Y. Subbarayalu is filling up the blanks in the history of ancient South India, writes Parshathy. J. Nath

Behind the splendour of the Chola temples are the untold stories of labourers who built them. How did the kings mobilise so many workers? Who were they? What were their names? These questions caught the interest of historian and the president of Indian History Congress, Y. Subbarayalu when he wrote the book, South India under the Cholas.

“History is not just about the kings and the wars they fought, but also of the common people”, he says. The book that was published by Oxford, in 2012, analysed the revenue system under the Chola period. “Many labourers were not even paid. Unpaid labour was prevalent then and was called “veshti” in Sanskrit, from which the modern usage “vetti” evolved.”

Research and resource

At a time when study of Indian history was more focussed on modern period, Subbarayalu focussed his research of ancient history, especially that of South India. “Many felt there was limited statistical data to study ancient history. But there are so many coins, inscriptions from this period, which are a rich source of information.”

While there are atlases to record modern historical events, there are none for the ancient period. This is why the Indology Department of French Institute, headed by him, decided to come out with a digital historical atlas of South India of the time.

At the age of 72, he has been shuttling between Coimbatore and Puducherry for the project. The atlas, which is almost finished, is now available in French Institute’s website. It will carry details of why a site is historically relevant, along with images. “The atlas represents historical events and sites since man existed, up to the period marking modern history. A research team comprising of senior history professors from South India are contributing to this project,” he says.

In his 40 year-long-research of ancient South Indian history, Subbarayalu has focussed on the political geography of South Indian societies. “I was always more interested in the organisation of space. It not only includes administrative units established by the kings, but also clusters formed by ordinary men over time through factors such as soil, irrigation and agriculture. These are pre-state units that have existed before governments came up,” he explains.

Inscriptions in archaeological investigations led him and his team to conclude that a strong relationship existed between South India and South-East Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. A research team headed by the Japanese scholar Noboru Karashima, from Tokyo University worked with Subbarayalu and a few other scholars from South India to do research in this area. On their visit to temples, museums and archives of these countries they found Tamil inscriptions.“By the 10th and 11th century, trade flourished between the South India and South-East Asia, at a time when Indian traders imported aromatics, spices and gold from these countries. In the Jakarta museum, we found a trade agreement by these South Indian traders. They refer to a port called Barus in Indonesia as “Patinam”. There were also Javanese inscriptions that had references to South Indian and Oriya names, with suffixes such as “Sol” and “kling” to denote Tamil and Odisha traders,” he says.

Breaking language barriers

Subbarayalu and his family moved to Japan in 1994, where he was a visiting faculty in the Tokyo University. Subbarayalu learnt to read and write Japanese. “The biggest strength of the Japanese is that they know their mother tongue. In Japan, even higher education is imparted in Japanese,” he observes.

He says that the language barrier limited the study of South Indian history, during his time. “In North India, languages have a common script. However, in the South each state has a script of its own.”

But organisations such as The Indian History of Congress, have managed to overcome this. “This organisation is made up of esteemed historians from across India. Every year, there are seminars, exchanges of ideas and collaborations. These have helped us to know our country’s history better.”

Learning language of the region is a prerequisite to understanding its history, he says. “It is especially important to learn the languages in a country like India where there so many languages. History departments all across India should introduce regional language courses to their students.”