The Dhow to Khor Fakkan

By <a href="//" title="User:Xavier Romero-Frias">Xavier Romero-Frias</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, <a href="" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>,
A deep-sea dhow (from Wikipedia By Xavier Romero-FriasOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1957, the first democratically elected Communist government took office in Kerala. By 1960, the people of Kerala were willing to do anything, including  voyages across the open ocean in dhows to get away from the state and find employment. A recent Malayalam movie, Pathemari (Dhow), is the story of one such man, Narayanan, who takes such a voyage from Kerala to Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the African slave trade, these men willingly took a journey to an unknown land to become indentured servants. The movie is a realistic portrayal of the life of the early Gulf Malayalis and one of the best performances by Mammootty (who is also a board member of the Communist party-run Kairali TV)

Pathemari - Movie poster (via Wikipedia)
Pathemari – Movie poster (via Wikipedia)

Spices were transported from the East, both by camel caravans and dhows crossing the ocean. The dhows would take the goods to Basra, Jiddah, Muscat or Aqaba and from there camel caravans took them to Alexandria and Levant. These traders did not movie goods just to the West, they went as far as China and Indonesia. In the movie, a young Narayanan boards a dhow owned by a person called ‘Launch Velayudhan’, (based on a real-life person, who died few years back) who is in the business of transporting goods to the Middle East, as well as people who want to escape poverty.

The dhows reached their destination due to the clockwork predictability of the monsoon. From May to August, the summer monsoons blows out from the southwest and fades away by September. From November to March, the winter monsoons blew from the northeast bringing traders and religious fanatics to India. This switch of direction across a large body of water is unique.

But the Arab, Persian, and Indian dhows* could well manage this, with their huge lateen rigs lying as close as 55 to 60 degrees in the direction of the soft northeast headwind—sailing right into it, in other words.† This is almost as good as a modern yacht and a considerable technical achievement. The importance of it was that India’s southwestern Malabar coast could be reached from southern Arabia by sailing a straight-line course, even if it did involve the discomfort of what seamen call “sailing to weather.”

Despite the occasional ferocity of the southwest wind, the discovery of the monsoonal system, which so easily favored trip planning, nevertheless liberated navigators from sailing too often against the elements.1 So the Indian Ocean did not—at least to the same degree as other large bodies of water—have to wait until the age of steam to unite it. [Monsoon]

This, in fact, helped develop the trading hubs of the old world.

Indus-Saraswati Civilization: The weakened monsoon theory

What caused the end of the Indus-Saraswati civilization? There are many theories regarding this

In The Wonder That Was India, A L Basham presented a dramatic picture of the decline of the Harappan civilisation. According to him, from 3000 BCE, invaders were present in the region. After conquering the outlying villages, they made their move on Mohenjo-daro. The people of Mohenjo-daro fled, but were cut down by the invaders; the skeletons that were discovered proved this invasion. Basham concluded that the Indus cities fell to barbarians “who triumphed not only through greater military prowess, but also because they were equipped with better weapons, and had learnt to make full use of the swift and terror-striking beats of the steppes.” Sir R Mortimer Wheeler claimed these horse riding invaders were none other than Aryans and their war-god Indradestroyed the forts and citadels at Harappa. But Basham was not that certain of the identity of the charioteers; he stated that they could be non-Aryans as well.[In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?]

Marxist historians now say that there was no Aryan Invasion, but there was migration.  One theory says that tectonic events altered the course of the rivers causing the decline of the civilization.  Another says, the decline was caused by weakening monsoons. But can climate change be the primary cause?

The weakening monsoon theory is not new.

Around 4000 years back, a dramatic climate change happened across North Africa, the Middle East, the Tibetan Plateau, southern Europe and North America. In India, during that period, there was an abrupt shift in monsoons, which lasted two centuries. In general, if you observe the patterns of recent years, monsoons have strong years and weak years, but they rarely deviate far away from the mean due to the dynamic feedback systems. It is a self-regulating system, but there have been occasions when the anomaly has lasted for few decades.

