Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘history

The origins of spiritual agriculture, 2

leave a comment »

In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village.

Generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts and here is the first part, The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1.

Taking the ‘yajnas‘ and the injunctions about “annadana” as pointers to the size of a society that placed demands upon agricultural production, and of the size and vibrancy of the cultivators to meet that demand, we find that the practice of spiritual agriculture in Vedic, ancient, earlier and later medieval periods, and during the periods of foreign occupation (Muslim, Mughal and British, such as it was able to continue) required a supporting web of knowledge types. These included knowledge of the organisation and administration of the ‘gramas’ and their groups, of the varieties of crops and their properties (for nutrition under several circumstances, for ritual purposes, for medicinal purposes, etc.), of the soils and the cycles of water, of the calendrical and astrological observances and influencers of the seed and its growth.

The study of epigraphs and inscriptions of the different eras, which the Indologists of the modern era (from the mid-nineteenth century) have served us through their laborious researches, have given us a picture that adds to the profundity and breadth of information contained very much earlier in the ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’. These do in the first place highlight in many ways the size of the populations of the earlier eras and the vitality of the agricultural practices that sustained such large populations. In our times, our view of population and its growth is ordinarily linked to the decadal censuses that began to be undertaken from 1901. The overall trend of these censuses taken together is to show rapid growth in a century, but the trend cannot, in the face of the evidence gathered even by the time of the end of the nineteenth century, be similarly extended backwards.

The records of inscriptions, often copper plates, are from different eras and from a number of locations in Vedic, ancient and medieval Bharatvarsha, include the assigning, by grants, villages, for purposes such as the maintenance of temples and places of religious learning, for senior or high officials of a raja, the maintenance of the families of those who had died on the battlefield. These provide a rich source for understanding the administrative structures to which the ‘gramas’ belonged, and their relationships with the administrators. Under the Chandellas, villages were grouped into ‘vishayas’ or ‘pathakas’, while the heirs of the Pratiharas (of the middle Ganga region) also mention ‘vishayas’ and ‘pattanas’ for towns (as is brought out in ‘The Struggle for Empire’, volume five of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’). In dakshin Bharata, under the Chalukyas, there were regions (corresponding to southern Maharashtra) in which the number of ‘gramas’ were grouped into 500, 1,000 and 2,000 under officers whose title was ‘mahamandaleshwara’. Farther south, the number of ‘gramas’ in large groupings rises to 12,000 and more (there are two recorded instances of a Chalukya queen having administered such a large group, and a Chalukya princess having done so).

With ‘vishayas’ and ‘mahamandalas’ containing within their administrative boundaries, several thousand ‘gramas’, and the kingdoms and empires of Bharatavarsha encompassing an area from Kabul to the river Airavati (Irrawaddy) in present-day Burma, the number and density of provincial divisions and the ‘gramas’ and ‘pattanas’ they sustained can only, pending painstaking research, be surmised. The fertility of the soil, which was already legendary in the wider world of the ancients (as evinced by exports to the regions of Babylonia and Rome), and the application of the interlinked modes of spiritual agriculture are the factors that made this astonishing scale of sustenance possible.

In the 'gramas' were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated 'mathas'.

In the ‘gramas’ were the practitioners of spiritual agriculture, which included as a practice the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’.

At its base lay the ‘grama’. Around the ‘grama’ lay its ‘khettas’ or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle. Agricultural land is considered among the ten kinds of external possessions (other being buildings, gold, seeds of grain, collected wood (for fuel), grass, friends and relatives, means of conveyance, furniture and utensils). The ‘khetta’ was divided into ‘setu’ and ‘ketu’, the former being irrigated by water-wheels (also called Persian wheels, or ‘arahatta’) and the latter by rainfall. Agriculture was required ploughing. There was a ploughing deity (‘Sita-janna’ is one such given name) in whose honour a festival was held. “In a prosperous country, the land was ploughed with hundreds of thousands of ploughshares; and sugarcane, barley and rice were cultivated by ‘karisaya’ (farmers),” as explained in ‘Life in Ancient India as Depicted in the Jain Canons’. “There is mention of the limiting of the cultivable land for each plough could plough one hundred ‘nivartana’ of land (as stated by Baudhayana), which is described as an area sufficient to support one man by its produce.”

Indian farmers in their wisdom have followed certain precepts throughout history. For example, on sowing of seeds, a handful bathed in water and a piece of gold was sown first with the following mantra (as transmitted by the Arthashastra):

Prajápatye Kasyapáya déváya namah.

Sadá Sítá medhyatám déví bíjéshu dhanéshu cha. Chandaváta hé.”

(“Salutation to God Prajápati Kasyapa. Agriculture may always flourish and the Goddess (may reside) in seeds and wealth. Chandaváta hé.”)

They likewise took guidance from Rishi Parashara (about 400 BCE), who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

“An agriculturist, who looks after the welfare of his cattle, visits his farms daily, has the knowledge of the seasons, is careful about the seeds, and is industrious, is rewarded with the harvests of all kinds and never perishes.”

“Even a fourfold yield of crops procured at the cost of the health of the bullocks perishes soon by the sighs of their exhaustion.”

As the predominant grain harvest was rice of different varieties, the methods for its storage was a science unto itself. The paddy was sown during the rains and when ripe was harvested with newly sharpened sickles, threshed, winnowed and then taken to the granary, where it was stored in new earthenware jars, says the Vyavahara Bhasya. Elsewhere, piles of rings (‘valaya’) made from interwoven straw and leaves also served as receptacles for the grain. The floor beneath these receptacles was coated with cow dung and dried. Such heaps of grain were arranged close to the wall, besmeared with ashes, sealed with cow dung and screened with straw and bamboo. In the monsoon, the grain was stored in a variety of ways: in earthen containers, in receptacles of woven straw and bamboo, in granaries that stood on pillars, in upper storeys of houses, always well sealed with fresh clean mud and cow dung, often sealed with earthen seals. ‘Kumbhi’, ‘karabi’, ‘pallaga’, ‘muttoli’, ‘mukha’, ‘idura’ and ‘alindaa’ are among the more common forms of storage. “Those, who stored crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’ of these grains in their granary were called ‘naiyatikas’,” the Vyavahara Bhasya has tantalisingly mentioned, indicating the great yields and the equally great responsibilities of those, the ‘naiyatikas’, in whose care the stored grains reposed.

