Thursday, 26 September 2013

Tulsi Das: Retelling Ramayana

Ramayana (Story of Rama) is an ancient Indian tale about prince Rama. Centuries ago, the tale of Ramayana had spread from India to the neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the sixteenth century, Tulsi Das rewrote Ramayana as "Ram Charit Manas" in Avadhi language (close to Hindi language). Till that time, the most well known version of Ramayana in India was in Sanskrit, written by Valmiki. Thus Tulsi Das is credited with making the sacred text accessible to a large number of persons in India, because Awadhi is a language of common people while the knowledge of Sanskrit is limited to a few.

Tulsi Das (1554 - 1644), is credited with different literary works in Awadhi and Brajbhasha variations of Hindi. A contemporary of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), his influence on large parts of India has been enormous, but unlike Shakespeare, Tulsi's historical figure and his literary abilities have largely been ignored by academics in India and internationally. In recent years, Tulsi's figure has been "taken over" by some conservative Hindu groups, who give a selective interpretation of his works that supports specific political and socio-religious ideologies.

This article reviews “Manas ka Hans” a bio-fiction about Tulsi Das, written by Hindi author Amrit Lal Nagar in 1972.

Manas ke Hans by Amrit Lal Nagar, Book cover


A few years ago, while visiting Mongolia I had started thinking about the way different religions use languages across the world, to ensure that sacred texts are not understood by majority of their followers. We were in the Gandam Buddhist monastery in Ulaan Bataar and I had asked the person accompanying me, to tell me about the words written on a giant bell in the temple courtyard.

“I can’t tell you what it says, because the monks use Tibetan language for all their prayers!” he had told me. Buddhism had come to Mongolia through the Tibetan monks and even today in their temples their prayers continue to be in Tibetan.

I had heard something similar in Vietnam, where the temples often have their prayers in Chinese and not in Vietnamese.

In Catholic churches around the world, the mass was celebrated in Latin till some decades ago. It is relatively recently that the Bible has been translated to languages like Malayalam (some years ago I had met Fr Sebastian, who had done this translation).

In India, majority of Hindu prayers for specific religious rites, are in Sanskrit. Thus, Tulsi’s "Ram Charit Manas" played a fundamental role in making Ramayana accessible to common persons. Because of this, many persons consider him as a saint and call him Sant Tulsi Das or Acharya Tulsi Das.


If you look for information about Tulsi Das on internet, you will mostly find mythical stories - about his being an incarnation of Valmiki, his miracles and his meetings with ghosts and gods such as Hanuman and Ram.

He was born around the time Mughal emperor Hamayun had returned to India in 1554 AD. Tulsi saw the reigns of three more Mughal emperors during his life time - Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. He was a writer and a poet during those reigns. Yet analysis of his historical figure are few.

In recent years, some persons have worked on collecting historical information about Tulsi Das. For example, some years ago Anshu Tandon had presented a play called "Jo chaho Ujiyyar" focusing on Tulsi's struggles as a Hindu reformer. Excerpts of this play (in Hindi) are available on Youtube. Still much more can and should be done to understand the historical figure of Tulsi Das. (Below a scene from"Jo chaho ujjiyar" play)

Scene from play


According to Amrit Lal Nagar in his introduction in the book “Manas ke Hans”, there are five biographies of Tulsi Das written by persons who were his followers - Raghubar Das, Beni Madhav Das, Krishna Dutt Mishra, Avinash Rai and Sant Tulsi saheb. However, Nagar explains that according to expert academics, none of these biographies is accurate,and they differ from each other about significant events in Tulsi Das' life.

For writing "Manas ke hans", Nagar looked at these biographies, as well as, looked at other oral traditions and works of academics on Tulsi Das. He also did a critical reading and analysis of Tulsi Das's own writings. He acknowledges that the information he found was not complete and thus his book is a bio-fiction rather than a biography.

Nagar mentions two additional important sources of information, " Among others, I want to make a loving mention of friend late Rudra Kashikey (Pen name of Shiv Prasad Mishra) who could not complete “Rambola bole”. Rudra ji was a walking encyclopedia of Kashi. Late Dr Rangey Raghav had also expressed his ideas about Tulsi Das through his work “Ratna ki baat".


The book is written in flashbacks from the point of view of an old Tulsi Das telling his story to his followers.

