Language of the God

When the Assyrian army of Senecherib invaded Jerusalem, he sent his cupbearer, his Rabshakeh, to the walls of Jerusalem where he had a parley with the representatives of Judah. 2 Kings 18:26 and Isaiah 36:11 details what happened next.

 Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.”

This is the first reference to Aramaic in the Bible. Aramaic was the dominant language of the Mesopotamia for more than 3000 years. It was the lingua franca of the Assyrian Empire, Babylonian Empire and the Achaemenid Empire. It was the refined language of polity and religion. In some sense it played the role similar to one played by French in the 18th and 19th century CE. After the fall of Kingdom of Judah in sixth century BCE (586 BCE), Aramaic started being used increasingly in Israel as well. Few books of the Hebrew Bible notably Daniel and Ezra are in Biblical Aramaic.

Aramaic is not a single language but has numerous dialects that were spoken during different times in different regions. Some of the dialects are close enough to be inter-understandable (A new Word!) while others are too different. Modern Hebrew script is based on the Imperial Aramaic Script.

During the time of Jesus, Aramaic was the common language of the Jews. Even the modern translation of the New Testament has many Aramaic words with thankfully their native translation given alongside. To quote a few

Mark 5:41 (The miracle of Daughter of Jairus)

 And taking the hand of the child, he said to her, “Talitha kum”, which translates as, “Little girl, I say to you, get up.”

Matthew 27:46 (Jesus on the cross)

Around the ninth hour, Jesus shouted in a loud voice, saying “Eli Eli lema sabachthani?” which is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Another interesting reference occurs in Mathew 5:18

 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

It is believed that jot refers to Yudh, the smallest letter in Aramaic script and tittle refers to Waw, the second smallest letter. Both of the these characters were frequently forgotten to be written. This biblical verse is the origin of two common idioms; “not one iota” (iota being the smallest Greek letter) and “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s”.

The Aramaic also appears in the form of Hosanna which means save or rescue.

Many personalities of the Bible including Thomas (comes from Aramaic tômâ meaning twin), Barabbas (Son of the Father), Bartimaeus (Honorable son – Timaeus is Greek for honorable) have their roots in Aramaic. Places like Golgotha (Place of the skull, where Jesus was crucified) are also in Aramaic.

In fact, the most likely real name of Jesus was Yeshua or Joshua or Yehoshua, all meaning “to rescue”, with its roots in Aramaic.

Indian Locomotives

[Edited to add image of a WDS6 shunting engine]

Last week while travelling through the gorgeous Konkan Railways, I had the chance to see multiple types of locomotives which made me think on the different locomotives in the Indian Railways.

American Locomotives Company (Alco) was a dominant locomotive manufacturer in the USA that became defunct in 1969. Prior to going under, Alco exported WDM-2 to the Indian Railways in 1962. The Diesel Locomotive Works in Varanasi has been building these locomotives since 1964. If you are an Indian and if you are asked to picture a train engine, it is more than likely that you would picture one of these beasts. These engines are the most numerous engines in the inventory of Indian Railways.

WDM2 – You can see WDM2 written on the engine

But what does WDM2 stands for? The naming scheme of the Indian Railway engines, at a higher level, is as below

First Letter – Denotes the gauge of the engine, W stands for Wide (Broad) gauge, Y for meter gauge and Z for narrow gauge

Second Letter – Denotes the motive power, D stands for diesel, C for DC electricity and A for AC electricity

Third Letter – Denotes the type of carriage that the engine pulls, M stands for Mixed, P for passenger and G for Goods

Fourth Number – Chronological model number, post 2002 it denotes the HP in combination with the fifth letter.

Thus WDM2 stands for Wide Gauge, Diesel Engine used for both passenger as well as freight train whose model number is 2. The five digit engine numbers are also grouped basis the engine type. For example the high speed, high power electric engine WAP-4 used to haul the faster and longer Shatabdi and Rajdhani Express are numbered from 22201 onwards.


 The engines pull in either the Long Hood or Short Hood mode. In the long hood mode, the driver cab is at the back of the engine as shown for WDM-2 below

WDM2 in Long Hood
WDM2 in Long Hood

While in the short hood mode, the driver cab is at the front of the engine.