Such a person represented the harmonious combination of a practitioner, administrator, and a religious institution (in the form of a temple or a temple complex with an associated seat of learning, a ‘matha’) that characterised agrarian-centred life in Bharat. Crop production, ownership, land tenures, assessment and revenue were the subjects that brought together the three parties locally and the fourth, the administration of the desa or the kingdom, distantly. Two kinds of land tenure, ‘agrahara’ and ‘devadaya’, were followed in the lands being utilised and belonging to one of the better known of such temple complexes in dakshina Bharata, that of the Somanathapura, on the banks of the Kaveri, in Mysore district. Teachers attached to the temple were given land grants in lieu of salaries, thereby illustrating the continuum of education, sustenance from the produce of the land, the crop cultivation knowledge ‘parampara’ of the region, and the support of the ‘parampara’ scripturally with the participation of the teachers.

Under the Hoysala (and subsequently the Vijayanagara), temple lands were managed by the ‘sthanikas’ or managers and the tenants of such lands were named differently from tenants of other cultivated land. Whereas the Somanathapura of Mysore was relatively large, well known and attracted large numbers of worshippers, its regular daily and festival consumption of agricultural and non-agricultural produce is common to all such temples and temple complexes. The ‘mahajans’, ‘sthanikas’ and ‘nambis’ of the Somanathapura temple purchased locally: rice, paddy, wheat, toor dal, green gram, black gram, soapnut powder, turmeric, jaggery, pepper, cardamom, sesame, arecanut, oil, sandalwood, ghee and curd. Where such temples and temple complexes thrived, they motivated agricultural expansion, mobilised and redistributed royal resources, linked ‘mandis’, gave employment to craftspeople and a great diversity of non-agricultural professions, all on the basis of the inseparable ties between the cultivator and the temple.

The complaint that though the Hindu rulers spent very little on themselves, they suffered from “two great vices”, which are the giving away of most of what they had to the Brahmins and to the temples, was made by an early governor-general of the British occupation, and by several of his predecessors and successors, as recorded by Dharampal. He has remarked that it is possible that the terms ‘Brahmin’ and ‘temple’ were used in a much wider sense and included all who were given to scholarship and support of one kind and another, and to institutions which catered not only to religious needs, but which also served purposes of scholarship, culture, entertainment and comfort. “It does imply that every person in this society enjoyed a certain dignity and that his social and economic needs were well provided for,” Dharampal has written. “Food and shelter seem to have been a natural right, given India’s cultural norms, and made easier by [the] fertility [of the soil].”

Hence, it is the village communities, by which term is meant the ‘grama’ with its cultivators, its professions and vocations agriculturally related and not, the associated temple (or where extant a temple complex with possibly a ‘matha’), with its intricate and mutually supportive webs of knowledge and scriptural practices, which altogether was later described as the agrarian institutions of Bharat. In his ‘The twelve ‘ayagars’ of village community in medieval Karnataka’, K S Shivanna has explained how the twelve ‘ayagars’ contributed to the growth and the self-sufficiency of the village. “The village hardly received anything in return from the towns. The village produced all its own needs from within. The affairs connected with agricultural production were conducted by the cooperation of a body of these twelve village functionaries. Each one of them rendered service to the economic well-being of the village. The office of these ‘ayagars’ was hereditary, hence this hereditary character infused in each ‘ayagar’ a devotion and love towards his own village. The British in the early 19th century were struck by the vitality and usefulness of this system.” Shivanna has quoted Mark Wilks, who spared no admiration for the timeless resilience of the system, he had beheld, one which no conquests, usurpations, or revolutions have been able to influence, whose whole frame of interior management remain unalterably the same, with “every state in India is a congeries of these little republics”.

Such self-sufficiency and insulation as ‘little republics’ can in no way be interpreted to mean that the ‘gramas’ stultified in any respect. On the contrary, particularly for cultivation (and animal husbandry) techniques, aspects concerning the employ of water and soil, and innovations in the use of the many materials of natural origin (furniture, vehicles, basketry and crafts), the network of markets served as mediums of exchange. The renown of regional and local varieties of cereals owed much to the exchange of method and modification between the ‘gramas’ that had been conveyed through such media. For example, in aromatic rice, following local varieties had attained renown: the ‘panarsa’ of parts of modern Himachal Pradesh, ‘laungchoor’ of Mirzapur and Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh, ‘ambemohor’ of Pune district in Maharashtra, ‘badsabhog’ of Paschimi Champaran in Bihar, ‘borjoha’ and ‘krishnajoha’ of Assam, ‘chinoor’ of Bhandara and Gondia districts in Maharashtra, ‘katanbhog’ of Coochbehar in West Bengal, and ‘vishnuparag’ of Barabaki and Bahraich districts of Uttar Pradesh. Aromatic rice varieties such as these, prized for centuries, require a depth of knowledge and application of practice that must nonetheless be added to with every season, to judge the ‘gunas’ of their favoured soils, supervise the passage of ‘jala’ into and from their fields, gauge the temperatures, plan their sowing by the ‘nakshatras’, time the festivals and then proceed to the labour.

In this, our agriculturists met and even excelled the expectations of the vaidyas, who had long ago enumerated the foods, their qualities and their uses based on the principle that there is no medicine comparable to food and it is possible to free a person of ailments solely through diet. One such compilation is the treatise, the Bhojanakutuhalam of Sri Raghunathasuri, which in 44 sections deals encyclopaedically with foods. In this, rice is classified as growing in burnt soil, wet lands, uncultivated soil, by cultivation, from fresh paddy, grown after harvesting. As major groups, they all have combinations of properties and tastes, and affect the three ‘doshas’ (‘vata’, ‘pitta’ and ‘kapha’) differently. The ‘kutuhalam’ dwells on certain rice species that are valuable from the perspective of ayurveda. Amongst these are the ‘rajanna’ of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; ‘krishnasali’, which is famed for growing on the banks of the river Godavari; ‘raktasali’, which is highly valued for its effect on all three ‘dosas’; ‘mundasali’, which treats poisoning and wounds; ‘sthulasali’ or ‘mahasali’, which is sweet and wholesome for children and youth; ‘suksmasali’, ‘gandhasali’, ‘tiriya’, ‘sastivasaraja’ and ‘gaurasali’.

