December 30, 2011

Bhimbetka : 10,000 year old wall art

On the hill of Bhimbetka, Madhya Pradesh stands a series of craggy sandstone formations in the form of tall and massive rock shelters. These are the painted rock-shelters that constitute the largest repository of pre-historic art in India. These 10,000  year old wall paintings have been inscribed in the World Heritage List and give us peek into the dawn of history when human beings had just about elevated themselves from a primitive animal existence and were learning to think beyond mere existence and express their thoughts through art forms that have survived till date.

We approach the rock shelters through this tough landscape

until we get a first glimpse of our destination ...

These caves were first alluded to by W Kinkaid in 1888 but discovered and conclusively documented by V S Wakankar in 1958.

This is the first of 400 odd shelters that are scattered over the region but of these about 12 - 14 can be accessed relatively easily on foot through trails marked out by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The picture below is the of largest shelter, the Auditorium Cave

that we explored

and where we say our first piece of wall art.

We followed the path laid out by the ASI as follows ...

and saw this beautiful piece where primitive man was trying to hunt an elephant

which is helpfully explained by this ASI graphic

here is another man on top an elephant

following the map we moved through other rock shelters

searching for and finding other pieces of art

as you can see on the top left of the picture above

scenes of battles were painted on the walls and the ceiling

you can see people on horses and with bows and arrows

we moved on and located other shelters like these in the pictures below

where we sat down and tried to imagine what life would have been like 10,000 years ago ... before Ashoka, before the Buddha and even before Harappa and MohenjoDaro, where all our history books begin !

Here were people who for the first time had evolved out of an animal existence of food and procreation and were starting to think and capture their thoughts with paint on the walls of their dwelling

and even thinking of imaginary creatures like this fantastical boar that could not have existed in their midst.

we look further and discover more shelters

each having more examples of the creative spirit that could envisage complex imagery

and scenes of war and epic battles

then we went into another rock shelter

and discovered these pictures of gaiety, of people holding hands and dancing, very reminiscent of the  paintings that are used to decorate the walls even today, in tribal villages inhabited by Gonds, Bhils and Santhals just before Diwali.

and you can see the same in this picture below at the top left

we saw pictures of scorpions and deer.

But the biggest collection of wall art awaited us in the "Zoo Rock" that was pointed out by our guide

and you can see the immense collection on the wall behind Wrahool

The Zoo Rock is an amazing rock shelter that would have served as a residence for human beings for thousands, if not millions of years.

This is because you can see a distinct evolution in the technology used to create the art

from the earliest and most primitive art painted in white,

we see more complex stuff painted in new, red or ochre colour

and the drawings get more sophisticated

with new styles being tried out

The name Bhimbetka is associated with the Pandava Prince Bhima who is supposed to have stayed here during their exile and we ended our trip at a small temple dedicated to him, nestled in the rocks.

Bhimbetka is about 40km from Bhopal and can be reached by car. Also near Bhopal but on the other side of the city is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sanchi where the Great Stupa built by Emperor Ashoka has been the source of the principal icons that have been adopted by India as its national icons.

December 28, 2011

Taxation, Extortion or Presumptive Guilt ?

Modern nation states and governments have evolved from robbers and dacoits who extorted money, now known as taxes, from terrorised medieval populations and this behavioural pattern is encoded in the DNA of modern administrative structures. This is true even though they claim to be representative or even democratic. This tendency to extort money has been a common feature in India, and perhaps the world as well, ever since the days of Ashoka, Akbar, the British Raj and the current Sovereign, Socialist, Democratic Republic !
 image stolen from

Why do I say so ? Consider the following ..

You sell property and  you are slammed with a huge Stamp Duty. Any money paid should be in lieu of a service delivered but what service does the state deliver ? All that it is doing is that it is recording a transaction that shows a transfer of ownership. Why should the fee for doing so depend on the value of the transaction ? After all the effort required is the same ... But then realisation dawns when you notice that the fee structure is identical to that set by real extortionists and criminals on contractors who are building roads and highways -- a percentage on the value of the contract !

But if you think that this is unjust, then consider these extortions.

Not only is the Stamp Duty levied on the value of the transaction, the bigger tragedy is that the value of the transaction is determined at the discretion of the government. So even if you have paid the entire amount of the cost through cheques and drafts from tax-paid funds lying in your bank or a bank loan, the presumption is the value of the transaction is actually higher and there must have been a "black money" transaction. Hence you are forced to pay Stamp Duty on the enhanced valuation of the property even if what you have paid is far lower.

Now look at the reverse transaction. Suppose you were to sell a property and you are now liable to pay Capital Gains Tax on the difference between the cost of acquisition and the sales price. Here again, the sales price is determined arbitrarily by the Government irrespective of what you have actually realised as payment.  Once again the presumption is that you under invoicing the transaction and receiving some "black money" that you are not showing on your books. So  you are presumed guilty and made to pay the tax.

So both parties involved in a property transaction are deemed guilty of concealing the truth, using black money and both are penalised. Why is this so ? Ostensibly, this is because the government does not have the ability or the intention to detect real criminals and so they penalise everyone. This is as ridiculous as sending everyone to jail for three months on the assumption that they must have committed a crime that the Government could not detect.

