Monday, 29 July 2013

A Mathematical Passage to India: Nirvana By Numbers

A Mathematical Passage to India was the working title for a 30 minute Radio 4 feature I produced with best selling author and journalist Alex Bellos as presenter.  The programme is scheduled for broadcast on Radio 4 on 7th October, 11 am and is now entitled, Nirvana By Numbers.  It looks at some of the great contributions of Indian mathematics through ancient and medieval history and asks if Indian philosophical and religious culture had any influence on the emergence in India of inventions such as mathematical zero and the decimal place order number system. The following are photos we took along the way, recording interviews and sounds.

This is Professor Krishnamurti Ramasubramaniam at the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai - a theoretical astrophysicist turned Sanskrit scholar. Ram told us about the extraordinary ways in which complex numerical information was coded into Sanskrit poetic verse, so it could be memorised by other mathematicians down the centuries.

After Mumbai came Puri, on the coast of the eastern state of Orissa.  Every year the seaside town is the location for the Rath Yatra chariot festival.  Three gigantic wooden chariots - each containing a statue of a deity, most importantly Lord Jagannath (an incarnation of Vishnu) - are pulled by armies of pilgrims and policemen from a temple at one of the street to another at the far end.

It's a well attended event.  The local newspaper speculated that 1.1 million people came for it.

Everyone had a good time and hoped that their sins would be absolved.

To prove this was a working trip.  In fact I was not resting my microphone on that gentleman's head.

The Rath Yatra chariot procession is kicked off by one of Hinduism's four top holy men, blowing a conch. That's His Holiness Jagadguru Shankaracharya Swami Shri Nischalananda Saraswatiji Peethedheeshwar.

His Holiness is the figurehead of Vedic Mathematics.  These are 16 sutras/algorithms/speed maths tricks which were claimed to have been divined from ancient vedic texts by the grand guru Tirthaji.  He was the Shankaracharya in Puri between 1925 and 1960.  The story is amusingly and well told in a chapter in the book 'Alex's Adventures in Numberland', by Alex Bellos (see below).

Alex clutches a mango following his interview with His Holiness.  Topics covered ranged across the spiritual importance of zero and whether mathematics is a path to Nirvana.

Our interview with His Holiness was secured with the assistance of Gaurav Tekriwal, the president of Vedic Maths Forum India.

Outside the Shankaracharya's Math (monastery).  Alex Bellos, Gaurav Tekriwal and Anushree Goenka Tekriwal.

A great gaudy blue temple in Puri.

Here's another of our interviewees with Alex: Professor Rajesh Kochhar, an historian of astronomy.  This is in New Dehli at the Jantar Mantar Observatory - a collection of early 18th century structures built by Moghul ruler Jai Singh.  They were supposed to function as astronomical measuring instruments.  Not Indian at all by tradition and owe more to observatories of earlier Central Asia.

I can recommend the monumental and delicious chicken biryani enclosed in a chapati casing at the Chutney restaurant in the Metropolitan hotel in New Delhi.  I can also give a thumbs up for the hotel as a place to stay.  Lovely staff and pleasing 1970s Japanese decor.  Handy for New Delhi railway station.

We didn't stay in Delhi for long.  Waiting and recording at New Delhi railway station for the Shatabdi Express to Gwalior in northern Madhya Pradesh.

We couldn't pass through Agra without getting off the train and visiting the spine-tinglingly beautiful Taj Mahal.

Marital devotion was also in the air when we arrived in Gwalior.  A wedding party at our hotel, the Usha Kiran Palace Hotel.  Highly recommended and booked at a great rate by travel agent Outbound Travels.  I cannot praise this Delhi-based travel company enough!  See more reasons further on.

Gwalior is interesting enough because of the great fort and its 15th-16th century palaces which sit on the steep hill above the city.  But we had come for some old numbers.

There's a tiny temple dedicated to an incarnation of Vishnu, carved in the sandstone cliff beneath the fort.  An inscription inside the temple dates it at around 875 AD.  The inscribed tablet also contains the oldest precisely dated symbols for the number zero in the world.

The photo above shows one of the special zeros in its use in '270'.

Alex was most excited, given that India was where mathematical zero (not to mention the misnamed Arabic decimal numeral system) was invented.

We have Professor Renu Jain of the Department of Mathematics at Jiwaji University to thank for our visit and recorded interviews here.  She sought permission for us and arranged additional interviewees on the inscription at the temple.

Professor Jain is a follower of the Jaina religion.  She told us that early Jain philosophers and mathematicians conceived of mind-numbingly gargantuan numbers including 10 to the power of 400 plus.  They also mused about different kinds of infinity - centuries ahead of western thinkers.

Towards the base of the Gwalior fort's cliff are several stunning ancient Jain temples.

Everything had gone so well on this trip that the end of our last recording day had to end with a mishap.

Ironically, given this whole trip was about numbers, I failed to identify the number of the train which we should have boarded back to New Dehli.  So I had us waiting for a delayed train going south rather than the punctual one heading the 300 kilometres north to the capital, and from where we were supposed to be flying home the next day.

And we failed to get on the last jam-packed train to Delhi that night, departing at 10.30 pm and scheduled to arrive at 6 am the next morning.  Perhaps it's a blessing we couldn't squeeze on that train.

Anyway, a call to the magnificent Outbound Travels saved the situation.  The wonderful Prateek Chawla scrambled a driver from Agra to pick us up at 4.30 am from our hastily rebooked hotel.  We got to New Delhi airport with more than enough time for a masala dosa for lunch before the flight to London.