A formidable book details the history of south India and how the region has influenced the country’s culture.
It’s a tome of a book, which, at the outset, may look appealing only to history lovers or researchers. And yet, once you have flipped through a few pages of Coromandel, you realise that the author isn’t simply seeking the history lover in you. It’s a book that carefully charts the course of the southern part of the country, the way it shaped India’s culture and stood out in clear contrast to its northern counterpart. It’s a book that aims to bring forward a narrative—through aspects of religion, linguistics, archaeology and anthropology—of the southern region and how it has influenced contemporary politics over a period of time.
Charles Allen, an acclaimed historian and author of nearly two dozen books, begins the historic account by giving a peep into his growing-up years in the Indian subcontinent. By his own admission, he knows far more about north India than the south, which is one of the reasons why he chose to write about the country south of the Narmada river. Also, he makes it clear that it’s a personal history of south India.
In fact, the book starts with a warning from the author. He lays no claim whatsoever to his version being more correct historically than other books on south India, saying, “…it is my attempt to make sense of some of the forces and contradictions that have shaped the multifarious culture of the Indian South—hence my subtitle ‘a personal history’.” Any attempt at pointing out something amiss is, hence, futile, as Allen absolves himself of all responsibility towards any scrutiny.
There are several passages in the book that tell you how history has been skewed to suit political and religious narratives in India. In the chapter titled The Knowledge, for instance, the reader is educated about cows and their place in the Vedic age. The author highlights the works of several historians and highlights texts that point out that the Vedas contain frequent references to the sacrifice and eating of cattle among Vedic Brahmins.
The writer, who grew up largely in India, unravels some exceptional stories of the past through his meetings with local historians, religious and spiritual gurus, and politicians. One of the best observations is how discussions on Buddhism and its cultural legacies are so often not recognised in India, especially in the south. In the chapter Jains and Sangams, Allen explains how Jainism and Buddhism were significant religions in south India, something which may come as a big surprise to many. In fact, there are several texts, which record the expulsion of Buddhists from Kerala by the eighth-century Malayali king Sudhavana, supposedly at the instigation of an anti-Buddhist Brahmin called Kumarila Bhat.
While narrating the past, the author doesn’t forget to mention modern-day happenings in the southern region. In the last chapter, titled Endnote: History and Anti-History, the writer mentions how vast tracts of India’s known history are either placed off-limits or simply tiptoed over. He gives examples of the struggles of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan and then talks about the killings of people such as Kannada writer MM Kalburgi and radicals like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. He ends it with an appeal, saying India can do better than rewrite its history and instead should strive to maintain a balance.
One of the other interesting aspects of Coromandel is the pictorial representation of the region—illustrations, maps and photographs accompany the chapters and provide a riveting glimpse of times gone by. There could be several questions on what the author has chosen to leave out and how correct his version of the region and India’s past is. But these are minor failings, as Allen presents a fascinating collection of important texts, from ancient scriptures to historical books, piecing them together for this personal historical narrative.