The study found that people who spoke the same language tended to be more closely related despite living far apart.
- Studies focusing on European genetics have found a strong correlation between geography and genetic variation.
- Looking toward India, a new study found a stronger correlation between gene variation and language as well as
- social structure.
- Understanding social and cultural influences can help expand our knowledge of gene flow through human history.
When we think about our ancestors, our minds tend to wander to geography. We introduce our progenitors by noting they were Norwegian, Brazilian, Indonesian, or members of an American Native tribe. Personal genetic tests, such as those offered by Ancestry and 23andMe, offer customers a travel log of their lineages' global journeys. And some of our more obvious phenotypic markers, such as hair and skin color, evolved in relationship with the lands our ancestors called home.
Lost within this land-locked focus is the fact that social and cultural factors—how our ancestors cohabitated and interacted with each other—also influence gene flow. In doing so, these factors shaped our evolution and genetic diversity. As a new study has found, for the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, such social and cultural factors may be more important to their genetic variation than the deserts, grasslands, and tropical forests between them.
A new kind of mother tongue
A map showing the locations of 33 Indian populations alongside plot graphs showing the relations between sociolinguistic groups and genetic structures.
The new study, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, began when Aritra Bose, who earned his doctorate at Purdue in genetics and data science, was researching the close ties between genes and geography in Europe. Originally from Calcutta, India, Bose wondered if such a strong link would be true of his home country. He teamed up with Peristera Paschou, a population geneticist and associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, and Petros Drineas, associate head of Purdue's Department of Computer Science, to find out.
"Our genome carries the signature of our ancestors, and the genetic structure of modern populations has been shaped by the forces of evolution. What we are looking for is what led different groups of people to come together and what drove them apart," Paschou, who led the study with Drineas, said in a press release. "To understand the genetics of human populations, we created a model that allows us to consider jointly many different factors that may have shaped genetics."
The researchers developed a computer model called COGG (Correlation Optimization of Genetics and Geodemographics) to analyze population genetic substructure. They then feed COGG a dataset featuring 981 individuals from 90 Indian groups, further merging that with a dataset of 1,323 individuals from 50 Eurasian populations. The model crunched the numbers and found something surprising.
Studies looking at European populations have typically found a strong correlation between genotype and geography. As one National Geographic writer put it when discussing a study published in Nature: "The result was startling—the genetic and geopolitical maps of Europe overlap to a remarkable degree. On the two-dimensional genetic map, you can make out Italy's boot and the Iberian peninsula [sic] where Spain and Portugal sit. The Scandinavian countries appear in the right order and in the south-east, Cyprus sits distinctly off the 'coast' of Greece."
Such a confluence of the geo and the genome was not found in the India study; in fact, the analysis showed a weak correlation between genotype and geography. Instead, it was shared language that proved the major genetic link.
The researchers found that people who speak the same language were much more likely to be closely related, regardless of where they lived on the subcontinent. For example, their analysis showed that Indo-European and Dravidian speakers shared genetic drift with Europeans, while Tibeto-Burman speaking tribes shared it with East Asians.
Social structure also showed a stronger correlation than geography in their analysis. The researchers hypothesized this correlation originated from the social stratification imposed by India's caste system.
For several thousands of years, the caste system divided Hindus into hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty). Marriage was strictly limited within one's caste, resulting in a long history of endogamy. Though the caste system was effectively expunged in 1950 by the Indian government, such endogamy held sway over Indian society long enough to have a powerful effect on the country's historic gene flow.
"Our results clearly show that endogamy and language families are pivotal in studying the genetic stratification of Indian populations," the researchers write in the study.
New dimensions for understanding ancestry
None of this is to say that geography played no part in the ancestral gene flow of India, nor that social and cultural factors didn't influence genotypes across Europe. They most certainly did. That Nature study, for example, discovered genetic clusters in Switzerland that were language-based. And Europe's geographic distribution may have more to do with historical sociopolitical realities than environmental ones.
The point of both studies, however, is not to tie our genetic history to land or language, but to understand how genes flowed throughout historical societies.
"It sheds light on how genetics work in our society," Bose said in the same release. "This is the first model that can take into account social, cultural, environmental and linguistic factors that shape the gene flow of populations. It helps us to understand what factors contribute to the genetic puzzle that is India. It disentangles the puzzle."