These few examples is sufficient to illustrate the presence of wide range of crop varieties and their associated, abundantly spiritual webs of knowledge, throughout Indian history. This article and its earlier companion article provide a very brief outline of the spiritual basis of agriculture in Bharat, the characteristics of the ‘gramas’ in which the practitioners of such agriculture were to be found in earlier eras, and the manner in which they maintained both their own autonomy and the autonomies of the religious institutions – the temples and associated ‘mathas’ – with respect to the administration of the region and of the raja. The practice and the application of generationally transmitted knowledge, strengthened by the dharmic principles retold in each age, and the expectant resting of an exacting ayurvedic tradition (itself as ancient as the texts in which the nature of food is revealed to us) upon the methods of the cultivators, serves to illumine the integral whole that is ‘prana’, desh and ‘anna’.

Subhash Palekar, who is Bharat’s foremost ‘karyakarta’ of spiritual agriculture, has often, and in writing, rued the slow, but inexorable dismantling of the little republics so admired by Dharampal, Wilks and Shivanna. He has said that when farmers began purchasing their seeds from the towns, when fertilisers (instead of the ‘bijamrita’, ‘ghanjivamrita’ and ‘jivamrita’ that he makes) is bought from the town to be applied to the fields of the ‘grama’, when the flow of goods that was earlier from ‘grama’ to town has been reversed, that is when the natural order was upturned, and that is why spirituality in agriculture must be restored. Over the last three or four decades, ideas from the west, which are termed ‘agro-ecology’ or ‘organic farming’ or ‘bio-dynamic agriculture’ or ‘holistic farming’ have found currency in the Bharat, whose spiritual agricultural practices are superior to these concepts, in the way that a summit of the Vindhyas is superior to the just-assembled mound of the mechanical earthmover. Palekar and his peers (the late Bhaskar Save and late G Nammalwar among them), the generations of spiritual farmers of Bharat, who have safeguarded the ‘parampara’ of dharmic cultivation, have shown us the worship that ties together the cultural, religious and biological richness of our civilisation. Behind them stands Balarama, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and on his shoulder is the plough.

Written by makanaka

January 4, 2017 at 14:39

The origins of spiritual agriculture, 1

with one comment

Our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of food. This article follows my earlier writing on the subject, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ (part 1 of the krishi series), and ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’ (part 2). This article was written for the Indic and Indology study website Indiafacts.

"Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in 'just' thinking." From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.” From the text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’, written around 800 CE.

“Pressed (by men at the helm of affairs) in the words ‘Let food be given again and again and (also) article of wearing apparel of various kinds’ many men in that sacrifice did as they were told (freely gave away food and raiment). Numerous heaps, resembling mountains, of rice cooked from day to day in the traditional way were seen on that occasion on the sacrificial grounds. The men as well as the hosts of women that had arrived from different lands were fully entertained at that sacrificial performance of the high-souled emperor.”

Early in the Valmiki Ramayana is the description of the great ‘asvamedhayajna’ of Raja Dasaratha, which required the preparation of the ‘yajna’ grounds on the northern bank of the river Sarayu that flows alongside Ayodhya.

This passage, from canto 14 in book one, the Bala-khanda, of the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, is one of several in the Bala-khanda which describes the principles of the offering of food, with reverence and honour, with the care that the dignity of the receiver is maintained. The scale of Raja Dasratha’s ‘yajna’, with vast complexes having been built to accommodate the multitudes of visitors, huge cantonments having been constructed for the visiting rajas and their armies, also gives us some indication of the quantities of food that were required, cooked freshly and traditionally, served with care, and to the satisfaction of all.

The Srimad Valmiki Ramayana has been described as an epic that begins with the description of one great ‘yajna’, that of Raja Dasratha’s, and which concludes with the description of another great ‘yajna’, that of Lord Sri Rama’s. These are two great ‘annadanas’, the giving of food. While the ‘yajnas’ involve great ritual and recitation by the assembled priests and scholars, in both, the continuous activity that occurs throughout is the ‘annadana’, for all of the multitudes present – whether a great brahmana with hundreds of followers, whether a visiting raja’s army, or whether ‘tapasvins’ (those who practice penances), ‘sramanas’ (those who undertake austerities), ordinary folk, the old, the women and children – are tired and/or hungry. This indeed is one of the important lessons to be found in the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana and when considered closely, it reveals the centrality of ‘annadana’, the giving of food, and therefore that of the creation of food, its cultivation.

Thus, we find that the sages of Bharat, in their advice and counsel to the rajas, insisted upon the protection of ‘varta’ (which included agriculture, animal husbandry, and trade), with a special focus on the cultivation of crops. When the sage Narada, for example, visited Raja Yudhishthira, his concerns were very much more than ordinary (Mahabharata Sabhaparva, the second parva, chapter 5). In a series of questions, which are not couched in an interrogative tone nor are they in the form of any lofty diktat, but which combine simplicity and sound statecraft (among the essences of the Mahabharata), Narada asks:

“Have you had big water ponds constructed everywhere in your realm? Agriculture cannot be done only on the hope of good rains.”

“I hope that the farmers and the workers of your realm are not unknown to you. Are you aware of what they do? Are they happy with you? Their happiness is one single cause of social prosperity.”

“I hope that the crops and the seeds of farmers in your realm are not wasted. Do you do good to each farmer by giving him loans on one percent interest for agriculture?”

Likewise, in the Anushasanaparva (the thirteenth parva) of the Mahabharata, Bhishma pitamaha, instructs those gathered around him, thus:

“The absence of food makes the five principal elements of the body disintegrate, and with the loss of food, the strength of even the strongest is lost.”

“Food is man’s life and it is through food that the living beings are born. The whole world is based upon food. And therefore food is regarded as the highest.”

