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Cracking the Da Vinci code: Reading History Hidden in a Manuscript


We all love a good detective story. One patiently reads through careful unravelling of secrets, unmasking the villain and finding out the hidden messages to solve the riddle. A good story plays on our curiosity. That is how authors like Dan Brown are able to capture our imagination and force us to read through hundreds of pages of fiction.

In a detective story, the protagonist unravels the mystery one clue at a time. The reader, on the other hand, just has to wait for the revelations. An ancient manuscript on the other hand is in itself a mystery, which the reader has to unravel all by themselves.

Over the past centuries, many ancient manuscripts have been discovered and they have helped in reconstructing India’s history. The manuscripts are used to identify specific events in history or to establish genealogies or to trace evolution of society and literature.

But manuscripts sometimes can lead to other discoveries too. Things that are not explicit, but are hidden in plain sight, might just be waiting to be connected to recreate history. Identifying the clues hidden in a manuscript can be a thrilling exercise. One just needs to look harder.

One of the manuscripts that I keep going back to is the Bakhshali Manuscript. Discovered in 1881, in Bakhshali, a village in Mardan (modern Pakistan), it is a commentary on mathematics. The manuscript made international headlines in September 2017.

The carbon dating done on the birch barks had established that the first written evidence of zero now dates back to the third century, almost 500 years earlier than what was believed. But that is not the only reason I keep going back to the manuscript.

An edited version of the manuscript, “The Bakhshali manuscript: An ancient treaties of Indian arithmetic”, was published in 1979. The book contains English translation of the manuscript with editor’s notes. The notes are restricted to the explicit content of the manuscript and explain the various mathematical examples in the text and the techniques to read them. But there is so much more to that manuscript than mere mathematics.

If one were to identify clues in the manuscript and its discovery, one can make reasonable assumptions about the society and times in which the manuscript was written. The first clues are hidden in the discovery of the manuscript itself. Bakhshali is located near Peshawar, which was a part of the ancient Mahajanpada of Gandhara.

The significance of discovery of the manuscript in the ancient Gandhara region becomes clearer once we look at the contents of the manuscript. Apart from the usage of zero, the most striking feature of the manuscript is the nature of problems discussed in it. A large section of the manuscript deals with problems of commercial nature. Profit and loss, taxation, trade, foreign exchange and so on.

Gandhara enjoyed a unique geographic advantage of being situated on the eastern side of the Hindukush. The passes of the mountain range opened up in Bactria where trade routes from Central Asia, West Asia and Iran converged. The Gandhara region was the only trade emporium that connected the Indian markets to rest of the world by a land route.

A modern equivalent to Gandhara would be Dubai or Singapore, which due to connectivity and location enjoy the status of global trade and finance hubs. It was natural for such a place to deal in problems of profit and loss, taxation and exchange rates. The contents of the Bakhshali manuscript were meant to address the problems faced by the local traders and to train the future generation.

Another important clue is the language of the manuscript. Though the language used is Sanskrit, one can find many loan words, frequently used in the manuscript. Terms like Dinar and Dramakshana are used for money. Dinar is derived from the Roman Denarius, the standard silver coin issued by the Romans in 211 BCE. The Roman trade networks spread the use of Denarius in much of Europe, West Asia and India.

Dramakshana on the other hand is derived from the Greek Drachma. The usage of these terms in the manuscript indicate that much of the trade happened in these two currencies, issued either in India or in the neighbouring regions in Central Asia and Iran. Though the Indo-Greeks lost their territories to the Kushans in early centuries CE, the nomenclature of the coins were carried on by the Kushans up until the fourth century (when the oldest parts of the manuscript were written).

The manuscript also mentions problems involving animals. Horses, camels, mules and ponies feature frequently in the problems. From a mathematical point of view they are not significant, but from historical point of view they are of importance. The use of these animals in the text indicates that these animals were common in the area and were extensively used by the traders. Of all, the mention of camel is of special significance. In all probability the reference of camel in the text is to the Bactrian camel, the double humped cousin of the camel generally found in India.

The Bactrian camels are native of Central Asian steppes and are adapted to survive cold weather conditions. It was a usual practice on caravan routes to exchange animals, to suit the terrain. Horses would be exchanged for camels and vice-versa by traders crossing the Hindukush. The problems involving exchange or camels for horses or ponies reflect the practical problems the traders would face during their transit from one terrain to the other.

Some of the commercial problems mention consumer goods, including food. We come across items like kumkum, honey, lapis lazuli, wine and molasses. These give us an indication of the kind of products consumed by the people of the region or items traded by the merchants.

Some problems talk of metallurgy, where the loss of iron ore or bronze is calculated after every step of refining. These problems, apart from providing information on consumer goods, also tell us the different types of trades that the people indulged in.

The manuscript, in some places, refer to the Puranic legends like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are problems where Sita drops here ornaments from a certain height while being flown away by Ravana and one has to calculate the number of revolution the item made before hitting the ground. There are also references to Arjun, Vasudev and Shiva in some problems. Again from a mathematical point of view these references are irrelevant.

However, from historic and social points of view these references hold immense value. The mention of Puranic characters indicate a society where these legends have become popular and established. One can hence assume that at the time of writing the manuscript, both the Ramayana and Mahabharata were popular household legends.

Once we are able to identify these clues, hidden in plain sight, it is easy to reconstruct to some extent the time in which the text was compiled. One can assume that trade was a major activity in the region. Different kinds of animals were traded for the benefit of the traders traversing different types of terrain. Wine, honey and molasses were popular trade items. Profit and loss were of grave concern to the people. The legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata were popular among the masses.

The Dinar and Drachma enjoyed a high degree of trust, even though the original proponents of these currencies were no longer in power. All this apart from the fact that India produced mathematicians who were working on problems using algebra, the decimal system, the Hindu numerals, arithmetical progressions and the concepts of nothingness. History becomes fascinating once we look beyond the obvious.


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