With an improved knowledge of historic gene flow, scientists may be able to further biomedical research to better detect rare genetic variants, assess individual risks to certain diseases, and predict which populations may be more or less susceptible to particular drugs. By opening the avenues we use to understand our genetic history, we can hopefully advance such knowledge and understanding.
The author of "Auroville: The City Made of Dreams" talks about the difficulties of establishing (and writing about) utopian societies.
And is creating alternative realities something only cult leaders do? Stasia Budzisz discussed these and other questions with Katarzyna Boni, whose reportage Auroville: The City Made of Dreams was published in Polish in June 2020.
Stasia Budzisz: You came across one of the communities of Auroville, the city of the future, by accident in 2009. You knew nothing about it, but what you found frightened you, and you decided to run away. What happened there?
Katarzyna Boni: I was travelling alone around the south of India. At some point, I felt that my journey made no sense; all I did was check the landmarks off a list from a travel guide. I figured it was the right moment to try some volunteering. I found a local community that planted trees and decided to join it. And so I ended up in Auroville, although the community was located on the outskirts rather than in the city itself. When choosing a project to volunteer on, I didn't even know I was applying to an Aurovillian community – I just liked the idea of planting trees in exchange for food and shelter. I only learned about Auroville itself from my pocket guide. Two weeks in, I didn't want to stay for a moment longer. I ran away to the Himalayas, at the exact opposite end of India. Several factors had prompted my reaction. First of all, I was at a stage of my life where I was changing jobs. I wasn't yet in my thirties; I was still trying to give shape to my identity. I knew my dreams, but didn't really know what to do with myself and what path to follow in order to get there. In the community, I met people whose situation was similar to mine, except they genuinely believed this place was going to save them. And I am severely allergic to this way of thinking, as I don't believe in blind idealism. Back then, I saw Auroville as a settlement established by Americans and the French, convinced that communism was the best thing to happen to us because they forgot to ask Poles about the reality of it. I was cynical and mocking about Auroville.
You wrote that you wondered whether Auroville was a cult, and yet several years later, you went back there and wrote a book about a utopia. How did you come up with that idea?
The idea to write a book around this topic had been there for a long time; I even set up a whole separate project about it. But then I started working on a reportage in Japan – Ganbare! – and it consumed all my attention. I decided that my 'utopias' could wait and I shelved them for later. Then, just as Ganbare! was published, I got back on track with that topic. At first I thought I would write about various places that try to bring utopian ideas to life and are currently on different levels of realization. I was interested in the energy found at various stages of making a dream reality, how this energy changes over time, and how dreams and reality start to influence one another. At some point, I had a several-pages long list, including intentional communities and ideas for whole new nations (such as Liberland). I thought I would visit several places and then see what I might write. I wanted to visit South Korea, where a city of the future was created based on technology to facilitate every aspect of life. To me, Songdo is at the very beginning of its journey towards fulfilling this utopian dream. I wanted to visit Christiania which, as it seemed to me, was near the end of this road. I perceived Christiania as a ripe dream, if not overripe. I don't know how much of it was true, since I never ended up visiting. Auroville was supposed to be the place to illustrate a dream in the process of being realized. I started with it, and once I took a good look at it from up close, I decided it deserved its own book. I think I made the right decision.
Why do you think that?
Auroville is one grand experiment. People came to the desert with their children and started establishing a new city, this new world from which a new kind of human was supposed to emerge. Auroville turned 50 in 2018, and I was curious about its children and who they grew up to be. What worked out, and what didn't. I no longer needed other stages of utopias to describe what I found interesting.
Generating a new human species does sound a bit frightening and cult-like.
I had the same impression, which was why I ran away from Auroville the first time I was there. Once I returned, I knew I would have to face my reluctance. Indeed, some people there spoke in a very cult-like way. One of my interviewees said Auroville is inhabited by 12 clans that, in his opinion, provide a very natural way of distributing social roles within a community. There was a clan of priests, a clan of businesspeople, a clan of farmers. Still, Auroville is definitely not a cult. There is no initiation ceremony required for someone to stay there, even if they live there for a year, as I did. The trial period one has to undergo is a time you need to understand what the point is of working for this community. I recently spoke to an Aurovillian about how they're handling the COVID pandemic. I asked whether the city helps the businesses (which are, in fact, owned by the city, since due to a governmental solution, Auroville is a foundation with an array of non-governmental organizations underneath. Were the taxes lowered, for example? My goodness, did she take an offence! "Kasia, what are you talking about? It's Auroville that needs me now, not the other way round. Now more than ever." I realized that, once again, I had missed the fundamental truth about Auroville: it's the citizens who make the city, and they are not 'made' by it.