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

No advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

The Mahabharata speaks simultaneously of ‘annadana’ and ‘jaladana’, for the giving of food and water alike are regarded as the greatest of all sharing in life. There are detailed instructions on the giving of water (by constructing ponds, wells and reservoirs). Earth (‘bhoomi’) and trees (‘vriksha’) being inseparable from ‘anna’ and ‘jala’, the Mahabharata instructs ‘bhoomidana’ and ‘vrikshadana’ – the giving of fertile land upon which to grow crops, and the planting of trees – as essential for sustenance and nourishment of all.

This illustrates the consideration given by both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the cultivation of the crops, so that food may be obtained, given and consumed. In both our ‘shruti’ and ‘smriti’ are to be found a number of references to food and its cultivation, the manner of its use, its place in the scheme of material things. The Chandogya Upanishad contains a series of discussions on the material basis of life, with the ultimate basis being Brahman. They have stressed the importance of food in the nourishment of the mind. Uddalaka demonstrated this to his son Shwetaketu in quite a practical fashion, when he asked his son to do without food for a fortnight (subsisting on water only) and thereafter to recite the Veda, which Shwetaketu could not do, since, his mental faculties were considerably weakened. These he later regained after eating food. Uddalaka, further, repeated the lesson once more, this time proscribing water as well! Similarly, in other Upanishads, such as Brihadaranyaka, Kaushitaki, and Aitareya, there is to be found an emphasis on ‘prana’ as energy, which flows in many channels in the body, which, like the mind, is to be nourished by food.

Thus, our Hindu scriptural references provide a spiritual and dharmic basis for agriculture and for the harvesting, distribution, and the consumption of the food. Even as our civilisation passed through many alternate periods of prosperity and disruptions, the fundamental religious and cultural values have remained more or less the same to this day.

The archaeological and paleo-botanical investigations that have been carried out, since the early nineteenth century – using methods which have helped to both redraw the civilisational map and assign dates earlier than was previously done – have shown that domestication of cereals and pulses certainly occurred around eight millennia before the so-called ‘common era’ began (in the Gangetic plains, in the regions that correspond to the Saraswati-Sindhu settlements, and also in the Deccan, home to an abundance of millet varieties).

From the age of Sri Rama of Ayodhya till about the time that the kingdoms of northern and Gangetic Bharat began to be absorbed by the great Nanda empire of Magadha, the precepts concerning the cultivation of crop, and of the centrality of ‘annadana’ (and ‘jaladana’) took hold in practice and in institution through the cooperation of three kinds of institutions, whose connections were maintained until the later medieval period in Bharat, after which the interlinked support they provided for dharmic agriculture began to slowly crumble. These institutions were the state, which is the kingship and a form of enlightened administration, whose intricacies and nuances were so minutely and authoritatively compiled and enlarged by Kautilya, the ‘gramas’ or the villages and their farmers (“It is indeed the cultivators, who carry the burden of the King on their shoulders,” Bhishma had advised), and third, the mandirs and their associated ‘mathas’ as seats of learning and influencers of socio-economic conditions.

The Puranic list refers to the Pauravas, Aikshvakus, Panchalas, Kasis, Haiahayas, Kalingas, Asmakas, Maithilas, Surasenas and Vitihotras. Together with Magadha flourished the Kosala and Vatsa kingdoms. There were Avanti, Videha and Anga. From those eras (typically called the Vedic and later Vedic) and into the ages of imperial dynasties for both Uttara and Dakshina Bharat, it is the relatively less commented upon, quite inconspicuous, sparsely documented, but extremely influential ties between ‘grama’ (and kisan), state (in the form of a ‘kalyana raj’), and mandir (the fabric that maintained dharmashastric society), which weaved closely to the ancient injunctions about cultivation, food and the responsibilities of individual and king alike. From the Mauryas (300 to 185 BCE), the Sunga, Saka, Kushan, Satvahana, Vakataka, Pallava, Pandya, Gupta, Harshavardhana, to the Karkota, Pala, Pratihara, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Yadava, Chola, Hoysala, Kakatiya and Rajput, these ties were responsible for maintaining at a high level the wide set of sciences that supported what we today call krishi, but which had meant very much more, when known as the ‘varta’ of the Vedic age.

The old ‘Hindu rate of revenue’ had indeed been laid down in the dharmashastra, and was one-sixth or one-eighth or one-twelfth the produce, and the latitude provided as to the proportion of collection derived not from the strains of maintaining a treasury or the considerable costs of a standing army, but from the climatic conditions and the ability of the ‘gramas’ to bear payment. If the rulers of southern Bharat at times claimed a share even as large as half the produce, they made continued improvements in cultivation possible by excavating and maintaining vast irrigation works at their own cost (this indeed was the agrarian base of the economy that supported the great eastward seaborne excursions during the Chola period, with Suvarnadvipa, the modern archipelagic Indonesia, becoming Hindu in rule and socio-religious practice) and took their share in kind, not in money.

That there was a steady, incremental and appropriate technology surrounding cultivation is seen from the export, during the eras of the Satvahanas (around 40 BCE to 220 CE) and the Kushans (78 to 144 CE), of steel weapons and cutlery to western Asia, where they enjoyed high esteem. That esteem was due in no small measure because of the widespread manufacture of sturdy agricultural implements: hoes of varying lengths, sickles with variations in both blades and handles for different purposes, and true spades (these found in Takshashila) are testament to how advanced this technology was. As with discoveries of such implements in other places, such as in Sanchi, their workmanship indicates how advanced ironmongery was at the time. There is also the reassurance that our kisans, like their lines of ancestors stretching back into those storied eras, valued the engineering utility of a well-designed implement by continuing to make and use it: the ‘bhakhar’ (a blade-harrow) that even in the 1980s was in use in the black cotton soils of Madhya Bharat has been employed in the same form for centuries.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible.

