Kerala’s past

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Perumals of Kerala. Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy: Political and Social Conditions of Kerala Under teh Cera Perumals of Makotai (c. A.D 800-A.D 1124), By M.G.S. Narayanan, Cosmo Books, Thrissur, 2013, Pages: 512, Price: Rs. 1,395.

The book is regional history at its best, written without any sentiments of regionalism, and placing Kerala within the larger context of south India.

THIS book has been awaited for more than four decades now. It was available with the author as a typescript for an extremely limited readership to consult. He got a few copies printed for private circulation in 1996 and that whetted the readers’ appetite further. It has finally reached the reading public. But it is worth remembering that it was written in the early 1970s; it has thus to be placed in that historiographical context. However, it is not dated. While that is a huge compliment to the book, it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Kerala.

A shift in the writing of history in Kerala, which was dominated by tale-telling, came about with the advent of Elamkulam P.N. Kunjan Pillai in the second half of the last century. Making an exhaustive study of inscriptions dating from the 9th century onwards, Pillai was able to fix the chronology and sequence of the rulers mentioned in them. He also identified, with the help of literary texts and inscriptions, these inscriptions as those of rulers who belonged to a single dynasty ruling the whole territory of present-day Kerala from Mahodayapuram, identified with modern Kodungallur. He christened this political formation the “Second Chera Empire” or the “Kulasekhara Empire”. A new era in the historiography of Kerala was born.

This violently uprooted the very foundations of the earlier construction of Kerala history. According to Pillai, it was not just political unity that characterised the period. Progress in the fields of science and literature, emergence of the Malayalam language, cultural and religious advancement achieved through institutions such as temples and schools and movements such as the Bhakti movement, hospitals and banks that remind one of a welfare state, democratic and autonomous bodies of local government, pieces of legislation aimed at ensuring the security of tenant farmers, other programmes intended to ensure social justice —Pillai did not leave out any ingredient in the recipe for golden ages prescribed by nationalist historians.

This was the latest knowledge available of Kerala history when M.G.S. Narayanan began his doctoral research, the results of which are embodied in this book. He started off with the premises of Pillai, but he went far beyond them. The result is a masterpiece. This monograph stands out for many reasons. First and foremost, there is an uncompromising commitment to historical method. There is no single statement that the sources will not support; there is nothing the warranty of which can be questioned. The range of sources used in the study is astounding. Apart from making the inscriptions, many of which the author discovered and deciphered, speak louder and clearer than earlier, he also uses literary texts such as Mushikavamsakavya or scientific treatises such as Laghubhaskariyavyakhya for historical reconstruction in any serious manner.

In the same manner, although the hymns such as Adiyula, Tiruvarur Mummanikkovai, and Ponvannattantadi of the royal Saiva devotee, Cheraman Perumal Nayanar, and Perumal Tirumozhi and Mukundamala of Kulasekhara Azhvar were known to devotees and historians, it is here that they are rehabilitated in the history of Kerala against a south Indian background. Again, the plays of Kulasekharavarman receive a similar treatment at his hands.

Brahmin migration

Apart from this near perfection in heuristics, the hermeneutical aspect of the use of the sources is also worth mentioning. While earlier scholars, including Pillai, had rejected the accounts in Keralolpatti as so many legends and so much of superstition, Narayanan looks at them as a kind of expression of historical consciousness. He shows that the story that Parasurama reclaimed land from the sea and donated it to Brahmins is seen all over the west coast, from Gujarat down, and sees it as an indication of a gradual southward migration of Brahmins along the west coast, carrying with them the Parasurama tradition.

Of the 64 Brahmin settlements mentioned in Keralolpatti, 32 are said to be in the Tulu-speaking region of South Canara in present-day Karnataka and the remaining 32 in Kerala proper. Most of the latter figure in the inscriptions and literary texts of the period of the Cheras and later. So also, even when he rejects the story of the 12-yearly Perumals, he does not throw overboard many statements about the Perumals of Mahodayapuram. He subjects to detailed analysis the story of the last of the Perumals partitioning the kingdom and fleeing to Mecca even though he does not take it as accurate history. He realises, and demonstrates, that rather than taking a position of “either right or wrong”, what the historian should do about such legends is to look into their social function and analyse them accordingly.

