Tuesday, May 31, 2011



Ajanale (population approximately 5000) is a village in the hot and arid zone of Solapur. The blazing sun and rocky land characterize the landscape of this region. Aside from thorny bushes and that occasional yellow desert flower there is very little that meets the eye on the plains that forms Solapur. The transition from the neighbouring district Satara, where our teams were placed earlier, to Solapur was like walking from the mist into the hot sun. And yet, as we entered the village Ajanale we were greeted by long green patches of pomegranate shrubs. Small crimson flowers and round ruby fruits dotted the fields as our vehicle drove past the dusty village road. Several minutes off the main road our eyes finally met the village that was Ajanale, one of the most progressive villages in Solapur, especially known for its pomegranates.

The Gram Panchayat of the village Ajanale was established in 1951. Till 1972, the villagers were largely shepherds. Their main income came from the employment guarantee scheme implemented by the government then. In 1972, this village was selected for the scheme titled ‘Krushi Pandhari’. Under this scheme, certain select villages were given aid in agriculture by helping them conserve water. This was especially needed in a drought prone region like Solapur. Under this scheme, Ajanale saw the construction of several bunds and percolation tanks. “Paani Adwaa, Paani Jirava” (stop water, help water percolate) was the slogan to promote percolation of water in this dry region. This started the process of raising the water tables in this region. 

A Percolation Tank
In 1997, the village also received the Adarsha Gaav Puraskar (Ideal Village Award). The criteria for the award were: an addiction free environment, clean village with appropriate water facilities for drinking as well as other uses, availability of basic primary health care facilities, implementation of most applicable government schemes, sophisticated farming practices, among others. In the early 1980s, the then Collector Ratnakar Gaikwad adopted the village for overall development. He promoted total sanitation of the villages by promoting and aiding the construction of toilets. The entire village land was levelled to aid cultivation and bunds were built in and around every farm free of cost so that water may stand in the farm area rather than flowing away from it. All of these efforts were to stop the burning of land in the summer sun and facilitating agriculture with a view to increase the yield of the farm lands.

Around the same time, in 1982, in the neighbouring village Ekhatpur, a farmer called Prabhakar Chandane experimented with pomegranates for the first time. He was in fact awarded the prestigious Krushi Bhushan title for it. In 1984, Rajaram Tukaram Patil and Dharmaraj Yelpale of Ajanale took up the cultivation of the Ganesh-7 variety of pomegranates. Although pomegranate requires less water, water was nevertheless a problem in this dry zone. There are no rivers in and around Ajanale. There are some streams that have found their way close to the village but these have water only during the monsoons. The percolation tanks had some water but not enough to aid the survival and quality fruiting of pomegranate trees. The water table was then and is even till date as low as 500 – 550 feet. Keeping this in mind, bore wells were dug in several places. But one of the most important and efficient technological know-how added to this effort was that of the drip irrigation system. These two farmers experimenting with pomegranate installed drip irrigation systems in 1985, becoming the first adopters of the drip system in the village. In 1985, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, focused the state agricultural schemes on promoting horticulture. Pomegranate farmers got 100% subsidy for the entire process of planting and growing the crop. There was 100% subsidy for even drip sets then. Between 1984 and 94, 50% of farming population started cultivating pomegranates. Today every family that has land cultivates pomegranate. Those without land work as labourers on pomegranate fields. So the entire village is dependent on pomegranate for their livelihood. Drip too arrived because of pomegranate. In short, pomegranates and adequate water management has led this village to prosperity.