Context: In 1540, Hamayun had to leave India after losing the war to the forces of Sher Shah Suri. Over the next 12 years, Sher Shah was followed on Delhi's throne by Islam Khan and Adil Khan. In 1554 when Tulsi Das was born in Vikrampur, Hamayun was engaged in the war with the Pathan forces of Adil Shah.

Childhood: Tulsi's mother Hulsi died while giving birth to him. His father Pandit Atma Ram prepared his son's horoscope and found that his son had an unfortunate mix of planets in his birth chart and asked the child to be given away.

Muniya, a shudra ("low caste") servant in the home of Atma Ram, took the baby across the river to her mother-in-law Parvati amma, a beggar. Soon after, Mughal forces destroyed Vikrampur and Pandit Atma Ram died childless after some years. Parvati amma named the child Rambola, and he grew up as a singing beggar, who walked the village streets asking for alms and singing prayer songs (bhajans) of poet saints like Surdas, Kabir and Mira. When Rambola was five years old, Parvati amma died and Rambola, tormented by the Brahmins of the area, ran away to Sukar, at the junction of Ghagra and Saryu rivers.

At Sukar, Rambola was taken as a disciple by Swami Narhari, who took him to Ayodhya for his religious initiation and thus Rambola became Tulsi Das.

Young Tulsi: Tulsi studied with Guru Shesh ji Maharaj in Varanasi and received the title of Shastri. During this period, he composed "Hanuman Chalisa" (Prayer to Hanuman) to overcome his fear towards the evil spirits (bhoot-pichash) and became famous for his singing of religious texts and compositions of prayers.

He journeyed as a rich young Brahmin man, to the place where once his birth-village Vikrampur had stood, and there he built his new family home and a temple. His fame as a singer and a poet brought back many other persons who had lived in that area in the past and knew his family. Thus a new village called Rajapur (named after Tulsi's friend Raja Bhagat) came around his house.

Marriage: Raja convinced Tulsi Das to visit Pathak maharaj, an old friend of his late father, pandit Atma Ram. Pathak had no sons, and wanted a learned husband for his daughter Ratnabala, so that he could leave his valuable book collection to his son in law. Pathak asked Tulsi to marry his daughter and finally Tulsidas agreed.

Tulsi fell in love with his wife and together they had a son Tarapati. For earning livelihood, Tulsi Das decided to go to work in Varanasi, while his wife went to stay at her father’s home. After a few months, Tulsi Das went to see his wife. During this visit, Ratna said to him that he did not have self-control and that he could not wait for sex.

Renouncing of marriage: Hurt by his wife’s words, Tulsi Das left home that night and went to Ayodhya. For different months he wandered around as a beggar and did occasional work - including work as an accountant in a math (Abbey of Hindu monks) for some time. In this period, he travelled in different cities of the region between Ayodhya, Varanasi and Chitrakoot. For a period he was responsible for a gaushala (cow home) in Varanasi, and thus earned the title of Goswami or Gosain.

Full of remorse, Ratna went to see her husband to ask him to come home, but Tulsi Das was firm that he had renounced his household duties, he was now a Brahmachari (celibate) and that he would not go back to married life. Their son Tarapati died due to small pox. Thus, Ratna lived alone in their house in Rajapur.

Tulsi Das miniature Writer Tulsi Das: Tulsi Das on the other hand, continued his writing of prayer-poems and retelling of "Ram Charit Manas", the story of Ramayana. Other Brahmins of Varanasi felt that making the sacred book accessible to general public was against the scriptures and thus started different campaigns against him. However, with popular support, Tulsi Das managed to thwart their machinations. Called “mahatma” (Great spirit) by general public for his literary works and for his emotional singing of prayers, Tulsi Das died in Varanasi at the age of ninety years.

In the book Tulsi’s faith in the figure of Ram constantly moves between the life and stories of Ram as the God incarnate and Ram as the symbol of a formless infinite God.


It must have been painful for the child Tulsi to understand that his father had preferred to believe in the stars and had abandoned him. Perhaps that was the reason, why as a grown up young man, he went back to his old village and built his home there, as a message to his father that he was not unlucky and that he had managed to accumulate enough wealth to build himself a house?

