost seventeen years since I had begun this fascinating and thoroughly satisfying journey.

Now, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith which stresses upon the importance of harboring good thoughts, speaking good words and indulging in good deed (Humata, Huktha and Huvarashta, in the sacred tongue of the Zoroastrians, the prefix hu- meaning good and mata meaning thought being cognate with the I-E word mann or mind and Pendar-i-nek, Goftar-i-nek and Kardar-i-nek in modern Persian. These are the three principal tenets of Zoroastrianism and hence, central to the faith). But Zoroastrianism itself has not for long been a monotheistic religion; in fact, it started as a polytheistic religion like Hinduism  before the teachings of Zoroaster or Zardusht reformed the faith removing the intermediation of the Kavis or saint-seers (who like the great bards of Celtic Britain) and thus recasting it in a dualistic mould. (There are even many who question the suitability of the name "Zoroastrianism" instead suggesting that the religion should actually be named Mazdayasnism or "worship (yasna being cognate with the Sanskrit yagna) of Mazda"). Thus, Zoroastrianism was revived and not founded by Zoroaster, who played a role akin to Jesus and Muhammad by opposing the powerful clergy of the land. But unlike Jesus and Muhammad, the religion Zoroaster founded did not vanquish the prevalent pagan faith instead absorbing it completely. (Ironically, Zoroastrianism which was purpotedly founded  as a protestant faith would also fall prey to a powerful clergy within a generation of Zoroaster's death and superstitions that were condemned by him would make their reappearance in a different form. Strangely, the part played by religion and the clergy in Iranian politics is nothing new and has been in vogue for upwards of two thousand years). Among the many deities of the pagan faith that were adopted by Zoroastrianism was Mithra who became an angel or yazata (Mod. Pers. yazd). Mithra travelled westwards as part of the cultural exchange that accompanied the expansion of the Roman Empire and spearheaded a fast-growing cult which rivalled that of the Egyptian god Isis in its heyday that lasted four centuries.

Let us trace the antecedents of this great land and its unique religion back in history. Ironically, the origins of a people whose self-designation means "the Aryan" in English could be traced back to a 5,000 year old civilization which is believed by scholars to have spoken a Dravidian tongue.  The Elamite second person singular ni, and second person plural num resemble the Dravidian ni-. The oldest known form of the Elamite language has come down to us from the Behistun inscription of Darius the Great. Given the fact that the Elamite civilization thrived in exactly the same region where the Persians lived a thousand years later, I find no reason why the Persians should not be their lineal descendants though they did use an Indo-European language in their inscriptions and edicts. To support my claim, I would like to quote the example of the Medes of North-western Iran who founded the first historically-attested Iranian kingdom by wresting control of the eastern provinces of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC.   The post of Zoroastrian high-priest maubad or magus  has always been hereditary and drawn exclusively from this tribe thereby indicating that they were the original heirs to Zoroaster and that the people of Persia proper had a status not much superior than that of a conquered people. Traditions  identify the birthplace of Zoroaster in the vast thinly-populated region between Media and the Afghan city of Balkh (where a Buddhist temple and a Zoroastrian fire altar survived side-by-side till the 9th century AD; the importance given to Balkh in Zoroastrian religion texts is so high that it could have very well been the "Mecca" of the Parsi faith); legends also assert that the Iranians emerged millenia ago from a sacred homeland Airyanem Vaejo (which became Iran-Vej in Middle Persian consequently giving rise to the name of the country Iran) which the holy books usually located in  Northern Iran-Southern Turkestan., Mede hegemony, however, did not last long and like the non-Aryan natives of India who began asserting themselves a few centuries later, the sea-dwelling Persians overthrew Median rule under their king Cyrus the Great (Kamil V. Zvelebil, the renowned linguist, made a controversial suggestion that the ancestors of present-day Dravidians, too, might have  emerged from the mountains thereby contradicting the established view held by historians and archaeologists like Iravatham Mahadevan, who have repeatedly argued in favour of a coastal origin based on the aru-min legend depicted in the Indus seals. He cites the example of the Brahuis and observes that many prominent Dravidian linguistics groups had the self-designation "mountain-people" even deriving the Persian word for mountain koh with the Dravidian root kunru.)