Where does this book stand out? First of all, it succeeds in placing developments in Kerala within the context of south India, the subcontinent and the whole world. What existed in Kerala at that time was no “empire”, received wisdom notwithstanding. This is not mere quibbling: its implications are far-reaching. For one thing, it points to the political formation of the day. In the context of the empire of the Cholas in the east and of the Rashtrakutas in the north-east, this revision presents the political situation in Kerala with a realistic sense.

So also, Narayanan revises the chronology of many rulers and even suggests that the order of succession in that dynasty was matrilineal, a suggestion whose implications are serious. He shows that the last of the rulers, Rama Kulasekhara, went up to A.D. 1124 as against Pillai’s suggestion of 1102. It is not as if the difference of 22 years is of great significance. It gives a continuity of political history between the rule of the Perumals and the minor principalities that followed. He also shows that Pillai’s notion of a “Hundred Years’ War” has no basis. To have used this expression, occurring in the history of Europe in a totally different situation in the context of this small region, is the result of a lack of rigour in thinking and familiarity with history.

Narayanan demonstrates the unequal nature of relationship between the Cheras and the Cholas and the changing nature of these relations. Rejection of the notion of a hundred years’ war also means the rejection of the causal explanations of Namboodiri landlordism, matriliny, devadasi dance and, so on, which are based on it by Pillai.

Narayanan subjects the political structure to re-examination as well. Contrary to Pillai’s notion, an empire, or even a centralised kingdom, cannot be seen under the Perumals. He appreciates the role of a council of Brahmins called Nalu Tali, mentioned in Keralolpatti and attested by inscriptions both on copper and stone as well as by literary texts. In fact, he brings out the role of the Brahmin settlements controlling vast estates of land in the fertile river valleys that had come up by the end of the eighth century and shows that the differentiation in society, of which these were the agency, was behind the formation of the Chera state. He sees these settlements as the power behind the Chera throne. Besides the king and this council, a junior prince called Koyil Adhikarikal and a body of trusted bodyguards known as Ayiram (thousand) are seen to be in close association with the Perumals. The importance of the latter goes beyond the detail of the organisation of polity.

The analysis of the revenue system of the Perumals is masterly. So also the policing system under that state is studied in detail. Both conform to the framework within which the political formation is analysed. Another of this monograph’s major achievements is the way in which it situates the local chiefs known as natutaiyavar and natuvazhumavar in the inscriptions. Narayanan identifies 13 natus, starting with Kolattunatu in the north. They looked after the governance of the localities. They fought the Perumal’s wars; they were present in his court when crucial decisions were taken. It was with them that the real power resided. The jurisdiction of the Perumal was confined to Mahodayapuram and its environs. Thus, he appreciated the significance of the royal playwright, Kulasekharavarman, describing himself as Mahodayapura-paramesvara (Supreme Lord of Mahodayapura) and Keraladhinatha (Overlord of Kerala).

This totality of understanding informs his analysis of the economic and social processes as well. In examining these aspects, the insights of writers such as D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma are clear, although it is not a mere transposition of their ideas to the context of Kerala. The basis of economy consisted in the agrarian villages. The temple-centred Brahmin settlements and the land which the Brahmins controlled as both devasvam (god’s property) and brahmasvam (Brahmin’s property), the private demesne land of the members of the ruling houses, land given away as service tenure to the different functionaries of temple and the state —this is how land was distributed. An examination of the inscriptions, a vast majority of which are from temples and relating to brahmasvam and devasvam, made it clear that Brahmin ownership of land in Kerala was at least as old as the age of the Perumals. The 32 Brahmin gramas mentioned in Keralolpatti were temple-centred agrarian corporations and so were many more of them mentioned in the inscriptions. Pillai had missed this important fact on account of his lack of familiarity with the situation in central and northern Kerala in formulating his thesis on the evolution of the janmi system in Kerala.