But what happened 4,000 years back was truly unusual; it was an anomaly larger than anything the subcontinent had faced since in the last 10,000 years. A paper published recently by Berkelhammer was able to narrow down the exact time frame during which this shift happened and it coincides with the decline of the Harappan civilization. This new study does not depend on indirect proxies (like pollen data), but uses a direct terrestrial climate proxy from the Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji and hence was able to show an unprecedented age constraint.[In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?]

Here is another one

The Arabian Sea sediments and other geological studies show that the monsoon began to weaken about 5,000 years ago. The dry spell, lasting several hundred years, might have led people to abandon the Indus cities and move eastward into the Gangetic plain, which has been an area of higher rainfall than the northwestern part of the subcontinent.

“It’s not high temperatures, but lack of water that drove the people eastward and southward,” Gupta said [Indus cities dried up with monsoon]

Now animal bones from Bhirrana have provided clues regarding the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. To appreciate this better, we have to know where Bhirrana is and its significance.

Map from Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization

Look at where Kalibangan and Dholavira are. Kalibangan is on the left bank of Ghaggar and is located at the confluence of Saraswati and Drishadvati. Dholavira is at the Rann of Kutch, which is not really a place where you want to settle down. There was a reason the people of Indus-Saraswati civilization did so: during the Mature Harappan times, people of Dholavira had access to the sea. If you trace the path of the Saraswati Paleochannel, you will see the connection between the two places. Also, if you trace the paleochannel towards  north of Kalibangan, you will see Bhirrana.

 The Ghaggar (in India)-Hakra (in Pakistan) river, referred to as mythical Vedic river ‘Saraswati’ (Fig. 1A) originates in the Siwalik hills, ephemeral in the upper part with dry river bed running downstream through the Thar desert to Rann of Kachchh in Gujarat3. More than 500 sites of Harappan settlements have been discovered in this belt during the last hundred years. Of these several sites both in India viz. Kalibangan, Kunal, Bhirrana, Farmana, Girawad and Pakistan viz. Jalilpur, Mehrgarh in Baluchistan, Rehman Dheri in Gomal plains have revealed early Hakra levels of occupation preceding the main Harappan period.[Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization]

Here is the impressive fact about Bhirrana: it is currently the oldest settled site in the Indian subcontinent. It was settled from around 7000 BCE and is located close to the Saraswati river bed.  It was not an urban civilization at that point. Like the other Harappan sites, it started out as pastoral and later had major farming communities. Eventually, the people there developed the usual Harappan urban entities: mud-brick houses, sacrificial pits etc.

A recent paper analyzed the drinking water component inside animal bones of cattle, goat, deer and antelope from Bhirrana. This was compared against the monsoon levels in the Arabian Sea and carbonate levels in two inland lakes close to Bhirrana. While monsoons intensified from 7000 BCE to 5000 BCE, it declined from then.  This correlates with data available from other sites in Asia. When such an event happens, it affects rivers like the Saraswati and the sites along its banks. That did not cause the end of Bhirrana; it continued and thrived for while. The residents of Bhirrana changed their crops to adapt. From wheat and barley, they switched to drought-resistant millets and rice.

 Because these later crops generally have much lower yield, the organized large storage system of mature Harappan period was abandoned giving rise to smaller more individual household based crop processing and storage system and could act as catalyst for the de-urbanisation of the Harappan civilization rather than an abrupt collapse as suggested by many workers. Our study suggests possibility of a direct connect between climate, agriculture and subsistence pattern during the Harappan civilization. .[Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization]

What this means is that the end was not sudden. It was slow. Rain reduced. Rivers did not get the rains it once got. The boundless, impetuous and swift-moving Saraswati which once flowed till the sea, no longer did so. Maybe there were tectonic movements which caused the rivers to go haywire and forced people to move elsewhere.

Denisovans in India

We homo sapiens are the only surviving humans around. In fact, it has been that way for the last 10,000 years. We tend to forget that at some point, there were many types of humans (of genus Homo) on earth like the Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals), Homo soloensis,  Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo denisova (Denisovans).  While the Neanderthals are the most famous among all of these, sapiens co-existed with the others and intermingled with them. We may even have caused their extinction

While all of us have some Neanderthal ancestry (1 – 4%), some of us (Australians, Indians) have more Denisovan ancestry (5%). This intermingling happened much after the Neanderthal mixture. This happened because all these three — sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans — were not different species, but of the same species. They produced offsprings together.