Ajanale's land lacks soil. It has many rocks and pebbles that makes agriculture almost impossible. 
Land in Ajanale
But the pomegranate tree is a thorny shrub that grows in the wild. It cannot grow in fertile soil. It needs rocky soil like that in Ajanale. More so, since it is a wild fruit and does not need a lot of water and nourishment, a drought prone area like Ajanale could grow this fruit. This clubbed with the fact that pomegranates fetched a lot of income in urban markets across the country added to the prosperity of the farmers of Ajanale. Thus, what was Ajanale’s weakness was converted to its strength. Today the case is such that out of the total village area of 3860 hectares, 1436 hectare area is under pomegranate cultivation. Although other crops like capsicum, papaya, watermelon, cantaloupe and marigold are cultivated here, pomegranate is the main crop

A Pomegranate Field
A pomegranate sapling takes 2 years after its planting to bear fruits. A pomegranate tree bears fruit all year round. But the market for pomegranates does not last all year long. So the farmers nurture the tree such that it gives good quality fruits only from February to April. This process they call as ‘bhaar uchalne’ that literally means ‘lifting the burden’. After April, the arrival of the king of fruits, the mango the market rate for pomegranates drops. Hence, during this time, the farmers reduce the water supply to the pomegranate fields. They provide just enough water for survival. This goes on till August. With the arrival of August, the farmers spray the trees with a chemical that makes the leaves of the trees fall. They then chop the branches of the trees at the nodes and apply medicine at the wounds thus created. They then loosen the soil around the roots, apply manure, build small bunds around each tree and water the trees. Then by October the trees start sprouting new leaves. And after about 4 months, it starts bearing good quality fruits, although it depends on the variety of seeds used. As of today, 4 different varieties of pomegranates are cultivated here namely, Ganesh, Bhagva, Aarakta and Ruby. The Ganesh and Aarakta variety starts bearing fruit after 4.5 – 5 months of the sprouting of new leaves whereas the Bhagva and Ruby variety take around 6 – 7 months. One acre of pomegranate field that consists of about 300 trees can give about 7 – 10 ton of pomegranates fetching the farmer somewhere around Rs. 7 – 10 lakh annually. This too depends on the variety of the seeds. Ganesh variety, the best one available, gives around 20 tons per acre where as Bhagva gives a lesser average.

Pomegranate is susceptible to the Bacterial Blight Disease (BBD) that the locals call telya due to the oil like spots that mark the onset of the disease. BBD spreads easily from one field to the other thanks to the airborne nature of the bacteria. The horticulture department of the government recommends group farming as a practice that reduces the incidence of these diseases and minimizes the damage. The slogan for the same is ‘Ek Bhaar, Ek Gaav’ i.e. ‘One burden (referred to in section POMEGRANATE), One village’. The farmers in Ajanale have started group farming of pomegranate about 2 years ago. This means that they use the same kind of fertilisers, pesticides and medicines. They even start spraying of the leaves-falling chemical together. Thus, the farmers of Ajanale get a similar quality in yield at the same time. The disease statistics too shows a positive turn. Although the neighbouring villages have all been affected by the disease in the past 2 years the crop failure going as high at 90%, they had 50% recovery in the first year and almost no incidence of the disease in the second.

Water is a major problem in the village. Although the Krushi Pandhari programme ensured water enough to bring land in the village under agriculture, the success of commercial farming was yet far away. With about 48 percolation tanks, 110 CC bunds (over farms) and 7 KT bunds (to stop water from streams and canals) in the village, water was still insufficient to use land available to its fullest capacity. People spent lakhs of rupees to bring water to the village from Maan river in Pandharpur about which is 35 – 40 kms away from Ajanale. The recurring cost of electricity was additional. That is when the concept of a farm pond entered the village. Today there are about 30-40 farm ponds in the village. These are private ponds and are not built under NREGA. 
A Farm Pond under construction

