Value lies in the eye of beholder: Shivaji’s tiger claws (waghnakh)

With an empire on which the British once proudly claimed “the sun never set upon”, the British museums are full of artifacts that were “acquired” from the natives.  Some of these acquisitions, such as the Elgin Marbles, are subject of bitter dispute.

From the Indian subcontinent the list of “acquired” valuables would be endless with the most famous Indian objects would range from Koh-i-Noor , Ranjit Singh’s throne, Shah Jahan jade wine cup, Sarswati idol to  Sultanganj Buddha ( kept in the Birmingham city museum).

Usual argument put forth for retaining these cultural/historic artifacts , to put in a simple fashion :  1) We got it “legally”  2) The display of these artifacts is towards the project of building “universal” institutions presenting the art and history of the world.

Additionally the museums often decry that their relationships with foreign governments have increasingly become contingent on giving in to “unreasonable and sometimes blatantly extortionate demands”. For example, it is claimed that as China and India grow on the geopolitical stage , so have their demands for restitution of artifacts ( often by private group and individuals rather than the government)

While strolling through the V&A museum, I came across a rather plain exhibit, a small red box with a set of tiger claws: a close combat weapon which is designed to be concealed under and against the palm and is designed to be slashed through the skin and muscle.


To my astonishment, the rather plain box was inscribed ,”The ‘Wagnuck’ of Sivajee With Which He Killed the Moghul General. This Relic was given to Mr. James Grant-Duff of Eden When he was Resident at Satara By the Prime Minister of the Peshwa of the Marathas”.

A small card on the left stated: “This weapon is reputed to be the one used by the Maratha leader Shivaji to kill Afzal Khan, the Mughal commander of the opposing Bijapur army in a famous episode that took place during the complicated political upheavals of 17th century India. During a protracted military engagement in 1659, the two men arranged a truce in order to meet in a tented enclosure, virtually alone. Both came armed: Shivaji wore mail under his clothes and metal skull protection under his turban. He also held metal “tiger claws” of this kind concealed in his hand. The two men fought and Shivaji disemboweled his opponent. ”


Artist’s depiction of the encounter where Shivaji is shown disemboweling Afzal Khan ( on left) with the tiger claws

What an pithy uninspiring reduction of an event that still  reverberates in the cultural history of Maharashtra. It was an event that demonstrated  the ability of the nascent Maratha kingdom to stand-up to an established hegemony and unequivocally prove on the battlefield the strategic, tactical genius of Shivaji along with his ability to inspire and lead a previously demoralized people. It was an event that heralded the arrival of an young napoleon who would go on to shake up geopolitics in South Asian continent; cause the downfall of the mighty Mughal empire.

There were no crowds thronging to see this “historical artifact” in V&A after all it was just a plain functional metal weapon acquired in the colonial days.

I wondered would it be the same if these tiger claws were displayed in a museum in Maharashtra/ India?

I wager not. For these bits of metal are not just an historical artifact, rather they are physical validation of  cultural memory. There would be eager kids queuing to see these tiger claws and make a connection with their cultural history; to behold a physical reminder of great endeavors done by men who have walked before.

Can Humanity understand alien intelligence?

The following is a short story that I found online.

While browsing on the web, I came across a beautiful story raises questions about Humanity, it’s quest to find alien intelligence. The story is written by Allora & Calzadilla & Ted Chiang.  While I  have linked  back to the their website (which is definitely worth a visit), I am pasting the story here ( for great ideas need sharing !)

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Childhood dream: Microscope in 5 minutes


As a child I had read “Microbe Hunters“, by Paul de Kruif, an amazing book that covered the history of bacteriology, starting with Van Leeuwenhoek (first person to see a microbe), Spallanzani (proved that life doesn’t arise spontaneously), Pasteur (microbes are menace), Koch (who identified cause of TB and cholera), Walter Reed (vectors of yellow fever) and Paul Ehrlich( who proved that synthesized organic compounds can kill microbes and thus laid the foundations of pharmaceutical science).

Of all of these pioneers the story of  Van Leeuwenhoek was the most interesting. Given that the concept and basic science behind a microscope was  known( circa ~1670), after all Robert Hooke had described structures in thin slices of plant leaves which he called “cells”, it was most impressive that a cloth merchant could make microscopes that were unrivaled in their quality and magnification by anything available then, so much so that the Royal Society sent emissaries begging Leeuwenhoek to sell a microscope at any price!

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Lead poisoning

While topping up fuel in my car, I noticed (apart from the price per gallon/liter) the words “unleaded fuel”. And for some reason the words caught my attention. As a scientist I was aware of the problem and extent of Lead, Arsenic and heavy metal poisoning of water, but I never had thought of the human story; I am not talking about the  unfortunate victims of lead poisoning, rather the human story behind the science that raised awareness of extent of the problem of lead contamination, forced governments to take action and challenged the industry to improve.

Lead does not occur in an elemental state but is a by-product of silver mining. Extracted from galena ore (lead sulfide), which is crushed and smelted, the lead alloy was further refined by the Romans in a furnace made hotter still by blasts of air forced from a bellows. Readily abundant (in Britannia, the ore was so near the surface that restrictions limited the amount that could be produced), easily malleable, and with a low melting point (low enough, in fact, to melt in a camp fire), lead  was ideal for the production of water pipes, which were fabricated by plumbers from fitted rolled sheets in a variety of diameters. Continue reading

The Hunt

Sometime back a friend sent me a  forward message that showed a purported wolf hunt. 6-management-lessons-from-a-wolf-pack-2-638

Well the hunt picture was correct but the analysis was colored with anthropomorphic thoughts.If the pace was actually set by the old or sick, the wolf pack would always have to  find a  prey that is weaker than the “leading” old or sick pack members; prey will get away all the time. An obvious winning wolf pack strategy is based on the fit wolves running down any weaker prey till it’s exhausted,  surrounded and pulled down!

There is an excellent paper published in journal of Behavioral Processes where in the authors (Murao et al.doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2011.09.006) show that they could replicate (computationally) the hunting strategy of wolf pack patterns by using two simple rules: firstly, move towards the prey until at a close but safe distance (the distance depending on factors such as the length of horns), and then secondly, when at the minimum safe distance, to move away from the other wolves which are also in position.

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The role of Plague in rise of Indian Nationalism

22nd June 1897 is a special date in the Indian freedom struggle. On that day , 119 years ago, Indian nationalists Damodar and Balkrishna Chaphekar shot Walter Charles Rand  (Assistant Collector and Chairman of Special Plague committee) and Lt.Charles Egerton Ayherst (Military escort for the Assistant Collector) in Pune. As a child, who grew up in Pune, the  Chaphekar bandhu and their assassination of Rand ( “gondya ala re “!)  is part of cultural history of the city. There are number of blogs/wiki entries that give a summarized version of the above event; however those entries told me what happened but not the causes or the repercussions . Continue reading

Battles to capture mountain forts

While rendering the topographical view of Sinhagad in Blender,  I was struck by the geographical features of the fort ( located at approximate height of 1400 meters) and wondered how were the battles to capture such forts were fought .

A casual recollection from school history text book drew up a blank, while popular Bollywood or Marathi  movies depict a Mughal/ Bijapuri army bristling with camels, elephants, cannons and endless hordes off to invade and conquer. But how true is this popular picture? Or just a simplified visual picture made for an unquestioning audience?

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