There have been disputes over the date of Zoroaster with many even asserting that he was a purely mythological character who  never existed.  The dates given range from 1700 BC to 500 BC but scholarly consensus leans towards the latter date, which, I too feel is the most likely making him a near contemporary of the Buddha and the Mahavira. An apocryphal tale describes how an Indian sage named Changrachanchah journeyed his way to Iran to have a theological disputation with Zoroaster and conceding defeat embraced the new faith. It is not known who this Changrachanchah was but fanciful theories link him to the Shankaracharya as both the names sound strikingly similar. The chronological lists of the Kanchi mutt too place Adi Shankara in the 5th century BC. In any case, the tale of Changrachanchah is likely an innovation of a much later date and the Kanchi mutt's chronology has been discredited by historians.

The most sacred book of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta. The Avesta is not a revealed book but a compilation prepared over a long period of time though much of it is indeed made up of the revelations from Ahura Mazda, the Supreme God to Prophet Zoroaster.   But a significant portion of the Avesta is also made up of hymns in the sense that though Zoroastrianism is often  treated in the same vein as Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity, the book is in fact more closer to Hindu holy texts like the Mahabharata. Consider for example the case of Vendidad. Vendidad is the only one amongst the 21 Nosks making up the Avesta that has survived in its entirety. In its structure, the Vendidad most closely resembles the Atharva Veda. Much of the text is made of charms, spells and incantations and a small though significant portion on the wills and whims of Ahura Mazda. As the various hymns of the Avesta vary in nature and style, they also vary in age. It has been universally accepted amongst scholars that the portion of the Avesta that is called the Gathas is trhe oldest with some liberal estimates dating these verses based on their language, to the 15th century BC. Do these verses belong to a time anterior to that of Zoroaster? Cannot say for sure! But they, indeed, depict the earliest form of the Zoroastrian religion. The core of the Avesta, on the other hand, belongs roughly to the 6th or 5th centuries BC when the two of the greatest monarchs in the world, Cyrus II and Darius the Great were ruling over Iran.  Proof! No, I don';t have any! But it is just an assumption based on the fact that the most complete book of the Avesta - the Vendidad lists Hapta-Hindu or the Punjab among the sixteen nations created by Ahura Mazda. This is not quite possible unless North-West India itself was a part of Iranosphere while these were being written and only Persian Emperor in the millenia before Christ to stamp his authority over these parts was Darius the Great.