Auroville is not meant to provide a comfortable life; all it gives to its people is the means of basic survival, and everyone must take care of the rest. It is the citizens' responsibility to make sure that Auroville – the idea in which they believe – survives. Therefore, the question Aurovillians ask themselves is "How can I support my community?" rather than "What can I get out of my community now?" It's the complete opposite of the situation we are experiencing here, but I would not call it a cult. Those people have an idea that they believe in, and they understand it's not possible to achieve it from the position of making demands. They have to roll up their sleeves and work for it. As for a new species of human, it all depends on how literally we read into this concept. Siri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher from the University of Cambridge, whose thought served as the blueprint for Auroville, insisted that humans are not the final stage of evolution and that something else will appear after us. However, Aurobindo considered it from the perspective of consciousness rather than biology, as he believed we can still become better versions of ourselves. That's how I see it. But in the 1970s, some people believed their children's consciousness was already more advanced than everyone else's. I'm pretty sure they were soon cured of that conviction. Today, nobody means a new species of human literally.
What image of Auroville did you have in your mind when you returned to this city to write a book about it?
I tried to keep my mind open, although I was going there with my own thesis. While my work on the book about Japan had taught me that such preconceived notions tend to go down quickly, I still need them for inspiration and ideas; they draw me into a new subject. The starting point was the dreams that shape reality. In Auroville, it's perceptible. Before the humans arrived, there was nothing there, just emptiness. Dreams and reality were my first lead. Then, I wanted to see what they managed to achieve within those 50 years and what they did not; whether our society could learn from it, too.
In your book's title, you refer to Auroville as The City Made of Dreams. Why did you choose dreams as the starting concept?
I wanted to write about a place in which one can see how dreams shape reality, and how reality shapes dreams, as well as see the moment in which the dream is no longer just that. It's the moment when the reality has changed your goal so much, it's no longer what it was when you were at the beginning of your journey. What to do then? Will you decide that you have changed along with your dream and want to keep going at it, despite it being different? Do you stick to it or leave it all and change your life again?
How much time did you spend in Auroville?
One year, not including my first time there in 2008, but it was not a year all in one go – I split it into several visits. Initially, I thought I'd make it three stays – two months long each time – but after my first visit, I already knew that was way too little time. The first visit allowed me to get into the community, but it was still just scratching the surface. I was only beginning to realize who was who and which issues I found interesting, but I didn't even manage to conduct one interview. Not because the people of Auroville are wary of strangers or don't want to talk to outsiders. They are simply very busy. Sometimes, they told me they could meet me in three months from now, which was why I needed more time. Aurovillians don't have whole days at their disposal to spend talking to reporters and journalists, of whom many visit. The city saw a surge of journalists in 2018 when it was celebrating 50 years of existence. I was in a more comfortable situation, as I had arrived in Auroville a year before. It was a good time to start working on my project. Over the course of my first two months there, I realized the subject could fill the entire book. The next two months gave me my first interactions with the main characters of the story. That was when I decided to go back there for eight more months – also because I just wanted to experience normal life in Auroville. Did you know that in total, I spent four years working on this subject?
That's a long time. You wrote that at some point, you thought about staying in Auroville for good.
If you live somewhere for a year and, due to the nature of your job, you try to get to know it in-depth, understand it, learn as much as possible about it, at some point, you get really drawn in. It's natural to ask yourself whether you would like to stay there.
You had to dig deep into the memories of Aurovillians, but in your book, you point out that those who reach the community today are not focused on the city's past. Where did you find documents on the history part of your book if they don't teach the history of Auroville in their schools?
