Monday, May 12

On Units of measurement -- Pradeep Chakravarthy


A fascinating exposition on the bewildering variety of measures. These days we are so comfortable with miles and kilos and kilograms that we forget that it used to be so different before. 

But people can get seriously discombobulated when units change son. Imagine what will happen if we changed miles to kilometers. It causes huge personality issues. You cannot relate to people. Same with currencies and language. All these are ways in which we relate and interact with the world. 

Currently waiting for a bumboat to take me across to an island off Singapore. Fascinating place :)




(A monthly column that unravels fascinating facts about heritage, art and architecture, this one throws light on measurements used in medieval period)

Writing in the 19th Century, a British official complained, “the number of viss in a maund differs in a bewildering way, both according to local custom and to thesubstance which is being weighed… a ‘measure,’ is a most varying quantity – any old compressed beef tin of any size passes as a measure, if you will accept it. The only way is to get accustomed to your providers’ peculiarities and pay accordingly.” The same traveller would be surprised if he was in the medieval Tamil Nadu! Weights and measures from inscriptions are complex. They vary with region, dynasty and many kings created their own!

Different calculations

Weights and measures are frequently found in inscriptions that deal with gifts of land and produce to temples. The Chola and Pandya territories seemed to have had different measures but with many local variations. Some calculations can be made.

Land was measured in Kuzhi – which was one rod in length and one rod in width. Three Kuzhi made aMaa. 20 Maa made a Veli (sometimes called Sey as well). A Maa approximates to 33 cents. Because arod length varied it’s difficult to say that a Veli in one part of the state was the same elsewhere. 1/80 of a Veli made a Kani and 1/320 of a Veli made a muntiri. Smaller land fractions went to as low as 2.81 sq.ft. Such small fractions were useful since land was taxed not just by spread but fertility as well. By colonial times, a Veli was equal to 6.6116 acres.

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