Renowned historian R. Champakalakshmi, Professor Emeritus in Ancient History in the Centre for Historical Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, was in the city to address a meeting organised by the Tamil Nadu Chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) recently.
Ms. Champakalakshmi is a recipient of H. L. Gupta Research Award for her book on South Indian urbanisation. She is on the Board of Trustees of a research organisation, MOZHI (Chennai), working on various projects in Tamil language and culture. She found time to speak to The Hindu .
As a historian of ancient studies how do you look at the Tamil political discourse, especially the Dravidian, which, instead of looking at the future, always harps on the golden past and comes out with symbols (Raja Raja Chola, Karikala Chola) to recreate the myth?
“Glorification of the past is not necessary at all, as part of the governance you can use the past, if there are visible remains of that particular era. In fact, Raja Raja Cholan never did anything great for the Tamil cause, but in terms of his administrative aspects what he did was great. For example, the revenue model, tax collection and land administration could be passed on to the coming generations.”
Asked about Marxist critiques that Chola period was imperialistic and how the Big Temple became another State, she replied: “One has to look at the complexity of sources available. Marxist methodology of history is acceptable since it is scientific and multidisciplinary. But there shall be no straitjacket Marxist opinion on Chola history. Chola period did see the emergence of an emotional, powerful, hymnical literature. The complexity of land rights in south India is one of the areas of literature that could be explored by scholars.” Discussing the competition among various castes in Tamil Nadu to appropriate the past and claim that Cholas belonged to their own caste, Dr. Champakalakshmi said, “There is no validity in such claims by different caste groups who are trying to appropriate the identity of Raja Raja Cholan. Since they claimed Kshatriya status and employed Brahmins as their priests, Cholas were very much part of the Brahmanical order and the alliance is important. Varna is the theoretical premise of Brahmanism and they were made to use that to claim Kshatriya legitimacy.”
“Moreover it was during the Chola regime that local temples were brahmanised and theories of Varna were used to show that they were the upper castes. Temples were then job providers and gave a sense of belonging to the social order. Temples were part of the spatial order, but there was enough space to elevate existing caste groups through the spiritual. It is how Vellalas and Kaikolars later got into the temple administration. However, it was a parallel authority structure where spiritual functioned on one side but the political, on the other, prevented such elevation.”
Why social sciences are neglected in South India? “Except economics, all other subjects within social sciences are being neglected on the basis that they are not job-oriented courses. But social sciences are very important; they give a peep into the human aspects of life — i.e., cultural pasts are important but unnecessary glorification is not needed.”