South India

A look into South India

South India, commanly referred after Deccan, encompasses the present Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, and union teritorry of Pondicherry. Read about the Southern states right from the history, culture, people, language, travel, and much more. 

Tamil Nadu has some of India’s most magnificent ancient temples, which are still today active centres of religious practice.

Pondicherry now renamed Puducherry, has a different culture and retains a strong French influence, owing to it French colonisation in the recent past.

Kerala is rich in beautiful scenery as well as in cultural heritage, so beautiful naturally, that it is refered to as ‘God’s own country’.

Karnataka has a rich heritage and culture, and now has carved a reputation by being the information technology industry of India.

Andhra Pradesh has some of the region’s most fascinating historic sites, with a rich tradition of Deccan culture and history. Recently, the state has been divided to form another state Telangana.

Goa is known world over for its popular beaches, and tourism is a big draw to this state with its own histrory and culture.

Map of South India

History of South India

South India Kingdoms

South India, also known as the Deccan, has played an important part in the history of India right from the beginning. Most historians have ignored the history of the South and most others who have taken note of it have tended to create a division with the North. As already seen in the beginning of this series, these historians have propagated the theory of two distinct races, two distinct language groups and two distinct cultures: the Aryan and Dravidian. We shall see that this division is an artificial one and has no historical basis.


In this chapter we shall particularly deal with the history of the Tamils and the Andhras. For we have a great deal of information of these two groups from the period before the Christian era. However we shall start with a legend, the legend of Rishi Agastya. The legend says that when Lord Shiva married Parvati in Kailas, the number of invitees who came from the whole of India was so great that the mountain began to sink. So Lord Shiva sent Agastya to the South to restore the balance. On his way to the South, the Vindhya mountains came in his way; the Rishi then asked the Vindhyas to bend down so that he could pass. Agastya then went to the South and never returned. With the advent of Rishi Agastya in the South, the Vedic lore and knowledge was established in the South of India. Although this is a legend, there is enough historical evidence to prove that the South was indeed deeply steeped in the Vedic knowledge and tradition.


The Tamil people


Tamil Nadu has a rich culture and tapestry of history. It presents an exciting pageant of a powerful civilization whose origin dates back to ancient times. Our major source of knowledge of the administration, art, architecture and economic conditions of the Tamil people comes from the Tamil Sangam. Sangams were assemblies of poets under the patronage of kings. They mark the Golden Age of Tamil literature. It is not possible to say the exact period, when the great Tamil Sangam flourished, though it can be said with some certainty that two Sangams were held well before the Christian era and the third one was held between 100 and 250 AD. Among some of the greatest compositions of the four centuries of Sangam age are Tiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural which consists of 1330 couplets about morality in private and public life combined with some of life’s greatest truths; then there are the compositions of the saint-poetess Avviayar, Pathupatu or ten Idylls which is a compilation of the work of several authors on philosophy, intermingled with descriptions of the natural world and Ettuthogai or the eight anthologies. Of these, the last is historically the most important as it contains a description of the daily life of the people.


This collection of poems is the earliest record of its kind as far as the history of the Tamils is concerned. Even after the end of the Sangam age, Tamil writers, under the patronage of Royal Dynasties, continued to produce excellent literature like the two Tamil epics Silapathikaram written between 200 – 300 AD by Ilango Adigal, the son of a Chera King, and Manimekalai by Sattanar also written between the 2nd and 3rd century AD. Both contain vivid descriptions of life during their times. Over the ages, the south was to see other great poets like the Nayanmars and the Alwars and, later, the poet Kamban who composed the Tamil version of Ramayana. Thus, it becomes evident that the ancient language, culture and genius of the Tamil people had a strong stamp and character of its own. In the words of Ganapathy Subbiah, “The aesthetic quality of many of the poems is breathtakingly refined.”


The Tamil language developed its own literature along certain independent lines; its conventions of poetry, for instance, are strikingly original and more often than not different from those of Sanskrit literature. And yet they are part of the composite Indian culture.


To quote David Frawley: “Even though Dravidian languages are based on a different model than Sanskrit there are thirty to seventy per cent Sanskrit words in south Indian languages like Telugu and Tamil, which is a much higher percentage than north Indian languages like Hindi. In addition both north and south Indian languages have a similar construction and phraseology that links them close together, which European languages often do not share. This has caused some linguists even to propose that Hindi was a Dravidian language. In short, the language compartments, like the racial ones, are not as rigid as has been thought.


In fact if we examine the oldest Vedic Sanskrit, we find similar sounds to Dravidian languages (the cerebral letters, for example), which are not present in other Indo-European tongues. This shows either that there were already Dravidians in the same region as the Vedic people, and part of the same culture with them, or that Dravidian languages could also have been early off-shoots of Sanskrit, which was the theory of the modern Rishi, Sri Aurobindo. In addition the traditional inventor of the Dravidian languages was said to have been none other than Agastya, one of the most important rishis of the Rig Veda, the oldest Sanskrit text.


The kings of south India, like the Chola and Pandya dynsties, relate their lineages back to Manu. The Matsya Purana moreover makes Manu, the progenitor of all the Aryas, originally a south Indian king, Satyavrata. Hence there are not only traditions that make the Dravidians descendants of Vedic rishis and kings, but those that make the Aryans of north India descendants of Dravidian kings. The two cultures are so intimately related that it is difficult to say which came first. Any differences between them appear to be secondary, and nothing like the great racial divide that the Aryan-Dravidian idea has promoted”.