I did it bit by bit, in snippets. Of course, I looked for information in books about the first years of Auroville – in the Pioneer's biographies and in my interviews with them. However, some things reached me as single sentences, dropped during my trips around Auroville, for example. This way, I learned about the conflict that divided the community in the 1970s, and I started researching it. If you keep asking, then sooner or later you will get some answers. But at first I didn't even know myself what I was looking for. I grasped at various threads, arranged meetings and interviews, not knowing whether they'd take me anywhere at all. I often felt like I was stumbling in the dark. On the one hand, I knew what interested me and what questions to ask. On the other hand, I had no idea where it was going to lead me and what story I was going to tell. As if I was wandering around a labyrinth with many exits, each of them leading towards a completely different landscape. This experience was radically different from what I discovered when working on Ganbare!. In that book, it was obvious that I was writing about ways of handling trauma and loss. That was the core of my conversations and the people I chose to feature in that book. And here, everyone – not only an Aurovillian but someone just passing through Auroville as well – could be a potential character. The breakthrough came when I met Auroson, the first child of Auroville. He was the first aurochild and the first new human.
When exactly did you meet?
I found out about him during my second visit to Auroville. We made contact, but we did not meet at that time. In November 2017, when I came over for eight months, we were already in touch on a regular basis. We talked for many hours, and we became friends.
Who were your sources?
I divided them into two groups: those who could tell me their personal stories and those who could explain how Auroville handles the development of society. That is – how Aurovillians work on changing the system, how they look for solutions and which solutions have already been put to the test. When talking to the former, I wanted to know what made them come to Auroville. I also looked for people from both sides of the conflict that divided the community. I was very fortunate, since many of the Pioneers came back to celebrate the city's 50th anniversary. Most of those interviews did not appear in the book since they were very similar and repetitive: arrival at the city, meeting the Mother, transformation, then life in the desert. As for the latter group, I wanted to know what Auroville does about various areas of life that it wants to improve, such as education, management, economy, architecture, culture, health and nutrition. I tried to meet with the people responsible for urban planning, with farmers, teachers, mediators, and with people who were brought up in Auroville since early childhood, at various stages of its existence. In order to draw in the children, I organized a creative writing class in one of the schools, but it was not very successful. Only one girl came back.
Thank you. Discouraging people from writing is a very useful thing to do.
In your book, you admitted that you didn't talk to everyone you wanted to interview. You didn't find the courage to chat to Jurgen, even though you had spent several months waiting for him in a café. It's a very honest admission for a reporter. Did you get cold feet?
I turned out to be a reporter who's afraid of people. No, I did not speak to him. At that moment, it was more than I could have dealt with. It's not like I was waiting there just for him. The 'café', or rather a tea-serving booth, was a place I had already frequented earlier, before someone said: "Oh, you must talk to Jurgen." I started coming more often, Jurgen was never there, and when he finally showed up, I was taken by surprise, so instead of coming up to him and introducing myself, I just kept on drinking my tea. I was not in the mood for talking, and I found him a little intimidating, too. I could have always spoken with him later, after all. This happened several times. In the end, I found it embarrassing to start a conversation at that point. What would I even say? "You know what, Jurgen, I've been sitting here smiling at you, and it's lovely to drink tea in silence together, but I'm actually a reporter and I've heard of you before. Could we talk about your life now?" I realized that I don't have to come up to him. That not everything in my life has to revolve around doing research for my book. Sometimes, it's good to let it go. I felt similar about a certain woman. I waited three months to talk to her, and then it turned out I couldn't make conversation with her – she just frightened me.
Did you learn any other hard lessons while writing about Auroville?
It was difficult to decide whom I should describe and how to do it. I resolved not to write about my friends (whose stories were fascinating, and I would have loved to tell them, but I could not do it precisely because of our friendship). The relationship you establish with someone as a book interviewee is different than a relationship with a friend. This could also lead to a grudge; perhaps some of the things they shared were said in confidence granted by our friendship, and only some were meant for publication? It was also important for them to know whether I viewed them as friends or just book material. Auroson was the only exception to this rule, but our relationship was clear from the very beginning. Still, we became very close and sometimes I was not quite sure whether I was talking to him as a reporter or as a friend.
In Auroville, I came across one more difficulty that I didn't have to deal with in Japan: here, many people simply refused to meet with me. In Japan, it was also easier for me to conduct the interviews, as they were all focused on just one topic. I arrived at a place wrecked by a tsunami, a place recovering from a trauma. Both I and the main characters of my book were clear on what we were going to discuss. In Auroville, it was much more difficult. I had to serve as a guide to a conversation whose topic was incredibly broad. I sought out turning points in a person's life, something that made them chase their dreams, but I also looked for something that defined them, showed who they were, where they started and where they arrived. So I could have said: "Tell me all about your life, since your birth until now, and only then will I start asking you more detailed questions." Of course, this was usually impossible. Therefore, the course of the interviews usually depended on how aware my interviewees were of the turning points of their lives.
