February 27, 2011

Kharagpur, Khargeshwar and the Mahabharata Connection

Thanks to 50+ batches of B.Tech engineers who have passed out through its portals -- and have subsequently percolated into every kind of business on the planet -- IIT Kharagpur is a fairly well known name in the literate parts of the world. Riding on the back of this illustrious tenant, the sleepy railway junction of Kharagpur has emerged from the obscurity of being another town in Midnapore and has also achieved the status of place that people actually go to, not just merely come from ! Those of us who have been to Kharagpur or  arestill there are also aware that the institute premises  include the famous Hijli Jail and is adjacent to the Salua Airforce base which was the home of the Very Heavy Bomber Squadron of the RAF during the Second World War.

But what is origin of the name Kharagpur ? A quick search through Google reveals that there are quite a few stories about the place but the consensus is that it is named after the Khargeshwar Shiva temple that is located in the southern suburb of Inda. Today, we visited the place and finally located the temple.

The current temple is not too old but then we heard a story that really made our journey very exciting indeed.

The Mahabharata Connection

While we were there we heard of another temple that apparently has a far longer history -- the Hirimbeshwari Temple dating back to the Mahabharata Era.

When the Pandavas were forced by circumstances to travel incognito they had passed through the "non-Aryan", tribal areas of what is now known as the Chotanagapura or Santhal Pargana. Apparently Inda (located just south of Kharagpur ) is the place where they had stopped for a while and while here Bhima had first battled and then married a tribal princess ( a "rakshashi" or ogress in the language of that era ) called Hirimba. The Hirimbeshwari Temple was were this princess used to come for her prayers and this is where we went.

These temples are not very ancient but then we were told that Kalapahar, the notorious destroyer of temple in Bengal -- about whose depredations I had earlier written about in my post on the broken Shivalinga at Kankalitala -- had demolished the original temple that was located  here. 

the only remnants of the original temple are some broken pillars that we managed to locate on the premises.

The Hirimbeshwari temple is within walking distance from the Khargeshwar temple and can be located in the following map.

An afterthought ..

If the legend of Princess Hirimba is indeed true, then she and her son Ghatotkoch who are mentioned in the Mahabharata can be considered to be the most famous people to have been born in this part of the country and perhaps IIT, Kharagpur can consider naming a new Hall of Residence or at least an auditorium after Ghatotkoch, the valiant tribal warrior, who stopped a cruise-missile kind of weapon fired by Karna and saved Arjuna and the Pandavas during the Mahabharata war !

The Ghatotkoch Hall of Residence will be a good break from the various goody-goody names that line Scholars Avenue !

February 17, 2011

The Temples of Pathra

Just 20 kms from IIT Kharagpur, on the banks of the Kangshabati River ( aka Kansai, Cossye ) are the 300 year old ruins of some beautiful terracotta temples that were built by Bidyananda Ghoshal, the revenue collector of Ratnachowk Pargana appointed by Alivardi Khan, one of the notorious Nawabs of Bengal [ The Telegraph ] People have known about the ruins for quite some time and they do get a small but steady stream of visitors but it is the untiring work of Mohammad Yeasin Pathan, a resident of a nearby village, that has really helped preserve what was left of a unique slice of the heritage of South Bengal.

The following pictures are of a second series of ruins that are located a little away from the main road. These temples are better preserved and have intact Shivalinga idols that are still worshipped by the locals.

To reach Pathra, one goes North from the National Highway 6 [ Bombay Road ] towards Midnapore. At the Kangsabati bridge there is a sharp right turn off -- almost a U turn -- that makes a loop and enters Midnapore    through a road that runs under the bridge. At the end of this loop, there is a fork in the road one of which goes towards Midnapore and the other runs roughly East and parallel to the river and goes towards Pathra. Follow this road to the village of Hatiolka -- where you fill find a giant banyan tree on the left -- and then take a left. Keep following this road until you reach the temples which are well marked with ASI signboards. 

There are two sets of temples, one on the road and near the river and second set of temples located about 200 m away and not at all visible from the road. These temples are far better preserved and well worth the little walk that will carry you there.

February 14, 2011

Psychohistory : Modelling Population Behaviour

Ever since I have had a chance to read the series of books on the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov I have had a great curiosity about and fascination for the imaginary science of psychohistory. But is psychohistory really imaginary ? Can we not use statistical simulation tools to model the behaviour of large human populations. Having toyed with this idea for a while, I thought of publishing it here [ since no journal will ever accept such heresy ]. Take a look 

If anyone has an interest in this "science" let us collaborate !