Some parts of the Avesta could be far younger; there are allusions even in the Vendidad to the solemn, self-mortifying cult of the Mazdakids who recommended regular fasting in stark contrast to Zoroastrianism that prescribed  for its adherents a happy, joyous and bountiful life and according to whom, austerity was taboo  According to these hymns, "the ungodly Ashaemaogha who does not eat" was an ally of Angra Mainyu , the Zoroastrian Satan (who is known as Ahriman today). The Mazdakite cult was founded by a godman named Mazdak and reached its apogee in the beginning of the 6th century AD when the Sassanian king Qobad I became Mazdak's disciple and embraced the new cult. But its dominance lasted only a generation. At the end of Qobad I's reign, his son Khusro (Yeah, the same Khusro Noushirvan, the most famous king of the Sassanian Dynasty and in whose court, the Panchatantra was translated into Persia and chess adopted and adapted from India. Noushirvan or Anushirvan finds some space in Nehru's Discovery of India and was even the subject of a tribute from Prophet Muhammad who considered himself fortunate to have been born in the reign of such a just king), then a young prince, got Mazdak murdered and brutally suppressed the nascent religion.  But, Mazdakism is only the second of the major heresies of the Sassanian period. There was the Christian-Zoroastrian syncretist Mani of the 3rd century AD who suffered the same fate. No direct references to him are found in the Avesta but veiled attacks and curses found here and there and Mani is generally considered the intended recipient. One mobed  or high-priest named Kertir went a step further and authored an inscription boasting of the killing of Buddhists (the Persian word for idols buth probably derives from the Buddha), Christians, Manichaeans and Hindus in the kingdom under the patronage Sassanian Emperor Bahram II. His predecessor Bahram I was also a devout follower of Kertir and it was probably at Kertir's insistence that Mani was flayed alive and his skin displayed on the gates of the palace at Ctesiphon. (But Manichaeism displayed amazing resilience and adaptability and survived the death of its founder by many centuries. It remained a minority religion in Iran often confused by the authorities with Nestorian Christianity till the Islamic invasions drove it eastward towards Central Asia and China. By the 13th century, Manichaeism was finally believed to be dead but it again resurfaced in the eastern China in the 16th century AD where it was again confused for a sect of Nestorian Christianity. Manichaeism is regarded to be well and truly dead now but doubts still remain). And again, the allusions themselves are not unambiguous! What if the Ashaeomaogha hymns were actually a reference to the Jain practise of sallekhana. Certainly not improbable! There has been a strong Persian influence in north-western India from the time Darius the Great conquered the region and many Sassanian kings led expeditions into Punjab and the Sindh.   But some of the worst curses are reserved for Iskandar or Alexander the Great who is described as the "accursed" and "ally of the evil one".  Alexander sadistically persecuted Zoroastrian priests, burnt their scriptures and destroyed their fire-temples probably because the tenets of monotheistic Zoroastrianism were dead opposed to Greek polytheism of which Alexander was an adherent. But on the whole, Alexander's treatment of the non-religious Iranian and the landed gentry were generally liberal and there were many intermarriages of Greek soldiers into Iranian aristocratic families. But unfortunately, Zoroastrian scriptures only remember Alexander as an oppressor.

The Zoroastrian religion was almost wiped out of existence by the persecutions of Alexander the Great and it  recovered only in the middle of the Parthian period. Vologasses I (Valkhash) who reigned from 51 to 78 AD commissioned the first compilation of the Avesta laying the seeds for a Zoroastrian revival. We know that this monarch had a brother (Tiridates) who was a mobed or Zoroastrian high-priest. Priests now began a frantic search for books and fragments that had escaped Alexander's orgy of destruction. The work took centuries to complete and the sequence of events eventually culminated in the rise of Ardeshir I who founded the Sassanian Empire in 226 and declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran. Ardeshir's inscriptions proclaimed him to be a champion of Zoroastrianism and portrayed the Parthians, ironically, as the villains.   Under Ardeshir and his immediate successors an orgy of intolerance and persecution was let out on religious minorities - probably a spontaneous self-defence approach adopted by a still insecure Zoroastrianism. But once Zorostrianism had scuttled all rivalry and silenced opposition, it entered its most glorious phase. This was when the legendary mobed Adarbad Mahraspandan lived. According to legends, his faith was tested with molten bronze being poured upon  his chest and the mobed emerged unscathed and instantly became a celebrity.  According to pseudo-prophetic Zoroastrian hymns called Yashts, the faith was overthrown thrice and restored thrice - first by Alexander the Great and restored by Ardeshir I, the founder of the Sassanian Dynasty, then by the prophet Mani before being restored by Adarbad Mahraspandan and lastly, by the Arabs, it will be restored  by Saoshyant who shall come at the end of time just like the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus and the Buddhists.