WDM2 in Short Hood showing Ditch Light and Buffer
WDM2 in Short Hood showing Ditch Light and Buffer

The Mumbai Suburban railways do not use a separate engine but instead work on Electric Multiple Unit or EMU that has electric traction units on one or more of the carriages. The electric traction units are situated below the antenna like thing that connects to the overhead wires.

WDS6 - Shunting engine
WDS6 – Shunting engine

Fun facts :

The two smaller lights at the lower half of the engine are called the Ditch Light. They are generally placed at the same width as the rail tracks thus providing reflection of the tracks. These were used to view obstructions on the track on curves or ditches in mountainous regions. These lights flash alternately when horn is sounded to make the train more visible.

The two rounded “Things” that connect the engines to coaches or between rakes are buffers to reduce the shocks. I used to think in my childhood (some adult must have told me) that those things are magnets and that is how the rakes are attached to each other. I used to wonder how is that the magnets do not affect the iron rails or why are the magnets not covered with nuts and bolts and other sundry iron items that gets attracted to them. Instead it is the coupling that connects the rakes.

 The Indian Railway Fan Club website ( is a good place to know more about the Indian Railways

The Yellow Emperor

The Battle of Banquan took place sometime around 2500BCE, perhaps near modern day Yuncheng in Shanxi province. The battle was between the tribe led by the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and the Flame Emperor (Yandi).

The Chinese mythical hero Shennong, whose name literally means Divine Farmer taught farming as well as knowledge of herbs to the people. Shennong is considered to be amongst the Three Sovereigns known for imparting essential knowledge to mankind. It is believed that Shennong was the first of the Yan Emperors. The lineage lasted for perhaps more than 500 years from Shennong to the last Yan Emperor.

Shennong eating herbs to identify their properties
Shennong eating herbs to identify their properties

Yellow Emperor or Huangdi improved the lot of nomadic people by imparting knowledge of building shelter, taming of wild animals (he apparently tamed six special beasts, bear, brown bear, pi and xiu (Pixiu), Chu and tiger), building of carts, boats etc. He is also credited with growing of five Chinese cereals though some sources credits Shennong with this. He also invented Chinese calendar, astronomy, musical instruments, math calculations and also helped invention of Chinese character writing system.

Huangdi - The Yellow Emperor

Huangdi – The Yellow Emperor

The Yan emperor led his tribe in a campaign to conquer the nearby tribes who promptly turned to the Yellow Emperor for protection. Three battles were fought, last of which was the Battle of Banquan which resulted in the defeat and murder of the Yan Emperor and unification of the two tribes under the Yellow (Huang) Emperor. The new tribe was known as Yan Huang. Descendants of Yan and Yellow Emperor is a term to denote the Han Chinese people. The confederation of tribes was known as Huaxia which is an ancient term to refer to the Chinese civilization.

The fame of the Yellow Emperor led to the conflict with the tribe of Nine Li under Chi You. Chi You was some sort of supernatural creature who some believe was descendant of the Yandi (Yan Emperor). He could have been leader of an allied tribe of the Yan Emperor. He had 81 fierce brothers which may mean 81 allied clans. The resulting battle between the Yellow Emperor and Chi You was the Battle of Zhuolu.

Chi You

Chi You

During the battle, Chi You brought forth a thick fog which resulted in initial losses to the Huaxia. The Yellow Emperor then invented a South Pointing Chariot that helped orient the troops to the correct direction and brought them out of the fog. The South Pointing Chariot was a non-magnetic contraption. The chariot is first set up pointing towards South and then each twist and turn of chariot triggers a gear mechanism that keeps the pointer towards south. Chi You then brought down and ferocious storm. Yellow Emperor called upon her daughter, Nuba, a drought demon who dispelled the storm. Chi You was slain by Yinglong, the winged dragon.

Due to his ferocity in battle, Chi You was revered as the God of War. The tribes that were united under Chi You were dispersed or assimilated into the Huaxia tribes. Many Far Eastern people including the Koreans consider Chi You as their ancestor.

The Yellow Emperor thus established the primacy of the Huaxia tribe and laid the foundation of the Han Chinese civilization.