How much of those early experiences of rejection from his father and his life as a child-beggar  searching for an identity and security, influenced his later decisions to renounce married life and to fight with Brahmins?

I felt that his early years as a child growing up in a "low-caste" shudra home and his difficulties at different periods of life with the Brahmins in Ayodhya and Varanasi, should have given him an understanding and a feeling of solidarity about the oppression and marginalization faced by persons who are seen as inferior in the caste hierarchy.

At the same time, I had read other criticisms about Tulsi Das. For example, a line from Ram Charit Manas "Dhol Ganwar Shudra Pashu Nari, Sakal Tadan ke Adhikari" (Drums, the illiterate, lower caste, animals and women, all need to be beaten to make them work), is often quoted to explain Tulsi Das's views on castes and women.

Thus, while reading "Manas ke Hans" I was curious to read about Tulsi's socio-religious views. Since the book is a bio-fiction, we cannot say that these were really the views of Tulsi Das but these can be considered as the understanding of the writer Amrit Lal Nagar about Tulsi Das. In the introduction to the book, Nagar explains how he wrote it:
"Before writing this novel, I read with particolar care "Kavitavali" and "Vinaypatrika". Vinaypatrika contains different invaluable moments about inner conflicts of Tulsi, and thus I thought it appropriate to build the psychological framework of Tulsi on their basis. Even about the psychological background to his writing of "Ram Charit Manas", I found help in "Patrika". Some details about Tulsi's life can be found especially in Kavitavali and Hanumanvahak and occasionally in "Dohavali" and "Geetavali". From the innumerable oral-stories that are so popular about Gosain ji, I have included those that could fit in with this psychological framework..." 
In the book, Nagar's Tulsi answers these accusations about his being a casteist and being against the women by explaining, "Ram Charit Manas is a story and in the story, different characters have different beliefs. If you take the beliefs of any of those characters and say that this is Tulsi Das' belief, then it is wrong. You can also find some other character in the story who has completely opposite belief." Thus Nagar felt that it was manipulative to quote of a line from Ram Charit Manas as a justification for characterizing the personal views of Tulsi Das.

The book also has an episode where Tulsi helps a hungry chamar (one of the "untouchable" castes) man who is accused of killing a Brahmin and gives him food, going against the Brahmins of the city. In this episode, Tulsi justifies the killing of the Brahmin because "he was cruel and did not behave as a Brahmin." (p. 319-20)

The book also has different references to poet-saints of his time - there is a small episode (p. 179) about young Tulsi's meeting with eighty-five year old Surdas in Mathura and another episode about his meeting with Rahim (p. 364). The book mentions some disagreements between Tulsi and the followers of Kabir, though Tulsi expresses respect for Kabir's ideas (p. 325). As these poet saints were reformists and against the caste oppression, we can see that Nagar's Tulsi Das was more humane and progressive figure.


Babur had come to India in 1526 and he had died in 1530. Thus building of Babri mosque at the site of Ram Janamabhumi (birth place) had occurred a couple of decades before Tulsi Das' birth. He had lived through the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Though the book was written in 1972, I was also curious to know about how Nagar has depicted Tulsi Das' relations with Muslims and if he had written about the Babri mosque controversy, that had inflamed opinions in India in 1992 when the mosque was demolished by some Hindu groups.

In the book Nagar depicts the UP villages as places where Hindu and Muslim communities have been living together in close relationships. Many episodes of the book located in Tulsi's native village Rajapur, have different Muslim characters, shown as Tulsi Das's close friends and neighbors. For example, in the book, a Muslim neighbor, Bakridi baba, born a couple of days before Tulsi, tells the story of Tulsi's birth and his banishment to Parvati Amma's village. They also come to him for his advice about stars and future foretelling.

