地缘贸易博客This blog considers how ideas and events framed by geography and trade shape our world, while sharing observations and analysis on discovery, transport, industry and much more.

Sunday 22 April 2012

The Indian Sub-Continent – marked by geography and hinduism

Map of the land mass of the Indian Sub-Continent

It is interesting to note that Indian Sub-Continent has remained, very nearly, the land bordered by the Himalayas to the north, the Indian Ocean to the south and the great rivers the Indus and the Ganges on either side. Many of the modern maps of the Indian Sub-Continent area came from traders travelling to the Moghul empire in the early 16th century. Traders sketched small-scale maps of the India Intra Gangem—the land between the Indus and Ganges rivers as the map below shows along with the earliest civilizations around the Indus River. 

Natural Geographical Features of India

But mapping the Indian Sub-Continent has not been limited to the natural geographical features of the land, in fact, many earlier maps exist of the Indian Sub-Continent were made to mark the lay out of the routes to popular pilgrimage centres known as dhams from as early as the 8th century AD. These maps provide an interesting lens through which to view the Indian Sub-Continent by combining the natural features that delimit the geographical area of the Sub-Continent with the marks that Hinduism has made on the land.

Hinduism in the Indian Sub-Continent

Many of the Hindu pilgrimages have been around for centuries. This point is illustrated by the fact that the land is filled with holy places. There are seven sacred rivers, including the Ganges. On its banks is Varanasi, one of seven holy cities, which itself is guarded by 56 shrines to Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed god. The body of Sati, a goddess, is said to be scattered at 108 sites throughout India. And 12 places across the country claim to have one of Shiva’s jyotirlingas—an immeasurable column of the Hindu god’s light.

Interestingly the word "Hindu" is derived from the name of the river Indus, which flows through northern India. In ancient times the river was called the 'Sindhu', but the Persians who migrated to India called the river 'Hindu', the land 'Hindustan' and its inhabitants 'Hindus'. Hence the religion followed by the Hindus came to be known as 'Hinduism'. According to historians, the origin of Hinduism dates back more than 5000 years. Hinduism is commonly thought to be the oldest religion in the history of human civilization.
It is generally believed that the basic tenets of Hinduism were brought to India by the Aryans who settled along the banks of the Indus river about 2000 BC. Hinduism does not have any one founder or any one core doctrine that is used to resolve controversies. Furthermore, it does not require its adherents to accept any one idea. It is marked by an attitude which is able to accommodate many different religious and cultural perspectives other than ones own. It is also characterised by a rich variety of ideas and practices resulting in what appears as a multiplicity of religions under one term 'Hinduism'. 

Perhaps one of the most important legacies of Hinduism is to allow the geographical area of the Indian Sub-Continent with its immense ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity to be joined together.  

Thursday 12 April 2012

New York's Manhattan Grid - a blueprint for the US' biggest city

Aerial view in 21st century of the Manhattan Grid started in 1811

Before it could rise into the sky, Manhattan had to first create the streets, avenues and blocks that would later support the 20th century skyscrapers. In the early 19th century, New York's population was continuing to increase having tripled to 96,373 since 1790 mostly due to the growing port. It was then predicted that 400,000 people would live in the city by 1860. The City planners were entrusted with planning the city in 1811. They proposed a grid for the future city stretching northward from roughly Houston Street to 155th Street in the faraway heights of Harlem as the layout in the photo (above) and map (below) show.

Manhattan Grid Plan

The Grid Plan

The grid plan is a type of city plan in which streets run at right angles to each other to form a grid. The Greeks and Romans used City Grids as did the Chinese from 1500 BC onwards. The Chinese Tang Dynasty laid out their capital city in a grid plan.

The Roman model was also used in Spanish settlements during the exploration of the Americas. In 1573, Felipe II compiled the Laws of the Indies to guide the construction and administration of cities in the Americas. The Laws specified a square or rectangular central plaza with eight principal streets running from the plaza's corners. The grid plan became popular with the start of the Renaissance in Northern Europe. In 1606, the newly founded city of Mannheim in Germany was the first Renaissance city laid out in the grid plan as the map below shows. 
Mannheim Grid Plan

Why use grids?

An inherent advantage of the geometry of a proper grid is its tendency to provide regular building space in well-spaced sequences. This maximises the use of the land of a block without affecting street frequency - any frequency of streets produces the same packing effect. Furthermore geometry also minimises disputes over lot boundaries and maximises the number of lots that can front a given street.

Another important aspect of street grids is that traffic flows of either pedestrians, cars, or both, only cross at right angles. This is an important safety feature, since no one entering the intersection needs to look over their shoulder to see oncoming traffic. Hence the grid is a geometric response to our human physiology. It is highly likely that the original purpose of grid layouts comes from the Athenian Agora where the laying out of market stalls into regularised rows at right angles solved the problem of frequent wagon collisions that occurred when the markets were laid out randomly in a field with traffic approaches at odd angles.

