Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Weights & Measures

At the Indian market, it is common to see a heap of onions or a heap of potatoes that adorn the vendor’s sales platform. Somewhere further into the bazaar, you see a heap of red tomatoes and piles of green leafy vegetables. In summer, there’s heaps AND heaps of mangoes all over the bazaar! How do we take away from these heaps, the fruits or the vegetables we buy? At every stall, there is the metal weighing scale, the clatter of which is such a familiar sound in the market. Onions, potatoes and tomatoes are measured on this balance and sold by the kilo. But, the kilo was not always the measure of mass. 

Pan balances for sale in the market streets of Tiruvannamalai
Dr.Vasant Natarajan, Indian Institute of Science, in his research paper on ‘Standards Weights and Measures’ explains that in olden societies, mass standards were based on artifacts such as the weight of shells or of kernels of grain. The first scientific definition of mass adopted in the 18th century was the ‘gram’ defined as the mass of one cubic centimeter of pure water at 4 degree centigrade. It was important to standardise the weights and measures as trade between communities grew and therefore the efforts to create a system that was based on physical constants. 
The street bazaar at Triplicane in Chennai
The history of weights and measures sourced from the Wikipedia tells us that there have been the Pre-akbar, the Akbar and the British systems in India. During pre-Akbar period, weights and measure system varied from region to region, commodity to commodity, and rural to urban areas.     

The flower market in Georgetown in Chennai - Jasmines and Marigolds being sold in the early hours of the morning
The weights were based on the weight of various seeds (specially the wheat berry and Ratti) and lengths were based on the length of arms and width of fingers. Akbar realized a need for a uniform system. He elected the barley corn. Unfortunately, this did not replace the existing system. Instead, it just added another system. In the Akbar system 1 Ser = 637.74 grams and 40 Sers = 1 Maund (37.32 kilograms). Traditionally one maund represented the weight unit for goods which could be carried over some distance by porters or pack animals.
The counter balance with the vendor's cash desk at the main fruit and vegetable bazaar in Tiruvannamalai
At the Bazaar, there is the Baker’s scale or the Counter scale that uses the standard measure of weight - the kilogram.  In some places, you still find the pan-balance in use. There are several non-standard measures that the vendors create locally. There are vegetables and sprouted beans sometimes – each with its own standard for measure. 

Steel glass for measure along market at J.C.Bose road in Georgetown in Chennai
The drumsticks are sold by numbers. If they are grouped together for sale, its never more than two, because that’s what you need for a dish of sambhar for a family of four or six. Bananas are usually sold by the dozen. Green leafy vegetables are by the bunch. Everywhere, a bunch of spinach is Rs.5 or the coriander leaves Rs.3, but it’s someplaces a thicker bunch and that’s where you like buying the most. Its simply more value for money.
Ginger and chillis at the K.R.Market in Bangalore
At some markets, ginger is sold by weight and at some you see small heaps of ginger, which are of course created as an equivalent to a given weight for the price. Sometimes, small green chilli heaps are laid out by a vendor onto a wooden crate for sale. You can buy one heap or two and pay in multiples of the unit price for a heap. 
In the markets in Chennai, at Georgetown, I noticed that the steel glass was used as a measure for beans or lentils or gooseberries.
At the vegetable markets, you find that the vendor will always add a tomato or two extra after he has weighed the one kilo that you have asked for. Only because you are a regular, trusted customer. It makes you go back to him time and again. This is termed as clientization – establishing a relationship with a vendor whom you like. In the Indian Bazaar, the non-standardisation of measures contributes to enabling the clientization. You go back to the same vendor the next day or the next week because he handpicks the best for you from his heap and gives you a good price!

The Madras District Gazetteer for the Godavari region in Andhra Pradesh written in 1878 has a chapter on ‘Occupations and Trade’ which documents the Weights and Measures in the various talukas of Andhra at that time. For instance, for Bhadrachalam, it says : “Ghee and oil are sold wholesale by measure. The largest measure used for oil is the kuncham, and for ghee the seer."
Flower seller at Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalore measures a garland by the length of an arm, in Telugu referred to as 'One Mora'
"Butter-milk and curd are measured in small pots called miDithas. It is the practice in this district to set milk for curd in a number of these small pots, instead of in one large pot as is done in some southern districts, and the pots are sold separately. There are four usual sizes of them ; namely, the quarter anna, half anna, three-quarter anna and anna munthas, so called according to the price (and so the capacity) of each. Popular phrases to denote capacity are the closed handful, called guppedu or pidikedu and the open handful or chdredu. Fruits (mangoes, plantains and guavas), palmyra leaves, and dung cakes are sold by 'hands' - one hand or cheyyi being equivalent to five. Twenty cheyyis make one salaga, and for every salaga one cheyyi extra is thrown in as kosani or ' for luck."


Anu said...

nice one... with a very comprehensive set of pics!!

radha said...

So true, we do not have a standard measure across the country. In some parts of the country mangoes are sold in dozens, while in others it is by weight. Similarly green leafy vegetables. And not to forget the waste paper ( raddi) guy, who weighs the waste paper on his scale and then uses the weighed paper with extra weight as a measure.

I remember when I was starting home, we went to the steel shop and the guy weighed all the vessels and quoted a price. I was new to all this and was and still am bad at bargaining. He must have made a neat bit of profit and as he was packing the stuff, he threw in a whole lot of spoons, all of different sizes and shapes. I had this awful cutlery till I finally got myself a neat set much later.

Indian Bazaars said...

Anu: Thankyou.

Radha: Those are such interesting examples that you mention!

When we were in Chennai, we would call out to one of the raddiwalas who went by on bicycles or a cycle rickshaw (with the freight carriage in front) and then he would come up to your house and sometimes use a pan-balance or sometimes just lift the bundle of newspapers and pull out a ten rupee note! One simply never fussed about the weight. It was just a formality.

Sharon Colaco D'Souza said...

Such a lovely, interesting post! Love your blog!

R. Ramesh said...

hey this is a very interesting post ya...enjoyed being in this blog..best wishes to you friend..stay connected..:)

simply.food said...

Such an interesting post and very enlightening.Its great to learn how things are done in different countries.
Thankyou for dropping by simply.food your visit and coments are much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I did not realize that even after the introduction of the metric measures, how older measures were still in such common use until I came across an advertisement for land sale. It quotes kilometers, metres and feet for lengths/distances, kottahs, chataks and square feet for areas and prices in lacs (e.g. 2 lacs per kottah).

This is not an ancient advert, it was last updated Nov-20-11. To see it in full look here http://kolkata.quikr.com/9-Katha-13-Chataks-Residential-Vacant-land-at-Nilganj-Raod-Near-Barrackpore-W0QQAdIdZ78422954 .

I can see why so many exceptional mathematicians came from India if people have the ability to juggle with such a plethora of different sets of measure.

Well Done!!!!!!