A new paper analyzed the amount of Denisovan ancestry and found that Indians have the largest admixture after the people in Australia. Among the Indians, the largest were among people in the Himalayan region and South and Central India. What is not known is this: Was there a single introgression of Denisovans into sapiens and it got diluted in various rates among the populations of the world or there were three different introgressions.

Looking at this paper, Sunil Deepak asks an interesting question.


Symbolography in Indus seals

(This is a guest post by Rekha Rao, the author of Symbolography in Indus seals)

Symbolography in Indus Seals by Rekha RaoIndus civilisation has evinced keen interest amongst scholars from various disciplines in their pursuit to unfold many aspects of this wonderful civilisation, which is one of the oldest. Though many aspects of the civilisation have been well addressed, decoding of Indus seals remained as an enigma even as of date. This has remained controversial, as there is no uniformity or logic in its interpretation. The prominence of the mythical one horned bull that can be seen in many seals, occupying almost seventy-five percent of seal area, with differing signs between seals, does indicate it is beyond what has been understood till date. This research is focused on, (1) Understanding the symbols of the script that are inscribed, (2) The interpretation of seals depicting activity, and (3) Demystifying the curiosity in answering prominent questions that arise when one examines the seals with an open mind such as:

  1. Why seals have a single horn bull?
  2. Why some are double horned humped bull and some non-humped ones?
  3. Why the single horned bull is in front of a manger and not the double horned humped bull?
  4. Why the manger has different design patterns and, supported on a slender pedestal?
  5. Why the decorations on the neck, nature of tail of the bull is different in each seal?
  6. Why the bull in each seal is associated with different symbols?
  7. Do these seals are a part of a continuum or is it explicit?
  8. Why the seals are small in size 2 by 2 inches?

In an endeavour to find answers to these questions, the research work had to cross several domains until such time the connectivity got established.

A convincing analysis of the riddles associated with the single horned bull, the manger structure, and the symbols used in the Indus seals have been attempted with a holistic approach. The single horned bull has been proved here to be a concept of Hotṛ priest with strong correlation with Vedic hymns has been established. The structure of manger has the depiction of chandas-the metre and the pattern of repetitions involved. Each seal appeared to have information on one particular aspect of the Vedic contents and the Yajña.

This book also answers the enquiries like

  1. Which class of people made use of these seals?
  2. What was the intention behind the issue of seals?

The seals are portrayed on a two-inch stone piece. It was probably with the idea of easy handling, transporting, and storing as reference document. It was like a ready reference material for the students involved in Vedic studies and practitioners of Vedic rituals. Probably, it was also planned to avoid the probable mistakes during recitation and ritual procedures at a time when script was non-existent, while the literary activity was at its peak and the multiple chapters of each Veda was voluminous for memorisation.

With the aid of a seal as reference, a man who had undergone his initiation in the Veda Śikśha could get the information like, for which ritual the sequence of Mantra is to be recited, and which tone and metre had to be adopted. The hymns to deities were in different metres, had to be recited meticulously according to the prescription of the Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, and the associated Brāhmaṇa text teachings. Different food offerings were to be made as each deity had its own preferred food and it was indicated as symbols. Seals were meant only for a specific class of educated lot and not for commoners. The frame structure in a seal shows a big square in which smaller squares are engraved to indicate about the specific metre chosen. These frames are like sample piece demonstration of metre that is to be followed by the sequence of hymns of similar pattern in a series while reciting for a Yajña. This gives a logical point for why the square frame in front of the single horned bull has smaller units in varying numbers and it matches with the squares adopted as Pada while dealing with the literary aspect of Vedic metre.

