Open Essay

South Side Saga

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Travelling across cultures and geography

Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to our Times | Rajmohan Gandhi | Aleph | 507 pages | Rs 799

I MAGINE A TRAVELLER in the year 1600 who, starting, say, from Vizag (Vishakhapatnam), sails all the way along South India’s lengthy eastern, southern and western shores, and then, after reaching Goa, rides over the peninsula’s land, first along a perimeter not very far from the seas and then on an inner ‘circle’, ending his journey, which perhaps consumes a year or more, in Bengaluru.

What does the traveller take in on this enormous snail-shaped route?

The Vizag area, where he starts his southward sail, contains undulating coastal land and, close to it, red or black hills, some reaching up to 5,000 feet, ‘whale-backed in outline and appearing to follow one another in procession’, as the author of a 1907 gazetteer would put it.

Politically, in 1600, this hilly coastal tract is under a weak regional chief appointed by the Muslim ruler of Golconda (later to become Hyderabad city). This ruler is nominally subject to Delhi’s reigning Mughal but belongs to a Deccan confederacy that thirty-five years previously had defeated the grand Vijayanagara Empire to its south.

South of Vizag along this Coromandel coast is the major port of Machilipatnam in the delta formed by the river Krishna as it enters the Bay of Bengal.

Small or large ports line the long coast. Perhaps our traveller gets off his boat for a day or two when it enters the natural harbour of Pulicat, where the Portuguese had established a base a century earlier, in 1502. Nine years into the future, in 1609, the Dutch would displace Pulicat’s Portuguese.

About 38 miles down the coast from Pulicat is the town of San Thome, set up by the Portuguese in the 1540s. Right next to San Thome is the much older native town of Mylapore, with which Europe and the Arabs have long been familiar. There is no Madras city as yet.

Farther south, down a vertically straight section of the continuing coast, is the ancient trading port of Nagapattinam, where the traveller in the year 1600 finds traders from distant places as well as native ones, including Muslims descended from ninth-century Arab immigrants.

Later, after the coastline makes a sudden ninety-degree turn westward, faint outlines of northern Sri Lanka emerge on the horizon to the left of the moving boat. As the boat proceeds through what the future would call the Palk Straits, the island of Pamban surfaces, barely separated from the peninsula, from where, in the Ramayana, Rama launched his bid to recover a Lanka-confined Sita.

Exporting pearls fished up in adjacent waters, the old port of Tuticorin (Thoothukudi) shows up as the boat continues to sail southwest. Beyond Tuticorin, at Kanyakumari, the Bay of Bengal becomes the Arabian Sea, and our traveller now sails north.

Going past the land where Thiruvananthapuram would rise in the future, he steps ashore at Kochi (Cochin), where the population includes Christians whose forebears may have arrived more than a thousand years earlier. Later, when the traveller walks on land again at the port of Kozhikode (Calicut), he runs into scores of Arab and European traders, finds Malayalam-speaking Muslims with centuries-old ties to India, and hears of Vasco da Gama’s visit more than a hundred years previously.

In Kochi, in Kozhikode and all along his northward voyage, he senses green hills not very far from the shoreline to his right. Landing in the port of Mangaluru, he hears new tongues and sees brisk commercial activity. He may not have realized it, but the languages he has so far heard from the peninsula’s natives include Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Tulu, more or less in that order.

A South Indian looking northwards sees the peninsula widening until the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea lose consciousness of each other and retreat separately from the swelling landmass

When he arrives in Goa, our traveller runs into a flourishing Portuguese-run city, where Konkani and Marathi are among the languages spoken.

His sea travels over, from Goa he starts a land journey to traverse the vast acreage between the two coasts. The expedition is not comfortable or risk-free: the narrow roads are mountainous much of the time, rough all the time, and on occasion attacked by men or animals, and the bumping bullock carts are creaky as well.

Now proceeding in a northeasterly direction, our plucky traveller manages to trek through villages and impressive cities like Bijapur, Gulbarga, Golconda, and Warangal, whose sultans had recently joined hands to defeat Vijayanagara, but are now suspicious of one another and even more of the Mughal in far- to-the-north Delhi.

In Golconda, he looks at a few sparkling diamonds. In Warangal, where the Kakatiyas ruled from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, he stares at an immense water reservoir.

Here he changes direction and proceeds southwards, encountering places on a long line parallel to the peninsula’s eastern shores, including Vijayawada, Guntur, Nellore, the great temple towns of Tirupati and Kanchipuram, the mountain fort of Gingee, the rich and well-watered city of Thanjavur (from where the Cholas ruled in a distant past), and prestigious Madurai, the deep-south seat of earlier Pandian kings.

On this extensive land journey, the sounds he hears seem to change again, first from Goa’s Konkani to Kannada, then from Kannada to Telugu, and finally from Telugu to Tamil, though even in Thanjavur and Madurai the ruling class seems to speak Telugu.

