Coromandel: A Personal History of South India

October 17, 2017 [books] #india #the-south

I am always looking out for South Indian history books, or ones that talk about South Indian pop culture, and was really excited to see this book on twitter late October. Of course I ordered it immediately. There were only third party sellers on Amazon, and my copy shipped all the way from London.

Like the subtitle says, this is a personal history of South India, which means the history that Charles Allen covers is that which interests him the most. So one must be prepared to not expect much (or in fact anything at all) about the Kadambas, Pandyas, Pallavas, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Nayaks, the brief Madurai Sultanate and so on.

What Charles does very well is to cover the pre-Pallavan, pre-Chalukyan South. This is the Buddhist and Jain heritage of South India explored through its ruins. I now have a whole bunch of places on my travel list that I did not have before. I had never heard of Phanigiri or Kanagahalli, built by the Satavahanas, themselves Hindus but patrons of Buddhism. Kanagahalli contains the earliest craving of Ashoka in India, and was discovered only in the 1980s. I always knew it, but I am constantly surprised at how much what we know of India is because of the work done in the last two centuries - that of a dynasty called Satavahanas whose trade with the Romans funded their empire building, Ashoka and the deciphering of Brahmi script, establishing the antiquity of Tamil and Kannada, etc.

As I read about Iravatham Mahadevan and his work on Tamizh-Brahmi, and about the theft of antiquities from the sites that Charles Allen explores, I couldn't help but feel a undercurrent of sadness and rage at the state of the country, this lack of respect for history and even a remote appreciation for it.

Charles Allen himself is a pretty light writer, unbiased towards India and her citizens. He treats the inequities of the Namboodiris in Kerala after the death of Martand Varma, the Mappila rioters and the Turko-Afghan invaders from the North the same way - things that are beyond the pale of civilization by any current metric. He has his blindspots, however. For example, I recall him saying Ramcharitmanas was the first popular version of the Ramayana. Kamban's Ramavataram in Tamil is indisputably older, composed 400 years before Tulsidas', and it was and is still popular.

If you are a product of the Indian school system (with all its bias towards the North, and assumption that North Indian history is Indian history - or at least like it was in mid 2000s), I would highly recommend this book. It does its share in unveiling that overlooked regions south of the Vindhyas, and will act as a stepping stone for more thorough explorations in the future.

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