There are different episodes in the book where Nagar mentions Babri mosque. Here are some examples:
After a pause Medha Bhagat said, "Recently I was in Ayodhaya. There, where after destroying the holy temple of the birthplace, king Babar has built a holy mosque. Nearby, on a hillock I met a young man [Tulsi Das], lost in Rama's love... from morning till sundown, sitting behind a tree, he kept on gazing at the mosque. Sometimes he laughed, sometimes cried, and sometimes like a yogi he became lost in meditation .." (p. 135)
[A disciple asked to Tulsi] "After leaving the abbey, where did you go?" "I stayed in Ayodhaya, where else could I go? I begged for food and in the night, I slept outside the mosque together with other fakirs .." (p. 283)
One day he went to the Babri mosque that was built at the site of Rama's birth place. A Sufi saint was reading the verses of Mohammed Jayasi to the soldiers and the public. Written in dohe and chaupai (two and four lines verses), that divine love poem was so beautiful that even Tulsi lost himself in its words. (p. 294)
The date of Ramanavami (Rama's birth date) was close. A lot of movement had started in Ayodhaya because of it. Ever since, they had destroyed the birthplace temple and built the mosque in its place, since then followers of Rama could not enter the place to pray to their lord. Everywhere in India, the holy day of Ramanavami brings joy but in Ayodhaya, this day comes on the sharp edge of a sword... the area of Rama birthplace is made wet with the blood of martyrs every year... thus the ruler prohibit any public telling of the Rama's story.. the followers celebrate the day hidden in their homes .. Tulsi felt these things in his heart. In Rama's birthplace, Rama's story cannot be told was an unacceptable injustice for Tulsi. .. Everyday around mid-day he always went towards the Babri mosque. Behind the mosque, a short distance away, there was an old hillock. Tulsi used to sit on that hillock in such a way so that he could see the mosque built on the birthplace. For long time he sat there. He was friends with Muslim fakirs who sat in front of the mosque. (p. 295)
[When Tulsi was not allowed to sit behind the mosque:] "Lord Rama, you are my witness that I have never thought anything bad about this mosque. A place of worship remains worthy of worship even in this form. Even now, it is a place where people pray in front of the infinite formless supreme consciousness. When I had come away from Ramanujiya abbey, I used to come to sleep here. I was friends with these same persons, but then I was also seen as a fakir but now I am seen as a Hindu. Rama, please come back to stop this injustice." (p. 296)
Around mid-day, the drummers announced in different parts of Ayodhaya .. the government of emperor Akbar had sent orders from Delhi that in the courtyard inside the Babri mosque, people can make a platform for the worship of Rama. .. Tulsi was very happy. (p. 298)
[While Tulsi was writing Ram Charit Manas] Ever since the platform for worshiping Rama was built in the mosque and people could visit it, the people of Ayodhaya were happier. The soldiers of the mosque behaved less harshly. The anger between Hindus and Muslims had reduced. Even though some conservative Muslims were against this decision of Akbar, but they did not have any power. Tulsidas, every day, before starting writing, used to visit the Rama's statue on the platform inside the mosque. (p. 301)

Thus, Tulsi's views about Babri mosque in Nagar's book ask for the possibility of praying to Ram but they are also about living in harmony and friendship with Muslims and respecting the mosque. Nagar's Tulsi is happy to worship Rama in the courtyard of the mosque and looks at it as a place of the worship to the "infinite formless God".


Tulsidas was a historical figure whose name has been familiar, not just to a lot of Hindus, but to most Indians. He had played an important role in simplifying the story of Rama and making it understandable to the common public.

He was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Like the influence of Shakespeare on the English literature, Tulsi Das' literary works have had an enormous influence in India. However, while Shakespeare's works have been the subjects of an enormous amount of studies and analysis, Tulsi Das did not receive much academic attention. In the recent decades, there has been some attention towards Tulsi Das' work but often it is in mythological terms rather than historical. It also tends to make a manipulative use of his works to justify specific political and religious ideologies that support conservative Hindu worldviews.

However, the biography of Tulsi Das written by Amrit Lal Nagar, presents him as a more humane and progressive thinking, creative and mystic person, who was shaped by his early life experiences of marginalization and exclusion. In the book he comes through as a person of his times. At the same time, he is someone, who was also linked to some of the key progressive figures of those times.

Note: I have translated from Hindi the different passages from the Book quoted in this article. I have tried to remain faithful to the sense of the phrases rather than doing literal translation.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Scam with a touch of humour

We are all familiar with the email based scams where they write to you saying that you have won some lottery or the rich widow is dying and has decided to leave you her inheritence. I sometimes stop to admire these emails - the sense of irony and humour they sometimes contain is absolutely marvellous. I Especially remember some of the emails originating in Nigeria!

