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The Political Structure of Early Medieval South India

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The Political Structure of Early Medieval South India
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Item Code: NAG122
Author: Kesavan Veluthat
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788125046516
Pages: 306
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
weight of the book: 300 gms
Back of the book

This book was a major intervention in Indian historiography when it was first published in 1993. The author has examined the power structure of the four monarchies of south India under the Pallava, Pandya, Cera and Cola kingdoms from the seventh through thirteenth centuries of the Common Era. He has questioned the validity of models that sought to categories the kingdoms as ‘centralised empire’ or ‘segmentary state’.

This revised edition has a new introduction where the author has examined when the process of formation of a ‘state’ became visible in South India. He has also analysed the causes for these changes.

The new introduction adds an important dimension to this book. It will be useful for students and scholars studying the nature of state in early medieval India.

Kesavan Veluthat is Professor, Department of History University of Delhi.

Preface to this Edition

This book has been out of print for quite some time. A reprint, work on which was begun in May 1995, did not materialise for some reason. The publishers recently came back to me but suggested that I revise the book for a second edition or write an afterword surveying the development in the field since its publication. They told me that at the very least a new Introduction was necessary. As I was too busy-a euphemism for 'too lazy'-, I agreed to the last suggestion.

In reality, to go back to a book one wrote about a quarter of a century ago should be interesting in many ways. Among the many temptations that it holds out is that one can detach oneself from the book, and look at it more critically with the benefit of the experience one may have gained with the passage of time. The wealth of knowledge that has since accumulated in the field can help in this. However, I do not claim to have made an alternative reading of the sources or revisited the field in any major manner. Therefore, I have not touched the text at all; nor do I seek to survey the ground afresh in the new Introduction. I do not pretend to present before the readers what could be described as my reconsiderations or even interim reflections on the subject. Instead, what I have presumed to do in the 'Introduction' to this edition is to dwell a little on certain points which were not treated sufficiently elaborately in the first impression, to which extent the discussion there, I have realised, was incomplete. That, I hope, will be apology enough for this reissue, even if it has been delayed.

I thank M/s. Orient Blackswan Private Limited, and their earlier avatar, Orient Longman, for the keen interest they have always shown in this book. I am also indebted to the reviews that the book got, some encouraging and some forcing me to rethink my formulations. I also thank my students, both past and present, who keep me going.

Preface to the First Edition

The following pages embody substantially the dissertation submitted by the author for the Ph.D. degree of the University of Calicut in 1987. The attempt here is to analyse the political structure of south India in the early medieval period, i.e. the centuries between the seventh and the thirteenth of the Christian era. For the purpose of this study, 'South India' is equated with the region known to early sources as Tamilakam, generally corresponding to the present day linguistic states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Whenever political powers from this region, e.g., the Colas, extended their arm to other areas such as Karnataka, evidence from such regions is also considered. The present study seeks to bring together and integrate evidence from different parts of the region; aspects of polity in the different kingdoms within the region are considered together. The book is of an interpretive nature and the data has been largely collected from the information available in the rich secondary literature.

I am indebted to several individuals and institutions who have helped me in various ways, during the course of this study. While the errors of fact and/or judgement are my own, what little worth this study has is largely due to them. I thank every one of them most sincerely. I must make special mention of Professor M. G. S. Narayanan, my teacher, and the late Sri Veluthat Narayanan Nambudiri, my father. The Indian Council of Historical Research supported this study with a generous fellowship and Mangalore University by granting me leave of absence. To members of my family, especially my wife Parvathy, my debt is irredeemable.

