The resistible rise of the office building

Who invented the office building? Frank Lloyd Wright was the first answer that Google mama gave me. I know better than to take the word of this mamu too seriously. A little probing, and then it seemed to be a toss up between East India House and The Admiralty, both built in London in 1726 CE. I wasn’t going to settle for that either, because I know that the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was built to be Uffizi, offices, in the 1560s, and became a museum only in the 18th century.

By the 16th century the Mughals were busy laying down an administrative structure for all of India. Their record keeping is remarkable, and the book of their administrative rules, the Akbar Nama, is the best source of ancient recipes that I know of. We only see their tombs and palaces now, but the innumerable rooms in their palaces would have housed offices. That tweaked something in my memory, and I went back to remind myself of the administrative structure of the Mauryan empire. My memory was right; in the years immediately following Alexander’s retreat from India, the Mauryas developed a complex administrative structure with extensive record keeping. Unfortunately the only structures which survive the couple of thousand years since their times are memorials. But these are unlikely to be isolated examples. Surely, every successful empire must have developed a bureaucracy, and offices, and office buildings.

So what’s the fuss about the demise of offices? Ah ha. That’s another matter. That has to do with large businesses modeling themselves after imperial bureaucracies. That fancy could be European, and, at first thought, may even be laid at the less-than-clean hands of the British East India Company. Although I believe that if you look a little more carefully, you will find that Venice did it a century or two earlier. So, if you follow that thought, then the office building started with the rise of capitalism, is its most visible symbol, and, if it disappears, would probably signal the end of this form of social organization. So I would bet that it is not going away soon. All this about co-working spaces, and working out of a Starbucks, is just a niche, like money changers working out of temples. Any takers?

Malwa in Ancient History

I first saw the Malwa plateau in a monsoon eight years ago. Even in that flat leaden light, the area looked beautiful. In the lush green meadows nurtured by two months of gentle rain, trees were in bloom. I was then visiting medieval ruins: just the perfect time of the year if atmosphere is what you are interested in. Now, as we plan to go back to the area to visit much older places, I began to wonder what is the earliest reference to this area that I could find. The nearby temple town of Omkareshwar was certainly recorded in the 8th century CE. Ujjain is older, and temples there are recorded in the Skanda Purana, and so must be older than the 7th century CE.

But Ujjain was the capital of the Avanti republic during the lifetime of the Buddha, and is well recorded in the literature from that time, preserved by Buddhist monks. Nothing seems to remain of the mud ramparts of the city which were recorded in the 7th century BCE. Malwa enters into the larger history of the world through Ashoka, who was sent as governor by his father, the Maurya emperor Bimbisara, to Ujjain in the middle of the 3rd century BCE. There is extensive documentation of his marriage to Devi, a daughter of a merchant from nearby Vidisha, and the birth of his first two children, Mahendra and Sanghamitra, in Ujjain. The two children were emissaries who carried Buddhism to Sri Lanka, from where it spread eastwards to Myanmar and beyond.

There are records of a Buddhist stupa built in Ujjain soon after the death of Gautama, so sometime in the 6th century BCE. I can find no record of it today. The only mention I can find of stupas here is from a recent newspaper article discussing archaeological digs exploring Mauryan era remains in the nearby Vaishya Thekri. I wonder whether I will be able to visit that. If the dating is correct, then it is three centuries older than the stupas at Sanchi.

But humans have inhabited this land for longer. There are nearby digs which are beginning to yield objects from the Chalcolithic period, not older than the 10th century BCE. This begins to bridge the incredible gap between Avanti and the age of ancient dinosaurs and marine fossils. Interestingly, a fairly complete hominin skeleton was found under this dramatic landscape. The so-called “Narmada hominin” was long thought to be the remains of Homo erectus, but has begun to reignite debates about the evolution of Homo sapiens. There must be also be artifacts from much later prehistory buried in these hills.