What, no elephants?

Updated Thursday, 6th March 2008
Bob Spicer in Lucknow reflects on a violent past, a promising academic future and prohibitions on elephantine access.

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The winter high-pressure cell over the cold, high, Tibetan Plateau continues to work its magic. Dry air cascades down over the Himalayas and out across the plains of India, warming as it does so. The result is that here in Lucknow we have day after day of sunshine and, as spring develops, the temperature rises day by day until, sometime in late May or June, the summer low develops over Tibet, the air-flow reverses, and the monsoon rains arrive. Our daily high is already approaching the mid 30s Celcius and Lucknow is bathed in a lethargic yellow haze.

I spent Saturday morning walking around the ruined British Residency where, in 1857, part of the First War of Indian Independence took place. This was the site of the famous “Siege of Lucknow”. Over a period of 140 days around 2000 people died within the boundaries of the Residency, victims of cannon and small arms fire, disease and the heat. The remains of the buildings still bear testament to the violence; the cannon shot and bullet holes still evident, but today the scars are softened by time and the carefully tended gardens of magnificent Bougainvillea flowers and roses. Somehow this gentler present seems appropriate following such a violent history.

The ruined main residency building, Lucknow The ruined main residency building, Lucknow

Within the grounds of the Residency there still exists a crumbling, but still functional, mosque. This is in contrast to the remnants of the pseudo-gothic Christian church built from local red tile bricks, where only the bases of the buttressed walls a few feet high are discernible. In the churchyard itself most of the victims of the siege were buried, but today the only visible monuments record the lives of the officer class, their young brides (most in their twenties), and young children. Missing is any reference to the ordinary soldiers or indeed the many Indians who also died in the siege.

On leaving the Residency I noticed a sign that I had missed as I entered. There, very politely, visitors were informed that it was not appropriate to bring their elephants on to the site.

That evening I was invited, by printed card, to attend the Palaeontological Society of India Professor M.R. Sahni memorial lecture in the adjacent Department for Geology, Lucknow University. The lecture was presented by Prof. P.K.Saraswati of the . There are several IITs around India and they represent the pinnacle of science and technology education and research in the country.

The lecture was on the way that foraminifera are capable of fractionating oxygen isotopes differently depending on the season and the stage they are at in their life cycle. This research clearly showed that, when looking at ancient isotopic signatures that can be used for determining ancient sea temperatures, great care should be taken. Simply analysing bulk rock samples or a single whole foram is likely to give potentially erroneous results. The trends may well be preserved but absolute temperatures might be in error. A sobering thought for those of us who research past climates and how they might inform our knowledge of future climate change.

The Indian Government has just announced the creation of three more IITs and sixteen more ordinary universities. Clearly it is a country willing to take on the world as far as science and technology is concerned and, with over a billion people to choose from and where education is still valued by society, can be assured that it will have large numbers of people capable of taking advantage of the highest level of training possible. I am struck by the similarities between India and China in this respect, and feel rising concern for the future of the UK as a knowledge-based society when the competition has so much potential and is investing so heavily.

Shopping mall

The Lucknow retail temples are clearly not elephant friendly.
[Image © copyright Bob Spicer]

On Sunday, across town and after weaving to and fro across monkey-bedecked bridges that criss-cross the Gompti River, I visited one of several new temples to consumerism: shopping malls, that are springing up in Lucknow. All the British and international high street names are there. There too elephants are forbidden.


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