Sunday Levity: Foreign origins of the South Indian breakfast

Can you stomach the truth?

Most people—most of all South Indians—react to this with shock and denial. Some go on and come to terms with it.

What could be more South Indian?
What could be more South Indian? Photo: avlxyz/Alpha

Well, the fact is the idli—a dish that is almost synonymous with South India—was probably an import from what is now Indonesia (and what was then the Sri Vijaya empire). This little morsel comes from the late K Thammu Achaya, food scientist and historian. As Vikram Doctor writes:

It’s…surprising then to read K T Achaya’s theory that idlis are a relatively recent introduction to India. He notes that the word might derive from ‘iddalige’, first mentioned in a Kannada work of 920 AD, but the indications are that this was made from an urad dhal batter only.

The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘iddarika’, but again made from urad dhal flour only. Tamil apparently only first mentions ‘itali’ in the 17th century. All these references, Achaya notes, leave out three key aspects of idlis: “the use of rice grits along with urad dhal; the long fermentation of the mix; and the steaming of the batter to fluffiness.”

Only after 1250 AD are there references to what seem to be idlis as we know them. Achaya’s contention is that this absence from the historical record could mean that idlis are an imported concept — perhaps from Indonesia which has a long tradition of fermented products, like tempeh (fermented soy cakes), kecap (from where we get ketchup) or something called kedli, which Achaya says, is like an idli. This is plausible enough given the many links between Southeast Asia and South India, through Hindu rulers and traders. [ET]

D Balasubramanian had a good report on Dr Achaya’s works in The Hindu and there’s a little discussion on the subject over at Manjunath & Co’s blog. Although two of Dr Achaya’s most well-regarded works on Indian food seem to be out of print, his last book, The Story of our Food is available.

Meanwhile, the chillies in the chutney and the tomatoes in the sambar came from the Americas with the Europeans.

That’s not all though. It was Baba Budan, a 17th century Sufi from Karnataka who broke the Arabian monopoly on coffee. Legend has it that:

On pilgrimage to Mecca in the middle 1600s, Baba Budan, a revered holy man from India, discovered for himself the wonders of coffee. In his zeal to share what he’d found with his fellows at home, he smuggled seven coffee beans out of Arabia, wrapped around his belly. On his return home, he planted the beans in the hills of Mysore, India, and nurtured the young coffee bushes that resulted. Coffee flourished in the hills of India – hills now named after Baba Budan.

In short order, enterprising Dutch traders bought some of these coffee plants, and shipped them to faraway colonies in Indonesia and Ceylon. The Arabian monopoly of the coffee trade was over, and the Western world was waking up to a new aroma… one that would play a fateful role in Europe, and beyond. [Green Mountain Coffee]

Baba Budan gave his name to a hill in Karnataka, and more recently, spread his seeds wide—to cafes in Cincinatti and Melbourne.

Tea? Okay, it was probably grown and consumed in India long before the British came, but you don’t have to be Aakar Patel to accept that tea as we drink it today is largely a gift of British colonial rule.

So there’s more than one ‘foreign hand’ in the ‘traditional’ South Indian breakfast. The sugar that goes into it though–we have on Dr Achaya’s authority—is an Indian invention.

Tailpiece: Mr Balasubramanian notes that “Dr Achaya points out how in 300 BC, the Arthasastra described the balanced meal of a gentleman as 500 g rice, 125 g dal, 56 g oil and salt..(and this) is the same in essentials as the recommended balanced diet that the Indian Council of Medical Research laid down in 1987 AD.”

Sunday Levity(?): Making rubble bounce

It’s not funny, actually

Richard Rhodes writes in Arsenals of Folly—The making of the nuclear arms race:

…during years of the high Cold War, there was always political capital to be earned from exaggerating the dangers or benefits of any particular nuclear strategy or weapons system. But even for those within the two governments with the best of intentions, trying to find security among the shifting and partly obscured maps of both sides’ evolving force structures led to convoluted and sometimes absurd conclusions.

Robert McNamara, for example, visited the Omaha offices of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff for a briefing about the US nuclear target list in February 1961, shortly after he became secretary of defense. McNamara was curious to compare the targeting-system criteria to a target known to have been destroyed, Hiroshima, burned out by a mass fire after a fifteen kiloton bomb, Little Boy, exploded 1,900 feet above the city center on 6 August 1945. This dialogue ensued:

Q.—McNamara—Have you applied your procedures to Hiroshima?
A.—Smith—Yes. 3 DGZs of 8o KT each.