The understanding of seals reveal that India is the only country or probably one of the countries which has an unbroken pattern of traditions maintained for over 3000 years. The advancements in the field of science have not influenced this part of social heritage. The Somayajña performed in 2011 in Kerala, called Panjal Atirātram had performed the Pravargya fire ritual following the Vedic pattern, and it was amazing to find a seal that also depicted this Pravargya ritual in the seals. The royal and Somayajña are rare now for neither the royal families exist nor the Soma plant. However, the domestic or Gṛhya rituals like Śrāddha Karmas (death rituals) and the Ṣoḍaśa Saṁskāra (social observances) are very much alive and observed by every family in India.

Every religion, born or adopted in a country leaves its imprint among the followers and especially the death rituals are unique to every religion. Even to this day Hindus are very much the followers of Vedic rituals, the Yajña, the same Vedic Mantras are recited in the same metre that existed then. The death rituals, the Śrāddha – post death rituals also mostly the same as depicted in seals, and is definitely the unique pattern that does not exist in any other part of the world. The imprints of Vedic practises are practised only in India.

Of the 165 seals that are analysed in this book,I showcase the analysis of a seal which depicts the conceptualised picture of pitr in sraddha related seals.

Representation of Pitṛ in seals


The concept of superhuman status of God / deity and the lower form of Preta and spirits and the still lower class of demons all emerged on the karma theory or the actions performed in human status. All three – the deity, the Pitṛ, and the demons, had to be in human form that was mandatory to perform actions, the good actions of Satchetana of positive nature were promoted to deity status. Moreover, the wicked and bad ones who ate human flesh were demons, like Vṛtta, Vāla, etc. Ṛgveda 5.20.1 has many hymns with this theory.

In the Indus seals the Preta – the bodies after death are depicted differently from the dead persons after one year and entering into Pitṛ Loka. After death, Pitṛ were offered food in the Śrāddha rituals, and later were invited to consume Soma juice.

Ṛgveda 10.15.6, about fathers’ quotes about their posture also:

“Bowing your bended knees and seated southwards, accept this sacrifice of ours with favour.
May they fathers worthy of Soma, invited to their favourite oblations Laid on sacred grass come neigh and listen.”

The Pitṛ are always depicted in a sitting posture on the tree with the weight on one leg. The arms are outstretched and the fingers are depicted as bifurcated in two parts. The Pretātma was believed to be having bondage with the humans for the first twelve days after death. When the emotional bondage shredded they were called Pitṛ. Pitṛ, who have endured the journey to the upper world are depicted in human form, in a specific sitting posture on the branch of silk cotton tree. They are depicted with bifurcated hand structure and extra-long arms that are stretched. Many Ṛgveda verses say how Pitṛ can reach the offerings offered to them by their sons, and collect the essence of Piṇḍa from their abode. They were also offered the Soma juice, a favourite of Pitṛ.

All seals with Pitṛ are depicted sitting on the branch of the tree, are presented in human form with extra-long stretched arms with hands in Pitṛtīrtha. It is the way of mane’s hand, where the part of the hand between the thumb and the forefinger is parted, a hand gesture through which water is offered for the Pitṛ. The rituals related to Pitṛ –the Pitṛyajña was a sort of energy exchange at two levels. Many seals reveal about the history of Ṛgvedic beliefs and ritual practises regarding death and worship of ancestors.

The topic of Yajña, the hymns, its metre, the accessories used and preparation of Yajña arena are oceanic in contents. The research work narrated in this book is the understanding of each symbol, and what it communicates when presented in a series. This new interpretation provides a logical continuity and helps to read the Yajñic rituals that are depicted in the seal with some amount of coherency.

An attempt is made here to know the three major classifications of Yajña, followed by its seven groups called Saṁstha and correlated with the seals. Over 160 seals has been analysed in the C section of this book. The reading of many more seals can be interpreted with the help of the 260-symbol analysis provided in the Section B of this book.

This book is an independent research in understanding what the seal communicates, may prove as the first step in this new approach of understanding Indus seals.

Out of India, to Australia

Australia was populated by modern humans around 47,000 years ago. Then, 4000 years back, the dingo reached Australia suggesting another movement of people which bought changes in language and tools. There were studies which showed that the Aboriginal Australians descended from populations in India and Sri Lanka in the time frame (1300 – 13,000 years back), but were these the people who took the dingo to Australia?