Much of what we know about  Zoroastrianism has come to us from the period following the Islamic invasions. The oldest surviving copies of Zoroastrian religious texts date from the 4th to the 10th century AD and are written in the Pahlavi script. The oldest complete hagiography of Zoroaster the Zardusht-Namak dates from the 12th or 13th century AD when Iran was under Mongol rule and Zoroastrianism was almost extinct. Of some works, the oldest extant copies that we know of are Gujarati manuscripts from 15th century India. By then, the numbers of adherents was already dwindling due to jizya and other taxes. There was a national and cultural revival when Firdausi wrote his magnum opus Shah-nameh  in the 10th century AD but by then, the damage had been done and it was impractical to expect Zoroastrianism to oust Islam considering that apostasy in an Islamic country was punishable by death. Still, while Iran could not revert to Zoroastrianism, it celebrated Zoroastrian heroes like Rustam and Jamshed as its national symbols. There were rebellions both by Zoroastrian as well as Muslim Iranians who hated Arab domination. The three and half centuries from the time of Arab conquest to the rise of Mahmud  Ghazni saw a great deal of cultural interchange between the Semitic and the Indo-Iranian world. Soon after the conquest, Zoroastrianism was proscribed and Iranians were disparagingly referred to as "Ajam" meaning "babblers", a reference to the error-ridden Arabic that the new coverts from Zoroastrianism spoke. But when the Umayyadas were displaced by the Abbasids conditions improved. The Abbasids captured power with the help of an Iranian convert named Abu Muslim, shifted the capital from Damascus to the former Sassanian citadel of Baghdad (Baghdad or Bagdat, in Persian meant "given (datha) by the gods (Bagha)"; Bagha  here is cognate with the Sanskrit Bhagavan  and survived into Modern Persian in the form of the masculine title Baig or Beg (Lord) and the feminine title Begum and the Turkish Bey) and even invited the Barmak (pramukh??) of the Buddhist monastery of Navavihara near Kabul who converted to Islam and became the Prime Minister of the state under the name Khalid. It was during this period that chess and Indian numerals made their way from Iran into Arabia and many important Persian texts were translated to Arabic. By the 9th century, however, the Caliphate was on the decline and local Iranian dynasties started to assert their independence. A Turkic dynasty established itself at Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, conquered the whole of the Iranian plateau to the west and took Islam eastwards into India through seventeen bloody invasions. But while Mahmud Ghaznavi, the greatest king of this dynasty is reviled in India, attitudes in Iran differ. He is hailed as a champion of Iranian culture and a fervent patron of Persian literature. Firdausi dedicated his Shahnameh to him thereby evoking comparisons with the legendary Rustam, the hero of the epic.  In fact, a cult of Rustam seems to have thrived during this period, he being variously identified with Rostam Farrokhzad and the Sassanian general who made a valiant stand against the Muslims and died fighting, the 1st-century Parthian general Surena who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae and eventually succumbed at the height of his power to palace intrigue. The etymology of Rustam and other heroes from the later parts of the Shahnameh are all foreign to Iran proper and could be traced to tribal legends of Sistan and Afghanistan thereby indicating a shift in  popularity towards an eastern epic cycle as opposed to the western epic cycle of Darius I.This would be Zoroastrianism's last stand before it would be delivered a death blow by Ilkhan and Mongol invasions and centuries of anarchy that would only end with the rise of the Safavids.  But Zoroastrian concepts and Persian folklore managed to sneak in into Persian poetry composed by the Sufis just before the Mongols ushered in a period of gloom. And the dominance of Eastern Iran was not limited to the epics and folklore alone. As Islamic sultanates expanded eastwards into Central Asia, Afghanistan and India, they took with them their languages - usually Persian with a smattering of Arabic and Turkic and a variety of Persian mixed with local prakrits established itself as the lingua france of the Muslims of Northern India (including present-day Pakistan) about the 13th century. This was the dialect spoken in Khorasan - the vast arid desert that extended from Media almost upto the hills of central Afghanistan. Both Dari, the official language of Afghanistan and the Urdu spoken across Pakistan and Northern India use the Khorasani diction.

Today, Zoroastrianism has few adherents in India and Pakistan apart from migrant communities in the UK, USA, Australia, Europe, South-East Asia and Africa. In  Iran, it is almost dead and even among the few who are officially counted as Zoroastrian, various tenets of the faith remain forgotten due to intense institutionalized persecution. But in reality, pre-Islamic beliefs have retained a tangible presence underneath the veneer of  Islam and we can say that not just Iranians but Muslims across Central Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and even Pakistan, actually practicize a Zoroastrianized variety of Islam. That this underlying influence is a living reality can be highlighted by the fact that words used by most Muslims today for matters so intimately connected with faith such as religion (Deen), God (Khoda) and prayer (Namaz) are all of Zoroastrian origin (The word Namaz is derived from Old Persian Nemase which is found in a Zoroastrian prayer Hoshbam; the word is cognate with the Indic Namaste). 