That is, were Hiroshima still a target, the JSTPS would have identified three designated ground zeros (DGZs) within the city and would have assigned three nuclear weapons, each equivalent to eighty kilotons of TNT, to destroy them. Such overkill gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s notorious 1954 comment, “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.” In the real world, one bomb of fifteen kilotons had been more than sufficient.[Arsenals of Folly]

The librarian of Mysore

It’s been a hundred years since Rudrapatna Shamasastry published the English translation of Kautilya’s Arthashastra

The Star of Mysore has an article (linkthanks JK) by A V Narasimha Murthy marking the centenary of the publication of the very first English translation of the Arthasastra:

Around 1905 there was a librarian by name Rudrapatnam Shamasastry (1868-1944) who hailed from the celebrated village Rudrapatna on the banks of Kaveri, famous for Karnatak music. He belonged to the Sanketi Brahmin community and by 37 he had mastered veda, vedanga, classical Sanskrit, Prakrit, English, Kannada, German, French and other languages. He had also learnt the various ancient scripts of India.

As the librarian daily he was examining each manuscript to know its contents. It was not an easy task either. Most of the palm leaf manuscripts were fragile and to handle them was a big problem. This routine examination continued day by day, month after month and even after years, without great success. But Shamasastry was hopeful of finding out some new spectacular manuscript which was not known to the world. His assistants always taunted him but unmindful of all these, Sastry continued his work with all devotion and sincerity.

One fine morning in 1905, he picked up palm leaf manuscript from a heap. He examined this palm leaf and was pleasantly surprised to know that it was a work on Arthasastra or administration written by an author called Kauitlya, Chanakya or Vishnugupta before the dawn of Christian era. Some people thought that it must have been a hoax: others looked at this with suspicion; But the introduction written by Shamasastry in 1909 giving the details of the author and its authenticity convinced that it was a genuine literary wonder of the ancient world. [Star of Mysore]

The text of Dr Shamasastry’s translation is available online.

Related Posts: R P Kangle’s magnificent translation and commentary; and Reading the Arthashastra series on this blog.

Pragati June 2009: A sense of history

A special issue

We take a break from our regular programming this month to bring you a special issue on Indian history, put together by Jayakrishnan Nair, our guest editor.

But why history? Because, first, a shared understanding of history is likely to smoothen the public policy process in several important areas. Second, advances in science and technology are challenging age-old beliefs in Indian historiography and promise to transform the field. And third, we felt that the topics would interest you.

In this issue we have two editorial perspectives, five short feature essays (including one piece of historical fiction), one book review, and passages from five books written over a spread of two thousand years. The full text of the articles. references and explanatory footnotes are available on the website.

Download the PDF or visit the website

Modelling the armed forces on the railways

Mountbatten, Ismay and their outdated legacy

My article in this month’s issue of Pragati, on reforming India’s national security policy, is titled “Start by burying Lord Ismay“.

But who was Lord Ismay and why does he need to be buried? Well, General Hastings Lionel Ismay was a British general and post retirement from the British Army, served as chief of staff to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy to India.

In a article, Lieutenant-General (retd) Eric A Vas wrote:

Nehru, who was honest enough to admit that he knew little about military matters, left the setting up of the newly established defence ministry to Admiral Mountbatten and Lord Ismay. Nehru was advised by Mountbatten to organise the defence structure on the council system [each of the services having a council, composed of military staff] presided over by a politician and run very much on the lines of the Railway board, with military heads as chiefs of their respective service staff or boards. Under this system, there would be no need for a bureaucratic defence secretary [whoever hears of a railway secretary?] This would require the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff to coordinate the three services at the defence minister level. But Nehru was unwilling to do that.

Lord Mountbatten has stated in a letter that ‘although Prime Minister Nehru agreed with me in principle, he said it would be difficult at this moment to get through the appointment of a CDS as it would give to the Indian politician the impression of perpetuating the idea of the great Commander-in-Chief in India. Lord Ismay and I worked hand in hand on these proposals but I thought it would come better from him than the constitutional Governor General as I then had become. He [Ismay] also tried to negotiate a CDS but met with the same opposition from Nehru and for the same reason.’ [Rediff]

The higher defence setup in India, therefore, was not only modelled on the Railway Board—even that model was not fully implemented. Nehru might have had his blind spots and valid considerations, but what is truly astonishing is that India has left the system substantially unchanged for the last 62 years.

No one can reasonably argue that a set-up that didn’t even work very well in the twentieth century will somehow be effective in the twenty-first. A comprehensive strategic review is in order: the structure, composition, role, service conditions and pay structure must be reviewed in the light of the twenty-first century strategic environment.

Unjust conquests

On India’s strategic frontiers

In ancient Indian political philosophy, the establishment of the state is seen as an instrument to impose dharma, or the moral code, through dandaniti or the rule of law. It not only recognises plurality by enjoining the king to respect and conserve the culture and traditions of the country he annexes but also circumscribes annexation itself, limiting it to the Indian subcontinent.

