History. Spirituality. Earshot. Time. Cost. Social justice. Geography. How are these connected with distance?

In Hampi, during the latter part of the Vijayanagara Empire, in the 15th–16th century period, there was a great poet, philosopher, social commentator, and advocate of the bhakti movement. His name was Sri Purandaradasa (1484–1564). He lived a significant part of his adult life in Hampi. He composed and sang songs, as he went along the streets. In these songs, he propagated ideas of personal ethics, devotion, and ultimately – stemming from these – social justice. Among many of the geographical aspects of this great poet’s work, I am taking one today: distance.

In olden times, there were many measures of geographical distance – a quick search on wiki can give you much information. There was another one – an imprecise, but nevertheless used, unit called (in Kannada), koogu-doora (KD): shout-distance. It was the maximum distance between a shouter and an auditor (one who hears) at which the latter could hear and make out what the former had shouted. As with most things in life, T & C Apply! (Terms & Conditions Apply).

As a measure of distance, KD was certainly not precise (because of the T&C). Sri Purandaradasa uses the concept to promote spirituality. One of his songs begins: “Only one shouting distance away is Vaikuntha.” (Vaikuntha = the abode of Vishnu, some people call it Heaven, but it is basically a sacred place.) In his conceptualization, the T&C include: What is shouted? How is it shouted? These two T&C will make the distance longer or shorter. His answers to the two questions, respectively, “God’s name, Krishna”, and called out with devotion. What does it yield? If there is devotion, the distance between the shouter (devotee) and the auditor (God) is so reduced that the devotee’s heart itself becomes Vaikuntha (the abode of God). Thus, in his idea, the quality of how it is shouted can make the distance extremely near, Vaikuntha is at-hand. If not, it is far and difficult to get to. So, he uses the concept of distance to promote a spiritual life.

Other famous thinkers have used the concept of distance in different ways to convey spiritual ideas. Thinkers in the advaita school of philosophy hold that the distance between the divine and the individual is actually zero! That is, the individual and divine are one and the same.

Other distances

Asking “How far is it from Vidhana Soudha to the Bull Temple?” can provide a variety of answers: “It is 30 minutes by auto.” “It is 20 minutes by scooter.” “It is 30 minutes by car.” “It is 2 days by bus!” (Just kidding!) Time is used to measure distance here.

Many times in Chennai, I have asked the question “how far?” and been told: “It is 40 Rupees by auto.” “It is 15 Rupees by shared auto.” “It is 80 Rupees by taxi.” Money is used to measure distance in this instance.

Then we have quaint expressions to indicate something is very nearby: “hop, skip, and a jump”; “as the crow flies”; and my favourite Kannada expression that I love to translate literally into English: “If you trip and fall, it’s there only!”

Then there are other measures we use that are as imprecise as the ones I have just listed: 30 paces, 15 steps, 8 spans (Kannada: geynu), and so on. Imprecise, but they are useful. When playing hopscotch, or lagori, or street cricket, or some such game with your buddies, you don’t need exact distances. You use an imprecise measure and have great fun!

Apart from these, there are the distances we learned in our mathematics class – kilometres, millimetres, etc. These are standardized, precise measures. (For some reason, in the USA, they are still stuck with miles! I used to tease my friends by asking them questions such as, “How many furlongs away is the library from here?” They would give me a blank look!)

So, the methods for measuring distance is wildly varied. Which particular method you use depends on why you want to measure the distance.

More than measurement

When we traverse geographic distance, we are not just covering a linear measurement. We are experiencing a lot more. As with all things in life, experiencing geography also depends on context.

One kilometre, walking on smooth, flat terrain, in cool weather, wearing comfortable shoes and attire is one thing. If the terrain is not flat but has an upward slope, things can get very different very quickly. The steeper the terrain, the more arduous the one kilometre becomes.

Barriers on the path add to the experience of the distance.

Try walking in pitch dark, in unknown territory, and being afraid of wild animals. That one kilometre can seem endless! Or if you are desperately late for an exam, a train, a bus, a flight … the distance can seem much longer than what it actually is.

An exercise

In one of my workshops for students, I ask them go from the workshop location to a nearby location, usually another building on the same campus. They pair off and choose a method of going to the destination and returning. The method can be anything they like: hopping, running, walking in close steps, strolling, etc. (One student even chose to do cart-wheels!). They can also choose any route they like. They have to return within a stipulated time.

They record the time it took to reach the destination and the number of units (e.g.: steps, strides, jumps, cart-wheels, etc.) it took them to get to the distance. We then convert each person’s own unit to metres and calculate the distance in metres. This is called standardization – the different units can now be converted to metres and compared.

Then, we discuss what their experience of the distance was like for them. This is usually a lot of fun.

Next I hold out a bowl with pieces of folded paper in them. Each student picks one. They have to cover the distance again, this time, by following the guidance in the chit they have drawn. The chit may have various limitations. For example: “You are blind and have to depend on someone to guide you.” (I blindfold this person.) “You are from a different caste and you are not allowed to walk on grass.” “You are a woman and you have to walk only backwards.” Most of these lead up to questions of social justice and how those issues impact the geography of distance for people.

The discussion of their experience this time is usually very intense and shows new understanding of the concept of distance in geography.

Things you can do:

  1. Earlier, I said, “T&C apply.” For the measurement of distance using time (see examples above), what are the T&C that could affect how correct (accurate) the distance is? This is a thought experiment; just try to visualize the conditions in which you could mention the distance using time and see how it would vary.
  2. Partner with a friend and measure each other’s shouting distance in standard units (metres). Repeat this in different kinds of environments (park, school yard, near your home, etc.). Do the measurements always come out the same for each of you? Do they vary? What are the factors that affect the measurement?
  3. Try out the workshop exercise for yourself with one or more partners. Come up with the limitations yourself. Conduct the experiment. Reflect on the experience of the same simple linear distance without and with the limitations. What did you learn from that effort?
  4. Research and find out about the units of distances used on the seas. How are those units similar to, or different from, land-based units?
  5. Approximately how far is your home from your school, as the crow flies? Is that distance different from the actual distance you traverse? How? Is the distance you traverse from home to school different from the one from school to home? How and why?

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald, Student Edition, on 12 March 2015.


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