Sunday, March 07, 2010

Past through a coloured glass...

Chambers Dictionary defines a 'journey' as 'a process of travelling from one place to another'. It goes without saying that it is the traveller who decides whether or not the journey is complete; a decision that is made usually upon the basis of our visual sense, albeit auditory input play a role too.

For instance - Travelling by train from Nagpur to Raipur, I recognize Raipur by it's station first from eidetic memory. The railways PA system announcement of the station name contributes to the auditory input.

Travelling in the dark, passing hamlets, and towns are recognizable from visual signs of human habitation. Being diurnal creatures, this necessarily translates to light.

Back sometime in the 1980s a study was published that humans, like homing pigeons, had an innate sense of direction. Widely quoted, the study proved that a blindfolded uncued person would, almost unerringly, point in the correct direction of home when asked.

This study has since been refuted. We now know that few people are capable of such a feat without cues to the contrary. Given that evolution has not changed us significantly over the last few millenia, it stands to reason that our ancestors were as fallible as we. Sometime in the distant past, a Sailor's mate would place a burning lamp oriented so the sailor would know how to come home. The light-house at Alexandria served a similar function, a marker for the port of Alexandria in an otherwise unchanging landscape.

Powered flight, as we know it today, was demonstrated by Wilbur & Orville Wright in the United States of America. The first aviators, as all pioneers, had to learn on-the-job; there was no manual except perhaps instructions on how to take-off/land... and guess-work. The first fliers probably did not have the advantage of such mundane things as fuel-guages, fuel-burn status indicators, and their ilk; Flying was mostly a matter of having/developing the right feel, learning which direction the wind was blowing, and such. The first runways were probably meadows, or open grounds; Runways came into existence much later. The first flights too were mostly flown in daytime. According to Wikipedia the first runway was constructed at College Park Airport in 1909.. roughly 6 years after the Wright Brothers demonstrated their machine. Night flying was similarly pioneered by the USPS after they lost mail, aircraft, and pilots to inclement weather, and insufficient navigation aids.

The most important navigation aids were obviously those that allowed the pilot to know the location, and the perimeter of the runway. Common sensically, these aids are basically lights as a pilot, from the air, has a vantage point such that all below is dark... bar where a specific navigation aid is posted, or where the glow on the horizon beckons him to travel.

On the subcontinent, particularly to the followers of the Sanatan dharma, there are many theologically significant events which mandate a yajna. Deities are depicted travelling on such transport as the owl, the swan, the peacock and such; not all travel by air. The more hardy travel seated on a tiger, a lion, a bullock, even a mouse... but i digress. Regardless of the mode of travel, to one travelling by the light of the stars/moon, the glow of light would be a welcome beacon to signal civilization, and a place to spend the night.

From what little I know about ancient India, and rural cultures; Early to bed, and Early to rise was the norm. Early to bed would mean that soon after dusk, the continent would be uniformly dark.

Deepawali commemorates the return of Rama to his people. The commemoration occurs on the night of the new moon, and Rama is known to have returned to his people seated in a vimana flying day-and-night to ensure he reached his home before his brother discorporated in grief at his absence. Even before Rama, the same combination of season/moon was commemorated in similar manner to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi ( who travels mounted on an Owl.

Could it be that what we commemorate was not only the joy in the hearts of the people, but also a means to guide the vimana to a landing? An aircraft beacon?

Making this correlation ... speculative as it may be, dare I deem this to be proof that heavier-than-air flight existed on the sub-continent before Mssrs. Wright demonstrated their invention at Kittyhawk?