But the real reason is the DNA that the Government has inherited from the robbers of the medieval era !

November 14, 2011

Traffic Jam and the Prisoner's Dilemma

Traffic jams are an integral part of roads in India -- it does not matter if you are at Dalhousie Square in the heart of Calcutta or you are at Panagarh on the Grand Trunk Road -- and when you are stuck you have a lot of time to think on your hands. You begin with cursing people around about their lack of civic sense and road etiquette but eventually you resign yourself to the situation and start thinking about the problem analytically. Could there be a game theoretic approach to the problem ?

To begin with let us define a general traffic jam a little more precisely so that the problem is more tractable and amenable to a mathematical analysis. Anybody who has lived in IIT Kharagpur for any length of time knows that just outside the campus there is a railway level crossing (actually two) which are a reliable source of traffic jams on a regular and repeatable basis. Every day, 365 days a year, the gates close two or three times every hour and each time when they reopen there is a always traffic jam.

This is jam that can be modeled very easily. This is a two-lane road and if cars (and rickshaws, cycles, motorcycles ) stick to their designated left lane, both North and South bound traffic can move smoothly when the gates open. But this never happens because vehicles on both sides of the closed gate invariable occupy both lanes and when the gate finally open, both North and South bound traffic is blocked on both lanes leading to a jam. It takes quite some time (and a lot of shouting and cursing) before vehicles blocking the right lane manage to squeeze into the left lane and finally both lanes move again ... but after everyone has spent a considerable amount of time standing at the open gate !

Having suffered this N times ( with N tending towards infinity ) I keep wondering why people do not cooperate with each other, obey traffic rules and make it nice and easy for everyone. Then revelation dawned ! They never will ! and why not ? For an answer let us consider the classical game theory problem of the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Consider the following : Police investigating a crime have caught two suspects whom they suspect to have jointly committed the crime but they lack the evidence to prove the same. So they lock them up in two separate rooms and present them with three choices (a) if both maintain their innocence then both will be booked for a minor offense and imprisoned for 1 month (b) if one confesses to the crime and the other one does not the the confessor will be pardoned but the other will be imprisoned for 5 years (c) if both confess then both will be imprisoned for 12 months.

Ideally both should maintain their innocence ( cooperate with each other ) so that both can get away with a 1 month sentence but logically each suspect will try to minimise his penalty. Each argues ( to himself, since he cannot talk to the other suspect and cannot figure out what the other is doing ) that : "If I want to minimise my penalty I must confess. Then if the other fellow confesses we each get one year but if I do not confess and the other fellow does then I get 5 years. So I can minimise my penalty by confessing. Now the other suspect will also be thinking like me so he too will come to the same conclusion and confess. Hence if I do not confess, I will be in big trouble". Since both suspects will argue in this symmetric manner, both will logically come to the conclusion that they must confess.

So both will confess and get 12 months in jail whereas if both had maintained their innocence ( that is cooperated) they would have got only 1 month in jail.

Now let us apply this theory to the situation at the Puri Gate railway level crossing outside IIT Kharagpur.

If both the North bound traffic and the South bound traffic co-operate and stick to the designated left side lane (that is cooperate and maintain innocence) the road will clear in just about 1 min after the gate opens. But if traffic from one side crowds the right lane (confesses) but the other side obeys the law (maintains innocence) then the law-breaker (confessor) goes through instantly whereas the law-abider (one who claims innocence) will be stuck for ages. But if both sides break the law ( confess) then both are stuck in a jam for quite some time.

The analogy between the situation at the IIT Kharagpur Puri Gate level crossing ( and by extension to traffic jams ) in general and the Prisoner's Dilemma seems to be perfect. Given a chance people, on their own, will break the law and there will be traffic jams. Unless (a) there is an external agency to enforce the law or (b) people start to co-operate to each other.

But is the second option possible in India ? If you have an answer, please post a reply here ..

November 10, 2011

The Tunganath Trek

At 12,000+ feet above MSL, Tunganath is the highest Shiva Temple in the world.  On our way to Gangotri, we stopped at Guptakashi and made a detour to Tunganath. This is where we saw the first snow capped peaks.

Our trek started out from a tiny hamlet called Chopta, which is as far as our car could go. From here it is a 3 km, 3500 feet climb to Tunganath. 

We walked through some of very beautiful landscape and finally passed the tree line. Above this point ( shown in the picture above ) there were no more trees. 

and there was snow on the ground, left over from last winter ( 2010-2011). The summer of 2011 had not been warm enough to melt these snow deposits! 

This was the last sign post before Tunganath, and then we arrived !

The weather was turning chilly and with the mist and fog rolling in, it was darkness at noon.

Having reached Tunganath, I thought that I should say something profound !

and Indira also spoke her mind on the the charms and challenges of the Tunganath Trek

with the weather turning suddenly very cold, note the snow on the ground, we start our descent

in an earlier era, in 1997, we had visited Kedarnath but the lack of digital camera had severly limited our photographic ambitions. however these two images survive from the Kodakchrome era

you would notice that the Kedarnath temple is very similar to the Tunganath temple . After Tunganath, we drove back to Guptakashi and then on to Uttarkashi through some spectacular scenery