The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

[Following are excerpts from the BBC programme What The Ancients Did For Us - The Indians]

The Water Clock

Because sundials were dependent on the sun to show the time, and thus useless on overcast days and at night, and because it was important for the Buddhists and Jains to perform rituals at particular times of the day and night, our ancient forefathers invented a clock powered by water. It appears that the last extant such device is in a Jain temple in Jalawa (?), and was last seen by outsiders in 1994. But, of course, our intrepid explorers find it without undue difficulty, and it turns out to be a very simple device: a copper bowl floating in a larger basin of water. Whenever the bowl filled up and sank to the bottom of the basin, a double-chinned individual hanging about would strike a gong and fish the bowl out to float it again.

Adam Hart-Davis, the presenter of the programme, attempts to replicate the clock. He uses a half-shell of a coconut with a hole at its bottom and places it in a vessel of water. As the water slowly fills into the shell, it sinks until it hits the bottom of the vessel, at which point Adam's assistant Marty strikes a bell. It has taken roughly half-an-hour to do this. And, of course, based on the size of the hole and the constituent of the floater, one can calibrate this inter-gong period to whatever one likes.

There's a sad story about a maiden named Lilavati of whom it was foretold that she would never marry. But her father, the famous mathematician Bhaskara, worked out that there was one propitious moment when she could, and constructed a water-clock to monitor and indicate that moment. Understandably, Lilavati was nervous and anxious, and she stood over the water-clock to observe its progress. Unfortunately for her, and unnoticed by anyone, a pearl fell from her jewellery into the shell and blocked its hole. The shell never sank, the moment went unannounced, and the poor girl remained unmarried.


It's fairly well-known that the ancient Indians invented the number (and the symbol) zero, signifying nothingness. Indeed, they developed the numerals 1 to 9 as well, at least in a precursor of the form that they are used in today. The usual story is that this knowledge was transmitted to the West via the Arabs, and because the history of the West is the only history worth knowing, the zero and the other numerals came to be known as Arabic. But in this age of revisionism and patriotism and the like, I am happy to report that the Westerners can't have it all their way, first of all because the Westerners themselves are busy rediscovering the rest of the planet and announcing their discoveries to the rest of us, and because one of the earliest pieces of evidence for the symbol of zero appears in the 9th century Chaturbhuj (Vishnu) temple in Gwalior Fort. At the time, the rulers of Kannauj lorded it over the masses. On the wall of the temple is a large inscription describing the dimensions of a local garden where flowers for the temple were grown, and the zero appears in it.

Elective Surgery

Susruta's treatise, twenty-five centuries old, describes procedures and appliances for a wide range of surgical procedures, including extraction of cataracts, innoculations, and rhinoplasty. This last was especially interesting as cut-off noses were a notorious mark of punishment and shame in ancient India, and how better to recover from the mark than to restore one's nose?

The procedure was as follows: first, a leaf was used to gauge how much skin would be required to regenerate the nose. The leaf was placed on the patient's forehead and a trace of it drawn. The skin from the forehead would then be cut, folded over and placed over the nose, anchored in place by a thin flap of tissue.

Th-th-that's all, folks!


Space Bar said...

ok this is trivia time, obviously: does anyone remember this song that goes 'Lilavat, Lilavati something something da de dum...' in Titash Ekti Nadir Naam? Happens during a wedding too, far as I remember.

Fëanor said...

Ooh, a Ghatak flick. Not that I have seen it, of course. The da de dum sounds vaguely familiar, though :-)

Space Bar said...

not the something something bit?! :D actually, in the sorry state my memory is in these ay, i'm wondering if it wasn't lilabali lilabali.


Anonymous said...

Feanor: Good start ;-) But while we are at it, I am sure you are familiar with Dick Teresi's book "Lost Discoveries", an honest book that does not frame science as a western 'discovery' (yes I use the word deliberately).

My review here:

PS: Shall we all form a book recommendation swap club? I should really write more reviews now that I have a backlog and btw Benares was a 6 on 10. Tikki was good but who serves 3 1-inch across tikkis as starters?

Fëanor said...

Space Bar: perchance is it this song? Can't say I've ever heard this before, so your expert ear will have to discern its accuracy.

Shefaly: Thanks for the Teresi reference. Re: your recommendations swap, isn't that similar to a blog where one puts one's reviews?

Hey, and what's the problem with an inch-wide tikki? Are you being sizeist? :-) (I guess this is what passes for desi nouvelle cuisine these days...)

Space Bar said...

It is the song, but not from the ghatak film! far as i remember that was in black and white, the song was shot indoors and was more instrumentally spare.

so, no lilavati after all. damn.

Anonymous said...


In a way it probably will be a blog :-/

Re the tikki: I lived in Gwalior as a child. The city perhaps has the world's best chaat. A 1-inch tikki is blasphemy, methinks, desi nouvelle cuisine be damned. And the imli chutney was not sour enough, and the concoction with tonnes of haldi served with it was confusing and stinky...

I guess Benares's target audience is Natalie Portman after all (who, as gossip goes, was eating there this week too) and not me. I will continue to do the taste test around London and the only reason why I wouldn't write this one up as a review is because it was really disappointing, their nifty tricks with hot towels notwithstanding.

I also enquired about a peculiar tea strainer they brought along for my masala chai. A classier establishment would bring me the strainer, not the URL of the website they bought it from. No? Most disappointing Michelin starred place I ate in (the bill was Michelin alright!)

PS: Sorry about the long digression..

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