The Mahabharatha in Pictures

At 1.8 million words, the Mahabharatha is one of the largest epics – roughly 10 times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. At some level, this represents “big data”. Text is generally considered “unstructured” and therefore tough to analyse. But the growing field of text analytics and text visualisation tell us that there’s a lot more structure to plain text than one might think.

To begin with, a word cloud can tell us a lot about the story.


The story is obviously about a battle between great kings and sons, with the principal characters being Arjuna, Pandu, Bhishma, Bharata, Karna, Duryodhana, Yudhishthira, Vaisampayama, etc. That’s decipherable without having to read the text.

The structure that we gleam out of it arises from a frequency distribution of the words – i.e. a count of which words occur how many times. The word cloud plots the words at a font size proportional to the frequency of occurrence. (Wordle is a good place to create word clouds.)

Now what we know who’re the principal characters, the next questions are: where are they mentioned? Who’re closely related? etc.

Our Mahabharatha browser provides a simple interface to browse the full text of the Mahabharatha and find where the characters appear.


The Mahabharatha is made of 18 books, each with several sections. This visualisation shows each section as a block (the length of the block is proportional to the size of the section.) When you click on a character’s name, the positions in each section where they are mentioned are highlighted

This makes it easy to see where characters speak together (e.g. where does Kunti throw away Karna? Where does she meet him again? Did Draupadi really love Karna before her wedding? Was Arjuna really her favourite? Whom does Krishna favour? etc.) By clicking on the section, you can read the full text of that section.

The second question is, which characters are most closely related? Measuring closeness of characters is a difficult thing to do, even for humans. Fortunately, with text, we can rely on a proxy: how often are two characters found within a few words of each other.

If we take Draupadi as a benchmark character and check how often various people are mentioned within a few words of her, here’s what the picture looks like:


Each row has the name of the character (along with aliases). The first column shows the number of times they’re mentioned within 50 words of her. The next shows how many times they’re mentioned within 100 words of her. And so on. (All within the same section.)

A visual inspection suggests that many characters start fading off at a distance of 200 words, so perhaps 200 might be a reasonable boundary to consider. (This is arbitrary. But based on our subsequent analysis, we find that this parameter does not impact the visual result too much.)

By plotting a network of their closeness, one can get some insights about the structure of the tale.


Yudhishthira is clearly at the centre of the plot. Arjuna, surprisingly, isn’t. Apart from his close relationship with Krishna and Bhishma, his interaction with other characters is not as well spread out (despite his popularity in the epic.) Contrary to popular opinion, Bhima is mentioned quite often, and is fairly well-networked. Nakula and Sahadeva remain peripheral characters. Gandhari is nearly outside of the network, except for her connection with her husband Dhritarashtra, sister-in-law Kunti, and brother-in-law Vidura (with whom she seems to converse much more than with her husband.)

Another way of looking at this picture is through a correlation matrix.


This shows each pair of characters and the number of times they occur within 200 words of each other. The closeness between Nakula and Sahadeva is very obvious; so are Drona & Kripa; Dhritharastra & Vidura; Arjuna & Krishna. Draupadi is mentioned with Dhrishtadhyumna more than anyone else.

You can also see the blocks breaking up into two clusters of sorts – on the bottom right are the primary characters. They interact a lot with each other. In the middle are secondary characters, who again interact amongst themselves; and then there are the narrators on the top left. This is in line with the Mahabharatha discussing several side-plots with secondary characters in parallel with the main plot. The story of Dhrishtadhyumna, of Satyaki, Nakula and Sahadeva’s conversations, etc are examples of these. In fact, in a larger scatterplot, you can see many more tales emerge, such as Nala & Damayanti; Nahusha & Yayati; Uma & Daksha; Vasishta & Vishwamitra; Chitrasena & Vikarna; Virata & Uttara; Dhrishtadhyumna & Shikhandin; Parva & Sambhava; even Ravana & Vali.

If you are interested in seeing the full correlation matrix with all major and minor characters, please reach us at

Comparing school performance

Continuing the design jams, we had one at Akshara’s office last weekend. The dataset we decided to pursue was the Karnataka SSLC results, which we had for the 5 years.

We addressed two questions:

  1. How do Government schools perform when compared to private schools?
  2. How does the medium of instruction affect marks in different subjects?

When comparing Government and private schools, here’s the result.


Each box is a school. The size of the box represents the number of students from that school who appeared in the Class X exam. (Only schools with at least 60 students were considered.) The colour represents the average mark – red is low, and green is high.