In the Arthashastra – that inexhaustible compendium of counsel, example, regulation and precept – there is a mention of the suitability of different crops for cultivation, according to rainfall: “Hence, according as the rainfall is more or less, the superintendent shall sow the seeds, which require either more or less water. ‘Sáli’ (a kind of rice), ‘vríhi’ (rice), ‘kodrava’ (kodo millet), ’tila’ (sesamum), ‘priyangu’ (panic seeds), ‘dáraka’ and ‘varaka’ (the medicinal plant variety phraseolus trilobus) are to be sown at the commencement (púrvávápah) of the rainy season. ‘Mudga’ (black gram or black lentil), ‘másha’ (green gram or mung), are to be sown in the middle of the season. ‘Kusumbha’ (safflower), ‘kuluttha’ (horsegram), ‘yava’ (barley), ‘godhúma’ (wheat), ‘kaláya’ (leguminous seeds), ‘atasi’ (linseed), and ‘sarshapa’ (mustard) are to be sown last” (Book 2, Chapter 24, ‘Arthashastra’ translation by R Shamasastry). No detail was too small to be excluded, no advice that had travelled through the eras, sustained by the webs of knowledge that extended between the federations of gramas and the learning sanctuaries of the ‘mathas’ attached to mandirs large and small, was ever too inconsequential to be discarded.

By the end of the period normally taken to be that describing ancient Bharat (the repulse of the first Arab invasions at the start of the eighth century, followed by the fall of Hindu Kabul in 870 CE, as R C Majumdar has written in volume four of ‘The History and Culture of the Indian People’), the sciences upon which rested the practice of our agriculture, and the dense, inherited cascades of knowledge concerning the material, astrological and spiritual schema of our agriculture had been well maintained. It was recognised that while different districts grew principal crops, this never implied that farmers were growing these mainly. A diversity of crops (cereals, legumes, vegetables both leafy and tuberous, fruit) implied good consumption, good trade and moreover a good basis with which to fulfil the ancient injunction on ‘annadana’.

Our farmers’ cropping seasons were mainly divided into two (with the sowing-to-harvest cycle overlapping the six climatic seasons). Agricultural life has from its earliest organised emergence in Bharat (and Bharatvarsha) been cyclical, based on the luni-solar calendar as calculated for region and province. According to the prevailing calendar, agricultural work is planned and carried out, which in turn informs and guides the cultural practices. The diversity of crops, the characteristics of the land, the practices of cropping, the Devas and the Devis, who presided and the rituals that were to be observed for them, these were the cornerstones of agricultural life.

In most parts of Bharat, the agricultural calendar was (and there are calendric holdouts still to be found) divided into fortnights punctuated by new moon days (‘amavasya’) and full moon days (‘purnima’). The rainfall pattern of these periods was carefully observed and recorded and cropping plans were made on these meticulously maintained records. Proverbs and sayings came to be coined in order to encode and ease the transmission of such climatological and meteorological knowledge. Thus, our agriculturists’ calendars included the 27 ‘nakshatras’ and the months (jyestha, ashadha, shravana and so on) that they corresponded with major festivals – with each month containing one major festival. This remarkable arrangement was noted even as recently as the 1940s in the last of the provincial gazetteer series of British India. The festivals contain scientific principles related to the management of agricultural lands, management of water resources, and the essence of sustainability, and the festivals help valorise the vast experiential knowledge webs of the farmers.

Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in Anushashanparva, is the manifestation of the primeval being. They carry knowledge, they share the burden of the Raja and make the ‘annadana’ possible. What qualities must they have then? The sage Kashyapa, while dealing with the environmental and spiritual aspects of cultivation in his text on farming called ‘Kashyapiyakrishisukti’ (written around 800 CE), describes the character of farmers, thus:

“[The production of] grains and other vegetation are the sole purpose for highest fulfilment of the earth. The rich earth full of vegetation is the cause of growth of living beings.”

“They [farmers] are devotees of cow, earth, and gods; they are absolutely truthful in speech, intent on being agreeable to others, and always contented in mind.”

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.”

This affords us a glimpse into the spiritual and scriptural underpinnings of the activities, which we have only recently started to call ‘agriculture’, but which held much greater meaning as ‘varta’ and the more familiar ‘krishi’, because of their inherent connection to ‘annadana’. These are the ancient roots of our bonds with bhoomi, ‘panchabhutas’, and ‘annadana’.

A discussion about the factors that led to the longevity of the tripartite system, which enabled ‘varta’ to function so well for so many centuries, the harmonious interdependence between the prescriptions under Ayurveda for maintaining health and the produce of spiritual cultivation that provides such substances (such as the ‘sali’ families of rice mentioned in the Arthashastra), the assault on the ‘grama’ during the eras of occupation of Bharat by foreign powers, and the much more recent displacement of our spiritual agriculture by what is today called ‘agro-ecological’ and ‘organic agriculture’, follow in the next article.

Written by makanaka

November 4, 2016 at 20:01

Out with the legislated history of Bharat

with one comment

A public statement entitled ‘Hypocrisy and Indian History’ has within two days of it being released gathered supporters by the thousand. Written by a group of historians, archaeologists and scholars of the Indian civilisation, the joint public statement has issued a clear and much-needed call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.

The 50 signatories (at this time supported by more than 4,000 via an online petition) have condemned the “pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a ‘legislated history’, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilisational heritage”. The authors of the joint statement have opened a first front in the quest for India’s Leftist historians – long held as the only writers and interpreters of the history of an ancient and exceedingly rich civilisation – to face a reckoning that will undoubtedly be grim for their school.

'Bheelalas' (also Bhilala), Sehore (MP, the old Central Provinces), 1862, from the Waterhouse Albums

‘Bheelalas’ (also Bhilala), Sehore (MP, the old Central Provinces), 1862, from the Waterhouse Albums

They have pointed to a few of the more odious recent instances of the Left historians doing their duty to the former Congress-led government – on 26 October 2015, a group of 53 Indian historians publicly said they were alarmed by what they perceived as a “highly vitiated atmosphere” in India. Soon after, an “Open letter from overseas historians and social scientists” (numbering 176) followed, and this letter warned against “a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry” and “a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history”.

