Wednesday, July 11, 2012


A small winding road, leading to the erstwhile princely state of 'Javhar', originates from 'Satpur', the westerly suburb of modern industrial city of Nashik. Twenty Eight kilometeres down on this road lies the beautiful old temple of 'Trimbakeshwara'. This temple, constructed from black basalt stone, is an appealing specimen of fine temple architecture. As you enter the huge black stone courtyard of the temple, a legion of priests descends on you. They carry with them a special type of note book with myriad maze of handwritten entries. You may furnish to the priests, a little information about you, such as your full name and maiden name of your mother. They come out in no time with full details of visits made by your forefathers to the temple and in particular the exact religious functions or 'pooja' carried out by them. Even though the system of record keeping is remarkable, what surprises me most is the fact that, very many devotees who visit the temple, are actually interested in finding out these details. It is also curious to note, that later on, they usually carry out the same 'pooja' or religious function, carried out by their forefathers few decades before. I had always wondered about this inner need to connect to somebody in the family past.

Few years back, we made a journey to the 'Kokan' area on the western seaboard of India. Even though this trip was planned only as an holiday excursion, there was another hidden motive in my mind. I wanted to reconnect to a small part of our family history that had happened in a small forgotten town, located in the interior 'Kokan' region. I was fortunate enough to locate a small dilapidated house in that dusty little town. Luckily for me, the house was still habituated and was almost in the same condition as it must have been for last hundred years. With permission from the present occupants, I wandered throughout the house and finally reached the sanctum sanctorum. A small dark room where all the family deities are kept and worshiped. As I stood there, my mind raced back some hundred years in the past. This was the very place where my great grand father, still in his thirties, had died an early death. This was also the same place where, few years later, my widowed great grand mother and her orphaned six year old son had prayed to the family deity for the last time, before venturing out to a big city, looking for better future prospects. Spending those few precious moments in that dusty dark place had a strange impact on me. I felt that I was no longer just a survivor in an alien world. I belonged to those people from the past. I was connected to them. They were my roots.

Looking for your roots appears to be a very common human urge. It however has to be an emotional journey. Otherwise it does not serve any purpose. In an Indian society, bound rigidly with it's caste system, a surname automatically marks a group of people having common ancestors. Writing family history or tree of such groups is very common. How ever, what is achieved by drawing such family trees is very doubtful. Most of the people in such a group have nothing in common except the surname. They differ widely in their educational and social status and usually come from very different economic strata. Social gatherings of such groups naturally tend to be very dull and impersonal affairs. Emotional bond of any kind is totally absent. These studies however certainly help in finding some answers to the basic questions present in our mind. Who am I ? and Where from have I come ? The western societies are supposed to be totally class less. (At least in theory) and therefore have no such emotional platform. It is therefore virtually impossible to find one's roots even for last three or four generations. There are genealogical records kept. But if every one in a family tree has a totally different name, how can the lineage be ever traced. How ever, human mind is the same every where. And westerners are no less keen to find answers to these questions. No wonder that providing genealogical information has become a big business in western world.

But why stop at three generations. If I am residing in North India, I would be curious to find out about my ancestors. Who were my ancestors? Did they fight in Mahabharata war? Were they on Pandava's side or Kaurava's side?Were they Aryans? Did they come from central Asia? Or they were native Indians. If they came from central Asia, where were they before that? There is really no end to these questions. Unfortunately so far, there was no scientific method to answer these questions.

By analyzing the DNA , scientists have now found a new method of establishing genetic lineage. We all know that every human cell carries twenty three pairs of chromosomes inherited from the parents. The last pair of chromosomes is of particular interest. If the off spring is a boy he carries the Y chromosome inherited from his father. This also will be the only intact chromosome which he will pass on to his son. All male descendants in a family tree therefore carry this chromosome and establish a clear line of paternal ancestry. What has been found out now is that a very similar thing happens with female off springs. Each and every human cell including embryonic cells have a very similar structure. There is a cell nucleus which normally carries all the chromosomes. The substance outside the nucleus is called cytoplasm. In this cytoplasm there are small structures called Mitochondria. Surprisingly, Mitochondria have there own DNA. Every female carries a unique 'Mitochondrial DNA' inherited from her mother. This again is the only DNA that is transferred by her to her female off springs in intact form. 'Mitochondrial DNA' , therefore just like a Y chromosome, establishes a clear line of maternal ancestry. By putting special colour markers on the small mutations found in Y chromosomes or 'Mitochondrial DNA', it is possible to easily establish blood interrelationships between various groups and nationalities. In year 1991 a dead body was found in the snow covered Italian Alps mountains. The body was dated as about five thousand three hundred years old. Scientists managed to mark the 'Mitochondrial DNA' found in the bones of this body. Later on, an offer was made to public to match their 'Mitochondrial DNA' with the 'Mitochondrial DNA' found in this old body. Many volunteered and surprisingly three matches were found. These three people now know that the old body was that of one of their ancestors and they are also related to each other.

Another thing becomes very clear with these findings. In any one generation, besides immediate nuclear family members, the paternal male cousins or maternal female cousins are the only real blood relatives having a common gene. How clever is this arrangement made by the nature. During early human migrations, the groups of humans were isolated and small. For healthy propagation of the species, it was absolutely necessary to avoid birth of any off springs originating from parents having common genes. Since all real blood relatives are of same sex ( except off course the immediate nuclear family members) this could be achieved very effectively.

Applying this knowledge on a world wide scale, scientist have proved two major migrations to India both originating from Africa. One migration is from north Africa, Persia route and the other is via Europe, North Asia route. This conclusively proves, that the origin of all of us is a place in west Africa. If we want to find out the route by which our ancestors came to India, it could be done by our DNA analysis.

Finding our roots has now become a science. I can even find out, if I have a cousin in Turkmenistan or Zambia. I do not have to make emotional trips down the memory lane.

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