Arthashastra has a twofold aim. First, it seeks to show how the ruler must protect his territory. Secondly it shows how territory should be acquired.

It may be remarked in passing that the rulership of ‘the earth’ contemplated in the shastra does not necessarily imply the conquest of the whole world. The field open for the operations of the would-be-conqueror (vijigisu) appears restricted to the region between the Himalayas and the sea. Territories beyond the borders of India are not included in ‘the territory of the Sovereign Ruler’. [Arthashastra 9.1.17-18]

One of the reasons for this may be that the conqueror, according to the shastra, is expected to establish a social order based on the varna and the ashrama system in the conquered territories and the establishment of such a social order outside the limits of India was perhaps considered impracticable or even undesirable. It may also be that such a conquest beyond the borders of India was regarded as unjust.

Arrian, the Greek historian, has remarked, “On the other hand, a sense of justice, they say, prevented any Indian king from attempting conquest beyond the limits of India” [R P Kangle, The Kautiliya Arthashastra, Part III, pp2-3]

Related Posts: The reading the Arthashastra series archive

Pragati February 2009: Pakistan needs a MacArthur

Here’s the February 2009 issue of Pragati, a special on Pakistan.

This issue argues that if a stable, prosperous and peaceful Pakistan is in the common interests of India, the world’s major powers and indeed the wider international community, then it is incumbent upon them to engage in a MacArthur-like intervention to transform Pakistan. Merely providing more financial assistance, albeit under different budgetary heads, is unlikely to suffice. In fact, as our in-depth look at one of Pakistan’s biggest jihadi organisations suggests, the export of terrorism from the country is only likely to grow.

In a discussion on India’s options, we examine the role of the use of force; surgical strikes are a fallacy, but credible military capabilities are a necessity. And as the book extract shows, there is a need for skilful diplomacy to use external pressures to bring about internal changes in Pakistan.

In a second perspectives section, we review Pakistan’s relations with its key benefactors—the United States, Saudi Arabia, China and Europe—and highlight how the dynamics of these relationships are changing. The composite picture suggests that after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, and the arrival of the Obama administration, there is an opportunity for India to engage in bold, imaginative diplomacy to galvanise the international community to radically change Pakistan’s course.

Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review
Issue 23 – February 2009

Contents [Download 2MB PDF]


MacArthur should return
Only an international intervention can transform Pakistan
Nitin Pai

Pakistan 2020
Nine alternative futures
K Subrahmanyam, Pakistan Planning Commission, United States National Intelligence Council, Sohail Inayatullah, MD Nalapat, Nadeem Ul Haque, Stephen P Cohen, Rohit Pradhan & Harsh Gupta and R Vaidyanathan


Essential readings of the month
Ravi Gopalan & Vijay Vikram


The assembly line of international terrorism
Why the threat from Jamaat-ud-Dawa is set to rise
Wilson John


Surgeries are messy
Surgical strikes are a conceptual fallacy and not a prudent option
Srinath Raghavan and Rudra Chaudhuri

Kind words and guns
Effective diplomacy needs credible military capacity
Sushant K Singh

Allies, not friends
The US and Pakistan will need to recast their awkward relationship
Dhruva Jaishankar

A flawed sense of security
The Saudi-Pakistan relationship, underpinned by opportunistic security interests, has run its course
Bernard Haykel

New dynamics of an all weather friendship
China’s influence in Islamabad has been subordinated to US priorities in the region
Zorawar Daulet Singh

Europe’s dilemma
Europe can do little in solving Pakistan’s problem
Richard Gowan


The logic of containment
Using external pressures to bring about an internal transformation
C Raja Mohan

Reading the Arthashastra: R P Kangle’s magnificent work

Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)
Kautiliya Arthashatra, by R P Kangle (MLBD)

R P Kangle’s three volume compilation, translation and commentary on Kautilya’s Arthashastra is actually in print and available from the venerable Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. (Well, the flaky website requires you to create an order, then email it to the publisher with your credit card information, but it worked).