What’s immediately obvious is that private schools perform much better on average than Government schools, what’s less clear is when this difference starts. The series of graphs below show the number of schools at various mark ranges. The first shows schools with an average of 0 – 30%. The next, from 0 – 40%, and so on until 80%. Then it shows schools with an average of 30% – 100%. The next, from 40% – 100%, and so on until 80% – 100%.


From the first graph, you can see that there are as many poor schools (average 0 – 30%) among the private and Government schools. But from the last graph, you can see that there are far more good private schools (average 80 – 100%) than Government schools.

So, there are poor performing schools among the private schools as well. However, there are very few excellent Government schools.

We compared the impact of medium of instruction against the subjects as well. The table below shows boxes for each subject taken under each medium of instruction. The size of the box represents the number of students taking that combination. The colour indicates the average mark (red is low, green is high.)


Clearly, Sanksrit is a high scoring language. (At least one person at the design jam chose Sanskrit for this very reason.) Kannada scores well too – especially as a first or third language; but not as well as a second language.

On average, English medium students have the highest marks, followed by Kannada medium students. Students studying other in mediums of instruction perform poorly in most subjects barring their language.

There’s clearly a strong correlation between the medium and the subject. Kannada medium students score high in Kannada, Urdu medium students shore high in Urdu, and so on. But while English medium students do score high in English, they tend to score much better at Kannada, Urdu and Sanskrit!

You can explore these results at http://gramener/karnatakamarks/

Composing data visualisations

How does one create new data visualisations? Apart from the art, is there a science to it?

Let’s explore a few popular charts. We have the vertical bar graph small-vertical-bar or the horizontal bar graph small-horizontal-bar. The stacked bar small-stacked-bar. The variwide or Marimekko chart small-variwide. The waterfall small-waterfall. The scatterplot small-scatterplot. The treemap small-treemap. And so on.

The first thing you’ll observe is that all of these are a series of rectangles. (We’re treating the dots on the scatterplot as little squares.) The only thing that varies across these charts is the position and size of the rectangles – and the colour as well.

That gives us a hint. Perhaps there are many ways of creating visualisations just by changing the position, size and colour of rectangles. For example the horizontal bar graph small-horizontal-bar can be constructed as follows:

  • The x position is constant for each rectangle. It starts at zero.
  • The width is proportional to the value of the series
  • The y position is proportional to the index of the values (1,2,3,…)
  • The height is constant for each of the bars
  • The colour is constant too.

Whereas, if we look at a horizontal stacked bar small-horizontal-stack, then:

  • The x position is proportional to the cumulative value of the series.
  • The width is proportional to the value of the series
  • The y position is constant at zero
  • The height is constant for each of the bars
  • The colour is based on the index of the values (distinct colours labelled 1,2,3,…)

Generalising this, we can construct a table like this that shows the structure of various visualisations:

Chart x width y height colour
Vertical bar chart index constant constant value constant
Stacked bar index constant cumulative value index
Waterfall index constant cumulative value constant
Scatterplot value constant value constant index
Horizontal bar chart constant value index constant constant
Variwide cumulative value constant value constant

That leads to a line of thought: what if we tweaked this table? Would we get new visualisations that might be interesting?

Let’s experiment with a few.

waterfall-variwideWhat if we took the waterfall chart, and made the constant widths proportional to value, instead? The waterfall chart shows a cumulative series of values (e.g. percentages). This new chart – a cascade chart – allows us to depict each bar’s relative importance as well as value.

boxesWhat if we kept the width, height and y constant, and just let the x values vary as the index? It would just be a row of boxes. But we’d have the option of colouring them with a value. This could be useful when showing performance along a discrete series (e.g. attendance by weekday).

boxesWhat if we allowed the x, y, width, height and colour to vary with a different value? The graph looks like a scatterplot, but every dimension here – position, size,  colour, even aspect ratio – indicates some informational measure.

This chart can, for example, show the position and spread of two metrics. For example, if the X-axis were sales, and the Y-axis were price, each bar could be the distribution of price and sales in a branch, with the colour indicating growth of the branch.

Just using the combinations discussed above, there are 75 possible types of visualisations – many of which are meaningful in different circumstances. And this is just using rectangles.

What we’ve done here is mapped data to attributes of a visualisation. This is part of a generalised approach to graphics, similar to that covered by Leland Wilkinson’s Grammar of Graphics and implemented in libraries like ggplot2 or D3. Once we establish that basic concept – that a chart is a mapping of attributes to data – the variety of charts you’ll be able to create is unlimited, and you move from being a user of charts to a composer of data-driven visualisations.