Cyrus The Great

As we have seen , many of the emperors of the land of Sumer and Akkad crowned themselves the King of the Four Corners of the world. None deserved this title more than Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, the  First Persian Empire. His empire stretched from Hellespont in the Dardanelles, to the Israeli coast of Mediterranean Sea to the Azerbaijani, Iranian and Turkmen coast of the Caspian Sea, all the way up to include modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and to the east Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cyrus was perhaps the most honorable emperor in history.

Cyrus The Great
Cyrus The Great
Standard of Cyrus The Great
Standard of Cyrus The Great


The founder of the Achaemenid dynasty was purported to be Achaemenes, a shadowy figure which some historians believe to be a product of Darius’s imagination, created to give legitimacy to his rule. Achaemenes had a son Teispes, who captured the Anshan and enlarged his kingdom to include Pars proper. Teispes had a son Cyrus I who inherited the throne of Anshan. Teispes had another son Ariaramnes who was ancestor of Darius the Great.

We have already seen the rise of Cyrus. We will now look at how Cyrus conquered his way to create the greatest empire of his time.

Croesus was the king of Lydia in Asia Minor during the early half of sixth century BCE. Croesus was known in the early Greece for his legendary wealth – As wealthy as Croesus. Due to various events in his life, he became a more mythical figure in classical antiquity. Once Solon, a Greek philosopher and statesman, had an audience with Croesus. Croesus showed him his wealth and opulence and asked him “Which man is happy?”. Solon replies that there are three who are happier than Croesus: Tellus, who had children and grandchildren and who died old, gloriously fighting for his country; Brothers Kleobus and Biton, who pulled the oxcart containing their mother who wanted to attend the festival of Hera. Pleased by their devotion, their mother prayed to Hera to give her children the best gift the Gods can give to a Mortal. Hera gave them immortality, figuratively, by letting them die peacefully in their sleep during the festival, thus ensuring that they would be remembered as heroes and their fame would live on, giving them immortality. Croesus was obviously not satisfied with the answer that Solon gave. Tyche (Fate) had other things in mind for Croesus. Croesus gave refuge to a Phyrgian prince, Adrastus. Adrastus was the son of Gordias (Of Gordian knot fame) and had killed his brother in a fit of rage. Croesus had a vision that his son, Atys, would fall victim to an iron spear and had prevented him from participating in any war and had married him off early to continue the line. Atys convinced Croesus to let him go on a boar hunt. Since the boar would not obviously carry a spear, Croesus let him go. During the hunt Adrastus tried to spear the boar but missed and killed Atys instead. Adrastus begged Croesus to let him be killed ritually as a penance which Croesus refused. Unwilling to live with the blood of another innocent on his hand, Adrastus committed suicide.

Now this Croesus looked at the rise of Cyrus and was in two minds whether to accept the sovereignty of Cyrus or oppose him. He asked the Delphic Oracles whether he should attack Cyrus. The Oracles replied that if Croesus crosses River Halys (The treaty boundary of Lydia and Media), he would destroy a great empire. The answer was clear enough for Croesus. He made an alliance with the Nabonidus, the Chaldean of Babylon, Spartans and Egyptians and attacked and captured the Median city of Pteria. Persians tried to incite revolt in Lydia using the Ionian Greeks, which failed. Cyrus then marched on to the city Pteria. The resulting battle was a stalemate and Croesus retreated to his capital of Sardis. In those times, armies withdrew during the Winter months and reformed for attack in the spring. Cyrus, however wanted to give Croesus a surprise party and marched on to Sardis.

North of Sardis, near Thymra, the two armies met. As an aside, Thymra was the location of a famous temple to Apollo where Achilles murdered Troilus, whom fate had linked with the city of Troy, thus foreshadowing the fall of Troy. Thymra was also the temple where Cassandra had received her prophetic visions. If you have seen the movie Troy, this was the temple on the beach where Brad Pitt’s Achilles cuts of the head of statue of Apollo and captures Cassandra.

Cyrus’s army was outnumbered 2:1 in the battle with his ~200,000 strong army facing ~420,000 Lydian alliance troops. Cyrus had maintained his army in a loose square formation with the strong camel and cavalry in the rear with he leading the right rear cavalry. The square contained the Phalanx, archers, slingers and archer towers and perhaps the Persian Immortals as well. Chariots were front and center. Croesus on the other hand had his Egyptian infantry in the center and elite cavalry on the flanks. The chariots were facing the Persian chariots.

