A corrective to northern-focused histories of India
British officers saw the south as a “sloth belt”. But its history is long, variegated and glorious
Coromandel: A Personal History of South India. By Charles Allen.Little, Brown; 432 pages; £25.
“Coromandel”, too, seeks to redress imbalance. British colonial officers saw the south as a “sloth belt”, offering scant career advancement. Popular history has tended to ignore it, preferring the goings-on of the Mughals or the British Raj up north. In his book, Charles Allen, an Indian-born British historian, tilts his gaze to the south. He begins with the earliest waves of migrants from the north. They brought early Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Few Jains and Buddhists remain today. But both groups contributed to a vibrant cultural scene from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD, from the great assemblies of poets and scholars, associated with the Jains and the birth of classical Tamil literature, to the rock-cut cave shrines, first associated with Buddhists, that still dot the landscape.
Hinduism gained dominance as it transformed from its abstract priest-led form into a more accessible one, with gods depicted as humans. The imperial Chola dynasty’s 1,500-year reign, Cholamandalam, provided the name Coromandel for the south-east coast. Under the Cholas, stunning images were carved in stone and cast in bronze. One of the earliest southern representations is now one of the most recognisable: Shiva as Nataraja, lord of the cosmic dance, one leg raised and “hair streaming across the firmament”.
Far from being a backwater, the south had plenty of visitors. Trade with Rome flourished nearly 2,000 years ago; the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited on pilgrimage. Arab and European merchants came, centuries later, for the spices; in return, the Portuguese brought the chili peppers Europeans had discovered in America, transforming curry.
Religion and trade were accompanied by the struggle for, and abuse of, power. The Portuguese showed little mercy to the heathen in their quest for riches. But one of the book’s most shocking stories is a home-grown injustice. Nangeli, a lower-caste woman in 19th-century Kerala, purportedly hacked off her breasts to protest punitive taxes levied by the landowning Brahmins, including on women who dressed above their station by covering their breasts. Caste discrimination, while less systemic today, continues to blight society.
Mr Allen, a prolific writer on India, ends with an urgent plea for balance. Hindu nationalists are rejecting facts in a “sectarian repackaging of the past”. Dissenting writers are bullied on the pretext that they have outraged religious sentiment; since 2013, some “rationalist” writers have even been murdered. (Since “Coromandel” was finished, another, Gauri Lankesh, was killed in the southern city of Bangalore.)
“Coromandel” is lively and its stories well chosen. But Mr Allen’s fascination with how scholars, both colonial British and Indian, pieced together the history of the region sometimes crowds out the history itself. The reader might have wished instead for more on the Vijayanagara empire, which united much of the south for over 200 years, and its marvellous temples in Hampi. By whetting readers’ appetites, though, “Coromandel” has no doubt tipped the scales a little.