From the Archives

Trends and gaps in studying south India

Print edition : December 25, 2015

As Chairman of the International Association of Tamil Research, Karashima holds discussions with Tamil Nadu Minister for Finance V.R. Nedunchezhian in connection with the VIII World Tamil Conference held in Thanjavur in January 1995. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Noboru Karashima, a 2003 photograph. Photo: R. Ragu

At the Kerala Council for Historical Research in Thiruvananthapuram on July 19, 2007, Karashima discusses with KCHR Chairman K.N. Panikkar (right) and Director P.J. Cherian on the artefacts collected from the Pattanam excavations. Photo: S. Mahinsha

UNTIL about a decade ago, “life-and-times” style narratives on the fortunes of the various ruling dynasties seemed to dominate the bulk of writings on south India. But more recently, a new breed of historians has apparently decided that these approaches no longer sufficiently explain the totality of the social context from which the dynasties drew their sustenance.

The mood in current historiography is one of recognition that to understand the dynamics of past society it is necessary to take a closer look at the various and competing socio-economic interests that pull their punches on the politics of the day.

One such historian, whose entire approach to south India has consisted of trying to unravel the web of intricate socio-political relationships in the medieval period, is a Japanese professor, Noboru Karashima.

Karashima has spent years analysing medieval south India, particularly scrutinising the subtle but profound transformation of society under Chola rule from the ninth to the 13th century. The heart of the Chola power citadel was in the fertile stretch of land, watered by the Cauvery, now encompassing Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli and parts of South Arcot district of Tamil Nadu. The Chola domains also covered part of the eastern coast.

Relics of this far-flung power structure survive in the form of stone and copper plate inscriptions, which are today the primary source of information for this period. Any reconstruction of this time will have to depend totally on these medieval records which detail a number of grants, tax remissions and gifts either from the reigning king or wealthy individuals or groups.

While the reliance on inscriptional data has been intrinsic to any analysis of medieval society, Karashima’s handling of the data has an edge over previous uses, in the sense that he has drawn upon this source to derive an insight into the entire political economy of the Chola state. Analysing the data chronologically and topographically, he identifies certain core concepts in the inscriptions which ultimately describe the state of agrarian relations, the revenue system and the role of the administration.

His work centres on the question—what do the stream of land grants and gifts that have been recorded mean in terms of the relation between the donors and the beneficiaries?

Examining inscriptions relating to two Chola villages on the Cauvery’s southern bank in Tiruchirapalli district, Isanamangalam and Allur, the former, a village granted to Brahmins and termed Brahmadeya, the latter, a non-Brahmadeya village, Karashima found the social structures in both villages were different. The study suggested that it would be difficult to generalise on the nature of agrarian relations for Chola society as a whole. And of more significance to the picture of the evolution of south Indian society was the discovery that private landholding was coming into being, and consequently there were, around the 13th century, the stirrings of a new agrarian order in the lower Cauvery valley.

Karashima has systematised the vast information found in inscriptions on revenue matters for the Chola and Pandya regions. He observed that the land revenue assessment was based on the nature and productivity of taxable land.

Using a computer, he compiled a concordance of designations and official titles, the results of which seemed to unseat assertions made that there was no Chola bureaucracy. The proliferation of titles, apparently bestowed by reigning kings, suggested that there were efforts towards centralisation made by the rulers. Karashima interpreted the increasing distribution and frequency of terms like “Nadalvan” as pointing to the emergence of latent feudalistic tendencies.

The strength and intimacy of his understanding of Chola society allowed Karashima to venture into an examination of the period following the decline of the Cholas, which was done recently. The period following the collapse of Chola power, particularly the 16th century, was a time where, in contrast to the centralising tendency of the Chola power structure, elements of feudalism seemed to surface in the medieval polity.

The Nayakas, whose political existence originated with a writ from the Vijayanagar king, ended up more like feudal barons, exercising power and political authority in south India, in their own right. This picture of grasping feudal lords, shrewdly capitalising on emerging political forces like the merchants and the temples, emerges from a study made by Karashima after his recent analysis of 34 inscriptions from North and South Arcot.

His observations, based on the statistical method, are relatively insulated from the element of subjectivity that might creep into less systematic methods, and consequently allow for greater firmness in conjectures on the nature of medieval society.