Such made-to-order intellectual endorsing of what has been a tactical political campaign against the BJP government has disturbed many historians, archaeologists and scholars of the Indian civilisation.

hist_quote1The authors of this statement have said their response is to the hypocritical attempts by leftist historians to claim a moral high ground. “Many of the signatories of the above two statements by Indian and ‘overseas’ historians,” they explain in their statement, “have been part of a politico-ideological apparatus which, from the 1970s onward, has come to dominate most historical bodies in the country, including the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and imposed its blinkered view of Indian historiography on the whole academic discipline”.

The authors of the (welcome and timely) call to free Indian historiography from the intellectual gulags of the left include a number of current members of the ICHR, several former members of the council, several scholars of the Archaeological Survey of India, university professors, Sanskrit scholars and linguists. They provide seven good reasons why their call is important, and these are (reproduced directly from the call):

'Kali Ghat, Calcutta', from 'Picturesque India. A handbook for European travellers, etc.', by W S Caine, G Routledge & Sons, 1890

‘Kali Ghat, Calcutta’, from ‘Picturesque India. A handbook for European travellers, etc.’, by W S Caine, G Routledge & Sons, 1890

1. A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.

2. A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field —philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic — and a general under-emphasis of India’s important contributions to other cultures and civilizations. In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!

3. A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.

hist_quote24. A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa, Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.

5. A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed a space to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.

Illustration 'Women of Bombay' from 'What I saw in India', by H S Newman, Partridge & Co., 1885

Illustration ‘Women of Bombay’ from ‘What I saw in India’, by H S Newman, Partridge & Co., 1885

6. A biased and defective use of sources: Texts as well as archaeological or epigraphic evidence have been misread or selectively used to fit preconceived theories. Advances of Indological researches in the last few decades have been ignored, as have been Indian or Western historians, archaeologists, anthropologists who have differed from the Leftist School. Archaeologists who developed alternative perspectives after considerable research have been sidelined or negatively branded. Scientific inputs from many disciplines, from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies have been neglected.

7. A disquieting absence of professional ethics: The Leftist School has not academically critiqued dissenting Indian historians, preferring to dismiss them as “Nationalist” or “communal”. Many academics have suffered discrimination, virtual ostracism and loss of professional opportunities because they would not toe the line, enforced through political support since the days of Nurul Hasan. The Indian History Congress and the ICHR, among other institutions, became arenas of power play and political as well as financial manipulation. In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarising the academic community.

hist_quote3And there we have it. I signed the petition (which you will find here) and commented: “The Indic approach to understanding the patterns of the past has been systematically denied, suppressed, altered, misrepresented, miscast, ridiculed and marginalised by the historians who are the subject here. In my view, aspects that have a great deal to do with shaping events and the lives of peoples – language and spirituality – have been ignored altogether by the ‘leftist school’. In so doing, a gigantic corpus of work and memory concerning our Bharatiya past has been concealed or neglected to a condition of near ruin, and this has been disastrous for the transmission of the values and ideas which are part of our heritage. That is why I welcome this call for a new historiography of Bharat.”

The 50 original signatories of this statement are:

1. Dr. Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor, Cambridge University, UK; Dean, Centre of Historical and Civilizational Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, Chanakyapuri, Delhi; member, ICHR
2. Dr. Saradindu Mukherji, historian, retired from Delhi University; member, ICHR
3. Dr. Nanditha Krishna, Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research, Chennai; member, ICHR
4. Dr. M.D. Srinivas, former professor of theoretical physics; former vice-chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; member, ICHR
5. Dr. Meenakshi Jain, associate professor of history, Delhi University; member, ICHR
6. Michel Danino, guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar; member, ICHR
7. Prof. B.B. Lal, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
8. Dr. R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
9. Dr. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu; Vice Chancellor, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram
10. Dr. B.M. Pande, Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India
11. Prof. Dayanath Tripathi, former Chairman, ICHR; former Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, D.D.U. Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; former Visiting Professor at Cambridge, British Academy
12. Prof. R.C. Agrawal, President, Rock Art Society of India; former Member Secretary of ICHR
13. Prof. K.V. Raman, former professor of Ancient Indian History & Archaeology, University of Madras
14. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dancer and Research Scholar
15. Prof. Kapil Kapoor, former Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antararashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (Maharashtra)
16. Prof. Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
17. Dr. Chandrakala Padia, Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Ganga Singh University (Rajasthan); Chairperson, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
18. Sachchidanand Sahai, Ph.D. (Paris), National Professor in Epigraphy, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Advisor to Preah Vihear National Authority under the Royal Government of Cambodia; member, ICHR
19. Dr. J.K. Bajaj, Director Centre for Policy Studies, Former Member ICSSR
20. Dr. Makarand Paranjape, Professor of English, JNU; Visiting Global South Fellow, University of Tuebingen
21. Dr. Nikhiles Guha, former professor of history, University of Kalyani, West Bengal; member, ICHR
22. Prof. Issac C.I., member, ICHR
23. Prof. (Dr.) Purabi Roy, member, ICHR
24. Prof. Jagbir Singh, Former Professor and Head, Dept. of Punjabi, University of Delhi; Life Fellow, Punjabi University, Patiala.
25. Dr. G.J. Sudhakar, former Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Loyola College, Chennai
26. Dr. Bharat Gupt, Former Associate Professor, Delhi University
27. Prof. O.P. Kejariwal, Central Information Commissioner & Nehru Fellow
28. Dr. S.C. Bhattacharya, former Professor and HOD, Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, Allahabad University; former National Fellow, IIAS, Shimla
29. Prof. S.K. Chakraborty, former professor, Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
30. Dr. Amarjiva Lochan, Associate Professor in History, Delhi University; President, South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture & Religion (SSEASR) under IAHR, affiliated to the UNESCO
31. Dr. R.N. Iyengar, Distinguished Professor, Jain University, Bangalore
32. Professor (Dr) R. Nath, former Professor of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
33. Kirit Mankodi, archaeologist, consultant to Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Mumbai
34. Prof. K. Ramasubramanian, Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, IIT Bombay; Council Member International Union for History and Philosophy of Science; member, Rashtriya Sanksrit Parishad
35. Dr. M.S. Sriram, Retired Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Physics, University of Madras; Member Editorial Board, Indian Journal of History of Science; Former Member, Research Council for History of Science, INSA
36. Dr. Amartya Kumar Dutta, Professor of Mathematics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata
37. Dr. Godabarisha Mishra, Professor and Head, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras
38. Dr. R. Ganesh, Shathavadhani, Sanskrit scholar
39. Sri Banwari, Academic and Journalist; former Resident Editor, Jansatta
40. Dr. S. Krishnan, Associate Professor, Dept of Mathematics, IIT Bombay
41. Dr. Rajnish Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
42. Dr. Vikram Sampath, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication; former Director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) – SRC; historian and author
43. Prof. K. Gopinath, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
44. Prof. M.A. Venkatakrishnan, former Professor and Head, Dept. of Vaishnavism, Madras University
45. Dr. Sumathi Krishnan, Musician and Musicologist
46. Dr. Prema Nandakumar, Author and translator
47. Dr. Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
48. Dr. Siniruddha Dash, former Professor & Head, Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Madras
49. Dr. Mamata Mishra, Managing Trustee, Prof. K.V. Sarma Research Foundation
50. Dr. Chithra Madhavan, historian and epigraphist

