Millennium Post (Kolkata)

Undoing of a GREAT BIAS

‘History of South India for Children’ is an engaging book with ‘intellectu­al rigour’ that not only unearths the ‘undermined’ history of southern dynasties but also explores various aspects of life in the region

- SANJEEV CHOPRA The writer, a former Director of LBS National Academy of Administra­tion, is currently a historian, policy analyst and columnist, and serves as the Festival Director of Valley of Words — a festival of arts and literature

Replete with photograph­s, frescoes, illustrati­ons, boxes, and tables,

Pradeep Chakravart­hy’s

Pradeep Chakravart­hy, a distinguis­hed product of JNU and LSE, wears many hats, of which interpreti­ng the past to understand the present is one. A prolific writer, corporate trainer, management consultant, travel and heritage immersion tour organiser, festival curator, and historian, he has now written a wonderful book, ‘History of South India for Children: From Prehistory to Vijayanaga­ra’ — a treasure trove, not just for children, but also for adults who would like to share these stories and anecdotes with their children and grandchild­ren.

At the outset, I must confess that there is something quite wrong with the way we look at history in our country. While the history of the empires with capitals in Indraprast­ha, Hastinapur, Ujjain, Pataliputr­a, and Parshupura is not called the history of North India, anything below the Vindhyas is dubbed South India. Whereas, the fact of the matter is that the kingdoms of the south have been more ‘Indian’ and ‘authentic’, and the spread of culture from our coastline has all been from the south. Of the classical languages — Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu, Odia, and Sanskrit — all but Sanskrit have their origins in the South. And yet, given the New Delhi-centred narratives from the times of the Mahabharat­a, they have used the appellatio­n of “south” to describe a major part of our history.

History, demography and geography

It is true that in terms of demographi­cs, the South with about 20 per cent of India’s population is numericall­y outnumbere­d, yet the five states, namely, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu — and if one may add the contiguous parts of Odisha and Maharashtr­a — contribute nearly one third to the GDP of the country. If the Himalayas have dominated the history of the North, the south boasts of an extensive coastline with extensive trade and cultural connection­s with the outside world over several centuries.

The book, replete with photograph­s, frescoes, illustrati­ons, boxes, and tables, is spread over twelve chapters – each covering an important aspect of life in the South. It starts with ‘When there was no history’ – the Palaeolith­ic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages. We learn of the domesticat­ion of animals—cows and sheep for milk and wool, horses for transporta­tion, dogs for protection against wild animals—the rudiments of farming, along with primitive shelters for protection against the elements.

History begins when territorie­s are marked and the control of surplus gives rise to lineages – usually patriarcha­l, but with some exceptions. In The Cycle of Power, Pradeep describes the stages of kingship: ambition, might, fight, challenge, prosperity, patronage to arts, dilettanti­sm, neglect of the army, defeat at the hands of a rival and the repeat of the cycle.

Kerala: the real gateway of India

Like elsewhere in the world, the dynasties which controlled much of the geography of the south – Pallavas and Hosalayas — were often engaged in conflict, but Kerala escaped much of this on account of the Western Ghats, with some peaks touching a height of 8,000 feet; thereby making it difficult for horses, elephants, and soldiers to ford the barrier. Its coastline connected it to the Arab, European, and Chinese trade routes as well as their culture and religion. This was also the place where Bhaskar Ravi Verma offered refuge to the Jews when they were fleeing persecutio­n in Palestine. We learn of the ancient port city of Muziris, which saw its heyday from about 3000 BCE until the 14th century, witnessing traders from Rome, Arabia, and

Egypt docking their ships to pick up the very valuable cargo of pepper and other spices. It was this love of spices which got the Portuguese, and then the Dutch, French, English, and the Danes to establish trade, propagate Christiani­ty, and fight with each other as well as the kings.

The post-Mauryan kingdoms

Kerala also escaped being part of the great Mauryan Empire that was ruled by the famous Chandragup­ta Maurya and his equally, if not more, famous grandson Ashoka. The empire stretched from Afghanista­n to Bengal. However, eight of his edicts are to be seen in the territory which is now Karnataka, ruled by the Chalukyas who regarded themselves as avatars of Vishnu and had boar, symbolic of the Varaha avatar of Vishnu, as their mascot. They gave way to the Rashtrakut­as who made the magnificen­t Kailasa temple in Ellora. They were followed by the Hosalayas for another three centuries till they were defeated by Malik Kafur, a general of the Khilji Sultans of Delhi, thereby leading to the establishm­ent of the Bahmani sultanate named after a mythical figure from Iran (Persia) who ruled from 1347 to 1527 CE. But this broke into five smaller kingdoms of Ahmednagar, Golconda (Hyderabad), Bidar, Berar, and Bijapur that kept their peace with the very powerful Krishnadev­araya who ruled from Vijayanaga­r and had establishe­d Hampi as one of the greatest cities of the world. Let’s move on to what is now called Tamil Nadu. This geography was first ruled by Kalabhras from Karnataka—strong believers in Jainism

and Buddhism—but they gave way to Pallavas who controlled the Tirumala hills, the Cholas who controlled Kaveri, and the Pandayas who held the lands around river Vaigai. By the 17th century, the English landed in Chennai (then Madras) and establishe­d Fort St George, and set up their Presidency, ousting the other European powers.

From the times of the Mahabharat­a

The Mahabharat­a describes the present-day region of Andhra Pradesa and Telangana as the Andhra Desa; and Megasthene­s, the Greek historian, emissary and explorer, writes in his book Indika (or Indica) about the 40 fortified towns whose rulers maintained a hundred thousand foot soldiers, two thousand horsemen and a thousand elephants. While the areas around Godavari were epitomes of prosperity, the Rayalaseem­a region was mired in poverty, for by this time, the flow of Tungabhadr­a and Krishna rivers was just a trickle. The region was ruled by the Satavahana­s and the Kakatiyas who had developed an elaborate style for rulership with great emphasis on tax collection. Pradeep also makes it a point to highlight the role of Rudramma Devi, a Kakatiya queen who provided exemplary leadership for nearly three decades in the 13th century (1262-1289 CE).

Though the audience is young adults, the book’s intellectu­al richness makes it a doctoral work

The tale of Kohinoor

The famous Kohinoor—the world’s most precious diamond— actually belonged to the Kakatiyas, from where it moved to the Sultans of Delhi and then to Ranjit Singh of Punjab before it became a part of the Imperial collection of Britain (which is no longer great!). What a profound lesson of history does Kohinoor teach us! The tale about the South can never be complete without the reference to Hyderabad’s Asaf Jahi dynasty who trace their descent to present-day Uzbekistan. In its heyday, the Nizam was the richest person in the world, whose personal wealth exceeded that of the King of England to whom he swore his loyalty.

Looking beyond dynasties

This was just a brief snapshot of the political history of the south. The book then goes on to cover all other aspects of life: from food production to cuisines, crime and punishment, faith and religion, including the rites of passage, the elaborate technique of temple architectu­re which is closely linked to language, literature, music, dance and drama. The commercial traditions of mercantile trade, including ports, shipping and urban centres with their courts, kings and monuments are also covered in an eminently engaging style. Though the audience is young adults, the intellectu­al rigour makes it a doctoral work and the preferred reference book for anything and everything one wants to know about this region.

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