The Great Arc

In history, regimes can’t be classified in binary. Their activities, actions and achievements have to be summed contextually. Even then, without accounting for multiple perspectives, judging a regime as good or bad should not ensue.

The Great Trigonometrical Survey

The British rule of India is one such regime which evoke extreme opinions. The Brits, from most accounts, did run their government in a typically high handed manner.

However, one cannot but admire their steadfastness and rigor in the pursuit of scientific exploration.

This is best highlighted in the book “The Great Arc” by John Keay which traces a century of work to measure the length and breadth of India. This is a book that must be made compulsory reading in high schools across the world, for it lays bare, a story on how humans satiated their thirst for knowledge in a still primitive age, how they overcame all odds while achieving their goals and finally how they strove for perfection in the middle of very trying circumstances.

Some notes from the book –

  • The whole business of measuring India’s “geodesy” started from Mysore after Tipu’s fall.
  • In the absence of any “droogs” (durga) near Tanjore, how they tried to use the Brihadeeswara Temple’s arch to mount their theodolite and how it fell damaging the instrument. (There is however no mention of any possible damages to the temple arch.)
  • In complete contrast, they do not even attempt to make use of the Taj Mahal fearing that it might be harmed.
  • George Everest looked condescendingly towards his boss William Lambton’s assistants Joshua de penning, Joseph Olliver, William Rossenrode as they were “mestizoes” or half-caste Britons. (a la Muhajirs?)
  • Radhanath Sickdhar, who was the Chief Computer towards the later part of the Survey, did not necessarily discover the peaks as is widely believed in India. His was a relatively smaller, but significant role in measuring the peaks while based in Calcutta.

The humongous magnitude of the survey can be probably inferred from the fact, that the persons who took charge after Everest retired and completed the survey probably weren’t even born when the survey was conceived by William Lambton.

Another important fact to be noted is that this survey was entirely bankrolled by the East India Company as a precursor to their expansion activities in India. This could be an indication to the amount of profits they may have been making from India.

Overall, a very important story for totally different reasons and perspectives. Only hope somebody writes a similar book on the Great Indian Railway.

Solstice at Panipat


Reading the book “Solstice at Panipat” made me reflect upon the fact about how history takes a bird’s eye view of one’s lifetime. And how most of how details of the events that shape up are lost either in the humongous amount of din or in the lack of.

A veritable time machine, the book by Dr Uday S Kulkarni threw open doors to the not so distant past, hitherto little known to me. Probably I’m not the only one whose knowledge of the Marathas (and India) is so less. History in school was so dry.

It is my firm belief that, history or any story for that matter cannot be clearly described only in black and white, but always in shades of grey. The book too reinforces this belief.

It was a revelation of sorts to learn that the Marathas were responsible for the security of the Mughal empire. As was learning about the impervious relations between the Rajputs and the Marathas.

Malhar Rao Holkar and Najib Khan seem to be the key nobles of the time who made a difference. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Malhar Rao Holkar would not have protected Najib Khan. Probably Abdali wouldn’t have come to India, and the Marathas would have established much more control over the whole of North India. And this might have helped blocking the English from gaining a foot hold and later extending their presence in the whole of India.

Another salient point that could be gleaned is the fact that most of India was under constant turmoil during the same time European countries were experiencing relative calm in their mainland. This probably explains the lack of industrial advancement in India as compared to Europe and America though we were quite advanced in fields like architecture, medicine, etc.

The amount of research that has gone into writing the book, contrasts with the abysmal level of analysis and general lack of application by other well known contemporary historians.

The only criticism that I can think of is that in the midst of the narration, references are made asynchronously which made it difficult to follow. But then, just explaining things chronologically would have made it yet another high school textbook.

The book and the author are an inspiration for students of Indian history. And a must buy and read. (The author himself has published it. Hence, the recommendation to buy and support)

I also posted this on Good Reads –