Leafing through the text, you realise that they don’t make scholars like Professor Kangle anymore. For this is not merely a translation of an old Sanskrit manuscript, but a veritable product of scholarly detective work, attention to detail, reverence of the classical language, mastery of it and of English, and, not least, a labour of love. As M V Rajadhyaksha writes in a volume commemorating Professor Kangle’s birth centenary:

He was a single-minded perfectionist, and not a scholar in a hurry. And he worked on his project silently. He would not make the solemn and self-complacent noises a publicity – hunting, ambitious scholar would make…

The Kautiliya Arthashastra, in three volumes, was first published by the University of Bombay in 1955. The second edition followed soon. The work sold well but the royalty Kangle received from the University was pitifully small. Motilal Banarasidass, the Delhi publishing house famous for its publication of books in the field, offered to publish the next edition. The third edition (really a reprint of the earlier edition) brought Kangle the handsome royalty of sixteen thousand rupees, a princely amount in those days. And Kangle donated the entire amount to the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bombay in grateful acknowledgment of what he had derived from the library, which had been like a second home to him, particularly after his retirement from the Educational Service. That he did this when the pension on which he had to subsist was quite meagre—and when his family responsibilities had not lessened appreciably—speaks much of his selflessness and of his unwillingness to translate his scholarship into easy money. [M V Rajadhyaksha/Perceptions on Kautiliya Arthashastra]

The first volume is an authoritative compilation (in Sanskrit) of Kautilya’s Arthashastra from a number of manuscripts and fragments. The second is an annotated English translation. The final volume is a scholarly discussion on the text and the debate and controversies regarding the book and its famous author.

The text of Rudrapatna Shamasastry’s 1915 English translation is readily available on the internet; but R P Kangle’s work is newer, deeper, more thorough and the ultimate resource for those who want to understand the roots of Indian statecraft.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Movements that just won’t take off

Selective outrage

In his piece on the readiness with which people come out on the streets to protest against Israel, Mark Steyn writes:

Only Israel attracts an intellectually respectable movement querying its very existence. For the purposes of comparison, let’s take a state that came into existence at the exact same time as the Zionist Entity, and involved far bloodier population displacements. I happen to think the creation of Pakistan was the greatest failure of post-war British imperial policy. But the fact is that Pakistan exists, and if I were to launch a movement of anti-Pakism it would get pretty short shrift. [Mark Steyn/National Review]

Samuel Huntington, RIP

He pointed out a geopolitical factor that remains politically incorrect to this day

“In this new world,” Samuel Phillips Huntington wrote in his 1996 book,The Clash of Civlizations and the Remaking of World Order, “local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.” Arguing that future conflicts will be sparked off by cultural factors rather than economics or ideology, he wrote that “the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the faultlines between civilizations.”

From the time Professor Huntington’s essay was published in 1993, it became fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject this uncomfortable thesis. But that should hardly be surprising: it is still fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject the thesis of balance of powers, millennia after it was first articulated.

Professor Huntington was onto something when he held that “that cultural identities, antagonisms and affiliations will not only play a role, but play a major role in relations between states.” India, in his book, was the core state of what he described as the “Hindu” civilisation: a choice of words which caused many to reflexively reject his hypothesis. Yet shorn of the famously incorrect interpretation of the word “Hindu” as a religion in the Semitic mould, there is much to recommend his thesis.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview:

NPQ | Your colleague Amartya Sen at Harvard criticizes your civilizational thesis, saying that “identity is not destiny” and that each individual can construct and reconstruct chosen identities. He argues that the clash-of-civilizations theory suggests a “miniaturization of human beings” into “unique and choiceless” identities that fit into“boxes of civilization.” What is your perspective on citizens who have multiple identities?

Huntington | I think that statement by Amartya Sen is totally wrong. I never argued that, and I realize that people have multiple identities. What I argue in my book, as I indicated earlier, is that the basis of association and antagonism among countries has changed over time. In the coming decades, questions of identity, meaning cultural heritage, language and religion, will play a central role in politics. I first elaborated this idea over 10 years ago, and much of what I said has been validated during that time.

NPQ | How do people with multiple identities negotiate that?

Huntington | They work out accommodations, and that’s been done for the past two or three centuries, at least. When you have increased migration of peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, you develop a set of rules and language the larger society can accept and the minority community can accept.

The larger society has to recognize some degree of autonomy for the minority: the right to practice their own religion and way of life and to some extent their language. Many of the most difficult questions concerning the role of ethnic minorities centers on language. To what extent are they educated in their own language or in the national language? To what extent does the society formally or informally become a country of two national languages? Or is only one language used in the public proceedings, courts, legislatures, executive branch and politics? These, as we know, can become very tricky issues. [Amina R Chaudary/NPQ]

In other words, the rest of the world—especially the “core-states” of the Islamic world and also the European Union—has to go through a process that India went through in the twentieth century. The Indian model is by no means perfect. It might not even be considered satisfactory by many. But it remains among the better ones that can negotiate in a world where there is an unprecedented churning of peoples, languages, cultures and identities. The atmosphere of rejection that greeted Professor Huntington’s thesis in academic & intellectual India missed the grand opportunity of elaborating how clashes could be managed in a civilised manner.

Samuel Huntington passed away on December 24th, on Martha’s Vineyard, aged 81. Even before we finished reading all his books.