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Last week I learned that …

January 14, 2013

Life is a journey and you never know who or what is round the corner …


Some months ago I received an email from a reader, who was interested in my early postings about my family history; he claimed that he knew of my family and their whereabouts over 50 years ago.  He hoped I would get in touch to confirm his findings.  I did eventually reply to his email and since then we have been communicating like old friends about the ‘old days’. Although we did live in adjoining lanes; I,  on a houseboat by the river and he, a mile or so away in the village. We are, give or take a month or two the same age but our paths until now never crossed; even though it would seem that for almost twenty years we mixed with the same group of friends and acquaintances.
It was good to share experiences from all those years ago and I am sure we will carry on chatting for some time to come.
However, I learned that ‘my friend’ had a distant relation who might interest me and my passion for dead languages and particularly Sanskrit.  His Great Great Great Uncle Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837) was an English Orientalist and a Sanskrit scholar.

Henry Thomas Colebrooke

While researching him I discovered he had translated a work by the Indian Mathematician Bhaskara II also known as Bhaskarachaya (Bhaskara the teacher) (1114-1185) His works represents a significant contribution to mathematical and astronomical knowledge in the 12th century.  Also Bhaskara’s work on calculus predates Newton and Leibniz by 500 years.  His book on arithmetic was written for his daughter Lilavati (meaning the one possessing beauty in Sanskrit) After studying his daughter’s horoscope, Baskara learned that she would not marry and remain childless unless she married at a certain time.  To avoid this fate he invented an ‘alarm  clock’;  a complicated device with a cup and a container of water  ensuring the girl would be married at the auspicious hour.He warned Lilavati not to go near; intrigued by the contraption Lilavati had a look, a pearl from her wedding gown dropped in, upsetting the mechanism.  The moment passed and the wedding did not take place. Devastated by the tragic turn of events her father promised to write a book in her name that would remain until the end of time; ‘akin to a second life’

It would seem many of the problems in the book were addressed to Lilavati; ‘the intelligent one.  To make the treatise understandable to a common man Baskara uses evey day items such as Kings and elephants to explain multiplications, squares and progression.

For example translated by Colebrooke and additional problem

Whilst making love a necklace broke.
A row of pearls mislaid.
One sixth fell to the floor.
One fifth upon the bed.
The young woman saved one third of them.
One tenth were caught by her lover.
If six pearls remained upon the string
How many pearls were there altogether?


This is a lovely story that would have escaped me if not responded to the email or indeed begun this wondrous journey.

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