Technology, History, and Travel


The streams of Shillong

Four years ago, when I was researching my dissertation, I spent a week in Shillong, capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya and formerly capital of Assam. Shillong is located at an elevation of 4,900 feet in the Khasi Hills, a part of the Meghalaya Plateau that rises between the flatlands of Bengal (Bangladesh) to the south and Assam to the north.

I spent time in Shillong because it is close to a dam I was studying, Umiam Dam. I was primarily studying the dam from a technological perspective, but since I was writing my dissertation, I wanted to consider it from every possible angle. This led me to think about the dam from an environmental perspective, which in turn got me thinking about the streams of Shillong.

Umiam Dam impounds a reservoir with a surface area of about four square miles, named alternately Umiam Lake or Barapani Lake. (Umiam is a Khasi word meaning “Weeping River”; Barapani is Hindi for “Big Water.”) The reservoir receives drainage from a catchment area of 85.5 square miles in the Khasi highlands. The city of Shillong is located within this catchment area.

I spent some of my week in Shillong walking around the city, trying to get a sense of the lay of the land. Two rivers flow through Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshyrpi, both joined on their way by innumerable smaller tributaries and drains. I made it a point to see both rivers.

The Umkhrah River is on the northern edge of the city. I had vague memories of walking by it on my first visit to Shillong, five years earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I didn’t even know its name. On this visit, I spent plenty of time walking along the river.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

Houses right next to the Umkhrah River.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A bridge over the Umkhrah River in Shillong.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

A still section of the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

One of the countless storm drains that empties into the Umkhrah.

The Umshyrpi River to the south is separated from the Umkhrah by a ridge atop which the main bazaars and government buildings are located.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi on the south side of Shillong.

A tributary of the Umshyrpi River on the south side of Shillong.

The Umshyrpi proper.

The Umshyrpi proper.

West of Shillong, the Umkhrah and Umshirpi join to form the Roro River, which subsequently flows into the Umiam River.

Both the Umkhrah and the Umshirpi are quite polluted, and this pollution washes down into Umiam Lake. You might have noticed trash in some of my pictures of the rivers. What you can’t see in the pictures, but is there, is untreated sewage. The town’s hilly geography and patchwork of tribal lands have mitigated against the construction of a municipal sanitary sewer. Septic tanks collect sewage from homes and businesses, and municipal workers or contractors carry the waste away in trucks for treatment. But when tanks leak or overflow, the sewage finds its way into the Umshirpi or Umkhrah Rivers, and thence into Umiam Lake.

Apart from Shillong, another significant source of pollution for Umiam Lake is the practice of jhum (slash-and-burn) cultivation, which removes vegetation cover on hillsides and thus leads to erosion.

A central government study of the lake in the early 1980s concluded that the water was of class C quality, which meant that it would need to be both conventionally treated and disinfected before being used as a potable water source.

Umiam Lake is a beautiful place, as it is ringed by misty, pine-forested hills. But knowing what I knew about the seemingly intractable problems of water pollution in the lake, I didn’t go into the lake much past my ankles.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

Your blogger standing in Umiam Lake.

The spirit of Gothic and Notre Dame of Paris

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

On Monday this week, the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris caught on fire. In what appears to have been a freak accident related to restoration work going on at the time, the cathedral’s medieval wooden roof caught fire and was totally destroyed. Initial news reports indicated that the entire church would be destroyed, but the bell towers were spared and the stone vaults over the nave remain mostly intact.

With this much of the structure remaining, it is obvious that the great church can and should be rebuilt. While the structure was still smoldering, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the people of France would rebuild the beloved cathedral.

How to go about the reconstruction is another question. It will clearly be an expensive undertaking that will entail many difficult technical and aesthetic questions. What materials and techniques should be used for the reconstruction? And what should it look like?

Some articles and editorials I have read assert that the church should be rebuilt exactly as it was before, even using the very same techniques used in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as erecting giant wooden frames in the nave for reconstructing the damaged sections of the vaults. I do not see the point of this. The High Middle Ages, when Notre Dame of Paris was built, was an era of technological innovation, with extensive use of machinery and even fossil fuels. If they could know, the master builders of Notre Dame would understand if we used steel scaffolding to rebuild their church.

In the same way, I feel that it is important that the rebuilt roof of Notre Dame should not be a slavish copy of the original. The spirit of Gothic architecture is one of creativity and inventiveness. President Macron expressed this spirit well when he declared that Notre Dame would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. Doing otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of Gothic and the High Middle Ages.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexanre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexandre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

How to sail from seventeenth-century Japan

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for Shusaku Endo’s 1980 novel The Samurai.

In October 1613, a ship set sail from Tsukinoura in northeastern Japan. The ship looked like a Spanish galleon and bore the name San Juan Bautista, but it had been built in Japan on behalf of a local feudal lord. On board was Hasekura Rokuemon, a minor lord who was dispatched as an envoy to Pope Paul V in Rome.

Shusaku Endo’s novel The Samurai (1980, trans. 1982 by Van C. Gessel) is a fictionalized account of Hasekura’s voyage from Japan to New Spain (Mexico), and onward through Spain to Rome. The novel does not stick closely to the historical facts (for instance, greatly compressing the Japanese delegation’s stay in Europe), but at any rate the facts are so sparse that Endo had to engage in extensive speculation as he crafted his narrative.

The purpose of the voyage is a central question of the novel. Hasekura and three other lance-corporals are sent to initiate trade relations with New Spain. One of the envoys, Matsuki, returns to Japan from New Spain. On several occasions before his return, Matsuki hints darkly that their mission is a cover for something else, because why else would such low-ranking officers be selected for this mission? The other three continue across the Atlantic and have an audience with Pope Paul V.

When Hasekura finally returns to Japan, he talks with Matsuki, who reveals the purpose of the mission. “Haven’t you realized yet that you were nothing more than a decoy dressed up to look like an envoy?” he admonishes Hasekura. “Edo and our domain never had trade with Nueva España as their main object. … Edo used our domain to find out how to build and sail the great ships.”

In Endo’s interpretation, Hasekura’s mission was cover for technology transfer. The Japanese wanted to learn how to sail European-style ships, and sending emissaries to new Spain was a way to do that without raising the Europeans’ suspicions.

It is a plausible interpretation, albeit completely speculative. The Japanese have long been prolific cultural borrowers, and technology has always been a part of what they are interested in borrowing. Shortly after Hasekura’s mission, Japan closed its doors to foreigners, and the country would remain closed for more than 200 years before being forced open by the United States in the 1850s.

But even during this period of isolation, the Japanese continued to allow the Dutch limited access to one port, and it was through this contact that the Japanese learned about European technology and industry. When Japan reopened to the world in the nineteenth century, the Japanese already had a head-start on understanding industrial technology thanks to the Dutch.

I don’t know if Shusaku Endo had this background in mind when he wrote The Samurai, but I expect that he did. In Endo’s own lifetime (he lived from 1923 to 1996), Japan readily adopted electronics manufacturing and became a world leader in the field. One can only wonder what might have happened with technology in Japan after the voyage of the San Juan Bautista, had the country not been closed to the world.

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