Today is the birthday of Kellular Nilakantha Somayaji brilliant mathematician and astronomer from South Malabar in India – one of a growing number of non-Western scholars who are being “discovered” by modern academicians and accorded their due as forerunners of the so-called Enlightenment in the West (see my post on Ibn Khaldoun: May 27). I am reminded of a much loved blogger, Pip Wilson, whose Book of Days provided me much information on anniversaries before it went belly up. Instead of the Euro-centric expression “when Captain Cook discovered the SE coast of Australia,” he would write “when aborigines discovered Captain Cook.”
We know quite a few details about Nilakantha’s life because he was, unlike his contemporaries, careful to document many autobiographical details. So, for example, he notes in Siddhanta-darpana that he was born on Kali-day 1,660,181 which works out to 14th June 1444. His date of death is not known, but one commentator says he was at least 100 years old when he died. Nilakantha was born into a Namputiri Brahmin family which came from South Malabar in Kerala, in the south of India. The family followed the Ashvalayana sutra which was a manual of sacrificial ceremonies in the Rigveda, a collection of Vedic hymns. He worshipped the personified deity Soma who was the “master of plants” and the healer of disease. This explains the name Somayaji which means he was from a family qualified to conduct the Soma sacrificial rituals, and probably at some time in his life went through a series of these rituals to earn the title.
In Nilakantha’s time the study of astronomy was one of the six orthodox Hindu sacred teachings, and so lay somewhere between what we would call astronomy and astrology today. Studying the motions of the planets was not simply a scientific investigation, but a means of predicting and setting the times and dates for significant rituals and life events. He became a member of the now famous Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics which flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries, and which produced a number of significant mathematical findings well before they were discovered in the West. These findings never found their way outside of Kerala at the time, however, although there are occasional far-fetched speculations that they reached the West via traders.
In all, Nilakantha wrote 10 treatises on astronomy and mathematical computation, a few of which have survived. The most extensive is the Tantrasamgraha, completed in 1501, which consists of 432 verses in Sanskrit divided into eight chapters, and which spawned a number of commentaries, also extant. The work, plus commentaries, shows the depths of the mathematical accomplishments of the Kerala School, including Nilakantha’s model for the motions of the planets Mercury and Venus. His equations remained the most accurate until the time of Johannes Kepler in the 17th century. He was very close to describing a heliocentric view of the solar system. His model has Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn orbiting the sun, but has the sun orbiting the earth. The work also includes a wealth of information on topics ranging from the prediction of lunar and solar eclipses, to accurate calculations of the solar calendar, along with descriptions of the mathematics needed to arrive at their conclusions. Among these latter are algebraic and geometric theorems that form the basis for differential and integral calculus, although the Kerala School never got that far. Much of the mathematics in the treatise predates Western discoveries in these fields by 200 years.
Several other of Nilakantha’s works survive although they are much shorter. Among them is the Aryabhatiyabhasya which is a commentary on the astronomical calculations of Aryabhata. In this work Nilakantha refers to two eclipses which he observed, the first on 6 March 1467 and the second on 28 July 1501 at Anantaksetra. Nilakantha also refers in the Aryabhatiyabhasya to other works which he wrote such as the Grahanirnaya on eclipses which have not survived. The Western world of mathematics and science is finally giving credit to pioneers in their fields in the non-Western world. It is well overdue for the general public also to accept the fact that the Western world has made many significant discoveries in these fields but was by no means the first for many of them. Nilakantha Samayaji should be as well known a name as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.
Kerala was the center of the spice trade for millennia and, as such, has a rich and diverse cuisine to this day, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Here is a simple vegetarian curry with spices and coconut milk. It would normally be served with anywhere up to 10 or more dishes with rice as part of a large family dinner.
Kerala Vegetable Curry
1lb (½ k) potatoes peeled and diced
½ cup (75 g) peas
½ cup (75 g) carrot peeled and diced
1 large onion thinly sliced
5 green chiles cut into thin slivers
¼ tsp (1 g) powdered cloves
1 tsp (5 g) powdered cinnamon
1 tbsp (15 g) grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp coconut oil
1 cup (2.4 dl) coconut milk
ground black pepper and salt to taste
Put all the ingredients except the coconut milk and coconut oil into a heavy cooking pot.
Add 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil.
Cover the pot and simmer on medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes. The potatoes should be cooked but still firm.
Remove the lid and continue cooking until there is barely any liquid left.
Add the coconut milk and simmer over a low flame for 2 minutes.
Add the coconut oil, stir to mix and serve.
Serves 4 to 6 (as part of a larger set of dishes)