Sunday, July 31, 2005

How Geevarghese became Jorge

Speaking of the dragon and St.George, whenever I tell people that Varghese is the malayalam equivalent of George I feel like they don't really believe me. It's not surprising because those two names sound so different.

It's easier to believe if you realize that St.George --- the person after whom christians all over the world named their children, was likely a speaker of Aramaic, and was probably known to his friends as Giwargis. He is believed to have lived in the 3rd-century in Asia-Minor (born in Lydda --- in modern Israel, and died in Nicomedia --- in modern Turkey), left the Roman Army, and was tortured and killed for his faith. He was so popular that he's been named patron saint of several things including :

...England,... Georgia, Moscow, Catalonia, Malta, Lithuania, the scout movement, soldiers and skin diseases.

It's instructive to examine the geographical pattern in the variations of his name. Going from west to east, roughly, the list is :

  • Jorge (Spain : pronounced 'Hor-Hay')
  • George (England : pronounced 'Jorj' :) )
  • Georges (France : pronounced 'zhorzh')
  • Giorgio (Italy)
  • Giorgiy (Slavic countries: the 'G' is as in 'gun', not as in 'George')
  • Yiorgos (Greece)
  • Girgis (Egypt and the Arab world)
  • Giorgis (Ethiopia)
  • Gewargis/Giwargis/Givargis (Syriac-speaking communities of the middle east: Assyrians of Iraq for example)
  • Geevarghese/Varghese/Varkki (Kerala)

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Here Be Dragons

Baltimore backyard

I took this picture from my friends' backyard in baltimore a couple of weeks ago. The flag in the picture, mostly hidden, is that of a red dragon on a green-and-white background. When I saw it I thought of Chinese dragons and guessed it was a flag from East-Asia. But, a little googling later, I was surprised to find out that it's actually Welsh.

Welsh Flag

Bhutanese Flag

Dragons have, interestingly, independently appeared in the cultures of Europe and East Asia. Apart from being the symbol of the Welsh people, the dragon has been the symbol of Chinese Emperors, and appears on the national flag of Bhutan. Here is a site that talks about the history of dragons in the west from the ancient Greeks, through medieval Christianity (St.George and the Dragon --- a myth that may have been inspired by the Greek tale of Perseus and Medusa). East Asian dragons appear to be linked to their Buddhist origins in India (and some dragon/serpeant-like creatures called Nagas in Indian mythology --- never heard of them).

One theory why dragon-like creatures have appeared independantly in such different cultures is that when people found dinosaur bones, they fleshed out what creatures they thought they belonged to, and created these dragon myths.


Sunday, July 24, 2005

Shoulders of Giants

The Mathematics Genealogy Project keeps a record of the academic genealogy of mathematicians (and almost-mathematicians). I looked up my genealogy and was surprised to find, a few steps up the tree, French and German mathematicians from several centuries ago who are household names today (ok, atleast if your household consists of mathematicians, scientists or engineers):
my advisor
: (six generations)
Felix Klein
/ \
Julius Plucker Lipschitz
| / \
Christian Gerling Dirichlet Ohm
| / \ |
Carl Gauss Poisson Fourier Langsdorf
| \ /
Johann Pfaff Lagrange
| |
Abraham Kaestner Leonhard Euler
| |
Hausen Johann Bernoulli
| |
Wichmannshauser Jacob Bernoulli
| |
Mencke Gottfried Leibniz
Perhaps this is a bit premature as I haven't actually got my PhD yet. Still, it's humbling and inspiring to have these giants as academic ancestors.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Chee(na) Malabar

I pointed some of my relatives to the Zheng He story that I talked about in my previous post, and they came up with more possible remnants of the Kerala-China trade link. Zheng He's journey was actually near the end of many centuries of Kerala-China trade --- shortly after Zheng's journey the chinese emperor decided to re-isolate the country and shut down their merchant navy. Consolidating things that I mentioned in my previous post and things I've since found out about, here's a list of possible remnants of the cross-cultural contacts. I also found that many of the things on this list have been talked about, with more historical detail, in this article on the interesting site

The items are listed in order of decreasing plausability. To start with are three things that are explicity referred to as being Chinese by people in Kerala :

1. Cheena Vala "Chinese Fishing nets". My attempt to find images of nets in modern-day china that are similar to the ones in cochin proved fruitless, but I did find pictures of nets in vietnam and cambodia that look like the cochin nets and appear to be referred to in those countries as being from china. As Ammini Ramachandran of says, some of the fishermen who man the nets in cochin, wear east-asian-looking conical hats.

Fishing Nets, Kochi, India

Fishing Nets, Chau Doc, Vietnam

2. Cheena Chatti "Chinese Pot" a.k.a a Wok. This is an essential tool in the making of Appams (described by Madhur Jaffrey to be a "cross between a french crepe and an english muffin") --- one of my favourite foods and one that far too few people know about. You need the hemispherical wok to swirl the batter to create the spongy (muffin-like) center and crisp (crepe-like) outer ring of the appam.

3. Cheena Bharani "(Large) Chinese vessel". Although I don't recall seeing one, they are apparently used widely in the "production & storage of 'Uppu Manga', a method of utilising ripe mangoes for long term use as a curry" [according to my uncle Ninan]. Here's a picture of one that I found courtesy of Binu Mathew's page of photos.

4. Porcelain : I haven't seen any myself but, according to the article, there is old Chinese blue and white porcelain to be found in houses and antique shops in Kerala that is a legacy of trade with China. Levathes' book talks about the factories that were set up in China to produce large quantities of porcelain for export and says that "ample quantities of chinese porcelains have been found from the Philippines to East Africa".

5. Elaborate Sloping Roofs :My grand-uncle George pointed out the similarity between roofing in traditional homes in Kerala and East Asia. While this might be a function of similar environments generating similar artifacts, I think it is remarkable that temples in Kerala have the multiple-layered, sloping roofs that are so similar to temples in east asia but so different from temples in neighbouring regions (like Tamilnadu, which have tall stone gopurams).

Vadakumnathan temple, Thrishoor, Kerala

Buddhist Temple, Kyoto, Japan

6. Boats : This is also questionable, but some claim that the similarity of the river-boats of Kerala (vallams) to the river-boats of East Asia (sampans?) is also a legacy of the Chinese cultural interaction. I report you decide :

Vallam, Kerala (courtesy Raghu Ramachandran)

Sampan, China (courtesy

7. Martial Arts : Some martial arts websites refer to Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala, as the mother of all martial arts. One controversial theory (proposed not just by wishful chauvinistic Indians, but by some East Asian sources as well) is that in 520 AD the Buddhist monk Boddhidharma travelled from South India (presumably Kerala) to the Shao Lin monastery in China and taught the monks there the martial-art that later became Kung Fu. There is really very little evidence to support this story, and as the wikipedia page indicates, many disagree with this theory, but it would be nice if true.


Kung Fu