Two pieces of evidence suggested that it was so

  1. There is definitely an Indian component in Aboriginal Australian genes
  2. Analysis of the Y chromosome lineage found that the common ancestor lived around 5000 years back, to the time of Indus-Saraswati civilization.

A new study reveals that the divergence time between Australians and Indians occurred not 5000 years back, but around 54,000 years back.

Image source: Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes by Bergstrom et al.

To understand this, one has to look at the journey of man from Africa. The path of the initial migrants was from Africa via the Middle East through India to rest of the world including Europe and Australia. A great visualization for this movement can be seen at the Bradshaw Foundation.

via the Bradshaw Foundation

The paper concludes

Here, we sequence 13 Aboriginal Australian Y chromosomes to re-investigate their divergence times from Y chromosomes in other continents, including a comparison of Aboriginal Australian and South Asian haplogroup C chromosomes. We find divergence times dating back to 50 kya, thus excluding the Y chromosome as providing evidence for recent gene flow from India into Australia [Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes]


Five ancestral components of India

According to a new paper, India did not have just two ancestral components, but five. Here is the summary

India, occupying the center stage of Paleolithic and Neolithic migrations, has been underrepresented in genome-wide studies of variation. Systematic analysis of genome-wide data, using multiple robust statistical methods, on (i) 367 unrelated individuals drawn from 18 mainland and 2 island (Andaman and Nicobar Islands) populations selected to represent geographic, linguistic, and ethnic diversities, and (ii) individuals from populations represented in the Human Genome Diversity Panel (HGDP), reveal four major ancestries in mainland India. This contrasts with an earlier inference of two ancestries based on limited population sampling. A distinct ancestry of the populations of Andaman archipelago was identified and found to be coancestral to Oceanic populations. Analysis of ancestral haplotype blocks revealed that extant mainland populations (i) admixed widely irrespective of ancestry, although admixtures between populations was not always symmetric, and (ii) this practice was rapidly replaced by endogamy about 70 generations ago, among upper castes and Indo-European speakers predominantly. This estimated time coincides with the historical period of formulation and adoption of sociocultural norms restricting intermarriage in large social strata. A similar replacement observed among tribal populations was temporally less uniform.

Helicobacter pylori and Out of India Theory

Helicobacter pylori
Helicobacter pylori (via Wikipedia)

This is not a picture of a galaxy, but of your stomach. What you see is Helicobacter pylori or H. pylori, a bacterium found in our stomach. This particular bacterium is found in the stomach of half of the world’s population and is more than 100,000 years old. When our ancestor left Africa on their worldwide migration, this bacterium was present in their stomach. Currently, that one strain has seven different variations tied to different geographies. Thus, there is a variation for Europe, few for Africa and a couple for Asia.

The current strain which is found in Europeans came from two sources Ancestral Europe 1 and Ancestral Europe 2 (AE1 and AE2). It is believed that AE1 originated in Central Asia and AE2 in North-East Africa. The admixture of these two strains occurred sometime between 10,000 and 52,000 years back.

A recent study, which looked at the gastrointestinal tract of a 5300 yr old iceman has revealed some interesting information about this person. This iceman lived in the Italian Alps and was probably a European farmer. When he was between 40 and 50 years old, he was murdered by someone using an arrow. He is called an iceman because his body was preserved  by freeze drying in a glacier.

Analysis of the bacterium revealed that he did not have the strain that most modern Europeans have. His strain was from India, especially North India. This strain was also the co-ancestor of the current European strain.  What this tells us is that the India strain was present in Europe during the copper age; there was a movement of people into Europe  during that period.  This strain, which was found in the iceman’s body is also different from the strain that modern Indians have. This tells us that that people went from India to Europe, stayed there and were genetically isolated from the Indian population. This isolated group became ancestral to the European strain.

If you look at the age of the iceman, you will find that he lived in 3200 B.C.E. This was the Early Period of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. According to the Invasion Theories, the invasion would happen almost a millennia later. Now evidence says that, while Sarasvati was flowing and many sites existed on its banks, there was an Indian strain of bacterium going Out of India. Was this iceman an original resident of North India who reached the Italian Alps or was he one of the descendants of an earlier migration? We don’t know.  But the fact that Indians moved to Europe should not come as a surprise. If you look at the trading hubs of the ancient world, this movement was quite common.

