The world, in your own words, please!

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The frenetic nature of modern life is leaving us less inclined to describe our experiences and articulate our perspectives (YouTube comments threads notwithstanding). We need to inculcate the practice of observation, contemplation and documentation so that we preserve our connection with our world inside this hyper-connected world.

The world daily offers us novel experiences in rapid succession. We would be doing ourselves a favour by slowing down to recap them, journal them, and thus make better sense of them.

Social media and mobile technology have enhanced in some ways, and diminished in others, the joys of travelling in the current world. Minute observation of novel surroundings can often be a great source of joy. The cloud-kissed peak, the singing rivulet, the rare and grandiose beast sighted from afar, the oddly colored pebble on the beach are sights that live for a long time in memory. The powerful mobile cameras of today render minute observation unnecessary. It is enough if the traveller knows how to point and shoot. Not too long ago, in the pre-internet era, we were writing long letters, by actually laying a trail of ink on physical paper, about what we saw and experienced in our journeys. The writing process enabled us to internalise our observations and articulate our experiences in apt language. Instagram has thus stolen from the modern traveller the precious opportunity for mindful observation as well as documentation.

Observation and documentation are relevant not just for tourism. They find their place among the founding pillars of modern science. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Spanish scientist who was considered the father of modern Neuroscience, had performed innumerable microscopic observations of the brain and documented his observations painstakingly in elaborate and intricate hand-drawn artwork. Observation and documentation form the very soul of crime detection, as any fan of Sherlock Holmes would know. The solitary curl of hair stuck to the coat, the speck of dirt on the boots, features invisible to the untrained eye, reveal the killer to the master detective. Observation and documentation have the power to immortalise the past, to give birth to history. Let us consider some classic examples of observation and documentation from ancient Roman civilisation.

Among the cultures of antiquity, ancient Rome is remarkable in tbat it existed continuously for an incredibly long period of more than two millennia. Rome was founded by two brothers, Remus and Romulus, in the 7th Century BC, rose to its fine stature of being the largest empire of the antiquity in the 2nd Century AD, broke up into two branches around the 5th Century AD, and lived on further until the 15th Century AD, almost until the time of European Renaissance and modern scientific revolution. Throughout its millennial history we find examples of precise and thorough-going documentation.

Julius Caesar, one of the most prominent and representative figures of ancient Rome, was described by some historians as one of the greatest military commanders of history. Caesar had the useful habit of documenting his military activities in great detail, often describing them in third person, to add a touch of objectivity to the account. One of the most celebrated of Caesar’s conquests was the conquest of Gaul, a vast and rebellious region that overlaps significantly with modern France. These accounts were published under the title Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which is Latin for Commentaries on the Gallic wars.

Within the region of Gaul, Caesar faced his toughest challenges in a place called Alesia. When Caesar found out that about 80,000 rebels were camped in Alesia, he decided to literally wall them in by constructing fortifications around the region. Thanks to Caesar’s excellent documentation, we now have the details of those constructions. He first ordered the construction of an outer wall 11 Roman miles (about 10 modern miles) long. For every mile of the wall, there were 24 watch towers. Behind the wall he dug a trench 20 pedes (about 19 modern feet) deep. All other constructions were built 400 stades (about 1,943 modern feet) from the trench, so as to be out of reach of enemy javelins thrown from beyond the wall. Within this gap he dug two more trenches 15 pedes (14.6 feet) wide and deep. On the other side of the trenches, he ordered construction of another rampart (wall) 12 pedes (11.7 feet) high.

 

Standing here at the portals of the 3rd millennium trying to make sense of our past, we can only wish our forefathers had taken a greater trouble in documenting history.

 

There are many more details (which we omit for reasons of space) of the extensive construction activity undertaken during the Battle of Alesia. Considering the depth of detail, one wonders if these accounts were written by a civil engineer or a military general. And further considering that the Battle of Alesia was fought in the year 52 BC, we have here an instance of an exceptionally detailed account of a temporary and routine construction activity during a minor battle, fought two thousand years ago.

The excellent documentation of the battle of Alesia in Roman history is not an exception but the rule. At the same level of intense detail we have now available the speeches of Roman orator Cicero (between 63 and 56 BC), the senatorial deliberations of emperor Claudius (41-54 AD, from the Berlin papyrus), the silly and vain jottings from emperor Nero’s dairy during his journeys through Greece (66 – 67 AD), or the mensurational details of the bridge constructed by emperor Trajan over the river Danube during his Dacian wars (105 AD).

A strong tradition of documentation has the power to immortalise a civilisation. It is invaluable in reconstructing the history of a society. Lack of adequate documentation poses serious challenges in reconstructing Indian history. Deficits in documentation are striking if we consider data about some of the most prominent figures of our antiquity. Both the year of birth (563/480 BC) and the year of passing (483/400 BC) of the Buddha, one of the most prominent spiritual figures of the first millennium BC, have an uncertainty of nearly a century. Similar ambiguities are seen in case of Mahavira also, a great spiritual figure who lived in the same millennium.

Regarding the birth of Ashoka, one of the foremost and celebrated emperors in Indian history, it is known that he lived in the 3rd century BC — the years of his reign are also known — but the exact year of his birth is unknown. Similarly, not much is known about the place or year of birth of Chandragupta Maurya, though the period of his reign and the year of death are known. Similar is the situation with Kanishka, another mighty ruler whose realm extended from central Asia to the Vindhyas. Not only his year of birth, even his year of coronation is fraught with considerable ambiguity.

Many explanations have been proffered regarding why we have such sparse data about our past compared to some of the cultures of antiquity in the West. It could be because we were under foreign occupation by rulers who willfully destroyed and erased our past. It could be that our strong oral traditions have to some extent inhibited documentation in written form. Whatever be the reason, the fact remains. Standing here at the portals of the 3rd millennium trying to make sense of our past, we can only wish our forefathers had taken a greater trouble in documenting history.

 

 

But we always have the choice to learn from our past mistakes and make amends for it in the present times. It may be that documentation was not our forte in the past, but we can always create a tradition of it by incorporating it in our education system today. We can teach and train students how to document through simple and meaningful projects and assignments. A primary school student can be asked, for example, to observe the behaviour (eating habits, sleeping habits, singing patterns etc.) of a pet bird and document what he/she has seen in precise language. Or he/she may be encouraged to make detailed drawings of a grasshopper’s wing. A high-school student may be asked to spend a whole day at a railway station observing and noting down the daily ongoing events there. He/she can be asked to direct particular attention, for example, to the amenities available in the waiting rooms, or the cleanliness of toilets. Or a team of high-school students can visit a nearby temple, armed with measuring tapes and sextants, and try to recreate a whole blueprint of the temple.

Experiences and exercises like the above can serve as excellent preparation to a future scientist, or a journalist, or a detective, or an inspired and impactful writer. Such a training will be a big departure from our rote-learning traditions, where children only memorise the untested documentation of yore, without trying to question it and revise it by fresh observation and revalidation. By creating a deep culture of observation and documentation in our current educational system, we would be remedying a millennial deficiency. It will help to enhance objectivity in our society, quell sentimentality, and get our society ready for the new millennium.

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