Introduction to this Edition

This new 'Introduction' to The Political Structure if Early Medieval South India seeks to raise questions concerning the origin of the state in south India which had not been addressed in the earlier edition. The questions raised here relate chiefly to the chronological point at which the process of state formation becomes visible-one of the markers of the early medieval phase of south India's history-as well as the causative factors behind the process. That the state emerged in different parts of the world at specific historic conjunctures in answer to specific needs is a matter of recent realisation, notwithstanding romantic and not-so-romantic ideas about a pre-state situation in constructions of the 'state of nature' existing from very early times. In the case of India, modern scholarship took for granted the existence of the state in the pre- modern period. This was partly because of an abiding obsession with the notion of Oriental Despotism and its Marxian variant, the Asiatic Mode of Production, and partly because the categories historians of India were familiar with were taken from nineteenth century European historiography. Accordingly, they thought in terms of territorial states with fixed boundaries, notions of sovereignty, ideas of jurisprudence and so on-features of the Greek City States, Roman Empire, early modern nation states, modern empires and so on. Kings, ministers, military commanders and bureaucrats were habitually looked for and seen in this scheme, from the age of the Vedas to the age of the Mughals whom the British 'replaced' in India. A non-state or pre-state society was beyond their imagination.

This was no different in relation to the history of south India. When epigraphists and historians interpreted and published the documents they had discovered, they wrote as if all the features of a state society were present in the political system of which these inscriptions and court literature were the products. Even in relation to the earlier periods, the same scholars, such as Kanakasabhai and Nilakanta Sastri, were convinced that Tamil society was a state society even in the more remote periods of the 'Sangam Literature'. Accordingly, they wrote about the 'kingdoms' and 'empires' of the Ceras, Pandyas and Colas, their 'capitals', their 'systems of government', their 'armies' and all the appertaining details of the states they presided over. There promptly were 'assemblies' which assisted the 'kings', 'officers' who 'executed' their orders, a 'judiciary' which meted out justice and so on. The master narrative of south Indian history, contained in the works of K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, presented this picture of an unchanging polity and those who followed him, such as T. V. Mahalingam and C. Minakshi. carried it forward somewhat uncritically. Thus, Mahalingam, in a monograph devoted exclusively to south Indian polity, gives us to understand that the state continued with only minimal changes from the earliest period to the sixteenth century! In relation to the earliest periods, namely, the 'Sangam Period', the picture of a society characterised by all features of a state stood confirmed in a study devoted exclusively to the 'Sangam polity'.

It is understandable that, in the context of the politics of the 'Dravidian' movements in Tamil Nadu, the celebratory exercises around the perceived glories of the 'Sangam Period' continued well into the period of Independence and after. Apart from great empires, there was grandeur in other areas as well. For example, historians waxed eloquent about trade with the Roman Empire. However, a more realistic appreciation of the evidence from literature and other sources has been made by Sri Lankan scholars like K. Kailasapathy and K. Sivathambi who raised questions of a different nature. Subsequently, Indian and Western scholars have comprehensively reconsidered the evidence and we have a more dependable picture of society in the centuries immediately before and after the turn of the Christian era. It has now been recognised, placing the problem within the combined perspective of the social sciences, that the sources from this period represent stages in the biography of a clearly recognisable social formation-its emergence, maturing and dissolution. Different forms of production and different ways in which man sought to relate himself to nature in his struggle for livelihood characterised this period. Considered formerly as constituting a single corpus called 'Sangam Literature', the early Tamil texts are now appreciated as composed over a period of more than a millennium and belonging to different strata. They are essentially bardic compositions exhibiting traits of oral poetry. They were selected, thematically arranged and brought together at a much later date in a well-organised manner. Of the various groups of anthologies such as Ettuttokai, Pattuppattu and Patinenkilkkanakku, six anthologies of the first, excluding Kalittokai and Paripatal, are the earliest. They use an interesting floral symbolism in the nomenclature of what is called tinais, and this is standardised and theorised in the later poetic works. Each of these tinais signifies primarily a poetic situation and context in the literature and its poetics, representing generally particular expressions of war and love. Of the tinais, a grouping of five in the love songs is of particular interest to the historian.

