Unveiling the past

Unveiling the past How do some dwelling complexes inWorliMaharashtrahave a better cooling system than what is offered bytoday's air-wnditioners? Isn't it fascinating to watch the Assamese light firein their central hall made of bamboofloors and walls? Have you ever seentribals extracting high-gra@e iron usingsimple bellowslow grade ore and coal?This may seem strangebut these aresome of the -marvels of traditionalIndian sciences.

Recentlythe scientific knowledge ofthe past was in focuswhen over a thousand scientists and activists gathered - or the Second Congress on TraditionalSciences and Technologies of IndiaatAnna University in Madras. It wasorganised by the Patriotic and People-Oriented Science and Technology group(PPST).

Talk of traditional Indian scienceoften revolves around a handful ofnames - BhaskaraAryabhattaPaniniCharaka and Susruta. But. the view thatthis wisdom has totally disappearedsome 700-800 years ago is debatable.Even now Paninian grammar can offersome ofthe best tools in achieving computer translation from one Indian language to anotheraccording to RajeevSangal of the computer s9ence department of Indian Institute of TechnologyXanpur. Traditional sciences andtechnologies are still of great value. in awhole range of fields. Sciencesmedicinearchitecture andeven traditional craftswere discussed during themeet.

Vaastu Shastraor traditional architecturehasevoked a lot of interestrecently. Its -proponentssee new hope for it in thewake of problems like'sick-building syndrome'.The multiple uses of bamboo were emphasised byarchitect Vinoo Kaleywho is working on traditional building materialsand techniques for the past two decades.Bamboo offers more strength per unitweight than evtn steel. Kaley. showedthat apart from being very useful in constructionbamboo can also be used inmaking suitcasessling bagsfurnituresoap-boxes and even visiting cards.Now a days young architecture studentsfrom Bhopalare studying the works ofLaurie Bakerthe innovative Kerala-based architect who had managed torescue the costs of housing by resorting to low-cost local materials. Hehimself was tremendouslyinfluenced by the judicious way in which ourbackwardancestorsused exposed woodlateritebrick and other suchmaterial. The focus fellfrom bigger buildings todesigning toys for kids.Sudarshan K Khannafrom Ahmedabad'sNational Institute ofDesignwho has doneextensive research inIndian toyssays that the simple andinexpensive Indian toys have a vast educational value. "The fact is that indigenous toys are the poor cousins of modern factory-made toysbe said while talking to Down To Earth.

Considerable number of facts about India's knowledge of metals were unearthed during the meet. Iron and steel made during the 18th and 19th century India was 61f a very high quality, and it was a regular item of export. Metallurgical engineer B Prakash sought to retrace the method of making the famous wootz steel, which used to go into the making of the world- renowned Damascus sword. Only in the, past two decades some secrets of this ultra high carbon steel have been decoded. In India, alchemy flourished in the medieval period. A belief that metals could be perfected to gold gave rise to metallurgical alchemy. One novel method hqs been described to identify theories of gold, silver, copper, tin or lead. A small portion of the ore is mixed with various substances, and a paste is made which is then smeared on a copper sheet. A specific colour is then acquired by the sheet, depending upon the metal contained in the ore. It is not widely known that Indians were the discoverers of zinc, or that we were the exporters of special quality steel till 150 years ago. Or that iron was being smelted in India in thousands of furnaces before the arrival of Westerners.

The potential is vast even in the field of health care. World Health Organization (wHo) estimates that 3000. plant species are used for birth control by tribal people around the world. But this knowledge is rapidly disappearing along with the indigenous tribes that possess it. From Orissa came reports of folk remedies offering specific solutions to indigestion due*to various reasons - eating excess rice, coconut, banana, jack-fruit, mango, sweets, fish or cucumber. Rajasthan's tribals use herbal drugs as veterinary medicine for as wide a range ag'bone fracture, stomach ache, retention of placenta after delivery, constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion, scabbies, abstaining from fodder, ulcers, poisoning and even cataract! Scientists today back the practice of washing wounds of animals'with boiled neern leaves before applying medicine - this acts as an antiseptic.

Veena Gupta of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources at New Delhi pointed to the growing demand for India's medicinal and aromatic plants. Scientists have developed-high yielding varieties of Isabgo4 opium, ruavolfia, hanbane, Japanese mint, vetiver, palmarosa, and lemon-grass. Currently, exports of raw material, essential oil, photochemical and aromachernicals earn India about Rs 2000 million each year.

Indian researchers have also made rapid, but little-noticed strides, in the field of vermiculture. Earthworms can help convert wastes into useful, non- chemical 'fertilizers'. Farmers believed that sprinkling cowdung slurry on paddy seeds wards off evil spirits. Today scientists point out that a two per cent cowdung slurry contains, bacteriophages, which helps suppress bacterial pathogen, according to M J Thomas of the Kerala Agricultural University.

India's traditional sector currently plays a major role in generating value- added products for exports, with virtually zero import requirements. To industrialise significantly, India needs the broader base provided only by the traditional industrial artisanal professional classes and communities. Indian pottery travelled to Mesopotamia (current day Iraq), Egypt and Babylon as far back as 3000 BC. India's potters-wheel is perhaps the oldest mechanical device known to human civilisation. Till about 200 years ago, India had nearly 20 per cent of the world trade in textiles. Even today, the country's traditional sector (handlooms alone) produces more that two-and-half times the cloth produced by the mills.

Researchers looked at the indigenous traditions of boat building along the entire coastline of India and the way timber was processed. They' found unique methods, like the use of sardine oil to make timber resistant to sea water, and turtle fat to prevent fouling and boring organisms from attaching to crafts. Simple people around the country are also contributing their mite.After the colossal crisis in Indian fishing in the second half of the '70s, artisanal fisherpeople developed a special artificial bait called 'misem' to hook fish. Similarly, fish-attracting lanterns were used for fishing in Thiruvanantapuram at night, the light attracted fish and resulted in higher catches. A 'disco-net' (trammel net) was developed for netting prawns, which benefit artisanal fisherpeople without the damage caused by bottom-trawling. Elderly fisherpeople, without any knowledge of astronomy, are hardly at sea when it comes to predicting the nature of the rain and water currents. They do so by analysing the direction of the wind, says E G Peter of Thiruvananthapuram's Pco, a voluntary group working with the fisherpeople.

But today, local markets are collapsing. Simple daily use items like agricultural implements, soaps, untensils, baskets, oil cloth and building material, all come from far off production units. Uzramma, a committed worker with handloom workers and the Dastkar group in Andhra Pradesh, warns against themuseurnising" of crafts. Uzrammapoints out that the cotton research inIndia has been conforming itself to theneeds of the mills. The potential ofdomestic cotton is not being properlyexploited and the handloom industryfaces a yarn-starvation. Makers of thefamed Chinnalapatti sarees of TamilNadu - known as the poor woman'ssilk and sold *at Rs 10 per saree in the'50s - have almost left weavingormigrated to take up menial jobs inDelhisays researcher K Vennila of theBirla Institute of TechnologyPilani. "Atree can't stand and survive without itsrcrotswarns Sumit Gothi of the Regional Engineering college at Bhopal, alluding to traditional know-how.

Two years ago, the first Congress on Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India was held at 11T Bombay. This did makeits mark on national thinking. One month after the Bombay Congress, Prime Minister P V Narsiniha Rao dwelt at length on Indian scientific and technological traditions while addressing the Indian Science Congress at Jaipur and their material significance in present context.

Major policy decisions came from New Delhi after the Bombay meet. New Delhi set up a separate department of traditional health. Such meets serve the purpose of keeping the past alive and benefitting from its wisdom.

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