February 13, 2011

Distance Learning on a Social Network Platform

Distance learning is a topic that excites all but remains a model that is yet to be cracked with any great degree of success. Mr Deepak Parekh, in his inaugural address at the CSI National Convention states that this market will be worth Rs 11 billion in 2012 but as of today will any company actually hire someone who has an MBA degree from an online program ?

It is true that we have had correspondence courses from various open universities and of late many reputed universities like MIT and even our own IITs have come out with presentations and recorded videos that seek to distribute the wisdom of good teachers among students not enrolled with them. Video conferencing has also been tried but again, the fact that they are nowhere as popular as regular class room sessions means that there is something missing somewhere. But the fact remains that hunger for education – especially the kind of professional education that helps people get jobs – is immense. That is why private engineering and business schools are proliferating, even under the malevolent glare of the not-so-lily-white mandarins of India's higher education ! What is lacking though is the availability of good teachers to fill the ever expanding number of class rooms in India. Can we leverage the collaborative-participative model of Web 2.0 to plug this gap ? Before we try to answer this question let us understand two things :

What does current models of distance learning lack ? Obviously physical presence is very important. Watching 30 videos of pre-recorded one hour classes conducted by a professor ( which is the equivalent of a 3 credit college course ) is a very poor substitute for two reasons – it is very difficult to watch and there is no interactivity. Better alternatives can be found in either video lectures through Skype-style platforms or slideshows augmented with lectures delivered over VoIP and white-board software that allows the instructor to “write” on a screen that is shared with the students. In each case, student feedback can be taken through online chat. Net-net the technology exists but why is it not being widely used ? Because this model is difficult to scale up ! The number of people who are comfortable with juggling these multiple technologies – and I have the first hand experience to state that this is not easy even for a net-adept like me – are NOT the kind who have the deep knowledge of say, finance or thermodynamics or organisation behaviour that is essential if they were to be considered credible teachers in any college. Which leads us to the next important concept that we need to understand ...

Web 2.0 – best illustrated by products like Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Orkut – consists of four distinct characteristics. User-generated content, a network of trust, rich media and the fact that it is under constant development or perpetual beta. Consider YouTube as a platform created by Google where individuals create and upload videos that are viewed and commented on (that is “consumed”) by the public at large. Can we do the same thing with college courseware ? But unlike free format YouTube videos, college courseware needs to be aligned to specific requirements and have a certain quality. This is where the other concepts like rich media and networks of trust can be brought to bear.

Let us begin with courses. A 3-credit subject would consist of 30 lectures of one hour each. Each lecture can consist of a 10 min video that explains the idea, followed by, or interspersed with 20 slides that highlights important concepts. The instructor would also have a shared whiteboard to write additional material, a chat-screen where he can receive questions and a Skype-style voice service through which he can broadcast his answers and clarifications. All this can be delivered from one  or preferably two computer screens with touch capability that will allow him to switch easily between video, slides and whiteboard.

Students can either be sitting alone at home with a 3G/broadband connection or could be in a group in a class where two computers would be projecting on two screens – one for video/slides and the other for the white board. Direct voice feedback from a dispersed audience is possible but not desirable because of cross-talk and so an online chat screen from each student's laptop will carry his questions and observations back to the instructor.

Creating teaching content like this is easier said than done. Good teachers must be helped, encouraged and financially motivated to create these modules and this process can be funded – just as text books are commissioned by publishers – by individual colleges. This can be a direct payment – of the kind that is paid to a teacher for teaching a subject  physically – or  some kind of a revenue sharing mechanism. A tech savvy person can also be appointed to help the teacher during the first few sessions. The revenue stream will be derived from subject registrants – either single students or other colleges that will use this subject as a part of their curriculum. This leads us to the next component of a standard Web 2.0 product, the network of trust.

Individual colleges can commission some subjects on their own and can source other subjects from other colleges and institutes and assemble a full blown course ( MBA, BE .. ) in a manner that ensures that all statutory credit requirements are met. Since each college is creating a subset of the entire course, upfront costs will be manageable. A very rough parallel will be YouTube channels – but with the added challenge of schedule management since all pedagogy is live and students cannot attend two lectures simultaneously. So a student who joins a college for say, an MBA course, is assured that he will be able to attend a full spectrum of finance, marketing, operations, behavioral and strategy subjects, over a period of two years ( or more, if we consider week end executive programs ) and will also have access to the all -important placement process – perhaps in conjunction with an online placement agency !