These five tinais represent a division of the physiographic region of the Tamil-speaking world into five different eco-zones. Thus, the five tinais of Kurinci (hills and forests), Mullai (pastures and thickets), Marutam (riparian plains), Palai (parched lands) and Neytal (costal tracts) represented clearly distinguishable geographical zones. People who lived in these zones lived a life close to nature and in tune with their surroundings. The hunters and gatherers known as Kuravar in Kurinci worshipped Ceyon, the war god; the pastoralists called ltaiyar in Mullai had their bucolic god in Mayon; the plough agriculturists or Ulavar of Marutam prayed to Ventan, the rain-god; the fierce robbers and fighters described as Maravar in Palai propitiated the blood-thirsty Korravai and the Paratavar fishermen of Neytal knelt before Kataloln, the sea god. Labour employed for production was largely kin-based. Kutis or households and urs or clan settlements were the units of social organisation. To be sure, this division into different tinais did not involve any watertight division of any kind: transitional situations indicating merger or overlap of more than one tinai are spoken of and these are called tinaimayakku. So also, different forms of production can be seen in the same tinai, with one in a dominant position in a particular tinai. The resultant picture is of a society in which people pursued their livelihood by following different modes of production. Regarding the relations of production in these different eco-zones, the information is clear: the principle of organisation was kinship. This is visible in situations of both pastoralism and agriculture. In such a system of production, distribution of surplus to the various factors of production is irrelevant. In any case, production was largely for subsistence and hardly for surplus.

The picture provided by archaeology is complementary. In the megalithic horizon, which corresponds to this literature both chronologically and culturally, human settlements are sparsely distributed. Sites throwing up evidence of settled agriculture, if few and far between, are nonetheless seen to be continuously occupied from Neolithic levels. Iron is present, but the implements show a marked bias towards hunting and fighting, to the point of a near-total exclusion of those for agriculture. Artefacts such as pottery, terracotta, beads, semiprecious stones, bronze objects, etc., besides the iron implements, point to a relatively high level of craft production. But it is questionable if there was any concern with surplus even here, for such exchange was not, as might be understood, a disposal of the surplus. The supplementary sidelight provided by the Tamil Brahmi cave labels illumines the picture further: they speak of certain varieties of traders, who sold gold, cotton clothes, (?iron) ploughshares, salt, sugar and liquor, etc. There is a solitary reference to a goldsmith. One of the records refers to 'the men of the nigama'. The reference to the Sanskritic nigama and the fact that most of these labels are associated with Jain and Buddhist monks may indicate a north Indian connection for at least a section of the traders. It is interesting that the term used for trader in these documents is vanikan, derived from the Sanskrit vanik. It has been demonstrated recently, following a systematic analysis of names figuring in the pottery inscriptions in Tamil Brahmi that 'both the pure Prakrit forms and Tamilised forms ... would make nearly fifty per cent of all names found.' Again, 'if we consider the proper names of persons ... the proportion of Tamilised Prakrit names comes to nearly fifty percent in rock inscriptions, too. These tell us about the agency in the 'trade' that is spoken of, apart from putting to rest all the debates about the origin of the script. The find spot of these inscriptions is itself revealing: they are located on major routes within the Tamil country.

The anthologies, too, refer to exchanges of the products of different tinais. That literature also makes occasional references to cattu (? Sanskrit sartha), translated as 'caravans'. Uraiyur Ilamponvanikanar and Madurai Aruvaivanikan Ilavettanar, who figure in the literature as poets, are thought to be 'specialised traders' in gold and textiles respectively. In any case, trade, oriented towards profit, is hard to come by. What can at best be seen is exchange based on reciprocity. Gift and redistribution were the other forms of exchange; but even there the basis was either reciprocity or patronage-not value or profit.

The evidence of 'Roman trade'-embodied in the Tamil songs, Greco-Roman accounts, archaeology of Roman settlements themselves and numerous hoards of Roman coins-tells a similar story. This was highlighted in the past to show that south India had reached a degree of civilization, high enough to rub shoulders with the Roman world, with the balance of trade in favour of this side. In discussing evidence of Roman trade, it is important to bear in mind that the items exported included pepper, ginger, cardamom, cloves and similar spices; faunal articles such as animal hides and ivory; beasts and birds like apes and peacocks; wild wood articles such as aloe, sandal and teak; precious stones like beryl and pearl, and some cotton fabrics. Gold and silver coins constituted the chief items of import, besides some copper, tin and arsenic. Significantly, a major share of the Roman coins discovered from south India come from hoards and very few from occupational levels. Most of these are yet fresh from the mint, showing no wear and tear. Some of them also have a hole at the edge, indicating their having been used as ornaments such as necklaces or pendants. This shows clearly that the Roman coins were used less as a medium of exchange than as 'primitive valuables' gathered for their socio-technic or ideotechnic value. This points, once again, to a situation of exchange of goods where ideas of price and profit did not make much sense from the Indian point of view. So also the ports and centres of exchange in the interior could be shown as urban centres; but they were rather enclaves brought into existence by what has been described as stimulus from outside and not any organic development from within.

Thus, the economy and society were characterised by subsistence production, redistribution, reciprocity and patronage. The literature of the period elaborates this further. Copious accounts of war, where the concern was plunder and cattle-lifting, illustrate the general ethos of society. The hero par excellence was the warrior-hero and the poets were never tired of singing the praise of his heroism in different ways. The innumerable hero-stones as well as references to the elaborate procedure of raising and worshipping them in the literature are further evidence of the general ethos of war and the-cult of the warrior-hero. Redistribution of booty captured in war and communal feasts following the plundering raids, often approximating to potlatch-like destruction, are brought out vividly in the texts. This went a long way in claiming prestige and status for the hero who went to war, and his kinsmen basked in the reflected glory. Along with this, we also see a number of bards and minstrels, known as Panas, sometimes accompanied by members of their families, singing the praise of the hero in the numerous poems of love and war contained in the anthologies. These bards and minstrels moved from one centre to another and were amply rewarded by the heroes with gifts. The munificence of the hero was often the subject matter of the songs, and such songs earned their composers further gifts from the patrons. This cycle, too, formed part of the process of legitimating the chiefs, apart from the redistributive and potlatch-like exercises mentioned above.

We come across a number of such chiefs in the literature. Wherever possible, they led plundering raids into the rich rice-producing Marutam plains and sought to control them. These raids and the booty captured in them enhanced the resources of those chiefs. They could now give more gifts and organise more potlatch-like ceremonies. This was a definite advantage which those chiefs who lived in the proximity of the riparian plains had over the others farther afield. Such chiefs, naturally, got greater legitimacy, commensurate to the more generous gifts they were able to give and the more elaborate feasts and other communal gatherings they were able to organise. Claims staked on the rice-producing plains in the form of occasional raids graduated to regular control once this potential was realised.

Control of the riparian plains meant control of the rivers. These were arteries which connected the hills and forests to the sea. The large number of ports frequented by the Roman traders lay largely at the mouths of these rivers. The hill-products, which formed the bulk of the merchandise, flowed to the ports and beyond through these rivers. Thus, those chiefs who were privileged enough to have control over the Marutam plains and their produce also had control over the precious items brought in by the Roman traders. The ‘primitive valuables’ of ideotechnic value, which they were now able to flaunt and occasionally give away as gifts, enhanced their prestige and legitimacy as never before. This superiority, gained by the twin advantage of controlling the rice- producing plains and the transmarine trade, set them apart from the less fortunate chiefs. A distinction is made in the literature between two kinds of chiefs as ventar and velir. These were the Cera, the Cola and the Pandya constituting the muventar, the 'three crowned kings’, and the several vets known as the kurunilamannar or the ‘lesser kings’.

The relatively insignificant distinctions of detail apart, the organisation and functioning of these chiefs were similar. Kinship, agnatic and affinal, formed the major principle of organisation while reciprocity and patronage were the basis of redistribution. Mobilisation of resource was largely through plundering raids. No regular mechamsm of appropriating surplus as tax can be identified and. nor does one come across any agency carrying out functions associated with the state, not to speak of a bureaucracy. Urban centres, such as they were, are presented as resulting from 'external stimuli' and not as products of an organic development from within. No trace of what could be described as monumental architecture has come down to us. There certainly is evidence of literacy, but how far it was used for purposes of communication is very questionable. Its exotic character in the context of south India in this period is hard to miss. In any case, there is no 'administrative document' showing the presence of the state through these records. Again, even though the general ethos of society was centred on war and the cult of the warrior hero, an organised military arm of a state is not visible in the songs. Ferocious fighters do figure as individuals; and they attach themselves occasionally to this chief or that, or a caravan that needed defence from a plundering raid. In short, there is nothing in the sources which shows the presence of the institution of state in that society.