Related Tweets


  1. The 5300-year-old Helicobacter pylori genome of the Iceman
  2. Supplemental Material

15 Best Books of 2015



Though I did not blog, I read a lot. This list is in no particular order. Most of it is non-fiction.

    1. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. On the origins of Al-Qaeda and the lack of co-ordination among investigating agencies that led to 9/11. Riveting read.
    2. The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. Steve Coll becomes a fly on the wall in the bin-Laden family tracing their relationships among themselves, the kings of Saudi Arabia. He also goes into the convenient relationship between the Saudis and Americans.
    3. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. During WWI, a bunch of young guys from Germany, USA and Romania were roaming around the Middle East with varying motives. Their goal was to spy for their country and leverage the war. The book reads like fiction.
    4. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. Understanding WWI and the fall of the Ottoman Empire is critical not just in understanding the formation of the Middle East, it is also important in understanding certain events that happened in India.  This book gives the required background.
    5. Rearming HinduismAbhinav’s review has all the details.
    6. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors A good book to learn the fundamentals of human origins and evolution.
    7. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief You will learn a lot about L. Ron Hubbard, the religion he founded and the tactics that they use to keep people within the flock.
    8. The Martian I am the person who spoils a movie by saying the book was better. Even if you have seen the movie, read the book.
    9. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Read my detailed review.
    10. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownA look a the culture of rape in a small town in America and how it gets handled.
    11. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Prof. Harari taught this course on Coursera and it was brilliant. The book captures his ideas (see sample) very and this is probably one of my favorite books of last year.
    12. The Baklava Club: A Novel (Investigator Yashim Book 5) Fiction.  I loved the first book in the series and read all of them. Though the third and fourth books were not of the quality of 1 and 2, this one is an excellent read.
    13. The Tears of Dark Water Fiction. The book starts with the hijacking of an American boat off the Somali coast. But it is not just a thriller.Towards the middle, the book turns around and gives a much detailed look into the lives of Somalis.
    14. Khilafat Smaranakal or Memories of Khilafat (Malayalam). Brahmadattan Nambuthiri was a local Congress president during the Mappila Lahala of 1921. He was arrested for his speeches, shuttled among various jails and tortured.  Finally, when he was released, he was excommunicated. The book gives a first-hand account of what happened in Malabar during those times. Maddy also mentions him in this post.
    15. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin 1933, William Dodd was the American ambassador to Germany and he and his daughter Martha saw the rise of the empire. Martha gets involved with the Gestapo and Soviet spies. Fascinating read.

Neuroplasticity of Vedic Pandits

Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)
Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)

It is not easy to be a Vedic Pandit.

Professional Vedic Pandits undergo rigorous training in exact pronunciation and invariant content of these oral texts for 7 or more years, with 8–10 h of daily practice (totaling ~10,080 h over the course of the initial training), starting in their childhood, and mastering multiple 40,000 to 100,000 word oral texts (compared to ~ 38,000 in the book of Genesis). The training methods strongly emphasize traditional face- to-face oral learning, and the Yajurveda recitation practice includes right hand and arm gestures to mark prosodic elements.

There are special exercises to ensure that the Vedas are chanted without mistakes. Now a new study shows that such intensive study changes the brain both in the white matter and gray matter. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in the following changes

We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

There are few other interesting points from the paper

  1. The Pandits were highly competent in Sanskrit. They memorized large volumes of Sanskrit text and understood its complex morphology. They were multi-lingual as well. That was a contributing factor for the increased gray matter density.
  2. Another reason was the way of learning, using gestures and articulation. The result of using hand and arm movement could be seen in the brain. Indian classical  music students too use that extensively, especially hand movements.

Sharon Begley has written about the effect mindfulness has on the brain. The brain has the ability to grow new neurons and rewire itself. Now for those who wonder if learning a “dead” or communal language like Sanskrit is worth it, read the paper.


  1. Hartzell, J.F., et al., Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems, NeuroImage (2015),