As a skilled practitioner of the historian’s craft, Karashima has a keen interest in the direction of South Indian historical writing. He is concerned with the question of how far current historiographical trends are shaping the attitudes of scholars in south Indian history towards research and the understanding of the historical process.

He discussed some of these issues in an interview in Mysore:

How and on what basis should a researcher identify the issue to be studied? Is a hypothesis a necessary starting point of research? How has it been in the south Indian context?

I personally believe that a hypothesis is necessary. As for the south Indian scene, so far writings have not been structured around hypotheses but have tended to follow chronological and descriptive traditions. An example, although a pioneering work, would be Nilakanta Sastri’s reconstruction of south Indian history. In the initial stage of study, such works are necessary, but now we must proceed to other aspects like the socio-economic structure.

Sastri and some others followed British historical traditions, which were descriptive and moralistic. Another fact influencing them was nationalism, which caused them to choose topics that could glorify India’s past. Strangely, this descriptive tendency including that of glorifying the past seems to continue today.

What about the British settlement survey reports?

They have a chronological limitation since they become available only after 1775 and so no contemporary information can be had about the 17th and earlier part of the 18th centuries.

Again, the purpose of these reports was to find out from whom they should collect land revenue, so what is useful initially in their detailed sifting through the social strata for their revenue target becomes less so once they have established from whom they collect revenue. They do not discuss the structure of landholding at all.

What about the impact of the new historical writing since the last decade?

Yes, a new tendency has evolved for the analysis and interpretation of history in the historiography of south India, created by the works of Burton Stein and others. Studies made on north India by scholars in Delhi, Aligarh and other places are also giving a stimulus to south Indian historians to some extent.

Do you think there is enough follow-up of the questions raised in the new studies made by you, Stein and others?

There has not been enough follow-up, which I should say is unfortunate. Students have expressed interest in these new ideas but there has been no tangible work reflecting these new ideas, although there are a few exceptions.


What are the kinds of sources that can be used for the study of south Indian history?

Sources vary for the different stages of society. For the period from the Pallavas to the Vijayanagar kingdom, the major source is inscriptional. As for the pre-Pallava period, from the 1st to the 5th century, Sangam literature has been the main tool of analysis. For the 18th and 19th centuries, the British settlement survey reports and village documents are useful sources.

As for village documents, which are records of transactions made on palm leaf, a major collection is the Mackenzie Collection, in the Oriental Manuscripts Library. T.V. Mahalingam has published some of these relating to selected political events. However, something must be done immediately to get the bulk of the collection published.

Only one-tenth has been published. And this collection hasn’t been kept in a proper order, we must get this material organised for the use of scholars.

There are various other palm leaf manuscripts all over the region which should be surveyed and collected. Village records are useful as many of them are records of transactions, mortgage of land, tenancy disputes. They can give us an idea of the types of landlords, the class situation...

What about early south Indian society of the Sangam period?

As I said earlier, Sangam literature represents the only source for the early tribal social formation. Inscriptional evidence comes in for the Pallava period onward although the earliest inscriptions in Brahmi script date back to the second century B.C. The bulk of inscriptions on which it becomes possible to undertake analysis of socio-economic conditions are from the ninth century onwards.

As for the use of Sangam literature, which describes Aham and Puram, the twin themes of love and war, analyses using the literature have been confined to the polity. There has been no analysis of the socio-economic conditions using literature. They are mostly descriptive.


What of the Dharmapuri hero stones? Are they of use?

Yes; as they reveal a custom of the tribal society, and can be used to confirm findings from Sangam literature.

What are the other possible sources and tools to understand society of the past?

Another matter to explore is the collection of devotional hymns of the Alvars and Nayanmars which generated and also came out of the actual social movement of Bhakti that took place between the seventh and the ninth centuries in Tamil Nadu. Studies must be undertaken on these. Some scholars, for instance M.G.S. Narayanan and R. Champakalakshmi, have studied it in the context of social change and social formation. This kind of study should be pursued further.

In north India, especially in Bengal after the 13th century, we find that the Bhakti movement and its values coincided with the development of feudalism in north India and perhaps played an important role in the social formation of the period.

In my view, north India had the Gupta period showing Hinduism as attaining a state of completion and that social order influenced southern India. The Pallava society demonstrated that influence which was not only manifested culturally, but also had an impact on the social formation.

What would you say are the different stages of social development in the south Indian historical process?