There is some lack of clarity in the picture after the third century AD, as we do not have many precisely datable documents from this period. By the seventh century AD, however, the historical scene becomes brighter once again. Profuse light is shed from various angles. A notable feature is the entirely different nature of the new sources in both form and content. Inscriptions, in their thousands, form the chief category of sources now. Literature remains an important category; but it is not any more the oral compositions of the wandering minstrel: it is the literature of the court and the temple, with all its stereotypical characteristics. There are other expressions of high culture, which include monumental architecture of stupendous proportions. It will be a truism to say that this sudden emergence of newer and richer sources, entirely different in form and content from those of an earlier period, is indicative of a transformation that society had gone through. The details of the passage from the one to the other are not as clear as what are available for study at either of its ends. Therefore, what the historian can do is to extrapolate the information from both sides with a view to constructing a meaningful picture of what lay between them.

When one goes deeper into the sources on either side and examines the world represented by them more closely, the transformation is brought home more clearly. The inscriptions of the latter age, for instance, demonstrate this in numerous ways. They record largely royal charters or proceedings of local bodies of various descriptions with the somewhat pompous statement that both the medium and the message were intended to last 'as long as the moon and the stars endure'. Both kinds of documents announce the presence of the state in an unmistakable manner, the royal charters directly and the resolutions of local bodies in an oblique manner. They are largely concerned with the grant of land or other arrangements related to the utilisation of land, showing the importance that agriculture had come to acquire in the economy. They also tell us how far the distribution of agrarian surplus had led to differentiation, bringing about a division of society into distinct, and mutually antagonistic, classes. There are also records related to urban centres and trade, artisans and their activities, and so on, all showing the sea change in economy and society by the time these records begin to make their appearance.

The single most striking change of all is perhaps the phenomenal expansion of agriculture. It is obvious that the transactions of land, in their thousands, appearing in the period are indicative of this expansion. We see a large number of peasant settlements in what are known as the vellanvagai villages. Groupings of such settlements constituted the nadu, about which a huge body of literature has become available in recent years. Agrarian corporations managed by non-cultivating intermediaries such Brahmanas and to a lesser extent Jains and others, are more visible in the records although these groups may not have been more numerous than others.

If the world of primary economic activity, namely agriculture, is shown to have undergone such phenomenal changes, the case of trade was not any different either. It has been shown that in the wake of the agrarian developments which were taking place under the Pallavas and Pandyas and which continued under the Colas, trade and urbanisation became more elaborate and complex and showed signs of structural differences. Trading centres acquired a certain degree of autonomy and were controlled by corporations of traders. What had been a need-based exchange, whose character was determined by principles of reciprocity and patronage, got replaced by the 'instituted process' of trade with clear notions of sale and purchase, pricing, profit and shares of profit going to different agencies. Along with trade, urbanism too developed considerably. The trade enclaves of an earlier period, which had grown in response to external stimuli, lost their place and new ones came up in trading nodes and administrative centres. Unequal distribution of surplus as well as the proliferation of trading and artisanal activities led to social differentiation, which expressed itself in the form of jati. Literature and inscriptions of this period make clear references to not only the existence of numerous jatis but the hierarchical relation in which they stood.

Along with these developments, particularly the growth of agriculture in the plains in a phenomenal manner, and not unrelated to them, we can see two other developments-namely the widespread use of literacy and the rise of what approximated to monumental architecture. The thousands of inscriptions indicae: the former. These are different, in both quality and quantity, from the old 'cave labels'. They are expressly addressed to the 'men of the locality', which assumes literacy among a section of the population. Elaborate accounting is done and equally elaborate administrative documents are kept. All this was related primarily to agriculture, because the business of most of the inscriptions is to record grants of lands or to place on record arrangements for cultivating the land so granted. There are documents related to trade as well, which rose to an altogether different level.

