The World’s Tallest Statue

On Wednesday, India unveiled the world’s tallest statue: The Statue of Unity, which depicts the country’s first deputy prime minister and major independence leader, Vallabhbhai Patel. It is about twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, and taller than the previous record-holder, China’s Spring Temple Buddha.

Funny enough, it will not be the tallest statue for long: India’s state of Maharashtra is constructing a memorial to the Maratha warrior king Shivaji that will be several meters taller.

In addition to playing a leading role in organizing nonviolent resistance against the British, Patel was instrumental in forging a cohesive, democratic republic from the politically fragmented British Raj, which included both British-controlled colonies and over 560 self-governing “princely states” that had been indirectly ruled.

Through both force of personality and de facto command of the military, he managed to cajole nearly all these states to join India; this uncompromising willingness to do whatever it took to form India earned him the moniker of the “Iron Man of India” and “Unifier of India”. Patel was also the founder of the country’s massive civil service, the “All India Services”, which he identified as the “steel frame” of the country that would cement a fractious, disunified society.

Although widely beloved for his decisive leadership in founding India, many locals protested the construction and dedication to the statue, believing it to be a waste of well needed public funds; demonstrators were subsequently kept at bay during the unveiling ceremony.

See a slideshow of its construction here.

Source: BBC

A Lost Civilization in India?

It is amazing how we are still uncovering signs of early civilizations going back tens of thousands of years, forcing us to rethink the span of organized and sophisticated human society.  From the BBC:

The sheer variety of the rock carvings have stunned experts — animals, birds, human figures and geometrical designs are all depicted.

The way the petroglyphs have been drawn, and their similarity to those found in other parts of the world, have led experts to believe that they were created in prehistoric times and are possibly among the oldest ever discovered.

“Our first deduction from examining these petroglyphs is that they were created around 10,000BC,” the director of the Maharashtra state archaeology department, Tejas Garge, told the BBC.

The credit for their discovery goes to a group of explorers led by Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe, who began searching for the images in earnest after observing a few in the area. Many were found in village temples and played a part in local folklore.

“We walked thousands of kilometres. People started sending photographs to us and we even enlisted schools in our efforts to find them. We made students ask their grandparents and other village elders if they knew about any other engravings. This provided us with a lot of valuable information,” Mr Risbood told the BBC.

Although these mysterious people were likely hunter-gatherers–there are no depictions of farming or other agricultural activities–their ability to conceptualize art and abstract shapes is still quite impressive for the time period.

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Even more fascinating are those depictions of animals not known to have ever existed in the region:

Most of the petroglyphs show familiar animals. There are images of sharks and whales as well as amphibians like turtles,” Mr Garge adds.

But this begs the question of why some of the petroglyphs depict animals like hippos and rhinoceroses which aren’t found in this part of India. Did the people who created them migrate to India from Africa? Or were these animals once found in India?

The state government has set aside a fund of 240 million rupees ($3.2m; £2.5m) to further study 400 of the identified petroglyphs.

It is hoped that some of these questions will eventually be answered.

I hope so as well! I look forward to following up on this!

India Unveils Largest Health Care System in History, First Manned Space Mission

India has long been touted as a potential superpower. To that end, it is taking a few bold moves into that direction.

During a speech marking the country’s independence day, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, announced that the government will begin providing health coverage to its poorest citizens starting September 25th. As Newsweek reported: Continue reading

India’s Ambitious Democracy

In the spring of 1947, the eve of India’s independence from the U.K., the leaders of its independence movement made the fateful decision for their new country to be a secular, constitutional republic with suffrage for every adult citizen: more than 170 million in total. Overnight, India became the world’s largest democracy, a distinction it retains to this day, with an incredible 900 million eligible voters (nearly three times the total U.S. population).

The logistics of Indian democracy were daunting: at the time, some 85% of its electorate were illiterate, requiring political parties to get clever with the use of pictographs and symbols to communicate their platform. Tens of thousands of civil servants worked for two full years just to compile the rolls for India’s first general election, conducted in 1951; the voter lists would be 200 meters (656 feet) thick. Today the list is five times that amount. Continue reading

Hero Highlights: Project Prakash

Of the world’s 1.3 million blind children, India is home to the world’s largest population, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 700,000. As in many developing countries, a child born blind faces enormous social and economic hurdles: in addition to being stigmatized and marginalized in their communities, the vast majority of blind children are unable to get an education or a job. Many face physical and sexual abuses. At least half do not survive to adulthood.

In addition to regressive social attitudes, a lack of medical care access, and little to no disability-friendly institutions and infrastructure, the problem is made worse by the pervasive idea that, once a child reaches seven or eight years of age, their blindness is irreversible and untreatable. Yet the prevailing cause — congenital cataracts — is an otherwise easily treatable condition in the developed world. Imagine a lifetime of being disadvantaged and ostracized for something beyond your control and which could easily be addressed if there was the will and money. It is a disease of poverty.