In Japan, it was obvious that our conversations were all built around the events of 11th March 2011 and everything that came after. People exposed their emotions in front of me, but they did not have to look for some meta-level inside themselves that would allow them to view their lives from an observer's perspective. My role is to facilitate entering that level with my questions. In Japan, I knew what questions to ask. In Auroville, I had no idea.
On top of that, the question about the meaning of our existence was always hanging right there in front of us, and that's the most difficult question to handle, as it provokes banalities. Especially when writing a reportage on spirituality. There was one more problem at hand – I realized I find it easier to write about strong, painful emotions. They're so overwhelming that they turn out to be enough to draw readers into the story. In Auroville, there is no drama. All we get is mundane day-to-day life. I had to problematize it and find a way of describing it so that it remained interesting and absorbing, despite its lack of emotional highs and lows.
Do you think Auroville's existence makes sense today?
Yes and no. I think it depends on how we approach this city. After all, we don't need Auroville to change the world or to work on becoming better versions of ourselves. It's not like the world won't survive without it. Auroville has no importance to the world. Seeing how India – and the world in general – has moved forwards, we must keep in mind that Auroville has become somewhat stagnant, especially when it comes to technology. Still, just because I lived there doesn't mean I understand everything that happens there. I keep asking questions. I think that Auroville is not pointless, because there are people still coming there today, wanting to try the thing it has to offer. This way, they can take something out of it, other than various ecological solutions – for example, they can discover that they don't need Auroville to change. But this city provides an impulse, teaching them to ask the right questions. In my opinion, Auroville shows that change, while being slow and difficult, is actually possible. It requires enormous open-mindedness, endurance and conviction. The fact that changes happen so slowly is less comforting; today, we need changes to take place much more swiftly. But perhaps it would happen faster if more people worked to make them come true?
So how is the 1968 utopia different from the 2018 utopia?
The premise remains the same, but it's the concept that was successful, not the city itself. The final vision is so vague that everything can work out – there is no ultimate goal, no ideal you strive to achieve. All we get is a clue: creating a place of human unity. Of course, it was said in advance that the city would reach its peak once it housed 50,000 people. Next, we would have to set up more communities until they covered the entire globe. But this recipe provided no measures. You have to try and figure it out yourself to make it happen. Auroville is not an escape from reality, because here, everyone takes responsibility for their actions. Everything is clear from the very beginning. Even the omnipresent Mother had no rigid guidelines to follow.
What was your relationship with Mother?
I don't want to say who Mother was. But it is thanks to her that Auroville exists at all today. She convinced UNESCO and 124 countries to support its conception. She was a charismatic woman, a woman who could change people's lives with just one look. She kept on changing their lives even after she passed away – many Aurovillians insist they can still feel Mother looking after them. I didn't manage to establish a relationship with Mother. It's not like I didn't try to. Today I think I respect her, although I did not like her at first. I had my doubts about her, precisely because I saw her as a cult guru. Even though she is no longer alive, everyone – even those who are not very religious – keep referring to her words. I found Mother unsettling. Perhaps it was because I had never met someone so charismatic, even though I know such people do exist. She could evoke genuinely extreme emotions in people. When telling me about their meetings with Mother, Aurovillians had tears in their eyes. And yet, I didn't trust her, as I didn't trust the whole narrative that grew around her. On top of it, she stared at me from the photographs almost everywhere I went. As if she actually was the Mother of the People. I felt invigilated. I saw no love in her gaze.
Sometimes, people who have met John Paul II say they experienced similar emotions.
Yes, I also thought of this comparison when I was thinking about other charismatic people I might know. I think that meetings with John Paul II evoked similar emotions: elation, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance, concern, tenderness, love. People who describe their experience of meeting a person they considered charismatic often report it in a very similar way. I did not feel comfortable around Mother, but I knew I could not write my book without her.
The structure of your book is very purposeful. From the very beginning, we don't know what to expect and how the story will unfold. Was that your conscious writing choice when you started to put it all together?