When, on meeting a resident, our traveller asks, ‘Who is your ruler?’ he receives a variety of responses. A few speak of the Delhi Mughal, most say ‘our nayaka’ or ‘our sultan’, usually without naming him. In the year 1600, the peninsula as a whole has no clear ruler.

At Madurai, our traveller swings again and journeys northwest towards Coimbatore, starting another ‘circle’, this time a smaller one. His stops on this perimeter include, in clockwise order, Coimbatore, Srirangapatna (not far from where the Hoysalas ruled between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries), Madikeri (the town of the Coorgs) and Shivamogga (Shimoga), where our traveller turns northeast.

At and around Hampi, he runs into destroyed palaces of the Vijayanagara kings who ruled from there during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At Bellary (Ballari) he alters direction, journeying southeast towards Kurnool and Kadapa (Cuddapah). Languages have shifted on this route too: Tamil to Kannada to Kodava to Kannada to Telugu.

At Kadapa, our traveller turns southwest in the direction of recently founded Bengaluru.

At Bengaluru, the snail-shaped journey ends. Yet our traveller has so far seen only a portion of the coastal and hinterland tracts of peninsular India...

ALTHOUGH NO political realm named South India ever existed, a cultural, geographical and geopolitical space of that description was long recognized. Thus the Deccan, Dakkan or Dakhan (from the Sanskrit ‘dakshin’ or the Prakrit ‘dakkin’, meaning south) was a widely used term in the not so distant past. It connoted the region south of the Vindhya mountains which, in the fifteenth century, was dominated by two entities—the Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijayanagara Empire.

The South India story is of a peninsular region influenced by the oceans, not by the Himalayas. Yet it is more than that

Writing in 1918, S Krishnaswami Aiyangar, professor of history and archaeology at Madras University, spoke of ‘South India: A Distinct Entity in Indian History’. Since then innumerable works have illuminated aspects of the history of the Kannada, Malayali, Tamil or Telugu worlds, as also of other cultures in the region.

Yet the number of scholars embracing the whole of South India is not large.

The South India story is of a peninsular region influenced by the oceans, not by the Himalayas. Yet it is more than that.

It is a story of facets of four powerful cultures—Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu, to name them again in alphabetical order—and yet more than that, for Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya and Tulu cultures have also influenced it, as also other older and possibly more indigenous cultures often seen as ‘tribal’, as well as cultures originating in other parts of India and the world.

With South India’s Malayalam region being (in modern times) the most ‘balanced’ in terms of religion and also the most literate, its Kannada zone occupying South India’s geographical centre and containing the sites of the Vijayanagara kingdom and also the kingdom of Haidar and Tipu, its Telugu portion the largest in area and holding the most people, and its Tamil part the most Dravidian and possessing the oldest literature, the four principal cultures are, unsurprisingly, competitive. But they are also complementary.

This is a Dravidian story, and also more than that.

It is a story involving four centuries, the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth, yet other periods intrude upon it...

A North Indian looking southwards sees the peninsula narrowing until it becomes a mere point, enabling the oceans on either side of India’s landmass to finally embrace each other. A South Indian looking northwards sees the peninsula widening until the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea lose consciousness of each other and retreat separately from the swelling landmass.

Going east, the peninsula’s land dips gently, so that many of its rivers fall into the Bay of Bengal, not the Arabian Sea. South India’s hills, older and shorter than the Himalayas, seem on maps to hug the two coastlines. While the western hills or ghats form an almost continuous line parallel to the Malabar coast, the eastern hills are more scattered if also analogous to the Coromandel shore.

Capturing the more predictable, more continuous, and more inclusive southwest monsoon, usually active from June to September, the Western Ghats relay to the peninsula most of its water. By contrast, the northeast monsoon, which may strike any time between October and December, brings, on days of its choosing, heavy downpours to random places on the east coast, giving the South most of its thunder, lightning and floods.

Or, by failing to appear, its famines.

Much of the South is a plateau. Some of it can be arid. Different parts provide memorable views of magnificent rocks sculpted by time and balanced precariously by gravity. There are flowering trees across the region, luxuriant rice fields in the deltas, plants and trees in the moist soil between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, as well as waterfalls, rivers, oceans.

Everyone knows the southern aromas and flavours: jasmine and coffee, tamarind and coconut, the dosai, idli, and appam, and accompaniments that burn the tongue but cannot be resisted. For the eyes and ears, the South provides lamps, bells, temples, churches, mosques and shrines, the sounds of its music and the movements of its dances.

And the movements and voices, also of its homemakers, fishermen, boatmen, weavers, cobblers and others who toil. Above all, South India today contains hundreds of millions of people, speaking in one or more of several, usually connected, languages, each individual vulnerable and valiant in a unique way, all living in a range of easy or difficult relationships with one another and the world.

(This is an edited extract from Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to our Times by Rajmohan Gandhi | Aleph | 507 pages | Rs 799)