Completed Farm Pond
The ponds are on an average 45 feet deep, 200 feet long and 180 feet wide. Each tank can store not less than 3 crore litres of water. This water can provide for 1500 trees (5 acres) for 6.5 months but through drip. The percolation tanks in the village help percolate water. This percolated water flows through various channels and rises up in wells during monsoon. The water from the wells is then pumped into these farm ponds. These ponds are lined with a kind of polythene fabric of 500 micron that stops the seepage of water into the soil. The quality of this fabric is a decisive factor in the success of the farm pond. Vijay Baburao Yelpale built the first farm pond in the village in the year 2000. It failed then because he used a fabric of 250 microns. But seeing the effort several others picked it up with great success. The first successful farm pond was built by Mohan Mahadev Karmude in 2002. The latest one is being constructed by Shivaji Dhondoba Yelpale. On an average the construction of a farm pond costs about Rs. 13 lakhs out of which Rs. 6 lakhs are for the polythene fabric alone. When the monsoons pass and the wells run dry, the water from the farm ponds is filled as required in the wells using a vacuum and gravity system that does not require electricity.  
The valve that turns the vaccuum and gravity system on
If there is a leakage that needs to be fixed, it requires a person to dive into the water in scuba diving gear complete with an oxygen cylinder and mask, find the exact problem and fix it under water. This becomes a costly affair going over Rs. 10000. If at all there was to be a leakage in the fabric, the pond is constructed with a slight but definite slope. The leaked water will then flow to one end of the pond where a sieve is prepared using sand and gravel. The water seeps easily through this and passes through a pipe that leads to the well. Thus there is no loss because of leakage whatsoever. From the well then water is pumped through the drip pipes onto the field. With 14 LPH drippers, an acre of pomegranate field needs about 1.5 hours of watering everyday during the flowering and fruiting season and lesser otherwise. Thus, drip and water management have made cultivating pomegranates possible and pomegranates have made the people of Ajanale prosperous.

Women in the village are as active as the men are on the fields. Women of every landed household ride the scooter and are independent. They do their grocery shopping, drop and pick up children from the school and also work in the farm. They supervise all the labourers working on the farm. Aside from this, they take part in most social activities in the village and participate actively in most socio-political events.

Pomegranates and effective water management has made the farmers of Ajanale very rich. Each has a house in his own farm. Although water to the household is less, there is always water on the farm. The yield of pomegranates is very high. The quality too is superior. This is the reason why now they do not have to send their produce elsewhere, but the markets themselves come here. They get excellent rates for their produce from the comforts of their own farm house. In fact, marketing of pomegranate has become such a good business that several youth in the village have entered it. They not only produce pomegranates but also deal with markets outside and sell produce from several farmers in the village to urban markets. As business grows so does the employment opportunity within the village. Villagers do not shy away from hard work. Hence, landed and landless, alike, are rising up the socio-economic ladder gradually but definitively. Balasaheb Mahadev Yelpale, a farmer from the village, has been awarded the Sheti Nishta award by Government of Maharashtra.  A few farmers from this village were invited to make a presentation on development of horticulture in World Bank conference held in Pune in 2010. They presented in Marathi which was then translated to English. Thus, there is every evidence of individual prosperity here. And the farmers arrive at a consensus that this is possible only because of effective water management and the drip system.
However, as a politically active and aware citizen and farmer, VBY was not very satisfied with the social development of the village. Solar street lights (JAIN Jyot) are seen in different locations in the village public places like the temple and the village square, which could be considered as an evidence of social responsibility and prosperity. These came out of the MLA fund of MLA Salunke Patil and not from the level of the village itself. Although VBY might sound a little cynical at first, as he shed more light on the issue, one realises he has given it a lot of thought. The following is in his words, verbatim:
“A village with very rich individuals has very poor social progress. This is because focus is on one own self. In 1972, Ajanale survived on Employment Guarantee Scheme. At that time, the entire village would come together for the smallest of things. Every village level problem was dealt with together. All were involved in protests and ceremonies alike. Today no one has the time to be actively involved in any of these things. The temple, the school, the college needs maintenance for which people have neither time nor the inclination. Yes, it is true that there is support for all activities in the village but only passively. Earlier there were fairs, yatras and wrestling competitions. People would come together for all this. Today however, the villagers are ready to contribute monetarily to all these activities but there is no one to actually organise them. Ajanale today lacks initiative. This is perhaps the negative side of economic prosperity.”
“Another drawback of this prosperity is that there are only a handful youngsters in the village who pursue education after higher secondary. Most come back to their farms, take up farming and enter into the business of agriculture. This is a bad thing and a good thing; bad because there is lack of educated youth in the village; and good because youngsters enter farming. There is almost zero out migration. Even the landless earn around Rs. 250 – 300 per day for working for 5 – 6 hours. Even those who have done graduation come back to farming. What they might earn in 3 years in a job they will earn in a year in agriculture. Also the living expenses are not that high in the village as compared to if they were working and living in a city. Educated people, no matter what degree they have pursued, have had some amount of government financial support at some level. And these same educated people leave the country and contribute to the development of another country. What does our country benefit from this? I would say then that what is happening in this village is much better than what is happening in cities. Every person present here has a secondary occupation. But the primary and main occupation that earns a living for their families is agriculture. In short all are progressive farmers, affluent by the strength of their own wrists and the sweat of their brow.”