Here is an example that I found in my mailbox today:

"Attn: Beneficiary,

I am John Dagogo Chairman Debt recovery and settlement mainly on lotto, inheritance and contract payments. The recent meeting of world economic leaders in Davos Switzerland agreed with African leaders present that there is need to pay compensation to the above category of victims in other to qualify African countries for debt forgiveness from the G20 and G8 countries,

The compensation is to be made by the Federal Government of Nigeria and some other bodies like the Nigeria National Petroleum Co-operation (NNPC), Dagote Group of Companies (DGC), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Federal Ministry of Finance, due to the scam the citizens of Nigeria and other West African countries has done on the internet.

The selection of the people to be compensated was made randomly via internet, so if you receive this mail that means you have been selected among the lucky ones to receive the sum of FIVE MILLION UNITED STATES DOLLARS (US5,000,000.00).

Note that all necessary documentation to make the withdrawal of the fund legal and free from any breach of the law will be your responsibility. Kindly contact me with the following information for the claim of your fund.

I will advise you make sure your fund gets to you through the normal process to avoid any problem in future, so please you have to abide to all information as directed.

John Dagogo"

I love the references in this scam-email to Davos, G8, G20 and promises of debt forgiveness. And I really love the reference to compensation for the scams carried out by Nigerian citizens - it is a masterpiece! Is this email an example of a sense of self-deprecating humour or is a scammer from another country pulling the leg of his Nigerian brother/sister?

I really don't know who would believe such a letter but perhaps some of us do and immagining millions in our bank account, fall in this honey-trap. I do not believe in such messages and my recommendation is that when you receive such messages, cancel them straightaway and never write back.

However, at the same time I can smile and express my appreciation at the scammer's sense of humour!


Monday, 9 September 2013

Human anatomy and royal coat-of-arms

Archi-gymnasium or the old university is one of the key buildings in the city-centre of Bologna in northern part of Italy. Though unassuming from the outside, it is also one of the most beautiful buildings of the city. It includes the old anatomy hall which had played an important role in modern understanding of the human body and the evolution of medicine.

Many persons feel a macabre fascination for scenes of post-mortems in TV serials about crimes, police and medical investigations. In fact such TV serials are very popular. The anatomy hall of Archi-gymnasium can be considered as a medieval equivalent of such TV shows because, at that time, cutting up of the human bodies was not just about scientific knowledge, it was also about public entertainment.

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Join me in this "history-arts-science tour" to discover this wonderful place.


It is full of coats-of-arms of the royal and noble families of Europe that cover its walls and roofs, creating a wonderful baroque effect. Thus, you can also call it "Coat-of-arms museum" of Bologna.

The word "gymnasium" originated in Greece, where athletes used to practise naked (gymnos). With passage of time, athletics, education and medicine were seen as part of one group of activities for developing the mind and the bodies of persons. Thus, they started to use the word gymnasium for education institutions also.


After a short corridor, the entrance leads to a square-shaped courtyard surrounded by porticoes. The building extends mainly in a horizontal direction, parallel to the street outside. However parts of the building on the ground floor are not open to public.

A pair of stairs are located on the two sides of the building leading to the upper floor. Both the stairs are like a kaleidoscope, completely covered with bright colours of coat-of-arms. (Below, a view of the roof of the left-side stairs)

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Across the entrance, on the first floor is the anatomy hall, while two corridors in the front lead to smaller rooms and some big halls. Thus, it has a simple layout that gets its charm from the symmetry of the square courtyard and the gentle porticoes, adorned with colourful coat-of-arms.


Bologna university started as a law school in 1088 AD, and was considered as the oldest university in Europe. The first university statute was approved in 1317. At that time, university education was structured along two main disciplines - Law (including civil law and canonical law) and artistic studies (including philosophy, medicine, mathematics, physical and natural sciences).

In 1562, when Bologna was part of the Pope's empire, it was decided to build the Archi-gymnasium to bring together all the schools scattered in different parts of the old city. It was called "the new school building".

The law faculty was considered more prestigious and thus they occupied the rooms along the main corridor, while artistic disciplines were considered less prestigious and they were given the rooms on the opposite side, on the back of the building. There were rivalries between the two groups of students and thus, to avoid mixing with each other they were supposed to use seaparate stairs.