Battle of Thymbra
Battle of Thymbra

Croesus attacked with the chariots and his flanks to envelope the Persian center not realizing the potential of the elite shock troops at the rear of the Persian lines. Soon after, Cyrus’s rear cavalry attacked the flanks that had developed cracks due to archer fire from the square as well as overextension. The scent of the camels in the Persian rear left flank caused the horses on the Lydian right flank to panic. This resulted in the right cavalry of Lydian army to fight dismounted. Heavy attack by the Persian cavalry flanks resulted in Croesus’s flanks dissolving and fleeing. Persians then enveloped the Lydian infantry which surrendered after a valiant fight back. The remaining Lydians fled back to Sardis.

The siege of Sardis lasted for 14 days after which the entire Asia minor including the Greek colonies of Ionia was annexed into the Persian empire. Legend has it that Cyrus ordered Croesus to be burnt alive on a pyre. Croesus remembered his conversation with Solon and realized the fickle nature of fate called out “Solon!” three times. Puzzled by this outburst, Cyrus asked the pyre to be extinguished without success. Apollo then intervened and a great downpour snuffed the fire. Apparently Croesus then became a loyal adviser to Cyrus.

Persian Empire before the conquest of Babylonia
Persian Empire before the conquest of Babylonia

Nebuchadnezzar II, the Chaldean king of Babylon, the destroyer of the First Temple, built a wall from the Tigris river to the Euphrates river, called the Median Wall, to protect the city of Babylon. The wall was reportedly around 20 feet wide and 100 feet high and stretched from the city of Opis to the Sippar (See map below for the locations). Neo-Babylonian empire of Chaldean Nabonidus was the only remaining power in the Mesopotamia in conflict with the Persians. It was thus critical for Cyrus to bypass the Median Wall via Opis in his drive for supremacy in the Mesopotamia.

Invasion of babylon
Invasion of babylon

The conquest of Babylonia was a culmination of Cyrus’s publicity campaign portraying his as a just and tolerant ruler in contrast with Nabonidus as well as his campaign of bribery to bring the regional governors of Babylonia under his fold.

The armies of Cyrus and Nabonidus met near Opis as per the Nabonidus Chronicle. The details of the battle are not given but it resulted in the defeat of Babylonians probably a complete rout. There is mention of a massacre but whether it is massacre of Babylonian Army by Cyrus or of Babylonian citizenry by Cyrus or a brutal crushing of a possible revolt by Nabonidus is not clear. Cyrus Cylinder though portrays Cyrus as peacefully conquering Babylon. The contemporary evidence from Nabonidus Chronicle and Cyrus Cylinder are contradicted by later historical accounts that imply that a Cyrus laid siege to the city of Babylon and massive engineering works were undertaken to dredge the Euphrates to allow the troops to reach the city. This account though is not supported by any archaeological evidence.

After the conquest of Cyrus crowned himself the King of the Four Corners of the World. His empire was the largest empire that the world had ever seen.

Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus The Great
Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus The Great

Details of death of Cyrus is lost to history with Herodotus giving what appears to be a heavily fictionalized death in battle with Massagetae with their ruler Tomyris. Tomyris defeated Cyrus in the second battle and to avenge the death of her son, beheaded Cyrus and dipped his head in a vessel filled with blood to quench his thirst for blood. Herodotus, wisely adds a “disclaimer” that this was one of the many accounts of death of Cyrus that he had heard.

Cyrus was buried in his capital city of Pasargadae where his tomb still remains. Alexander the Great, visited the tomb after his conquest of Persia and Plutarch reports the below inscription on the tomb

O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones

Tomb of Cyrus
Tomb of Cyrus

Cyrus allowed the people of Israel who were uprooted and sent into exile by Nebuchadnezzar to return to their homeland thus earning him the title of “Lord’s Messiah” in the Jewish Tanakh. Cyrus innovations in politics and administration of the satrapy system of governance allowed governance of empires with massive size. Cyrus was an inspiration to many of the great politicians and emperors including Alexander the Great and Thomas Jefferson. Xenophon in his Cyropedia describes Cyrus as the perfect ruler.