The emergence of monumental architecture too has its significance in this context. If the best of monumental architecture related to the earlier period we considered were the paltry megaliths, huge temples, both rock-cut and structural, begin to make their appearance now. These temples were often centres of the agrarian settlements and, in most cases, a function of the surplus produced by those settlements. The management of the institution and its properties is a subject of separate study, a large number of monographs starting with the Sucindram temple being already available. A few of them, such as the 'royal temples' of Kancipuram or the ultimate, the Brhadisvara temple of Tanjavur, came up as statements of royal power. The sum and substance of our argument is that monumental architecture began to announce itself as a new presence.

This new formation, with relatively advanced means of production, considerable agrarian surplus and its differential distribution leading to relations going well beyond kinship ties and bringing about distinct and mutually antagonistic classes, the instituted process of trade and the urban networks replacing the exchange of natural products for primitive valuables and the isolated urban enclaves, a hierarchically oriented society where clannish loyalties had broken down and caste identities had solidified and an overarching ideology which subsumed and legitimised all these, was ready to receive the state, as it were, on its arrival.

What announces this arrival in the most unequivocal way is the unmistakable presence of the sovereign. The kingdoms of the Pallavas and Pandyas had come up in the Tamil-speaking regions from the seventh century onwards. The west coast witnessed this process by the end of the eighth or early ninth centuries, and the Colas had established themselves most authentically in the Kaveri valley by the middle of the ninth century AD. An elaborate self-image of royalty had been created in the royalist expressions and the details of this, as well as the way in which power and control had been articulated, demonstrate that these kings were not the clannish chiefs of an earlier period any more.

The state did not mean just the king. Various nodes of power existed, deriving their authority either from a delegation or from other sources. These nodes were integrated into the system at various levels. They included a large number of what an earlier fashion of historiography described as 'feudatories' . Their role in the newly formed polities has been viewed differently in recent years; but it is clear that they were incorporated in a subordinate way. Another feature of a state society is 'government'. Was it a case of 'the superior executive strength' on account of 'a highly organised and thoroughly efficient bureaucracy' which was both 'numerous and powerful' or a total lack of anything that carried out any governmental work altogether Recent work on the massive epigraphical data with computer-aided analysis has shown that the state identified and co-opted a large number of landed magnates as its agents to carry out its functions. Another good pointer to the nature of the state is its resource base and the mobilisation of the surplus. There has been considerable debate on this issue as well, with Nilakanta Sastri dwelling upon the 'myriad' revenue terms in Cola inscriptions''? and Burton Stein denying any such revenue. However, following a computer-aided analysis and other systematic studies of what had been looked upon as 'revenue terms' in Cola inscriptions, it has been convincingly suggested that a regular levy from the primary producer collected at an impersonal level reached the state.

It needs hardly any emphasis that this new political form is eminently qualified for the description of state. It was in every way the expression of the new social formation, which had come up on the ruins of the old. Its ideological apparatus of legitimation, too, conformed to the new situation. A self-image of royalty was so elaborately constructed that it went a long way in gaining validation for the ruler. Further statements of the power of the ruler can be seen in the elaborate claims about the military expeditions and, of course, success, which the rulers are always credited with. The way in which even iconography and architecture, apart from whole genres of court poetry, were used for this purpose is phenomenal. Munificent endowments formed another aspect of this attempt at validation: Rajendra Cola's Karantai Plates record the creation of a new settlement of as many as 1080 Brahmans. The way in which a certain ideology was made use of for the legitimation of hegemony is indeed crucial; but it is important to realise that this hegemony was far from ritual. It was real political hegemony.


Preface to this Editionix
Preface to the First Editionxi
List of Abbreviationsxiii
Introduction to this Edition1
Introduction to the First Edition21
Chapter-1The Self-Image of Royalty47
Chapter-2The king and 'His Men'86
Chapter-3The Role of the Chiefs120
Chapter-4Aspects of Administration149
Chapter-5The Ur and the Nadu178
Chapter-6The Brahmadeyam and the Nagaram204
Chapter-7Social Parameters: Stratification and Ideology227
Chapter-8Conclusion: Towards a Model249
Select Bibliography272
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