Written by makanaka

November 20, 2015 at 00:59

A Bombay of parti-coloured turbans red and yellow

with 2 comments

The Bombay I saw, as a boy, a shadow of, for there was still a dusty if tattered drapery of the great city’s history to be found, if one peered closely enough and had an ear for lore.

This lambent passage is from the chapter on Bombay in ‘Cities of India’, by G W Forrest (ex-Director of Records, Government of India), Westminster, Archibald Constable and Co Ltd, 2 Whitehall Gardens, 1903.


quotes-greenBut we must not loiter long at Byculla, for we have to dine in the Fort. We leave London club life, and plunge into the native city, a paradise of luxury and splendour, stench and squalor. The richness and variety of the out-lines of the narrow and curving, but not crooked streets, take hold of the imagination. The many-tinted houses, the colours white, yellow, and red, the luxurious or wild carving lavished on the pillars of wood, the balconies, rosettes of the windows, and the architraves of the roofs, give an air of refinement, of subtle grace which defies description or criticism. The Hindu temple with its gaudy-coloured mythological subjects, and the Mussulmans’ simple white mosque, are vividly contrasted. It is a world of wonder.

Here all races have met: Persians in huge shaggy hats, and British sailors in white; the strong, lithe, coal-black Afreedee seaman, tall martial Rajpoots, peaceful Parsees in cherry-coloured silk trousers, Chinamen with the traditional pig-tail, swaggering Mussulmans in turbans of green, sleek Marwarees with high-fitting parti-coloured turbans of red and yellow. This tide of human life rolls down the centre of the street, unruffled by the vehicles from all quarters of the earth ploughing their way through it. There is the tramcar from New York drawn by walers from Australia, with pith helmets to protect them from the rays of the sun; the phaeton from Long Acre drawn by high-stepping Arabs; the rude vehicle of the land, innocent of springs, with a single square seat, drawn by handsome sleek bullocks. With much trouble and much shouting the driver works his way through the enchanted street, and we see the immortal eunuch, the porter, and the veiled lady standing near a shop filled with gold and silver stuff. Each trade has its own locale.

Cities_of_India_1903There are rows of bakers’ shops, with large ovens, and vast round loaves of unleavened bread. There are long lines of confectioners’, in which the sweetmeats are piled up in all sorts of fantastic shapes, and behind his pile sits the fat, greasy, half-naked confectioner. Then come the shops of the bunias, which are crowded with baskets filled with pulse and grain; and the Oriental grocer kindly chatters to three or four women as he weighs their flour in a pair of primitive scales, and after much bargaining they purchase for a farthing a lump of salt and two green chillies, which are their sole luxuries in life. Long and sharp is the ting-ting that proceeds from the shops where Javan, Tubal, and Meshech trade “their vessels of brass in thy market.” They are filled from floor to roof with large pots and small pots; for as the Hindu eats and drinks only from vessels made of brass, the brazier’s art is an important one in the land.

There are the shops of the money-changers, who are seated square-legged on their carpet, with heaps of rupees and shells before them. In a small hovel is a lean old man who, with a blowpipe and small hammer and a pair of pincers, is manufacturing “the chains and the bracelets, the ear-rings, the rings and the nose jewels.” Sable eve spreads swiftly, and the great brass lamps hanging from the roof are lighted, and the earthenware cressets before the dark shrines are illuminated.

Written by makanaka

March 31, 2013 at 12:03

India’s food price inflation in high gear

with 2 comments

There has been no shortage since November of news reports and analyses about the food inflation. The 19% annual rise in fact masks widespread individual urban centres’ price shocks and individual food item trends. I have tried to unpack the year-on-year ‘national’ food inflation number using data from the Ministry Of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution – Department Of Consumer Affairs (Price Monitoring Cell). My guess is that this data is an under-estimate but is useful for spotting trends.

I collected prices for the 36 cities tracked by the PM Cell, monthly from 2007 December. Based on a small basket of staples (rice, wheat, atta, tur dal, sugar, gud, tea, milk, potato, onion, salt) a crude index shows that in 33 out of 36 cities, the 24 month (07 Dec to 09 Dec) rise in prices of items in this basket is more than 24%, and that in 23 cities it is more than 50%.

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

Food inflation 2009 over 2007 in Indian cities

About price increases in rural settlements I can find no organised information at all, although direct experience in western Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa tells me that a staples basket can cost up to 2-3% more than in urban areas. (Agmarknet collects and maintains detailed mandi prices for farm produce but there is no comparable effort for rural retail food staples.)

The National Sample Survey 61st Round (2004 July-2005 June) on ‘Household Consumer Expenditure in India’ put down the finding that out of every rupee that the average rural Indian spent on household consumption, 55 paise was spent on food and mainly:
18 paise was spent on cereals
8 paise on milk & milk products
6 paise on vegetables
5 paise on sugar, salt & spices
5 paise on beverages, refreshments, processed food, purchased cooked meals, etc

Of the non-food expenditure 10 paise was spent on fuel for cooking and lighting.

