Updated: December 31, 2009 13:38 IST

History of medieval south India

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The book unfolds Karashima’s profound knowledge in technical terminology and the medieval social history of Tamil country.

This is a collection of 13 essays by Noboru Karashima. They include research articles — some of them the outcome of research conducted jointly with scholars like Y. Subbarayulu and P. Shanmugam — already published in various journals.

These essays, arranged in three sections, deal with many aspects of medieval south Indian history — such as the nature of landholdings and production systems; emergence of new social groups and the dynamics among them; and trade and overseas contacts of Tamil country.


The source of medieval history, particularly of Tamil country, is the numerous inscriptions found on the walls of the temples or engraved on copper plates, essentially recording the details of land transactions. The terms occurring in them have been variously interpreted, with some of the researchers using them to try and build models of the organisation of the state. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri proposed a well-built centralised state, strongly based on competent and organised bureaucracy. This was strongly refuted by scholars like Stein, who proposed a segmentary state based on strong peasant involvement. Karashima takes a slightly different view and seeks to understand the society and the state from the landholding patterns.

The first section, which has four articles, provides fresh interpretations to terms such as kudininga and kudinikki devadana. He proposes a mechanism by which the state, the temple, the tenant (kudi) and the cultivator shared the produce.

In the article on Kaniyalar (Kani, hereditary right of possession), he argues that the nature of landholding underwent changes when many private landholders began to appear. He could easily establish the emergence of individual landholders, as differentiated from cultivators, especially in the fertile areas during the mid-Chola period.

With equal ease, he traces how, in a silent revolution, people in the lower strata of society — such as hill tribes, artisans, and merchants — acquired power during that period. Interestingly, he says the term, kil (widely taken to mean a micro-scale to measure the land during the Chola period) is a standardised land measure rather than a term denoting the denominator in a fraction.

The next section deals with the emergence of new social groups and factions such as chittirameli, periyanadu, and ainurruvar, which were construed to be the assemblies of lower jatis.

Their emergence particularly in the 12th and the 13th centuries clearly indicate that the centralised Chola government was fast losing its control. Similarly, the increased incidence of padikaval tax, a kind of payment for protection of land by many regional heads, is also due to the weakening of the central government.

Growth of overseas trade

Another significant development in this period is the growth of overseas trade. The section dealing with this adds value to the book, as it has detailed references to the Chola kingdom in the Chinese annals. The study of Chinese porcelain could have been more specific, as this kind of object never received due attention from the excavators for want of information.

In fine, the book unfolds Karashima’s profound knowledge in technical terminology and the medieval social history of Tamil country, based on Indian and overseas Tamil epigraphy.

His methodology of documentation and interpretation of lithic records stands as a model for young oriental researchers. While his postulates have already been the subject of discussion within the academic community, inviting endorsements and rebuttals in an equal measure, this publication should serve as a good source of material for students of history, especially medieval south Indian history.

SOUTH INDIAN SOCIETY IN TRANSITION — Ancient to Medieval: Noboru Karashima; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 750.

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