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The story of civilisation

Abhilasha Ojha  |  New Delhi 

A fascinating new series on Discovery traces the beginning of India, including our ancestors' first migration out of Africa.
Some time last week Neerakan, a vernacular newspaper from Tamil Nadu, published an interesting story. It was about a mother whose frightened eyes and trembling voice begged journalists to leave her home and village, Jyothimanickam, near Madurai. "My son", she had said angrily, "has no African monkey blood."
Her son, Virumandi, laughs heartily about his rise to "fame""" especially after Discovery Channel began airing its newest series, The Story of India, last week. A six-part story of India's origins, the series traces the beginnings of our civilisation. And Virumandi, the 30-year-old systems engineer who works in a software company in Trichy, is one of the people it profiles. Virumandi has a rare marker gene linked to African populaces.
This was detected when a team of Madurai geneticists led by Professor R M Pitchappan tested the DNA of tribals in Virumandi's village. The exercise included isolating the DNAs of the villagers from a solution that would eventually give what experts call "markers" or clues to a rare M130 gene pool. In Virumandi's DNA was the marker of that first human migration.
"In my process of research I found that Virumandi's genes could be directly linked to Africa," elaborates Pitchappan, who completed the research in 2001. In 2003, Pitchappan's research was successfully published in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.
It stated that the first coastal migration took place out of Africa 70,0000 years ago. Even more importantly, the rest of the population travelled up from there only later and spread to different parts of India.
Back in 2001, when he first learned about the research, Virumandi's first reaction was that of complete disbelief. "I was very disturbed initially. I suddenly thought I was so different from the rest of my friends and relatives," he says, explaining that his family took a long time to adjust to the revelation.
What was disturbing also was the attitude of some of his acquaintances who would rib him constantly about his gene pool. "Someone once called me 'monkey blood' and that hurt," he says.
Professor Pitchappan's research, in the interim, caught the eye of well-known historian and narrator Michael Wood, who had also begun the groundwork on a project that would aim to trace the beginnings of India "" a country where, in Wood's own words, the human past was still alive.
"I sent my research papers after Wood requested me to take him to the village," says Pitchappan. Virumandi, by then, was already learning to adjust to his new status as the flavour of contemporary genetic research and was helping his family cope with the findings.
"My attitude changed gradually. It's not easy having the spotlight on me and my family. We are simple people and don't know how to cope with the media and all the press attention," he says. Today, Virumandi says he's in a privileged position.
"If experts could trace important evidence of India's earliest chapters and how its history was created through me, I'm happy," says Virumandi. With his attitude having undergone a gradual change, Virumandi, who met Wood four-five months ago, became a crucial character in the series and added an important layer to the series' story.

The Story of India: Glimpses

The Story of India could well be a reminder of all we studied in school. From the lost cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, Michael Wood traverses the Khyber Pass, parts of the Silk Route, Peshawar and important coastal regions of south India, besides the plains of north India. But what sets apart this documentary is the manner in which it brings together a host of characters, individuals and families, who, despite living in a country deemed a superpower, are still in touch with an ancient civilisation. Here's what you will see every Wednesday on Discovery Channel, in a six-part series at 8 pm.

  • A Brahmin clan in Kerala still has ceremonies for fire gods which go on for 12 days. Children are prompted to chant mantras which have no resonance in any of the spoken languages and whose analogues come from the animal kingdom. "It's actually 'a bird song' and even today, the community passes down these mantras orally," explains Wood.

  • A family of bronze-casters near Thiruvengadu carries on with the tradition of their forefathers who made bronze statues in the reign of Raja Raja Chola in the 10th century. The family still works with age-old techniques, with no sketches, no rulers (they use palm leaves instead) and absolutely no hi-tech machinery. The work begins in the mornings with elaborate prayer rituals, after which models made with beeswax are cast in moulds and filled with molten bronze and left to cool for 24 hours before they proceed to add finer details.

  • Dr Liladhar Gupta, an Ayurvedic practitioner, follows age old methods of medicine that were handed down by his forefathers to succeeding generations since emperor Kanishka's reign. "Everything was orally transmitted. Written language prompted us to collate all the information," explains Gupta.

  • Watch out for the episode where Emperor Akbar's janampatri (horoscope) gets made by well known astrologer Abhishek Joshi. The emperor's date of birth is October 25, 1542, Sunday morning, 2 am. Sagittarius, the astrologer studies, is in the fifth house and Akbar would be seen as one who would be "keen, confident and focused". With a kingdom (maharaja) yog in his birth chart (what with the favourable position of Sun and Saturn) and Scorpio in the fourth house, the king went on to conquer great territories all over India. At the time of Akbar's reign, India had the highest GDP in the world.

  • Another episode takes a close look at revenue files in the British Library, London. In 1799, the balance sheet of the East India Company was £8.5 million. In 1803, the revenue was close to £ 13.5 million.
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    First Published: Sat, April 26 2008. 00:00 IST
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