The volume under review is an anthology of essays which moves away from the ways in which several themes and issues in Indian history, especially south Indian history, have usually been approached and viewed. Refreshingly, south India has continuously been located within an all-India perspective, and the interactions and change through time have been succinctly presented. Temporally, the work spans the period from the mid first millennium BCE to the early modern times. It is fondly dedicated to Kesavan’s teacher, Professor Romila Thapar.
The Mauryan presence in south India has been aptly problematized. The effort has been to read the evidence afresh in the larger context of the changing perspective of the Mauryan state and society in recent decades. The author starting from his familiarity with the Ashokan inscriptions in south India, particularly Karnataka, proceeds to examine the archaeological evidence for the Mauryan times at some of these sites, and also makes effective use of the relevant portions in the Arthasastra. Flowing from the fact that the Karnataka versions of the Minor Rock Edicts were more elaborate than their counterparts found elsewhere, suggesting that it was necessitated by the less comprehensive nature of the region’s integration with the Mauryan Empire, Kesavan proceeds to unravel the significance of the Sannathi fragmentary inscription. The presence of parts of Major Rock Edicts XII and XIV and the conspicuous absence of MRE XIII, as in the case of the Separate Rock Edicts found in Kalinga, it is believed, suggests that the region around Sannathi, like Kalinga, was a part of a separate and recent conquest by Ashoka. This ties up well with the archaeology of Brahmagiri and Maski, for instance, insofar as the Mauryan levels demonstrate a Neolithic-Chalcolithic horizon in transition to the Iron Age-Megalithic culture. One is unclear about the socio-political levels that the constituent regions of Karnataka had reached during the period. Nevertheless, deriving from the references to trade in the Arthasastra, the Ashokan records being read out to the people on certain occasions and the evolution of Tamil-Brahmi script, and records of donation to Jaina and Buddhist monks on caves on major trade routes unmistakably indicate the cultural transactions with north India, which manifestly bore fruit in the post-Mauryan centuries. The nature of Mauryan political presence in south India affirms the view that it was a system that related differently with different regions at varying levels of growth. This is of interest because not long ago traditional south Indian historiography was used to an entirely different understanding of it.
The idea of the Kali Age since the end of the 1970s has been used to represent a period of social crisis, which was envisaged as the causative factor explaining the emergence of a feudal formation in India. The explanation was soon extended to south India. It came to be scrutinized, contested and different assessments of the problem were provided in the last decade of the previous millennium. However, Kesavan provides a different reading of the idea based on a good number of texts ranging from the early Puranas to a sixteenth century Vaisnava devotional poem in Malayalam. It is the good side of Kali, especially it being the best of all the four ages, which is brought into focus, though there is no denying the fact that it is also portrayed as the darkest of all ages. This curious situation is attempted to be reconciled with the suggestion that it is so largely because in the Kali Age bhakti and modes of worship associated with it yield quick results for the devotee. Similarly, it is argued, that when the Vishnupurana says ‘sudras are good, women are good’ along with ‘kali is good’, it suggests that these sections of society were no more despised, and there was an effort to integrate them within Puranic Hinduism that was on the ascendant. Its convergence with the illusion of equality in the ideology of bhakti being propagated by the above said texts was meant to make people’s suffering acceptable.
The essay on land relations in medieval Kerala not only dispels some earlier notions, but also situates the evidence in context. The sabha and uralar (member of the village body) are divested of their popular and democratic representations and their Brahmanical character has been convincingly demonstrated. The significant difference between the nadus in Kerala and the Chola country has been pointed out—while it was a political unit under a chief in the former instance, in the latter it was a peasant socio-political locality. The consolidation of janmam and kanam rights involving the Brahmanas and Sudra tenants with their upper and lower shares, respectively during the times of the Ceras of Mahodayapuram has been lucidly presented. The grades below the intermediary right holders such as the tenants-at-will and kuti (occupants of the land) have also been brought into the discussion to highlight the complex agrarian relations. The Keralolpatti, a 16th century text, echoes some of these aspects, but the basic patterns of the regional land tenures were laid down much earlier.
The paper on castes in Kerala again makes use of both the Cera inscriptions and the Keralolpatti. What emerges is that the congealing of castes, much against our cherished notions, was a post-twelfth century phenomenon. Some castes that had a better status in the Cera records such as the potuval, and muttatu, associated with the temple, for instance experienced change and seem to have suffered downward social mobility by the time of the Keralolpatti. The consolidation of so many castes, including the ‘temple-dwelling’ castes, is explained with reference to the occupations gently becoming hereditary with the inheritance of land that was given in lieu of salaries. Gradually, these professions were slotted in a graded hierarchy of purity and pollution. Interestingly, the broader contours of these developments are in agreement with the emerging patterns through the regions in peninsular India.