It is not at the cost of understanding trade and urbanism that Narayanan highlights the role of rural agrarian corporations. Evidence of the presence of Jews and Syrian Christians in Kerala for purposes of trade was well known early on; historians have waxed eloquent about the “religious tolerance” of Kerala on the basis of this. Narayanan places the evidence of such presence contained in the epigraphical material and other lore realistically within the context of the international trade that was happening at the cusp of the second millennium. He also brings out the support that the Chera state received from these groups of traders. The rulers received them with open arms for the wealth and prosperity they brought in. It was not altruism of any kind that made them accommodate these people of different religious persuasions. To quote him, “charity began at the marketplace....”

Narayanan shows convincingly that the agrarian settlements, centred on temples and controlled by Brahmins, were the building blocks not only of the economy but also of the social structure and political organisation. They followed the rules laid down in the Dharmasastras to the last letter in matters of organisation and administration as in other parts of south India. It is here that he deviates widely from the construction of Pillai, who had conceived a democratic structure in which both Brahmins and non-Brahmins had equal place. Above these village assemblies were the assembly of the natu, identified in the hundred organisations, and the multi-tiered democracy went on like this.

A precedent quoted in a large number of inscriptions, called Muzhikkala kaccam, was taken by Pillai as intended to safeguard the interest of the tenants. Narayanan shows that this was another vyavastha typically on the lines of the Dharmasastras. It was when the Brahmin sabhas lost their corporate character, and individual idiosyncrasies and selfish interests began to replace their communitarian character that Brahmin landlordism of the later period made its appearance. A non-existent hundred years’ war lost its relevance as a causative factor behind the rise of landlordism.

Matrilineal system

Another phenomenon that Pillai had explained with reference to the hundred years’ war was the matrilineal system. According to him, when the non-Brahmin elites went to the warfront, the Brahmins capriciously appropriated their landed wealth and women. They introduced the matrilineal system so that their children through the non-Brahmin women did not cause any division in their property. Narayanan shows that there is no evidence to support this proposition; nor is it possible that such an important social change as in the system of inheritance can be brought about by a political event like a war, even if it had taken place. Alternatively, it is likely that certain people of Kerala followed the matrilineal system just as many tribal and other people elsewhere in the world. He shows that the succession in the historical portions of Mushikavamsa is matrilineal; so also he suggests that the royal house of the Perumals probably followed the matrilineal system of succession even in the ninth century, long before the supposed hundred years’ war. So also, the devadasi system was shown as sharing features with its counterparts all over India and as having nothing to do with any war.

This monograph is not confined to the political or socio-economic aspects of the history of Kerala in the three centuries. It also looks into the intellectual and cultural developments in this period. The great advantage of the book is that it is regional history at its best, written without any sentiments of regionalism. The region of Kerala is placed within the larger context of the subcontinent and thus a template for writing regional history is crafted in these pages. And the detailed catalogue of the inscriptions, given in the “Index to Cera Inscriptions” towards the end of the book, is itself so valuable that it has been rightly hailed by none other than Professor A.L. Basham as “a contribution to knowledge more valuable than many PhD theses”.

That said, it must also be noted that the subtitle, Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy, contradicts the contents of the book. It stays as something of a blot on it. It was not present in the monograph’s earlier avatars. The huge body of evidence in the text, so masterfully marshalled and analysed, goes against this formulation. The Author’s Note tries to defend it by making a reference to one of the articles. That article—this reviewer happens to have edited the volume in which it appeared—is, unfortunately, ridden with contradictions at empirical and theoretical levels. The author has shown in the text that what obtained in Kerala under the Perumals was a monarchy typical of the early medieval formation in the subcontinent; and that is what the weight of evidence tends to suggest. This subtitle, as well as the article on which it is based, presents it totally differently.

When the title (or subtitle) of a book is not at peace with the text which it caps, it is better to give up the former than lose the valuable text for whatever reason. Narayanan had himself done it in the case of the same monograph by rejecting “Kulasekhara Empire” in its title when he submitted it as a doctoral dissertation. If he shows that rectitude again (I am sure another edition is not long in coming), this monograph will remain a model for regional history for many more years to come.

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