The Sangam period can be regarded as a tribal society, which formation can be said to extend up to the sixth or seventh century. I am wondering if a divide can be made from the seventh to the 13th century. Can we find any difference between the Pallava and Chola types? This question still perplexes me. For this period, I have in mind a society in which the peasants are subjugated under more or less direct control by the state. The nomenclature for this stage—I would think in terms of an Asiatic mode of production for the Pallava-Chola period. When I say this mode may be applicable, I am not implying a stagnant society but a dynamic one which can generate some other mode, for example the feudalistic mode of production. Or otherwise I would choose the concept of “State slavery”, borrowing it from Japanese historians describing a period in Japanese history.

I think the feudal mode, elements of which might be similar to that of Western Europe and Japan, can be recognised only after the decline of the Cholas. I am more confident that there was a feudalistic mode after the 13th century, although I am sill unclear on the characterisation of the Pallava-Chola period. There were feudalistic tendencies emerging after the 13th century.


Coming back to methodology, what are the possibilities and problems with literature as a source?

Literature certainly has to be used but there seem to be too many unscientific uses of literature. Many Tamil scholars, even today, seem to believe that whatever is written is true. If literature is to be used as a method of analysis, comparative literature of the same period should be studied to understand the various types of social formations. The work of (the late) Kailasapathy of Jaffna University and of George Hart, of the University of California, Berkeley, has shown the profitability of a comparative approach to some extent.

Comparatively speaking, Indian history lacks the kind of secular dynastic records other cultures like China and Japan have. In these countries, each dynasty has compiled its history in minute detail but such records do not exist here, with rare exceptions. Therefore we have to obtain data from different kinds of sources like the Arthasastra, Dharmasastras and the Buddhist scriptures.... Recently B.N.S. Yadava tapped the works on astrology to decipher what they meant in terms of the development of feudalism.

Your work has relied extensively on inscriptions. What would be your assessment of how researchers should use inscriptions?

In the past, the way of utilising inscriptions was very arbitrary. One scholar would pick out certain facts from a few inscriptions to suit his point of view and another would pick other facts again from one or two inscriptions to oppose that view. Since there are a very large number of inscriptions still in existence, for study, it is possible to discover a certain tendency from them.

We have about 10,000 Chola inscriptions but only some of them, about 4,000, have been published. I wish the Government of India would recognise better the importance of inscriptions as a source of history and facilitate their speedier publication, allowing for better preservation of the material.

What are the other areas to be investigated in research into south Indian history?

Region-wise minute iconographic and inscriptional studies should be done. For example, the question of the transformation of the local goddess into the consort of Vishnu or Siva can be looked at in the context of Aryo-Dravidian interaction, or alternatively, state control of the local people, which might be reflected in the association with the symbols of Vishnu and Siva. These were known to be favoured by kings accepting the social order completed in the north during the Gupta period. Essentially, broad questions like the mode of production, the role of the temple, urbanisation, and the growth of the mercantile class should be backed by minute and accurate data of particular regions using iconographic and inscriptional evidence. Statistical analysis can be introduced to the study of numismatics and studies need to be undertaken on region-wise quantification of the inscriptions with the aim of finding out whether the number of inscriptions in a certain area had anything to do with its social development.


Do you think south Indian history researchers are sufficiently aware of these gaps in research?

I regret to say there has been a deterioration in historiography, even in the factual content. At least Nilakanta Sastri and his generation were scientific and factual, there is no such committed research today. The follow-up on the debate on the characterisation of socio-economic changes is not enough. Except for a few cases, scholars either take up very minor questions and that too in the absence of a broader context of social change or formation. The other tendency among many scholars is to take up too broad questions. The study of some particular problems and that of broader questions should be correlated. Therein lies the importance of a hypothesis. For example, a detailed study of the Nayakas’ rule in a specific period and region will have significance in the understanding of the social formation of the Vijayanagar period.

What is the impact of political chauvinism on the writing of south Indian history?

The study of history should not be confused with political motivation. I think political chauvinism is impeding the proper development of south Indian studies. For instance, the tendency to give more antiquity to Sangam literature is evidence of the tendency to glorify ancient Dravidian society.

The Aryan-Dravidian problem also should be devoid of political overtones and colour and should be studied academically and dispassionately... although, I admit, I am an admirer of Dravidian culture and am myself its advocate in Japan.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor