Noboru Karashima

Inspirational genius

Print edition : December 25, 2015

Noburu Karashima. Photo: M. Vedhan

The contributions of Noboru Karashima (1933-2015) have been a boon to researches on state formation and the nature of society in south India.

THE passing away of Noboru Karashima on November 26 has been a great shock to the world of history. It has created a void that can never be filled. One of the most dedicated and committed scholars, Karashima was drawn to south Indian history first by his graduate thesis on an aspect of Chola history. Most Japanese scholars had until then concentrated and worked on north India and Sanskrit works (sources). Apparently, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, a doyen of south India’s history, expressed his concern over the lack of proper interpretations of south India’s rich Tamil sources, especially inscriptions, which posed a challenge to the aspiring young scholar, Karashima, who could not resist, after his graduation from the Department of Oriental Cultures in Tokyo University, working on the Chola period. Thus he brought about a revolutionary change as the interest now shifted to south India and the Tamil sources.

His entry into India was first as an exchange student in Madras University, but soon he returned to Tokyo as a lecturer on Indian history in the Foreign Studies Department of Tokyo University. Since then his visit to India became an annual research journey to the extent that he made India his second home. He joined the ILCAA (Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa) in 1967 and worked at the Office of the Government Epigraphist and moved to Mysuru (then Mysore) when the Epigraphist Office was shifted there. In Mysuru, he settled down with his family for three years, fruitfully using the epigraphic records there.

Karashima’s entry into south Indian researches was marked by an important change in Indian historiography, when conventional and narrative history was being replaced by significant methodological changes and new approaches to Indian history in the 1960s. Karashima neither disregarded the merits of conventional methods nor did he hastily rush to experiment with new theories and analytical frameworks, which introduced feudalism as having emerged as an important theory for studying an agrarian system. Influenced by the Marxist approach, many Indian historians used the feudalism theory for the developing agrarian order from the 4th to 6th centuries A.D. when the land grant system was introduced. The interesting debate that ensued was undoubtedly influenced by the micro-level studies of Karashima. Although much criticised for such micro-level and regional studies, there is no denying that Karashima’s epigraphic studies have brought about a sobering influence on new theoretical frameworks, which need caution and solid empirical support to the characterisation of Indian economy and society, as these aspects are more related to the development of society and polity and have been given very little attention in conventional historiography—which concentrated only on narratives of dynastic/political history and lacking an integrated approach to history.

Karashima’s first major and seminal essay was on the nature of land rights in Brahmadeya and non-Brahmadeya villages such as Isanamangalam and Allur, which, along with other essays, was published in his first major work, History and Society in South India. A significant contribution was his paper on the emergence of private landholding in the last phase of the Chola rule.

Large corpus of data

Inspired by Karashima’s major concordance on revenue terms in Chola inscriptions followed others on personal names, designations and administrative terminology in early medieval south India, all of which have together become a large corpus of data, which have been a boon to researches on state formation and the nature of society.

In his computerised techniques and statistical analysis, Toro Matsui, an economic historian working on north India, provided welcome assistance and thereby the importance of interdisciplinary studies was established. His statistical analysis of thousands of Tamil inscriptions through computerisation led to a phenomenal change in the understanding of the nature of the incontrovertible evidence provided by epigraphic studies. Karashima was the specialist to work on the Kaveri valley in a major project on three river valleys: 1) The Ganga-Brahmaputra; 2) The Mahaveli Ganga in Sri Lanka; and 3) The Kaveri valley in south India. The project had a team of experts/specialists such as cultural anthropologists, historians, economists and geographers and their Indian associates. Field surveys in 1979-82 were a significant part of this project.

A natural sequence was this research on Vijayanagar history. Following the pioneer, Venkataramanayya, who used only Telugu sources, Karashima not only used revenue terms in the Tamil inscriptions but also extended it to Telugu areas. His work Towards New Formations (1992) is a landmark in Vijayanagar historiography. He classified the structure and functioning of the Nayaka system under Vijayanagara, which brought into clear focus the changes in Indian society. His work A Concordance of Nayakas (2002) also established the military rankings as also their control over land. In fact, he considered the 13th-14th centuries as representing the transition from landlordism to feudalism, though mainly of a military nature. Karashima’s interests went beyond the confines of south India, exploring “Chinese ceramics” (1987-89 and 2002) based on a chance discovery of a celadon ware, an important item in the Chinese trade. Thus came about another project on south India, South-East Asia, and trade guilds in south India and Sri Lanka.

Karashima encouraged team spirit in the Japanese academic institutions, and organised several field surveys on ancient and medieval commercial activities organised. With Indian association, Karashima’s works were recognised as major contributions to Indian studies by the government of Japan, the Mitsubishi Foundation and even the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), leading to the Indian state’s award of Padma Shri.

Karashima was a prolific writer in Japanese too. With the collaboration of his wife, Tukakko Lakshmi, he produced one of the most popular books, Watashita Chi no Indo (This is our India). Karashima’s family is known for its hospitality and all Indian scholars as well as others were given the most important amenities in Japan on their visits.

Even after retiring from Taisho University, he continued with his academic projects, and his work A Concise History of South India (2014) was published at a time he was critically ill. In the Toyo Bunko Research Department he completed a collection of papers on Medieval Religious Movements and Social Change, which was ready for publication probably as a posthumous contribution. More important was the international meet he organised in 2014 and the volume State and Society in South Asia, South East Asia and East Asia, edited by Karashima, with essays written by several scholars from all these countries with the essays being on comparative issues. He fell ill unexpectedly after this conference, yet followed it up till its complete printing, which again would be a posthumous publication. Both of these, along with his legacy of 11 papers, six independent works and eight edited works, which is the omnibus edition by Oxford University Press, would be a monumental contribution and fitting tribute to his unswerving and ceaseless academic pursuits. The world of history will sorely miss this great scholar.

R. Champakalakshmi is former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Y. Subbarayalu is Head of the Department, Indology, French Institute of Pondicherry. He was also head of the Department of Epigraphy, Tamil University, Thanjavur, and an associate of Karashima for 42 years.

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