VBY was also very vocal about the paradigms towards agriculture and farmers:
“Stay where ever you want, but undermining a farmer and considering him inferior is a sin. This is a dry area and yet it has progressive farming. Ajanale is a proof to the fact that if a farmer gives up laziness and procrastination he will be prosperous. There is nothing that can stop him from rising up the social ladder if he makes those efforts. We also have cases of some farmers who have 100 acres of land and yet do not cultivate it to the fullest capacity. There are cactus and weeds all over the fields. This attitude does not earn farmers respect or recognition.”  
“But it is important for the government also to recognise the risks involved in farming. If state level agricultural planning were to be done by Sharad Pawar, farmers would be in a much better position. We are here only because of him. (These were mostly supporters of the Nationalist Congress Party, members themselves.) (Sarcastically) If we study the histories of the Agriculture Ministers before Sharad Pawar we will know why farmers are in the conditions they are in now. The urban population is largely ignorant about rural realities. The media is to be blamed too. The journalists and readers of most newspapers are higher class people. They are not really bothered about the farmers. When the rates of onions went up the media created a great hue and cry about it. No one wrote about the farmers who were for once getting a decent price for their months of toiling in the hot sun. When the rates went down, no one wrote about it. No one wrote an article or had a discussion about how the fall in rates had affected the farmers. You researchers have been roaming in the sun in this village for 2 days and you are already tired of the heat. Our women toil in the sun for years together. Do you think the skin on their backs is scaled like that of a Komodo Dragon?! The temperature is very high. The cost of farming too is high. The risks involved are even higher. Fertilisers cost about Rs. 50,000 acre. Spraying of medicines for telya disease costs Rs. 10,000 per acre. And if the crop is destroyed, everything is destroyed. The farmer invests all that he has in his fields. If there is crop failure, he has nothing to fall back on. Nor does he have any capital to start all over again. (Sarcastically and cynically) The risk a person in service faces is limited to his salary arriving on the 6th of a month instead of the 5th. But Sharad Pawar knows the farmer of this country. He has given Rs. 45,000 grant against every acre of the pomegranate failure due to telya disease for every year since 2007. Farmers are about to rise up again after falling because of this grant.”
“Only 2 – 3 % of youngsters are highly educated. Others are not even graduates. Mandesh Education Society looks after all the education needs of the village. They have only recently started a college for higher secondary. But if there is any programme, lecture, workshop related to agriculture we all come together. If there is any workshop or talk on Israeli agricultural technology we ensure that we attend it. We like gathering more knowledge on agriculture. There are serious farmers in this village. A farmer learns most of what is taught in an agricultural diploma in his 1st year on the field. In that way, our farmers are well informed and experienced. Two farmers from the village, namely Rajaram Tukaram Patil Yelpe and Bapusaheb Yelpale, were sent on a tour of India to see all the different agricultural practices in the villages of the country. Along with the knowledge of farming, cattle is another wealth that the people of this village hold. 90% people of this village are also involved in the milk business. No one buys milk in this village. They get at least enough milk for their own consumption.”

On the day we bid our farewell to the village, we passed the ancient Shiva temple belonging to the Hindu orthodox Shaivite sect ‘Hemad’ in the village. 
It is said that while Afzalkhan was on his way to meet Shivaji, the meeting where Shivaji was to take his life, he destroyed every temple that came in his way. This village is said to be in that path and this temple bears evidence to that destruction. 

There was a mention of and an invitation to a fair that is setup in this village in the name of Lord Khandoba. It takes place in the Hindu month of Chaitra. All villagers come together for it. Preparations for the upcoming weekly Wednesday market had begun. We were fortunate enough to see this market on the day we arrived. As we left the village down the dusty rocky path, we witnessed the vast pomegranate fields on either side of the road in a new light. A massive land mass of rocks and pebbles where pomegranate was sown for the lack of options, and that converted Ajanale, the village of shepherds, into a rich village. We also saw Ajanale itself in a new light, as the village that converted its misfortunes into its greatest strengths.

INTERVIEWRS: Mayuri Utturkar, Ratndip Gangale
NOTE-TAKER: Satish Ahire
1.       VBY: Chairman, Solapur District Milk Federation
2.       PSK: Member of Gram Panchayat
3.       AMK: Deputy Sarpanch
4.       SPY: Milk Businessman
5.       Prof. HK: Head of Department in a Science Degree College in Sangola
6.       SBY: Marketing of Agricultural Produce
7.       VVK: Pomogranate merchant
8.       SBY: President, Farmers’ Forum
9.       BSP: MBA

·         SMY
·         GJY
·         MKK
·         MGK
·         ABY
·         MBL
·         VDY
·         NMY
·         NRK

Monday, January 17, 2011

Le Mashale

[pronounced: Lay Muh-Shaa-lay]

le mashale chal pade hain log mere gaon ke
ab andhera jeet lenge log mere gaon ke
(The people of my village march armed with blazing torches in their hands to triumph over darkness)
- Balli Singh Cheema 

Irom Sharmila Chanu was an ordinary girl. She loved the mountains and the rivers just like any other girl. She helped her mother like any daughter. She loved poetry and books and started writing poems at a very early age. She was just one of the many girls of Manipur, a state in the north-east region of India, and grew up to be one of the many women there. Yes, she was just another woman who grew up fearing the green uniform of the Indian military and para-military forces stationed at every block. She was just another woman who could not get accustomed to the pair of eyes staring at her from under the helmet and behind the gun. She was just another woman who could not bear to read of yet another incidence of murder, rape or mass killings by the very protectors of the land. Yes, she was just another woman who wanted to stand up and shake India from its sleep and awaken it to the existence of her motherland. Yes, she was just another woman, who had the potential of making a radical difference and who used it.  She was just another woman who recognised what was most precious to her - her life - and who bet that very thing to get what she wanted - freedom from  human rights' violation of her people.

In 1958, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) has been implemented in the north-eastern states of Manipur and Assam. An amendment in 1972 extended the same to all seven sister states of India: Manipur, Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. AFSPA is a black law that gives the armed forces unrestricted and unaccountable power to carry out their operations once a region is declared 'disturbed'. This means that any officer of the armed forces can arrest, search or shoot a person on mere suspicion. Under this act, the people of the north-east regions faced, are still facing, severe military and para-military oppression. There have been unwarranted and unchecked incidences of arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, rape, murder, mass killings, and so on by the armed forces against which every voice raised is suppressed and then justified thanks to the draconian AFSPA.

In one such incidence in Malom, 10 civilians waiting at a bus stop for a bus were gunned down indiscriminately by an eight member troop of Assam Rifles on the 2nd of November 2000. Reason: unknown. The newspaper next day carried an article about this mentioning that among the dead was a 60 year old woman and and a 17 year old boy who had won a child bravery award.  This incident came to be known as the Malom Massacre. Irom Sharmila Chanu, just 28 then, working with a human rights organisation, took it upon herself to change this and to force the Government of India to repeal this act. The only way she could see was betting all she had, betting her very breath. She set on an indefinite hunger strike. In just a few days, on the 6th of November 2000 she was arrested for attempt to suicide, for the very first time. In just a few days she had struck the roots of the system. The government noticed her. They saw her way as being dangerous to their hitherto existing structure. Her path, hence, was the right path. Her aim clear: Repeal the AFSPA. Her resolve simple: fast-unto-death.

It's been over 10 years now, a decade of fasting. Irom Sharmila has faced series of arrests where she is force fed by a nasal tube. Then she is set free only to be arrested again in a few days time. But Irom Sharmila fasts undeterred. Although she has become frail, her determination surpasses anything one has ever seen. She is then rightly called the 'Iron Lady of Manipur'. There was Gandhi who showed many the non-violent path to light and then there is Irom Sharmila who is following it until life itself gives up before her undying will. Coming from the land of the Meira Paibis, the torch-bearing women who protect their village land, Irom Sharmila, too, true to this tradition, has armed herself with the torch on which she has set her entire life ablaze. And in the light thrown by this torch several seek their way out of this darkness.  

As Irom Sharmila herself writes:

When life comes to its end
You, please transport
My lifeless body
Place it on the soil of Father Koubru

To reduce my dead body
To cinders amidst the flames
Chopping it with axe and spade
Fills my mind with revulsion

The outer cover is sure to dry out
Let it rot under the ground
Let it be of some use to future generations
Let it transform into ore in the mine

I'll spread the fragrance of peace
From Kanglei, my birthplace
In the ages to come
It will spread all over the world.
-lrom Sharmila

This is a play by Ojas S.V. of Pune. I had a chance to watch this play and was mesmerized by the performance. As Ojas rightly says in the play, how much do we really know about the north-east apart from chinkies, Tibetan markets, green clad soldiers and insurgency? It is then that I resolved to do my share and tell my readers, however few they may be, about a struggle that is going on in the north-east, that is the past and the present of an entire geo-political region of my country, that forms a history I never studied in school and the future of which depends, to however small an extent, in our hands, in my hands. Here is to the institution that is Irom Sharmila Chanu.
Video courtesy Satyen K.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Anatomical Curiosity

To get yourself checked for a common cold, you would go to a Dr...... But to get a benign tumor removed or an organ transplant would you go to a Mr./Ms......??? Well you would in the UK. The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), nestled in central London by Lincoln's Inn Field does not offer a doctor's degree. In fact, a fellow of the RCS gives up his elitist Dr. prefix for a more unassuming Mr./Ms. Odd, do you think? Well this 'giving up' of prefix doesn't seem all that odd when one looks at the history of surgery. Medieval English surgery was a forte of, not doctors, but barbers. Yes, barbers! The members of the Company of Barbers were popular practitioners and much in demand especially for looking after soldiers, what with the constant battles happening. Before a scene of amputation and unnecessary gore fills your vision, note that these barber surgeons were well respected and assumed the backing of royalty and aristocracy. The  were the authority over anybody else on surgery. But in 1540, the Company of Barbers merged with the Fellowship of Surgeons to form the Company of Barber-Surgeons. This was when surgery and medicine were not yet considered sister disciplines, and surgery wasn't all scientific, but more like a shot in the dark. Our modern doctors learn a lot from the dissection carried out on corpses when they are still in medical school. But in those days dissection was a horror brought on to those who had committed heinous crimes - the reward of cruelty! The painting by the same name by William Hogarth given below depicts a public dissection in process under the supervision of a magistrate.

An example would be that of Jonathan Wild (1689-1725). Jonathan Wild was one of the most famous criminals of London. He was a policeman who ran a successful gang of thieves. Today he is viewed as a symbol of corruption and hypocrisy. After his public execution his body was buried. But later it was dug up and sent for dissection. His skeleton remains on display in the Hunterian Museum.

Thankfully, surgery and medicine did come closer. By the 1800's these two associations split, and the surgeons got their authority on surgery as well as offering the right to practice. This is when the RCS was founded, which is different from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP). The RCP insisted then that a surgeon must have a medical degree before entering the surgical profession. So every student of the RCS needed to get a doctor's degree first and then move to learn surgery, after which he/she drops the Dr. tag to snub the RCP. Interesting, isn't it! And as if the surgeons were being rewarded for immediately using their discoveries to cure patients, dissection to study the anatomy gradually stopped being considered symbolic for indignity. It was soon realised that study of anatomy in fact aids the medical field as well. But there was always a concern that if dissection be permitted by law, disciplining the anatomist might be a problem. There would always be a risk of impropriety with respect to handling towards the corpse. Hence, dissection still remained a social event, to be taken place in the presence of at least two surgeons and before a crowd of students. Thomas Rowlandson's painting 'The Dissecting Room' below gives a better understanding of how a dissecting room looked then.

Well, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Dissections have become more sophisticated using  various advance instruments. Dissecting rooms look nothing like the sweltering hole they used to be and corpses are treated with much more dignity than they were (I want to believe so, at least). Two whole centuries have passed since surgery was accepted as being a science at par with medicine, in fact requiring more skill than a doctor's. And it is as though history itself comes alive at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, London that houses a massive collection of species dissected for the purpose for anatomical study. But before we proceed, a little more on John Hunter, himself, after whom the museum is named.

John Hunter (1728-1793), after which the Museum's name goes, learnt surgery under his older brother William Hunter. His experiments and observation in scientific surgery has made him one of the most distinguished surgeons of his day. His knowledge mainly came from his thorough understanding of anatomy, which in turn came from the skilful dissection and careful study over years. He was appointed surgeon to King George III and went on to become the Surgeon General of the British Army. Hunter possessed a personal collection of hundreds of species of animals  which he dissected at various stages in their development and preserved to develop one of the largest teaching museums. He also dissected and studied the human body to come up with some break through discoveries that form the basis of modern anatomical sciences. This collection was posthumously bought by the government and presented to the Company of Surgeons. It is today displayed in the Hunterian museum.

The Hunterian Museum, predominantly displaying the collection of John Hunter, also displays the collection of others like Richard Owen. The museum begins with the display of Evelyn Tables: fully dissected human nervous system, arteries and veins pasted on wooden tables. It isn't possible to only remove the separate system as such, so the only way this must have been done is by dissecting the body on the table and removing everything but the nervous system. I was amazed at the intensity of the nervous mesh inside our bodies! Another similar specimen was a cast of the arteries of a still born baby. The body was first injected with red colour plastic resin and the tissues were later removed to expose the resin cast that remained. 

Anatomical artefacts of humans and animals of all ages and sexes adorn the museum glass showcase ranging from the mandible of a 98 year of woman whose teeth had naturally fallen to the mandible of a new born; from the skeleton of the 'Irish Giant' Charles' Byrne who was 7'7" tall to the skeleton of a 8 week old embryo which was as tall as the longest nail on my fingers; the preserved bodies of quintuples, 2 still born and 3 dead after only a few hours of life to that of foetuses in every stage of development to an embryo of 9 weeks wrapped in amnion and non-placental covers. Also on display were the cross sections of dissected and preserved human body part, including a complete range of dissections of the female womb at various stages in gestation. This was the first ever study in such detail of the entire gestation process that led to the break through in medicine helping women all over the world to survive child births. It is said that the Hunter brothers were responsible for the deliberate death of their patients in order to conduct this study. But no one could prove it, although it is proven that this study has helped save many lives than that were lost. Maybe that is why the investigations at that time did not come through. 

