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The Daily Rhino
Thursday, December 29, 2005

Misplaced heritage and a new boast for India

MUCH of ancient India's legacy to the modern world has been misattributed through centuries of Euro-centric history. It rests upon the shoulders of modern historians from the West and the East, to ensure ancient misnomers are put right; especially as India has a new claim to fame.

The first prehistoric art was always thought of as the Venus of Willendorf, which has been dated to around 24,000 BC. However a recent discovery has caused us to completely re-think how far back the history of art goes. Hundreds of cupules have been found carved into a quartz cave in Daraki-Chattan in Madhya Pradesh, which have been judged to have had no functional purpose, just aesthetic value. Art.

The cup-shaped marks have been dated back a staggering 200,000 years, putting the human desire to create art back 175,000 years. Say it with me: "India invented art!" The findings will be published next month in

Indians are proud of zero. Everyone in India knows zero. Indians outside India know zero. We brought the world zero and the world have us to thank; for zero. Of course I refer to the
number. It's something drummed into the head of most Indians that "we invented the zero", although few appreciate just how important that was.

It was not merely a numeral between -1 and 1, it was an entirely new concept. When Pingala first used zero in his Chhandah-shastra, written some time between 500-300BC, he was laying the groundwork for the computer you read this on, for it was the first binary numeral system recorded. He also began to explore
Pascal's triangle and the Fibonacci sequence.

Indians have done a great deal more than that. But this post isn't about India's contribution to the rest of the world as entire websites are devoted to that (e.g. Kamat's Potpourri). It's about how other Indian exports do not maintain their Indian origins in the same way zero does. The forgotten things India gave the world.

There are nine things that top the list.
The numbers from 1 to 9. Prior to the arrival of the numbers in Europe, Roman numerals were used. These were cumbersome and sums were notoriously difficult. The dark ages were so named as maths and science had not blossomed in Europe. In contrast, Indians were performing calculations involving trade and the stars rapidly and efficiently.

Yet today the symbols 1 - 9 are referred to as Arabic numerals. Simply due to an accident of history - Europeans first encountered the numbers during interactions with Arab traders and henceforth the system was known as 'The Arabic Numerals'. The numbers met with great opposition when they came to Europe and the Roman Catholic Church (who've always done their bit to help science along) declared anyone caught using the system would be branded a heretic and would be liable to burning at the stake. More here.

Who invented
drainage? Ask most Westerners and they will tell you the Romans were the first to build advanced towns with sewage systems. Not so. The Indus valley civilisation is pretty well known worldwide, but many forget that two thousand years before the Romans, the ancient cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harrapa had highly developed drains. Lavatories emptied into 2 metre-deep sewers, which met at occasional cesspools which were, quite astonishingly, covered by manhole covers almost identical to the design we use today. More here and here.

The father of immunisation is known by all as Edward Jenner. A hero of medicine and a man who saved millions of lives. I see the chap every day, as a huge bust of him sits in my medschool foyer. Prior to vaccination with cowpox, which Jenner discovered conferred immunity to smallpox, the only form of protection was inoculation. This was, of course, far more dangerous but at around the time of Christ, evidence exists that suggests Indians were the first to be inoculating people against smallpox, by scratching the skin and applying pus from a smallpox sufferer. Nice. Exact instructions were laid out for the patient, including what food they were allowed to eat. They would be frequently bathed in cold water to avoid fever and it seems that the efforts were 50% successful. Not great by today's standards - but this method also saved millions.

Continuing the medical theme - I've written stacks on one man, the father of Indian surgery, Susruta. More about him another day, but one of his myriad achievements deserves a special mention on The Daily Rhino...Rhinoplasty! Yup, nose jobs were invented in India. And today they enjoy most popularity in Iran.

metallurgical history of India is also frequently overlooked, despite the high profile testament to ancient Indian iron-forging, the iron pillar which stands at Qutb Minar. It has stood, unweathered and unrusted for about 1700 years; predating the very religion of the mosque it was moved to! Around 500-300 BC, India made great leaps in metallurgy, including pioneering the crucible technique to produce the immensely strong yet flexible wootz steel. Techniques used in China and India two thousand years ago were not adopted in Europe until a few centuries ago.

China and India shared a great deal of knowledge in past and it is natural some inventions have been associated more closely with one country than another. The Chinese invented
rockets, but many strides forward in their use in warfare were made by Tipu Sultan's army. However, surely the greatest travesty of Sino-Indian history is the repeated association of Buddhism with China. Vast swathes of America consider Buddhism and Buddha quite Chinese. Whilst many would contend that martial arts initially came from India, which now seems very probable, the Chinese stand alone in their mastery and refinement of the arts, so I'm willing to let them have that one!

Lastly, there are two pastimes which have not been attributed to other countries, but whose heritage is occasionally forgotten. Make sure next time you plass
snooker or chess, you let your opponent know where the game comes from.

Permanent link action

Do you think that we Indians keep harping about the past because we have too few things to celebrate in the current day and age?
On the contrary, I think India has a lot to celebrate NOW - as in, the last decade or so. But I think a reason why Indians like to sit around talking about the past (or maybe that's just Bengalis!) is because on the global setting, our legacy is somewhat diluted, which is what I was trying to get at with this post.

I do feel history counts for a lot, and countries like China, Greece, India etc should be proud of their ancestors - whilst at the same time not going overboard (as you may be suggesting). India has had long periods of foreign rule and many of its achievements have been overlooked. Indeed, India's place in the world may be rather different now had vast amounts of resources not been extracted or income denied (e.g. English cotton).

Anyway, I suppose at the end of the day one could argue it's all irrelevant. But one can't look to the future without considering the past.
Excellent post, Rohin! And it is important that the world recognizes the achievements of any country and attributes it to the right source (not just India, but I think we are a nation that has been one of the most wronged in this area).

This is my first time to your blog, will be sure to look around for more nice posts..keep up the good work..:)
Well as I'm so patriotic about the 50% of me that is Indian, I'll fight the good fight with you Sue as I'm one hundred and twenty eighth Dutch!

But I doubt I can pronounce Kozhikode :)
one hundred and twenty eighth!?!! Haha, it seems tracing your ancestry requires some grasp of math!

Most Indians cant pronounce Kozhikode correctly, so thats no biggie!

so what are the other 127/128th?
About the martial arts bit,there is quite a bit of evidence regarding the origin of shaolin temple martial arts from the teachings of an indian monk Ta-mo(bodhi dharma) including their traditions and independent evidence in the form of chinese statues clearly depicting a dark complexioned ?south indian monk dating from 16th and another of the him crossing the tsangpo(british and vict and albert museums london).Ofcourse chinese had independent martial art traditions which existed from antiquity which probably made some significant contributions.
Hello Anonymous. I wrote a wee bit about martial arts on another blog, here: http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/002121.html#comment23007

I think Bodhi Dharma's role in martial arts has been over-estimated. But, as you say, without doubt a great deal of knowledge passed from India to China, especially with the spread of Buddhism.
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