In this period, visiting and studying in Italy and more specifically in a university like Bologna or Padua was considered essential for the education of sons of all royal and noble families of Europe. Universities like Bologna were responsible for the scientific revolution of Europe that started in renaissance. For example, the archi-gymnasium was linked to the studies of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), that led to the understanding that electric current causes muscle contraction. It was also linked to Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), a naturalist, who is called the father of geology. (Below, a night view of the left-side portico of archi-gymnasium facing the street entrance on the ground floor)

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

In 1838, Archi-gymnasium became the municipal library of Bologna, while university schools were shifted to other buildings.

Some of the important events held in this building include the first execution of the music concert "Stabat Matar" of Gioachino Rossini in 1842 - that hall is today known as the "Stabat Mater hall". In 1888, the 800th anniversary of Bologna university was also celebrated in this building. (Below the Stabat Mater hall)

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

The archi-gymnasium building was damaged when Bologna was "liberated" from the Pope's reign by the army of of Napoleon. However, more serious damages occurred in 1944, during the allied bombings, during when some parts of the building were destroyed, and were rebuilt after the war. You can make out these rebuilt parts of the building as they do not have the frescoes.


The archi-gymnasium building has the world's largest collection of coat-of-arms from different countries - it has about 7000 of them. These coat-of-arms represent kings, barons, dukes, lords and other nobles of Europe and some other countries. Each coat-of-arm can be the object of a research to understand the meanings of its symbols, why they chose a particular motto to represent them and what happened to that family.

For example, I was curious to see if an Indian prince had ever come to Bologna university for studies and if his coat-of-arms is represented here. I did find a couple of coat-of-arms that could be Indian. (For example, the coat-of-arms on the left side in the image below, has the title "Indorum" (Indian) written on it and the logo has an upright tiger in two colours, while the name of the student is Caesar Castaldius Mutinensis - the name is not Indian, though it could have been from Goa, or may be he had some links with India?)

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

I have seen some research papers on individual coat-of-arms displayed in this building but I have not seen any comprehensive studies on the whole collection. To research the seven thousand coat-of-arms would require a huge effort.

Some of the coat-of-arms are very curious like the ones in the image below. On the right side, the coat-of-arms represents someone from Gallorum (Wales) and its motto is "Non semper imbris" (Not always it rains) and the logo shows a timid sun peeping through the clouds - I wondered why would a royal family choose such a coat-of-arms? The coat-of-arms in the centre is from Portugal and its motto is "Nec tibi nec michi" (Neither you nor I), and it shows a man plucking a fruit from a tree, while a dog is ready to jump on him - once again, I asked myself, why would a royal house choose such a coat-of-arms?

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

If you are curious about such things, you can spend days or weeks in the archi-gymnasium peering at the coat-of-arms and trying to guess their histories.


The anatomy hall is the jewel-in-the-crown of the archi-gymnasium - it is exquisite with wood panels and carvings.

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Teaching of medicine was introduced in Bologna university in the thirteenth century. Till then the texts of Hippocrates and Galen written in pre-christian era were used to understand anatomy, though they were based on the study of animals. Dissections of human bodies started in Italy around thirteenth century. Bodies of hanged criminals were usually used for dissections. The first public human dissection in Bologna was carried out by Mondino de' Liuzzi in 1315, who later wrote a well known manual on this subject.

At that time, this anatomy hall was not there, only some temporary structures were built and then removed. The dissection of human bodies was done in public - it was like a fair or an entertainment event, in which public came to watch. It was also organised as a part of the carnival festivities. 

Andreas van Weasel (1514-1564), a Flemish anatomist, is considered the father of modern human anatomy. He had also taught in Bologna university for some time. Around that period, anatomy classes were organised in 16 lessons, during which professors read from texts, while surgeons used to make incisions and show those parts of the body to the public and to the medical students to illustrate the text.

However, the church that ruled Bologna in that period was not always happy about human dissections. For example, Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1546-99), a professor of anatomy and surgery at the Bologna University, was famous for his plastic surgery techniques. His book "De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem" (The surgery of defects by implantation), printed in 1597, was the first European scientific treatise on plastic surgery. The Church regarded plastic surgery as an interference in the divine affairs and thus Tagliacozzi was excommunicated.