New York's Manhattan Grid

The Manhattan grid plan was a far-reaching, visionary and daring plan to urbanize the geographical limits of the Island of Manhattan.The plan called for a regular grid of streets and property lines without regard to the topography of the island itself. This included numbered avenues running north and south roughly parallel to the shore of the Hudson River. The avenues would begin with First Avenue on the east side and run through Twelfth Avenue in the west. There would also be 155 orthogonal cross streets. 

Interestingly, Manhattan’s grid is not perfectly regular. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street. Some avenues are wider. Broadway cuts diagonally across the north-south streets, and those cuts have made room for public spaces (Union Square, Madison Square, Herald Square, Times Square, Columbus Circle, Verdi Square). 

New York’s grid has proved flexible enough to adapt when the city’s orientation has shifted north-south, and flexible enough to accommodate the creation of Central Park which interestingly was not a part of the original grid plan. It was not until 1853 that the idea for a large area of green space for leisure activities was envisioned.
One of the advantages of the Manhattan city grid is that it makes a complex place instantly navigable. Manhattan invites long walks, because walkers can judge distances easily and always know where they are. In contrast other cities such as London which are formed from historic agglomerations of villages, often include vast stretches of nowhere land as they sprawl in ways that discourage easy comprehension and walking. 
Finally, perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the Manhattan grid is that it gives order through physical form to a city filled with a diversity of ideas, concepts and people from so many different places. It is not likely that this is exactly what the original city planners had in mind back when they proposed that the Manhattan Grid should "promote the health of the City" back in 1811.  

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Kazakhstan - a booming Central Asian Republic

New Foster designed Entertainment Centre in Astana, Kazakhstan's capital.

The five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have collectively gained an immense strategic importance over the last two decades, thanks to their geography and vast deposits of natural resources including oil, gas, uranium and gold.

The 16m citizens of the oil-rich Kazakhstan have plenty to be proud of. Growth has averaged 8pc a year for the past decade, a far better performance than the other Central Asian economies. Average income per person is now over $11,000 a year, twice as much as Turkmenistan and six times more than Uzbekistan, which, with 28m people, is the region’s most populous country. This puts Kazakhstan among the ranks of middle-income nations.

Kazakhstan is already the world’s biggest producer of uranium. It is set to join the world’s top ten oil-producing countries, when the giant Kashagan oilfield in the Caspian Sea comes on stream soon. So far the country has managed to balance cleverly between its giant neighbours, Russia and China, and the US and Europe.

But who are the Kazakhs and what of their ancient nomadic culture?

Map of regions of Kazakhstan

Ancient Greeks had a word for the people who lived on the wild, arid Eurasian land area stretching from the Caspian Sea to the border of China. They were nomads, which meant “roaming about for pasture.” They were wanderers and, not infrequently, fierce mounted warriors. Essentially, they were “the other” to the agricultural and increasingly urban civilizations that emerged in the first millennium B.C.
As the nomads left no writing, no one knows what they called themselves. In any case, historical records show that their literate neighbours looked down on the nomads and considered them to be in an intermediate or an arrested stage in cultural evolution. They had taken a step beyond hunter-gatherers but were well short of settling down to planting and reaping, or the more socially and economically complex life in town. But archaeologists in recent years have moved beyond this mind-set by breaking through some of the vast silences of the Central Asian past. Findings in graves from as early as the eighth century B.C. show that the Kazakhs maintained networks of cultural exchange with powerful foreign neighbors like the Persians and later the Chinese. 
The first US exhibition devoted entirely to the nomadic culture of ancient Kazakhstan opened in March 2012 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) in New York. Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan focuses on the people of the Altai and Tianshan Mountain regions, located in the eastern part of the country, from roughly the eighth to first centuries B.C. Featuring around 250 artifacts, the exhibition dispels the notion that nomadic societies were less developed than sedentary ones. Rather, they are revealed to have been highly sophisticated, with strategic migratory routes, active networks of communication and cultural exchange with their neighbors. 
Artifacts range from bronze openwork stands, superbly decorated with animal and human figures; to “petroglyphs” or rudimentary drawings, which marked important places in the landscape; to dazzling gold adornments that signified the social status of those who wore them. One of the highlights is the recently excavated, but never-displayed material from a fourth–third century upper-class burial-site in Berel, near the Russian/Chinese border, where permafrost conditions enabled the preservation of organic materials. The exhibition contains some 120 artifacts from this rich site.

Beginning in the third century B.C., Chinese luxury items, like the Wusun diadem, appeared in nomad burials, mainly associated with Han dynasty. According to Chinese accounts, the Wusun nomads may have furthered contacts between Central Asian nomads and Han China, at the time expanding westward and in need of horses in its campaign against borderland rivals. The below video provides more insight on the Central Asian nomads and images from the exhibition.