The making of regions with the gaze centred on Kerala juxtaposes three medieval histories of the region to discover that the constructed images in the different renderings more or less were in agreement with one another in their broad essentials. All the three works—Keralolpatti (origin of Kerala), an Arabic text by Shaykh Zainuddin Makhdum and a Potuguese account by Barbosa—constitute Kerala as a separate region spatially, ethnographically and culturally. In Keralolpatti the details are far greater ranging from the emergence of the land from the sea to its distinct socio-political ingredients. In fact, the text seems to be historicizing processes which were already at play. Whereas the Arabic account is characterized by a sense of belonging to the land of Malabar, the Portuguese writer felt no such bond and the narrative basically displays his familiarity with the land and people. From the Puranas to Manipravalam texts Kerala finds affiliation with Bharatavarsha, but it was essentially in the post-Perumal era (first part of the 2nd millennium CE) that it became a veritable part of the larger whole. The author concludes by stating that the cultural identity of the region that was shaped during the Cera Perumals, ninth-twelfth centuries, and the subsequent changes that Kerala society experienced were being articulated in the above said medieval discourses. The region was, as elsewhere, historically constituted.
In looking at Manipravalam poetry of the early stages (thirteenth-fourteenth centuries) Kesavan significantly differs from earlier scholars who approached it largely as a movement in the history of Malayalam literature, and envisaged its association with eroticism as the expression of cultural decadence. To him this literature, which is an amalgam of Malayalam and Sanskrit, represented the then urban milieu characterized by the presence of the ganika (courtesans), servant-maids, the nagaraka (man-about-town), and the libertines, among others. It portrays the reality of towns, market places, royal palaces and courtesan’s mansions that Kerala experienced in the medieval times as a consequence of the networks of trade in the Indian Ocean converging on its coasts. While the ganika is ever present in these texts, the nagaraka is mostly absent, and this phenomenon is addressed with reference to the specificities of the regional society. The influence of Sanskrit kavyas and works such as the Kamasutra and Kuttanimata, we are informed, are palpable. It was indeed a continuation of the kavya tradition in Sanskrit, and was inextricably linked to the emergence of a regional identity.
The essay on Hindu idioms in Christian worship begins the discussion with the writings of a mid-eighteenth century German Jesuist, who happened to be equally accomplished in Malayalam and Sanskrit. His writings were visibly imbued with local Hindu idioms to express Christian ideas, and provide a good example of the internalization of Sanskritic practices and notions. However, this should not surprise us because Kerala has been host and home to Semitic religions since very early times. The ninth century Kollam plates are witness to the mingling of Christians with the local population, and in the process they adopted the idioms and practices of the locality. The later day padre’s works were a continuation of this tradition, which itself was a product of centuries of coexistence between varied communities.
There are two chapters on religion, one of them being on bhakti movement in south India. It is included as an appendix most likely because it is a joint paper with MGS Narayanan. It broke new ground in the late 1970s with its argument that despite its initial in-built anti-caste and radical egalitarian content the movement gradually moved on to legitimize the emerging socio-political order. The other contribution, with which the volume actually opens, explicates how religion, religious practices and ideology have been evolving through time, and that dissent had an important role in its making. Norms in the course of becoming a tradition are contested resulting in a new synthesis, and the process goes on. The dialectical way in which religious traditions continuously developed in India has been lucidly demonstrated.
‘Laughter in the Time of Misery’ achieves three goals. First, it unveils the unrestrained sarcasm, at its sharpest, in a later eighteenth century Sanskrit work known as Mahisasatakam (a hundred verses in praise of a buffalo), intended to criticize the then ruler of Thanjavur and his officials with the intended purpose of making them see reason and restore order in a seemingly disorderly kingdom. Secondly, it provides a succinct account of the realities as they unfolded in eighteenth century Tamil region, leading to the misery and suffering of the masses. That provides the context for the text. Finally, it also reminds us that India was not a land of ‘emasculated eminences’, but did have a long tradition of political and social criticism from the time of the dharmasastras onward. To disparage the lords the author equates the king and his officers with the buffalo and vice versa. He was praising the buffalo to pour scorn on them, for whom knowledge was poison. In one instance he writes that ‘the buffalo will be an illustrious member of the royal court… those who are already there are even greater fools; and he would be verily Vacaspati (‘Lord of Eloquence’) among them.’
It needs to be mentioned, what should be obvious, that all good researches emanate from dissent, dissent is at the heart of the advancement of knowledge, and this collection shows that there can be ways of dissenting. In these times when all of us are being coerced to conform uniformly, articulation of dissent is certainly welcome.
Bhairabi Prasad Sahu is Professor in the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.
“Temporally, the work spans the period from the mid first millennium BCE to the early modern times. It is fondly dedicated to Kesavan’s teacher, Professor Romila Thapar.”
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