The decision to set up the first anatomy hall in the Archi-gymnasium was made in 1595. That first anatomy hall  was later demolished. Since large number of persons were coming to see the dissections of human bodies, in 1631, it was decided to make a second and a bigger anatomy hall.This is the anatomy hall that you can still visit in the Archi-gymnasium. It is a rectangular room, with a dissection table in the centre and the teacher's podium on the right side. This hall was used till 1803, when the anatomy department was transferred to Palazzo Poggi on Via Zamboni.


The anatomy hall is lined with fir-wood panels and has different statues on the side-walls and the roof. The side-wall statues are at two levels and include famous doctors from the antiquity such as Hippocrates and Galen, as well as famous doctors from Bologna university including Mondino de Liuzzi, Marcello Malpighi and Gaspare Tagliacozzi. (Hippocrates statue in the image below)

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

The roof has the statues of the Greek god of medicine Apollo in the centre, surrounded by 14 constellations including Gemini, Virgin, Sagittarius, Aquarius, Leo, Boote and Andromeda, as shown in the two images below. This indicates that in those early centuries of scientific understanding, most people still believed in astrology and the influence of stars.

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013

Finally on the speaker's podium on the right side of the hall, there are two statues of the "Spellati" (Without skin) showing the main groups of muscles of the human body. These were made by Ercole Lelli in 1734, a sculptor famous for his wax-statues used for studying anatomy. You can admire many more works of Ercole Lelli at the science museum of Bologna in Palazzo Poggi on Via Zamboni.

Archi-gymnasium, Bologna, Italy - images by Sunil Deepak, 2013


This part of the post is not about Archi-gymnasium, but rather it touches on another aspect of human history, that is to put into wider historical perspective the role of the anatomy hall in Bologna.

Though we often think that globalisation and exchange of information and skills between countries is something recent, the history tells us of antique links between far-away cultures and countries. Thus, I think that science and human knowledge do not move and develop in isolation, but rather different parts of humanity contribute to this process.

The Charaka-Sanhita (The treatise by Charaka) and the Sushruta-Sanhita (The treatise by Sishruta) in India are among the oldest known medical treatises. They are part of Ayurveda (the Indian science of medicine), going back to pre-christian era. Charaka-Sanhita deals with medicine and has only a few passages on surgery. The Sushruta-Sanhita deals with surgical knowledge and describes seven branches of surgery - Excision, Scarification, Puncturing, Exploration, Extraction, Evacuation, and Suturing. It also touches on nose-surgery (plastic surgery), eye-surgery (ejection of cataracts) and the study of anatomy in the dead bodies.

An Egyptian papyrus from 1600 BC has shown that the ancient Egyptians also knew about anatomy of human organs like heart, liver, spleen, kidney and hypothalamus. The ancient Egyptian techniques of mummification required taking out of the internal organs and placing them in separate jars.

Bows and arrows first and rifles and guns later, allowed people to wage wars on the others from a distance, but for the most parts of the human history, fights were by direct combat including through the use of swords and other sharp-edged weapons. The Mayan practice of sacrifice included taking out of the victim's heart. These practices must have provided additional opportunities to the ancient vaidyas, shamans and barber-surgeons for learning about human anatomy.


I think that a part of my fascination for the Archi-gymnasium depends upon my background of being a doctor. When you join a medical college, usually anatomy is the among the first subjects that you study and the anatomy dissection hall is the first contact between the medical students and the human bodies.

I still remember my first look at the body of a woman in the anatomy hall of the medical college in India and the sensation of giddiness as our teacher had shown us how to make the first skin incision. The pungent smell of formalin-soaked human bodies and our nervous laughs as we had learned to open them for learning, are still vividly etched in my memories.

Yet, I think that my love for this beautiful building goes beyond the affinity for the anatomy hall. For the culture and the art enthusiasts also, the Archi-gymnasium offers so many treasures. These developments in sciences also had an impact on arts such as paintings and sculptures - knowledge of anatomy, geoglogy, physics of the light, all of them transformed the way artists painted and sculpted. For example, in another post about paintings in San Giacomo church of Bologna, I have written about the influence on artists of the works of Aldrovandi in  the areas of natural history and geology.

So if you are visiting Bologna, keep some time for a slow and lingering visit to the Archi-gymnasium and you may also like to take a look at my other posts about Bologna!

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