Saturday, April 01, 2006

Medieval South India

I largely rely on Robert Eric Frykenburg, "Elite Formation in Nineteenth Century South India: An Interpretative Analysis" in "International Association of Tamil Research Proceedings," First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies: Malaysia 1968. I will confine myself to the material dealing with the time period from the 6th century CE to the 17th century CE. I have simplified the subject in the interests of brevity.

Frykenburg explains that "centuries of ceaseless contact, collisions and pressures between increasing numbers of groups" helped define South Indian society. The nuclear areas of human settlement and land control date back to the Pallava-Chola period. South India had highly organized villages.

There were three types of villages. They were inter-linked and inter-dependent. One produced the agricultural surplus, the other sponsored learning and culture while the third was centered on industry and commerce. "Representative" territorial assemblies called the "Periya-Nadu" controlled dense clusters of agricultural villages dominated by the elite agrarian castes. These included the Vellalars, Mudaliars, Kammas, Reddys, Nairs and Vokkaligas depending on the region. There were the privileged and tax-free Brahman-dominated agraharams that served as sanctuaries of piety and learning. These were largely located in Kanchipuram, Madurai, Tanjore, Tirupati and Uduppi. The third category was the mercantile villages of the great trading guilds of early medieval South India. This included the Ayyavole of Karnataka, the Manigramam of Tamil Nadu and Chettinad.

"Primitive" peoples occupied the largely forested areas outside these "nuclear areas". There was a "continual tension between the barbarian darkness of the forest and the cultural enlightenment of each settled region". The Periya Nadu villages absorbed the forested terrain over the centuries and integrated the jungle peoples. These communities were relegated to the mass of untouchables that comprises 15% of South Indian society today.

The events of the 13th century CE shook this order. Pandyan warriors, allied to the Sinhalese, defeated the Chola Empire. Muslim incursions from the Delhi Sultanate led to the southern movement of Telugu refugees and the establishment of the Vijayanagara Empire. The Reddy warriors and the Niyogi Brahmans formed the new elite. A section of the Chola Vellalar immigrated to Jaffna to establish a militaristic kingdom there in 1215 CE permanently displacing the Sinhalese of northern Sri Lankan in the process.

The subsequent defeat of the Vijayanagar Empire at the battle of Talikota in 1565 CE led to the emergence of Telugu ruled enclaves such as the Nayaks of Tanjore - whose aristocracy later headed the last ruling dynasty of the Sinhalese kingdom of Kandy in the 1700s CE. Other Telugu administered enclaves included Mysore, Madurai and Ramnad. Meanwhile, the Sultans of Bijapur and Golconda that had replaced Vijayanagara hired Muslims nobles from the wider Islamic world to fill the highest ranks of their kingdoms. They failed to address the shortage of Muslim administrators and foot soldiers.

The Sultans increasingly turned to the Marathas to make up for the severe manpower deficiency. The Desastha Brahmans became the elite cadre of fiscal and local administrators while the Maratha warriors served as light and irregular cavalry in the Sultanates of the Deccan. This contributed to the swift replacement of the Sultanates in the 17th century by the Maratha Confederacy under Chhatrapati Shivaji. It led to the influx of Marathas into the indigenous elite of South India. The Maratha Naiks replaced the Telugu rulers in the kingdoms of Madurai and Tanjore.

The Portuguese appeared on the scene with the annexation of Goa in the 1500s CE. The trade route from the Gangetic plains to the sea - and the wider world beyond financially superseded the land route to Persia. The Marathas controlled the route to Goa and prospered with the economic boom. The Rajputs situated on the overland route to Iran declined due to the lack of transit revenue.

The "Dravidian" history of South India is therefore a multi-faceted one. Numerous forces and events beyond the borders shaped it. This rich, inter-connected and fascinating history influenced the elite formation of the nineteenth century which I reserve for another post.


Arundhati Rajasingham said...


We agree on the link between events in south India and Sri Lanka. The Pandyan-Sinhalese alliance brought down the Cholas. The Telugu leadership replaced minor Chola feudatories in the Vijayanagar period. The latter went to Jaffna and started the Tamil kingdom there. The branch of the Naik royalty in Tanjore became the kings of Kandy in Sri Lanka and fought the Brits. You forgot to mention though that it was the Portuguese who transformed the Arabian sea to international waters and protected Sri Lanka from Muslim encroachment unlike the Maldives that had once been Buddhist.

cynical nerd said...

Dear Jaffna:

Fantastic post. It answered lots of question for me, esp. between the time of the Cholas (where I ended my Thalassocracy post) and the arrival of Portugese. Your take on the Marathas Naicks in Tanjore and Madurai helps complete the picture.

Just a question: Is the Bhonsle dynasty of Tanjor linked to the Maharashtra as well. Why does one call them the Saurashtras?


Jaffna said...

Arundhati, Cynical Nerd,

Thank you. You are correct about the role of the Portuguese in changing the configuration of power not only in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea but also in the Straits of Malacca in the 1500s CE. Islamic maritime activity was checked - and it has not recovered since.

The Maratha confederacy was precisely that - a confederacy. It was a loose union of states such as Indore, Baroda, Pune, Tanjore etc. The Bhonsles of Tanjore were a Maratha dynasty. And they encouraged the immigration of Saurashtrians refugees to Madurai and Tanjore. This historical community continues to speak an archaic form of the Gujarati language.

It is interesting that the phenomenal emergence of the Marathas in part can be attributed to two factors i.e. (i) the arrival of the Portuguese and the booming trade on the Konkan coast which meant that the Marathas reaped the benefits of the transit trade between the Gangetic plain and the lower Arabian Sea and (ii) the recruitment of the Desastha administrators and the Maratha cavalry by the Sultanates of the Deccan. This exposed the Marathas to newer faster forms of warfare and they used it to good effect until they were checked much later in the second battle of Panipat by Ahmed Shah Durrani.l

The movement of peoples and dynasties influenced and shaped the history of South India. One could argue that South India had multiple histories linked together by a shared geographic space and shared religious inheritance that goes back at least two millenia or more.

Best regards

cynical nerd said...

Thanks for the precisions Jaffna.


Dushyant said... usual.
Keep Writing

Jaffna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jaffna said...

Cynical Nerd, Dushyant,

Many thanks for the kind words.

Best regards


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