No, it emerged during the writing process. I knew I wanted to write the story of a city through the stories of its people and that each of these stories had to push the city's story forward. But I had no idea what the final form would be. It was the same with Ganbare! – I had two drafts ready before I understood how to make a book out of them. In this case, there were even more drafts to work on.
Your book ends with a brutal statement about what life is.
Perhaps I needed Auroville to understand that.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Eastern traditions have complex views on how karma affects your life.
- Karma is not simple retribution for bad deeds.
- Eastern traditions view karma as part of a cycle of birth and rebirth.
- Actions and intentions can influence karma, which can be both positive and negative.
The news that Donald Trump got sick with COVID-19 prompted "karma" to trend on social media. The President downplayed the virus, openly mocked the practice of wearing masks, shared misinformation, and held super spreader events for thousands of followers. But what happened to him was not necessarily karma (or at least, we can't really know). Chances are, karma is not what you think it is.
Karma is not just a mechanism by which the universe brings snarky retribution for someone's misdeeds. It's not simple luck or even destiny. It's a Sanskrit word that means "action," "work," or "deed," and it really speaks of the spiritual cycle of cause and effect. The good intentions and deeds you perform result in an addition of good karma, while the bad ones add to the bad karma. Notice that karma doesn't necessarily have to be negative. It's more a law of consequences than a particular reward or punishment.
The notion is linked to the idea of samsara, which also originated in India and means "wandering." It is paramount to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Taoism, and refers to the belief that all living beings go through cycles of birth and rebirth, which may continue indefinitely. With the details depending on the religion, the kind of karma you accumulate on the wheel of life or "karmic cycle" can influence both the future of your present life, but also the one you may have coming up. The soul transmigrates after death, bringing Karmic impulses from the life just finished into the new one. Conversely, it's important to note that karma you are experiencing today may be a product of not just your actions in this lifetime but based on what happened in the lives you had in the past.
If you're wondering, being reborn as an animal is looked at as an undesirable rebirth, leading to much additional suffering. Having a human rebirth would land you closer to being able to get off the karmic soul train.
How do you escape samsara? By working towards achieving enlightenment, or "Nirvana." Once you get there through good karmic deeds and spiritual practices, your desires and sufferings will go away and you will find peace and happiness. Of course, your physical body will die and you will no longer be reborn, but on the plus side, you will be awake to the true nature of reality and if you're Hindu, you'd reunite with Brahman, the universal God or soul.
Thanga Wheel of LIfe
Credit: Adobe Stock
7th-century Upanishads described the law of karma causality in this poetic way:
Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;
And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap.
It's significant to point out, the laws of karma, caused by individual actions, can affect the life you are leading. But what's also recognized are intentions. They are just as important in your karmic profile and the effect they have on you. Unintentional actions do not have that much influence. Even performing a good deed that stems out of questionable intentions can bring you negative karma.
Karmic theory also recognizes two forms of karma — the phalas and the samskaras. A phala is a karmic effect (visible or invisible) that's immediate or within your current lifetime. Samskaras, on the other hand, are invisible effects, that are produced inside you, impacting your ability to be happy or unhappy. This extends both to this and future lives.
While the specifics of karma theory differ based on specific spiritual practice, one thing may be for certain – what goes around comes around.
Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life~ Samsara Cyclic Existence
Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.
- J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
- But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
- These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
Menu page for Arda.ir, the website of the Persian Tolkien Society.
Where on earth was Middle-earth? Based on a few hints by Tolkien himself, we've always sort-of assumed that his stories of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" were centered on Europe, but so long ago that the shape of the coasts and the land has changed.
But perhaps that's too easy and too Eurocentric an assumption; perhaps, like so many other things these days, Tolkien's fantasy realm too is in dire need of mental decolonisation.
And here's an excellent occasion: an Iranian Tolkienologist has found intriguing hints that the writer based some of Middle-earth's topography on mountains, rivers, and islands located in and near present-day Pakistan.
As mentioned in a previous article – recently reposted on the Strange Maps Facebook page on the occasion of the death of Ian Holm – Tolkien admitted that "The Shire is based on rural England, and not on any other country in the world," and that "the action of the story takes place in the North-West of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean."
If you look at it like that, yes: that does resemble Mordor...
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Extrapolating from the location of the Shire in Middle-earth and from other clues dropped by Tolkien, geophysics and geology professor Peter Bird matched the geography of Middle-earth with that of Europe (more about that in the aforementioned article).