I have tried to maintain this weightage in my calculation, but it is really no more than a crude reckoning because I haven’t been able to spend the time to clean up the publicly available data – querying the website database of Dacnet (Dept of Agriculture and Cooperation) or FCAMin returns report formats that are terribly messy, even though they contain useful data. (Although I think there may be differences even between these for the same foods and same date ranges.)

Based on what I have seen and heard on the field in Karnataka, Goa and western Maharashtra (and learnt about Gujarat and eastern UP from others) the available food basket seems to be shrinking (the so-called ‘coarse’ cereal group is conspicuously less), and where families have young and teenaged children there is pressure to buy processed and packaged snack foods (which is really a blight in our small rural markets). There are all sorts of oddities about the form that food takes in these markets – the price of a 50 gram pack of biscuits for example (Parle Glucose is the standard) has hardly moved in the last 3-4 years yet at the same point-of-purchase end, look at the way the prices of ground wheat have moved.

Then there’s fuel and transport to account for, more about which you’ll find here. This question needs much more work in 2010 to strengthen some of the reliable data we have with updates, and to try to build in what we see and hear and sense from conversations with those who live and work in all those tahsils and talukas and blocks and mandals. I feel very strongly that we are lacking in our data the presence and impact of the many linkages that connect and influence the rural farming/labour household. Many of the measures we have have served us well but I think need to be supplemented – how to integrate the lessons and findings from the comprehensive National Family Health Survey, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the many studies into the income-providing measures of NREGA.

Even though we worry about what the rural/urban poor household must spend on, the attraction to buy mobile phones amazes me. I have met young men who earn around Rs 4,000 a month but who have bought Samsung mobile phones costing Rs 5,000! Imagine spending more than a month’s income on a phone, I asked them, but they saw nothing worrying about their expenditure. Retailers who sell mobile phones used to keep the low cost and hardy Nokia phones which 3 years ago cost around Rs 1,700-1,800 (mine is still working), but not any longer, or they work at discouraging those who ask for the relatively cheaper phones. Much more than the hundred-dollar laptop we need the thousand-rupee mobile phone.

The image is of a chart I made for the project group I work with (part of the National Agricultural Innovation Project, it’s called Agropedia and you can read more about it here). This chart helps point to some patterns (you can download the hi-res image here). I’m curious for example about Gujarat, whose grain and commodity traders have a long and murky history of hoarding. The North-Eastern cities could be insulated to some extent from the regional transport subsidy (road and rail). Cities in the Deccan are relatively better off than North Indian cities. The big difference between Chandigarh and Mandi is puzzling.

In his hugely interesting paper, ‘India And The Great Divergence: Assessing The Efficiency Of Grain Markets In 18th and 19th Century India‘, Roman Studer (University of Oxford, Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, Number 68, November 2007) has written: “Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the grain trade in India was essentially local, while more distant markets remained fragmented. This is not to say that no grain was traded over longer distances, but the extent was very limited, as the prices from some 36 cities all over India still exhibited various characteristics of isolated markets.”

“First, annual price fluctuations were extremely high. Second, differences in price levels between markets were very pronounced and persisted until well into the nineteenth century. Third, apart from neighbouring villages or cities, price series from different markets did not show comovements at all.” Studer looked at century-old data, but we still have 36 cities to tell us about staple food retail prices! Also, the three characteristics he mentions can be seen today too.

Happy New Year!

Concerning the Bank of Upper India, Meerut, 1915

leave a comment »

Old banking stats from 1915 show financial crisis back then too.You can see the difference when there is a certain kind of central banking cadre which is proud of the work it does. Take the Reserve Bank of India’s banking statistics. Although immensely useful to those in the banking and finance industry, and just as useful to those who draw the links between how money is spent and development programmes, hundreds and hundreds of rows and columns filled with numbers to the third decimal are – let’s face it – hardly as exciting as a Twenty20 game.

Enter a dash of history. The conservatively titled regular publication, ‘Statistical Tables Relating to Banks in India 2008-09’, reminds us stolidly that it provides “information on major items such as liabilities and assets, income and expenses, non-performing assets, financial ratios, spatial distribution of offices, number of employees and details of priority sector advances. It also provides bank group-wise monthly data on some of the major items such as aggregate deposits, liabilities to the banking system, assets with the banking system, investments, bank credit, and, sector-wise and industry-wise gross bank credit”.

And then it smoothly brings in the historical view (see pic left). “This publication had started prior to the establishment of the Reserve Bank of India. The first issue was brought out by the then Department of Statistics, Government of India in 1915 which covered data for 1914 and was brought out under the guidance of Mr. G. Findlay Shirras, the then Director of Statistics, Government of India. It is worth mentioning that Late Professor P. R. Brahmananda dedicated his book ‘Money, Income, Prices in 19th Century India’, published in 2001, to Mr. G. Findlay Shirras, among others. In order to commemorate the origin of this publication, the cover page of the first issue brought out in 1915 is reproduced in this volume.”

Reserve Bank of India digs out banking stats from 1915What an evocative cover page it is (see pic right)! The foreword continues: “The work relating to the publication was transferred to the Reserve Bank of India in 1939. The last issue, which incidentally was also the 25th issue, of the publication brought out by the Government of India was in 1941, with data pertaining to 1938. The first issue under the aegis of the Reserve Bank of India was brought out in 1941, with data pertaining to 1939 and 1940. The cover page of the last issue brought out by the Government of India and ‘Prefatory Note’ in the first issue brought out by the Reserve Bank of India as reproduced in Statistical Tables Relating to Banks in India 2005-06 are also given in this volume.”

“This is the 64th volume of the publication by the Reserve Bank of India,” say this issue’s authors. “If we count volumes published by the then Department of Statistics, Government of India, then this could be the 89th volume, marking the long history of continuity of this publication. This publication has continued for nearly a century underscores its relevance. It is also a tribute to the efforts and dedication of concerned officials first in the Government of India and now in the Reserve Bank of India.” Hear, hear. This volume has been brought out under the guidance of Dr. A. M. Pedgaonkar, Principal Adviser, and Dr. Balwant Singh, Adviser, DSIM, and for their historically sensitive presentation alone they deserve to take a bow.