Enter Project Prakash, founded in 2002 by Dr. Pawan Sinha, an Indian-born graduate of MIT. Named after the Sanskrit word for “Light”, he started the organization after a trip to rural India, where he witnessed the first hand the scale and severity of child blindness. After obtaining a grant from the U.S. National Eye Institute, he assembled team of about 20 clinicians, scientists, and outreach personnel to provide cataract surgery for as little as $300 per patient (though those too poor to pay get it for free). He tells the story in great detail Scientific American (sorry for the paywall.) Continue reading

India Surpasses U.K. As Sixth Largest Economy

In an achievement as symbolic as it was substantive, India’s economy has overtaken that of the United Kingdom, its former colonial master, to become the sixth largest in the world by GDP, after the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and France. The last time its economy was larger than the U.K.’s was 150 years ago, when it was the second largest in the world after China. (Indeed, the two Asian giants were for centuries the biggest economies in the world prior to the age of European exploration and colonialism.) Continue reading

India Launches Its First Space Telescope

With the successful Astrosat, a cutting-edge space observatory, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has put India among a select group of countries that have an independently designed and operate a space telescope studying celestial objects. As The Hindu reports:

The ability to simultaneously study a wide variety of wavelengths — visible light, ultraviolet and X-ray (both low- and high-energy) bands — has tremendous implications for scientists globally, particularly those in India. Though stars and galaxies emit in multiple wavebands, currently operational satellites have instruments that are capable of observing only a narrow range of wavelength band. Since the Earth’s atmosphere does not allow X-rays and ultraviolet energy from distant cosmic objects to reach ground-based telescopes, space observatories become important to unravel celestial mysteries. With Astrosat, Indian researchers will no longer have to rely on other space agencies for X-ray data, and scientists everywhere need no longer source data from more than one satellite to get a fuller picture of celestial processes. As in the case of Chandrayaan-1 and the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, the Astrosat telescope will have no immediate commercial or societal implications. But the instruments have been carefully chosen to allow scientists to pursue cutting-edge research. Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan returned invaluable information, although they were launched several years after other countries sent satellites to the Moon and Mars. Given the uniqueness of Astrosat, it will enable Indian researchers to work in the frontier areas of high-energy astrophysics.

Moreover, most of the payloads in the satellite come not from ISRO, but from a range of scientific institutions across India and the world (including Indonesia, Canada, and the United States). Astrostat thus reflects the country’s wide breadth of native talent, as well as its capacity to combine and coordinate these vital skills into one platform that can benefit researcher everywhere.  Continue reading

How Politeness Can Be Seen As Rudeness

Many outsiders, particularly from the West, tend find Chinese to be too direct and terse, interpreting this as rudeness. But as an article in The Atlantic reveals, the opposite is true: in China, too many pleasantries are seen as denoting a lack of familiarity and closeness (a sentiment that applies to other cultures as well, such as India).

…among good friends, the contrasts between the politesse of what you do and the bluntness of what you say can seem baffling. At a restaurant with friends, a delicate choreography will have one person carefully select a few choice morsels from the common bowl and place them on a neighbor’s plate. It is a small, perfect gesture. Another person will pour tea or beer for everyone else before even considering pouring his own. And then another will announce “Gei wǒ yan!”, literally “Give me salt!” with no sign of a please or thank you involved. I’m always taken a little aback and bite my tongue to stifle a “Say please!” after so many years of training children in Western table manners.

My Chinese friends say they notice that Westerners use lots of pleases (qǐng) and thank yous (xiexie) when speaking Chinese. And actually, they say, we use way too many of them for Chinese taste. A Chinese linguist, Kaidi Zhan, says that using a please, as in “Please pass the salt”, actually has the opposite effect of politeness here in China. The Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It makes some intuitive sense: compare how you interact with your closest loved ones versus distant relatives, acquaintances, or strangers. Though some cultures and societies are more imbued by this logic than others — hence the comparative dearth of niceties in their languages — the foundations of it seem intuitive.

This is important to keep in mind whenever you find your interactions with someone of another culture to be awkward or abrasive. It might simply be that they are coming from a totally different worldview shaped by language and custom. It might be an obvious point, especially in this increasingly globalized world, but it is still commonly overlooked.

The Amazing Tree Shapers of India

I stumbled upon an ancient but fairly obscure practice that sounds right out of fantasy: “living bridges” created from the carefully directed roots of rubber trees. I credit this discovery and the following photos and details to the blog Root Bridges.

First, here is an example of what I am talking about:

Living Bridges of Cherrapunji, India I

Again, it looks like something out of a folktale or fantasy novel — very Tolkienesque. It is hard to believe that multiple bridges like this are done by hand without killing the trees involved.

This practice is not documented to occur anywhere outside of the town of Cherrapunji, which is located in the remote Meghalaya region of northeastern India. That is because this is the wettest place on Earth, which makes the building of bridges and other infrastructure extremely difficult. So to get across the many rivers of the region, the indigenous War-Khasis tribe turned to the native ficus elastica, also known as the rubber fig, which thrives in this humid environment.

The tribe long ago noticed the flexible yet sturdy nature of the tree, especially its secondary roots, which grow from higher up the trunk. But rather than harvest its wood, the tribe “shapes” these appendages roots into a makeshift bridge, using an ingenious but simple method.

First they obtain the thin but sturdy trunk of the plentiful areca palm, slicing it down the middle and hollowing it out like a pipe. Then they slide the roots of the rubber fig through it, creating a guidance system that prevents the root from fanning out, making it grow straight instead. Gradually, over a period of ten to fifteen years depending on the length, the roots will reach the other side of the river and be allowed to anchor in the soil.

Time is given to allow the roots to get sturdier and more secure, but once that happens, they remain incredibly resilient: some can reportedly support the weight of dozens of people at a time. And since they remain alive and growing, these living bridges continue to gain strength over time, with some bridges said to be five centuries old.

The one bridge featured prominently in this photo set is the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, the only known bridge of its kind. So even by the incredible standards of root bridges, it is unusual.

More photos below (click to enlarge).

This fascinating practice has actually spurred me to write a short fantasy story about mythical tree shapers. I love it when the beauty of the real world both captivates and inspires.