However, seeing Middle-earth as a mere palimpsest for present-day Europe is to place an undue limit on the imagination of its creator. As Tolkien also said about the shape of his world: "[It] was devised 'dramatically' rather than geologically or paleontologically."
In other words, certain parts of Middle-earth may very well have been inspired by other places than European ones. It is telling that it took a non-European connoisseur of Tolkien's topography to find some examples.
"Seen that map before"
The Indus river is a prominent geographical feature of Pakistan. Its course is similar to that of the Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
In an article published on Arda.ir, the web page for the Persian Tolkien Society, Mohammad Reza Kamali writes that during several years of cartographic study, "I found that maybe there are real lands [that] could have inspired Professor Tolkien, and some of them are not in Europe."
Around 2012, Kamali's eye stopped when it came across a Google Map of Central Asia that showed the mountain chain of the Himalayas, the peaks of the Pamirs bunched together in an almost circular area, and the huge, flat oval of the Takla Makan desert, bounded to the north by the Tian-Shan mountains.
"I had seen that map before," he writes. "This is of course Mordor, the land of Sauron and the dark powers of Middle-earth, where Frodo and Sam destroy the One Ring."
In Tolkien's world, the Himalayas transform into Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow; and the Tian Shan into Ered Lithui, the Ash Mountains. And the circle-shaped Pamirs "are the same shape and in exactly the same corner as the Udûn of Mordor, where Frodo and Sam originally tried getting into Mordor, via the Black Gate."
A US Marine Corps helicopter flying over the Tarbela Dam on the Indus river in Pakistan. At its center: a former river island which may have been the inspiration for Cair Andros, a ship-shaped island in Middle-earth's Anduin river.
Image: Paul Duncan (USMC), public domain
Mulling over these similarities, Kamali became convinced that Tolkien's map work was heavily inspired by Asia. Looking further, he found more evidence. Consider Anduin, the Great River of Middle-earth, in whose waters the One Ring was lost for more than two thousand years.
On Tolkien's map, the Anduin bends toward the sea in a shape similar to that of another great river: the Indus, which runs the length of Pakistan. Like the Anduin, it flows to the west of a major mountain chain. A prominent feature of the Anduin is the river island of Cair Andros, just north of Osgiliath. Its name means 'Ship of Long Foam', a reference to its long and narrow shape, and the sharpness of its rocks, which split the waters of the Anduin like a prow.
Kamali is not entirely sure, but proposes that Tolkien may have been inspired by a similar-shaped island in the Indus. Now integrated into the Tarbela Dam, which was inaugurated in 1976, it would still have been a separate island in the 1930s and '40s, when Tolkien dreamed up his map.
Kutch as Tolfalas Island
During the rainy season, the coastal region of Kutch, near the mouth of the Indus, turns into an island that resembles Tolfalas Island, near the mouth of the Anduin.
Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Turning our eyes to the mouth of the Anduin and Indus, we see another pair of islands, and Kamali is more certain about the real one having inspired the fictional one. The fictional one is Tolfalas Island, the largest island in Belfalas Bay.
At first glance, it doesn't seem to have a real-life counterpart near where the Indus joins the Arabian Sea. But take a look at the coastal part of the Indian state of Gujarat. It is known as Kutch, a name which apparently refers to its alternately wet and dry states. In the rainy season, the shallow wetlands flood and Kutch becomes an island – the biggest island in the Gulf of Kutch, and not too dissimilar to Tolfalas Island.
1909 map showing British India in pink (direct British control) and yellow (princely states). Circled: Kutch, clearly recognisable as an island.
Image: Edinburgh Geographical Institute; J. G. Bartholomew and Sons, public domain
But are these similarities really more than coincidences? Why would Tolkien, who was based in Oxford and steeped in English lore and Germanic mythology, turn to the Indian subcontinent for topographical inspiration? Perhaps because cartographic knowledge of that part of the world was far more general in Britain then than it is now. Until the late 1940s, the countries we know today as India and Pakistan were part of the British Empire. Detailed maps of the region would have been standard fare for British atlases.
Kamali is convinced that the topographical features on Tolkien's map of Middle-earth are not mere fantasy, but derive from actual places in our world, and were 'riddled' onto the map. In that case, we may look forward to more discoveries of Tolkien's real-world inspiration.