How will all this work in practice ? The core technology consisting of  video capture and display, streaming video, slideshows, white boards, online chat, VoIP, touch screens and broadband internet is all available at a price students are willing to pay for a management or engineering degree. We need a integrative and easy-to-use platform – what YouTube is for videos and Flickr for photos – to make  all this available in a  convenient manner. We need a couple of colleges that will commission content for certain subjects and are willing to use content commissioned by other colleges – and once we have some critical mass, market rules will take over. Student feedback – like the Facebook “like” --  will be used by other students as benchmarks, high quality content will increasingly command a premium and teachers who create them will earn more money if there is a revenue sharing mechanism in place. Orkut or LinkedIn style communities can be created around each subject where students spread across different colleges can interact with each other and with the teacher in asynchronous mode and links to additional material stored on Slideshare, Scribd, Docstoc and other Web 2.0 services can placed. Students can upload assignments into these groups and formal examinations can be conducted either online or with pen-and-paper on college premises with proper invigilation so as to ensure credibility of the degree or diploma that is being awarded.

All this is possible if we have a specialist social networking platform built on the framework of Web 2.0 concepts that will set standards, ensure uniformity and attract membership from both individual students as well as institutions offering management and engineering programs. The Kollaborative Klassroom ( http://kk.praxis.ac.in) is a very tentative step in this direction but a lot more needs to be done to realise the total vision articulated here. But without this totality of features, the project is a non-starter. Fortunately funding all this should be possible with an investment that is only a small percentage of Mr Parekh’s estimated size of this market !

Earlier attempts at distance learning have had limited success because they started out with the premise that we can extract information from a teacher and then exclude him from the equation by automating everything to the maximum extent possible. This is fallacious because teaching is inherently interactive. Social networks – which are the most dominant constructs emerging from the concept of Web 2.0 – are popular precisely because they recognise the centrality of the human being and his quixotic and unstructured interactivity as a key element around which a successful product or service can be built. A distance learning mechanism that can integrate itself into a Web 2.0 social network of the kind that is described here will stand a far better chance of being successful than anything else that has been tried so far.

February 10, 2011

Placement Matters

In an earlier post I had spoken about the nexus between college rankings and placement records and why this is not desirable but unfortunately inevitable. Here is a video where I reiterate the same.

February 08, 2011

Economic Potential of Kurumbhera Fort

The Kurumbhera Fort in West Midnapur, West Bengal -- that we had 'discovered' in my previous post -- holds interesting possibilities for the economic and cultural life of South Bengal. We are aware of the dance festivals at Konarak and Khajuraho so why can we not conceive of a similar cultural festival at Keshiary with the Kurumbhera Fort as the venue ?

Located on almost one acre of enclosed space and with a ready made stage already built in -- as is evident in the picture of the North West corner shown above -- the fort will lend itself very readily to any kind of dance or dramatic performance with room to spare.

Keshiary is located 30 km south of Kharagpur on perfectly motorable roads and there are enough bus routes that connect it not only to Kharagpur but also to traditional tourist spots like Digha in East Midnapur. However hotels or other forms of accomodation are hard to come by in this corner of the state that has missed the economic opportunities that have become available in the more vibrant regions. Which is why we need a catalyst or stimulus to kick start some socio-economic activities here. 

An annual festival of dance, drama and music -- perhaps with bauls, jatra troupes and other folk performers -- could easily be organised here by the Keshiary Chamber of Commerce ( if such a body exists ) or a newly created Kurumbhera Festival Committee with the assistance of district administration. The only real challenge could be accomodation of the guests but I am sure that enterprising farmers -- whose lands lie fallow after the paddy is harvested -- could easily set up tents for accommodating visitors and earn money in the process. 

Rural Bengal is awash in culture but rarely have we made an attempt to monetise it for the economic benefit of either performers or the environment from where they emerge. Rabindranath Tagore conceived of the Pous Mela at Shantiniketan not just to patronise the bauls but because he realised the need to stimulate the moribund economy of Birbhum. A Kurumbhera Festival in this lovely venue could play a similar role for West Midnapur -- a region that has become synonymous with poverty and violence.

February 06, 2011

Kurumbhera Durgo : Unknown Fort near Kharagpur

If you are not a student then the campus of IIT Kharagpur is a rather boring place on weekends. To pass the time and find something worthwhile to do, Indira googled for places of interest in the neighbourhood and located the page for tourist places in West Midnapore . This pointed us to Kurumbhera Durgo ( or Fort Kurumbhera ) located near Keshiary, a little town located 22 km to the south of the campus. Today, morning we visited the place and you can see the pictures here.

How to reach this place ? Take the road from IIT Kharagpur that goes southward towards Salua, Keshiary and Bhosraghat. Keshiary is 23 kms from the IIT gate. At Keshiary, take the left on the road to Belda. Go for about 2 kms until you reach the village of Kukai. Take the morram (kutcha, but motorable ) road on the right and keep going till  you reach the village of Gaganeshwar which would be about 2 kms from the main road. The fort is at Gaganeshwar. Please note that there are no tourist facilities at the village but the economic opportunity around this medieval ruin is explored in this post.

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