Other artefacts are bottled dissections of all kinds of fauna: human, mummy, cat, dog, mouse, pig, cow, armadillo, porcupine, guinea pig, rodents, ewe, boar, chick, duck, rabbit, goose eggs, chicken eggs, ostrich, ostrich eggs, lizards, chameleon, queen termite, barnacle, butterflies, beetles, barnacle attached to whale skin, bats, sea squirts, giant clams, sea slug, crocodile, dog fish, hagfish, dolphin, beaver, woodpecker, honey bird, black skimmer, king eider, puffin, cuttlefish, rhesus monkey, chimpanzee, horse, kangaroo, toad, crayfish, torpedo, starfish, snake, salmon, gold fish, shark, sawfish, gecko, hornet, hornet's nest, wasps, honeycombs, solitaires, dodo, megalornis, mammoth skull, bison horns, huge antlers and so on.

A large section is devoted to the study of pathology. On display in this section was the skull of a 25 year old man suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition where the cerebrospinal fluid abnormally increases causing the skull to swell. This particular skull was at least three times the size of a normal adult human skull. A set of forceps, each designed to remove a particular tooth, showed the advances in dental science. A set of dentures made for Winston Churchill looked rather interesting. Also on display in the museum is the brain of the celebrated mathematician Charles Babbage. His brain was studied to uncover the secrets to a genius mind. I have no clue of any further findings. The skeletal remains of Eoanthopus or the Down Man, a missing link in the evolutionary tree in Europe, too, finds its way to this museum. Another very interesting and a bit eerie display is that of a cross section of a face of a child who succumbed to a tumour in the nasal cavity. On the front one can see half of the child's face. the other half is dissected and a mirror placed at the back reveals the tumour. A red dye is injected into the body that makes the tumour shine bright red. This distinguishes it from the other parts to make the study easier. But this red dye also makes the face of the child look life-like, like he is only sleeping. John Hunter joked about it saying, "I can give a dead man almost any look!"

The Hunterian Museum isn't a place for the light hearted to wander. But for someone with a keen interest in anatomy, pathology and evolution and with a curiosity that blazes one's mind, this museum is heaven! As an anthropologist I meant to visit this museum long ago. But now after visiting it once, I know I have seen nothing. The stomach of a seagull, the small intestine of a whale, the mandible of a pig and a cancerous human breast are only the beginnings. And as a lay man, I see along with remains of these mute animals the artery of a General, the brains of a genius, the bones of a Prime Minister, the bladder of a Vicar, the rectum of a Bishop and the femur of an Archbishop; and I think of another painting I saw in the museum - 'Vanitas' by Pieter Claesz.

Vanitas, or Vanity is a collection of motifs - a skull, an upturned glass, an unwound watch and an extinguished lamp - all depicting the inevitability of death, the perils of vanity and the transience of life. Not even the glory of the purple robed stands the shine of death's blue cape. Like the poem well etched in my mind:
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on Kings:
Sceptre and Crown 
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.
(From 'Death the Leveller' by James Shirley)

None of us are going to escape the clutches of the inevitable. But some, some like John Hunter have tried to lessen the perils, ease the pain and flourish our existence by their efforts. A part of the world knows. A part will find out. A part will know through this post. A part will know because you told them. But those who can, I would recommend, should visit this Museum to see the world itself turn inside out, literally.

(Note: All the pictures in this blog are from various internet resources. The museum wouldn't allow photography.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Yes, the window is clear. Tainted with droplets of the bygone. But clear. Perceived through the kohl of contemporary circumstance. But clear. Some droplets run down the kohl creating a spectrum of greys. But clear. I see! See the clear blue sky. See it with signs of a looming storm. And see the barren open fields with the promise of an impending blossom. I see people and things in reverse roles. I see joy and sorrow, each coming from the other. I see hope in despair and kindness in misery. I close my eyes, my kohl-lined eyes. And yet I see. I see so clearly. I am but a spot on the melange called universe. An enviable spot indeed. A potent spot, if not more. Because the world’s not without. The world is within. So I see it. So I see me, see me clearly with oh! my kohl-eyed mind, I see kohl-eyed oh! me.