From Frodingham to Frodo
J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he was 24. Around that time, he was stationed near the village of Frodingham, which may have given him the inspiration for the name of the main protagonist in Lord of the Rings.
Image: public domain
Here's one example of Tolkienography—if that's what we can call the effect of actual geography on this particular writer's imagination—which I gleaned myself, some years ago in East Yorkshire. A local historian told me that Tolkien had been stationed in the area during the First World War, and had apparently stored away some local place names for later use. The name Frodo, he said, derived from a town where he had attended a few dances – Frodingham, a village across the Humber in northern Lincolnshire, not far from Scunthorpe (Scunto? We dodged a bullet there).
Whether that story is entirely true or not is beside the point. As fantasy fans know, any grail quest is ultimately about the quest, not the grail. In fact, to quote Mr Kamali, the treasure is important only because it's well hidden, "by a clever professor who enjoys riddles."
Strange Maps #1036
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tiger reserves and a concentrated public effort has brought this animal roaring back to India.
- India's tiger population has grown to nearly 3,000, making it, by far, the country with the largest wild population.
- Their wild population increased over 33 percent in just four years.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it his goal to increase tiger conservationist efforts.
India now has nearly 3,000 tigers living in the wild. Due to concentrated conservation efforts and stricter wildlife policies, India's tiger population soared 33 percent between 2014 and 2018. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who recently presented the latest tiger census, said that the population has risen from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018.
The worldwide tiger population has been in a steep decline. With an estimated global population of 4,000 — India is home to around 70 percent of the world's tigers.
Mr. Modi remarked that India is "now one of the biggest and most secure habitats of the tiger."
Nearly a decade ago, India had embarked on a nationwide goal to double its Bengal tiger population by 2022. They've now reached that goal four years ahead of schedule. In order to protect their gains and expand their tiger population, they'll have to keep enforcing their wildlife policies while also ensuring the safety of their new sanctuaries.
India’s tiger reserves
Wildlife Institute of India National Tiger Conservation Authority
In the past 10 years, India has created nearly two dozen new reserves. Aside from creating space for tigers to live and prosper, these protective areas also create new spaces for wildlife and forests to flourish.
Tens of thousands of Indian officials and scientists track and count these tigers once every four years. They utilize a mixture of camera traps and video recognition software that creates a three-dimensional representation of each individual tiger. They usually have to cover a landmass of about 193,000 square miles.
The conservation efforts come in the wake of a devastating loss that occurred over the span of the past century. It's estimated that between 1875 and 1925, 80,000 tigers were killed in just India alone. Sports hunting and official governmental sponsored killing sprees by kings and officials of the era sanctioned and encouraged this mass slaughter.
Eventually, the Indian government came to its senses and in 1972 enacted a law that essentially made it illegal to kill or capture any kind of protected wild animal. With continued awareness and strict enforcement, the hunting died down. With the help of global conservationists, India invested more money into the protection and growth of their reserves.
In certain parts of India, there is still strife between local villages and tigers. More will have to be done to educate the populace in these areas and strengthen the reserves.
Tiger conservation threats
Some estimates suggest that the tigers are only breeding and living in 10 percent of the total habitat set aside for them. The tigers are underutilizing their space, which often makes them wander outside of these areas and come into conflict with villagers nearby.
Another report, titled "Management Effectiveness Evaluation (MEE) of Tiger Reserves 2018," showed that at least half of India's reserves are facing encroachment threats from infrastructure like roads and rail lines.
Conservationists fear that the isolated conflicts that usually occurs on the edge of the reserves, will increase as protected areas grow. Tiger reserves are still threatened by illegal poachers, pollution, unchecked industrialism and climate change.
Modi believes that India's tiger habitats should be expanded:
"There is a very old debate — development or environment. . . and, both sides present views as if each is mutually exclusive."
He understands that there needs to be a balance struck between proper economic development and the protection of the environment.
"In our policies, in our economics, we have to change the conversation about conservation. India will build more roads and India will have cleaner rivers. India will have better train connectivity and also greater tree coverage. India will build more homes for our citizens and at the same time create quality habitats for animals. India will have a vibrant marine economy and healthier marine ecology. This balance is what will contribute to a strong and inclusive India."
This may just be the beginning of a tiger resurgence, if this type of thought prevails over India's tiger conservationist efforts.