The story of South(The review of 'Coromandel' )

What does the average Indian remember about Indian history as taught in schools? The Indus Valley Civilisation, the Mauryas, the Mongols, the Mughals, the colonising Europeans, the British Raj, freedom... and some honourable mentions like the Cholas, perhaps.

In essence, South Indian history has been mostly under-reported. But thankfully, of late, historians are attempting to redress the imbalance. Sanjeev Sanyal for one; another is Charles Allen, out with his newest tome, Coromandel -  A Personal History of South India. Allen is an India-born Britisher, Indophile, prolific historian, author of an excellent biography of Ashoka the Great  - now opening our eyes to some unknown facts and theories about South India's past.

It is an indulgent romp that starts with the India plate theory: a triangle of geomorphic crust broke away from the supercontinent of Gondwanaland and eventually drifted to settle and harden, thus forming the triangular Deccan Plateau - the first piece of India.

He proceeds to discuss the south's aadi-maanav beginnings, proved through the remains of the Neolithic Age, discovered in the Bellary district of Karnataka. Allen then moves eastwards to the perennial Thamirabarani river in Tirunelveli district, fed by rain sluicing off the Podhigai mountains. This river and her northern sister Cauvery provided the river basins that helped create South India's first farming communities. The Podhigai /Agastya Malai environs have also been home to the tribe of hunter-gatherers, the Kanikkars, descendants of the earliest Adivasis.

Debunking the Aryan invasion theory, Allen feels that the 'Arya people' simply and gradually took over the declining Harappan country. About Southern migration too, there are many theories. Agastyamuni is said to have helped relocate the drowning Dwarakavasis to a new Southern home.

Allen's gaze sweeps far and wide, touching subjects as far apart as archaeogenetics, the Vedas, Vedic gods and their counterparts in Persia and Turkey, the ascent of Shiva and Vishnu from minor Vedic to major godliness, Sage Agastya's significance to the Tamil, the Buddhist roots of the Ayyappa cult, the Satavahanas of present-day Andhra country, the three-breasted warrior-goddess Meenakshi of Madurai... till he finally reaches the titular chapter eight, on page 229, out of 374 pages of text and excellent illustrations (taken with permission from libraries in England and elsewhere).

Allen, a secular humanist, with great interest in Buddhism, has written in detail about the Buddhist and Jain beginnings of Hindu India. Ashoka's death in 185 BC was followed by a backlash against Buddhism and the rapid rise of Hinduism. However, in Cholamandalam country, Buddhism was never made extinct.

Allen informs that during the British Raj, southern India was considered a 'sloth belt', rather provincial, avoided by ambitious civil servants.

Prior to the emergence of sea power, Aryavarta North India was under the spotlight, shaped as it was through succeeding waves of migrants from Afghanistan, Iran and the rest. The Brahmin-Kshatriya alliance of the North was the pole around which the North evolved.

Allen notes that the North and South differ in many ways  - food, literacy, composition by religion and caste, other factors - but the big difference is language. A total of 74% of India speaks a Sanskrit-based Indo-Aryan language, while 24% speaks a Dravidian-Tamil-based language.

Allen visits Tamil Nadu to understand the present in relation to its past. In Kanyakumari, he gazes at the 133-feet-tall statue of the moral philosopher-poet Thiruvalluvar, and recounts tales about the British fascination with the epic Thirukkural. Judge Francis Ellis became the first translator of the Thirukkural couplets.

Interestingly, he recognised in Tamil the basic structure of all South Indian languages. Significantly, Ellis suggested that South Indian languages had a common root that was Dravidian, not Sanskrit.

Robert Caldwell, a missionary-Protestant-cum-Tamil-scholar, completed the work that Ellis failed to do due to his early demise. He suggested that Tamil was closer to Turanian or Scythian group of languages, rather than Indo-European Sanskrit. Caldwell thus helped spotlight the unique cultural identity of South India.

Allen informs that the virgin goddess Kanyakumari failed to marry Lord Shiva and thus became an ascetic, plus a Mother Goddess. One also understands that the Mother Goddess /Amman concept predates the arrival of Brahminical Hinduism in the deep South.

Interesting nuggets of information dot the book. Brahmi, ancient India's first script, came into being during Chandragupta Maurya's time, under the influence of Greek and Persian Kharosthi.

Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi helped revive the 'lost wax' process of creating bronze statues.

Ludvico de Varthema, a young Italian, cruised the Indian shores for some years - then returned to Italy, wrote a travel book, first mentioned 'Cioromandel' - and unwittingly revealed Portugal's secret to all Europeans, the route to India's Western coast. The Dutch, Danes, French and the English, all followed.

A point needs to be stressed: this exhaustive book deals with regions south of the Narmada - not merely or mainly Tamil country. Though topics like the Vijayanagar Empire and Pallavas have been barely touched, subjects like Kerala's serious attempts to deal with caste discrimination merit a chapter. And there is an endnote where Allen bemoans recent tragedies like the murder of secular rationalists and humanists. But he is still hopeful that the India experiment - ' democracy on a grand scale' - will prevail.

In my opinion, Charles Allen has neither deified nor demonised the protagonists of South Indian history.

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