1) (Tr.) Darmesteter, James (1880). The Zend Avesta, Part I: The Vendidad, The Sacred Books of the East, Volume 4. Oxford University Press  
2) Cumont, Franz (1903). The Mysteries of Mithra. Open Court, Chicago
3) Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Near-East  (1876). Longmans, Green and Co.
4) Zimmern, Helen (1883). The Epic of Kings - Stories Retold From Firdusi. T. Fisher Unwin.
5) Greenlees, Duncan (1951) [2003]. The Gospel of Zarathushtra. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar
6) Herzfeld, Ernst (1928) [1998]. Memoirs of the Archeological Survey of India: A New inscription of Darius from Hamadan. Archaeological Survey of India.
7) Zvelebil, Kamil (June 1972). "The Descent of Dravidians". International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics. 1(2).
8) Brunner, C. J. (1974) “The Middle Persian Inscription of the Priest Kirdēr at Naqš-i Rustam,” in Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles. American University of Beirut
9) (Tr.) Mehta, Siloo. Hoshbam: The Dawn (of Consciousness) by K. N. Dastoor (in Gujarati).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Men who wrote Hobson-Jobson

Portrait of Henry Yule from the 1903 edition of The Book of Ser Marco Polo, edited by Henri Cordier

The Hobson-Jobson was a dictionary of Indoisms compiled at the end of the 19th century. It probably anticipated the curry invasion and the social acceptance of strange, foreign accented creoles in the United Kingdom by about a century. Back then, however, scarcely any Indian who wasn’t of the well-bred princely sort or couldn’t speak impeccable English made it to the United Kingdom and the prime carriers of such Indian-infused creole were either  Eurasian  (Anglo-Indian) or Britons who had spent their careers and possibly their lifetimes in the subcontinent  and now sought out a quiet retirement  in a blighty they had not seen for decades.    

The authors of the Hobson-Jobson were two very interesting gentlemen – Sir Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell. Yule is well known for his translation of Marco Polo’s travels that became a bestseller. He came to India as an officer in Bengal Engineers and travelled extensively in Central Asia and North-East India apart from playing an active part in the Sikh Wars.  In 1855, Yule was part of an Indian diplomatic mission to the Burmese Empire and wrote an account of his visit. Retiring from active service after the 1857 mutiny, Yule spent the rest of his life in Italy and United Kingdom, visiting libraries and writing travel and history books.   In 1871, he translated Marco Polo’s travelogue into English and published it in two volumes with the title The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. He dedicated  this work which many consider his magnum opus to his royal patron Margherita, the princess of Piedmont and included a huge list of credits thanking among others, Sir Alexander Cunningham, Rev Robert Caldwell, Sir Bartle Frere and Hugh Cleghorn.  When Yule died in 1889 at the age of sixty-nine, he left  behind a chequered career and a mountain of travelogues, geography and history books.

"Doorway of Marco Polo's house". Frontispiece  of The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian (1871)

While Yule’s life was certainly colourful,  his inquiries were rarely accompanied by the depth of research that was the prime feature of the works of the other gentleman - the ICS officer from down south . Burnell was a polyglot (he knew a dozen languages) and a polymath who authored a seminal work on South Indian epigraphy, in which he traces the evolution of South Indian scripts from its earliest forms known back then  - the grantha copper plates of the Pallavas from the 4th century AD - to those that survived into the 17th century AD.    Serving for over two decades in the Madras Presidency, he was one of a coterie of British civil servants such as Fleet, Pargiter , Sewell and Cammiade who dabbled in Indian archaeology. In 1873, he wrote On Some Pahlavi inscriptions in South India in which he published translations of the Pahlavi inscriptions found in the St. Thomas crosses of South India.  Though Burnell betrays an anti-Hindu bias in his work, his opinions on the antiquity of the Pahlavi inscriptions are quite honest and reliable. He dated the Pahlavi inscriptions to the 8th century AD and expressed doubts over the possibility of the Apostle St. Thomas (who, according to tradition, lived in the 1st century AD) having arrived in India or preached here.   Burnell also took a keen interest in manuscriptology and prepared a catalog of manuscripts found in the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Tanjore.  His career was cut short by an early death at the age of 42; in fact, Burnell had never been in tolerable health during his twenty two year long stay in India and a promising career thus came to a abrupt, premature end.

Table depicting origin of South Indian scripts, Elements of South-Indian Palaeography, "South Indian Alphabets and their Development", pp 14.

The first edition of Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886; Burnell having died in 1882 was posthumously credited as co-author of the work.  In fact, Yule, probably teary-eyed, recounts in the preface how Burnell had written to him in 1872 suggesting such an idea though the two had met only once before. Yule says that it triggered a ten-year  long association that lasted until Burnell’s death. The list of credits is much smaller compared to the Travels of Marco Polo and the personages listed here are not so well-known as Cunningham or Frere.    The 870-page work that includes a supplement which had been left out in the main body is dedicated by Henry Yule to his older brother, Sir George Udny Yule who had passed away earlier that same year.   

Cover of the first edition of Hobson-Jobson (1886)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Pallavas and the Pahlavas

In an article titled “India’s Parthian Colony” published in The Iranian on May 14, 2003, Dr. Samar Abbas wrote that the Pallavas of South India had descended from  the Pahlavas of Iran  and attributed  their persistent conflicts with their neighbours the  Chalukyas to an obscure, far-fetched theory that the Chalukyas  were descendants of the Seleucids, whom the Pahlavas overthrew to capture power in Iran. Though Abbas’  unscientific  paper deserves little more than cursory mention, the theory itself cannot be brushed aside as a farce simply because it had also been suggested by the famous South Indian epigraphist and Pallava expert V. Venkayya  who had worked with Hultzsch in deciphering the Mamallapuram inscriptions.  

Who were the Pahlavas! According to sources that date from the time of the Achaemenids, like the Turks and Mongols who came later, the Pahlavas or Parthians were a tribe of horsemen who inhabited the wild country called Chorasmia (now  forming  a part of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan and portion of north-eastern Iran) situated on the north-eastern frontiers of the Persian Empire. They became very powerful in the middle of the 3rd century BC under their chief Arsaces (Arshaka) who founded an independent Parthian kingdom just as the Seleucid Empire ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great’s general Selucus Nikator started to decline.  In 150 BC, the Parthian king Mithridates I (Mithra-datha)  captured Seleucia, the capital of the Persian Empire putting an end to the Greek dynasty and  instituting almost three centuries of Parthian hegemony over Iran, a period characterized by incessant wars with the Roman Empire. In  224 AD, the last Parthian ruler Artabanus V (Ardavan) was defeated and slain in battle by his son-in-law Ardeshir who  founded the Sassanian dynasty. With it ended the Parthian Empire of Iran.  The lives of the powerful Parthian aristocratic families at the court, however, continued unhindered and many of them held onto their fiefs long after the Islamic invasions. An Indo-Parthian kingdom which ruled over the Indus river valley and surrounding areas outlived Persia’s Parthian kingdom by a few years.

Eight centuries later when Ferdowsi wrote the famous Persian epic Shah-nameh, the word Pehliva  had acquired the meaning  “captain” or “commander” (Just like the Tamil Thalapathi or Senapathi) – Ferdowsi frequently uses the word as an epithet of Rustam or Rostam, the hero of the epic, a semi-legendary character based, incidentally, on the general Surena who led the Parthian forces in the famous victory over the Roman army in the Battle of Carrhae (53 BC). A Pahlavi dynasty ruled Iran between 1925 and 1979, its founder Reza Khan adopting the surname “Pahlavi” as a measure to claim legitimacy through the Pahlava name.

 The Pallavas of South India, meanwhile, were a dynasty of kings who claimed to be Brahma-kshatriyas. Their first records date from the middle of the 3rd century AD and till the 6th century AD, all that we know about the Pallavas are from copper plate grants which barring the earliest (which is in Prakrit) , are all in Sanskrit. They used the florid Pallava or Vengi character, a derivative of Brahmi, which they introduced in the islands of Java and Borneo. In later years, however,  we find a marked increase in rock inscriptions mostly from the vast number of temples they built. There was also a perceptible shift in favour of Tamil as the medium of communication.  Thus, at the time of Nandivarman II who ruled at the end of the 8th century AD, the stage was already set for a cultural renaissance which witnessed its full bloom under the Cholas.

The origins of the South Indian Pallavas have always been a mystery. We know nothing of them prior to 275  AD  when the first copper plates were inscribed. These plates trace their ancestry back to a legendary hero called Bappa Bhatta.  Later regnal lists claimed a descent from Drona’s son Aswatthama.  But legend and mythology aside, the earliest known antecedents of the Pallavas ruled as petty kings in the territory between the Godavari and Palar rivers, probably as vassals of the last Satavahanas.  Over the centuries, the Pallavas gradually moved southwards championing Hinduism and hastening the pace of Aryanization in the Tamil country and  in exchange,  adopting the Tamil language and culture. (Their advent in Tamil Nadu could simply be the continuation of a southward migratory trend. In fact, K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, among all  historians, attributes a North Indian origin to the Pallavas) The importance of Pallavas to Tamil history, I feel, has frequently been understated. Both Saivism and Vaishnavism owe their early rise to Pallava patronage as much as that of the Pandyas and the Tamil script acquired its present form during the Later Pallavas.    

From the statues and sculptures of Mahabalipuram, we understand that the Pallavas kings had impressive physiques. Many were acclaimed wrestlers. Narasimhavarman I, for example, held the title Maha-malla  or great wrestler, Mahendravarman I Shatru-malla “opponent wrestler” and Paramesvaravarman I, Eka-malla or sole wrestler. Here the similarities with the Pahlavas of Iran are more telling. Wrestling is the national sport of Iran and  zur-khanehs or gymnasiums are found all over the country.  Many of their traditional heroes such as Rostam were fabled wrestlers. In fact, the Persian word for wrestler Pehelwan derives from Pahlava, hinting at the possibility of the Pahlavas having introduced wrestling as a traditional sporting routine in the country.

Like the Pallavas of South India, the Pahlavas of Iran were also fine builders. A noted feature of Pallava monuments is the  widespread use of lion motifs. The lion, it must be mentioned here, was an essential feature of Achaemenid architecture though it wasn’t as popular in Parthian times. Nevertheless, “the Lion and Sun” remained  Iran's national symbol until quite recently.  In India, the lion is  conspicuous in Pallava monuments to an extent found nowhere apart from the lion capitals of Ashoka the Great. However, another speciality of Parthian architecture the iwan is not found in any of the Pallava works.

The Parthians were a tribe of nomadic horsemen who adopted a settled life and the finer aspects of Persian civilization. Similarly, many theories claim that the Pallavas were of Naga descent. Who these Nagas were no one knows, for the appellation Naga was used at different periods of time to denote people of diverse ethnicities such as the well-known Nagas of Nagaland, the Nayars of Malabar, the Veddas of Sri Lanka and even certain hill tribes that live in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakthunwa. It could also be the Kurumbars of Tondaimandalam who held Tondai Naidu before the rise of the Pallavas. And then, why not the Parthians themselves! These are questions that demand answer!Another puzzle that needs a satisfactory reply is the fate of the Pallavas after the death of Aparajitha. Though there are many caste groups that claim descent from the Pallavas, none of their claims are convincing enough.


1) Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Near-East: Vol VI: The Parthian Empire (1873) and Vol VII: The Sassanian or The New Persian Empire (1876). Longmans, Green and Co.

 2) Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta (1955) [1975]. A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar. Oxford University Press.

3) Zimmern, Helen (1883). The Epic of Kings - Stories Retold From Firdusi. T. Fisher Unwin.

3) Epigraphia Indica for copper-plate inscriptions of the Early Pallavas.

4) Pillay, K. K. (1963). South India and Ceylon. University of Madras.