In the words of Narayanan, “The Aryan-Dravidian or Aryan-Tamil dichotomy envisaged by some scholars may have to be given up since we are unable to come across anything which could be designated as purely Aryan or purely Dravidian in the character of South India of the Sangam Age. In view of this, the Sangam culture has to be looked upon as expressing in a local idiom all the essential features of classical “Hindu” culture.


As regards the fundamental contributions of the South to temple architecture, music, dance and to the spread of Hindu culture to other South Asian countries, we shall take note of them in the later part of this chapter. Besides, the South played a crucial role in preserving many important Sanskrit texts (a few Vedic recensions, Bhasa’s dramas, the Arthashastra for instance) better than the North was able to do, and even today some of India’s best Vedic scholars are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.* As Swami Vivekananda put it, “The South had been the repository of Vedic learning”.


We thus see that there are really no radical cultural differences between the North and South of India; they are merely regional variations in the vast cultural complex of the subcontinent and its interrelated spiritual traditions. The Dravidians have long been one of the most important peoples of India and, have been the best preservers of Vedic culture itself. The best Vedic Sanskrit, rituals and traditions can be found only in the south of India. That South India was able to do this suggests the importance and antiquity of Vedic culture to this region.


In the later period of Tamil history we have many kingdoms that ruled. Some of these kingdoms are the Cholas, the Cheras, the Pallavas and the Pandyas. We shall take up two of them, the Pallavas and the Cholas.

The Pallavas

The origin of the Pallava dynasty is obscure. The Pallavas became dominant in the 6th century after a successful attack against the Kalabhras, which extended their territory as far south as the Kaveri River. The Pallavas reached their zenith during the reign of Mahendravarman I (600-630 AD), a contemporary of Harsha. Among the sources of the period, Hsuan-tsang’s account serves as a connecting link, as he travelled widely. The struggle for Vengi between the Pallavas and the Calukyas became the immediate pretext for a long, drawn-out war, which began with the defeat of the Pallavas. Mahendravarman’s successor, Narasimhavarman I Mahamalla (c. 630-668), avenged the Pallava defeat by capturing Vatapi. He sent two naval expeditions from Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) to Sri Lanka to assist the king Manavamma in regaining his throne. Pallava naval interests laid the foundation for extensive reliance on the navy by the succeeding dynasty, the Cholas. Toward the end of the 8th century, the Gangas and the Pandyas joined coalitions against the Pallavas. As the Calukyas declined under pressure from the Rastrakutas, the Pandyas gradually took on the Pallavas and, by the mid-9th century, advanced as far as Kumbakonam. This defeat was avenged, but, by the end of the 9th century, Pallava power had ceased to be significant.


The reign of the Pallavas saw a great cultural efflorescence. The Pallava kings took an interest in the Alvars and Nayanars, the religious teachers who preached a new form of Vaisnavism and Saivism based on the bhakti cult. Among the Saivas were Appar and Manikkavacakar. Among the Vaisnavas were Nammalvar and a woman teacher, Andal. The movement aimed at preaching a popular Hinduism, in which Tamil was preferred to Sanskrit, and emphasized the role of the peripatetic teacher. Women were encouraged to participate in the congregations. The Tamil devotional cult or bhakti movement gained ground and soon became entrenched in the South of India.

The Pallavas are famous for their architecture and sculpture. Some of the greatest work is in rock cut temples at Mahabalipuram; but, when they took to freestanding temples, they produced the most impressive examples of their time in Kanchipuram. Tamil literature flourished as well, as evidenced by two didactic works, the Tirukkural and Naladiyar, and by the more lyrical Silappadikaram and Manimekhalai, two Tamil epics.

The Cholas

The Chola empire was the most powerful empire in southern India for more than 200 years. From the A.D. 100’s to the A.D. 700’s, the Cholas were chieftains in what is now Tamil Nadu. Details of the ancient Chola dynasty have been discovered in royal commands, temple pronouncements, records of trade guilds, and in inscriptions by village councils. The Cholas set up their first capital at Uraiyur, and engaged in seaborne trade. After conquering the city of Thanjavur, they made it the new capital of their growing kingdom. The power of the Chola Empire increased, and the rulers’ sense of their own importance grew.


Parantaka I, who reigned from 907 to 953, laid the foundations of genuine Chola greatness. He was followed by Rajaraja I, who reigned from 985 to 1014. Rajaraja began to expand the empire. He invaded Sri Lanka, destroyed the city of Anuradhapura, and set up a new capital at Polonnaruva. The northern part of the island became a province of the Chola Empire. To the north, Rajaraja defeated the Gangas and Calukyas, and pushed his frontier as far as the Tungabhadra River. He also acquired the Maldive Islands and the Malabar coast, both highly prized for their spices. These conquests enabled the Cholas to increase their prosperity. They formed trade links with China, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East. In 1012, Rajaraja I made his son and heir, Rajendra, rule jointly with him. As a result, Rajendra’s succession took place smoothly in 1014. Rajendra, who reigned from 1014 to 1044, continued to expand the empire. In the north, he captured Manyakheta. This was in the heart of Calukya territory. In the south, a rebellion broke out against King Mahinda V, who ruled the independent part of Sri Lanka. This revolt gave Rajendra an excuse to intervene and take over the whole island. In 1021, he started a two-year campaign that carried him along the east coast as far as Bengal, then northward and inland as far as the Ganges River.


In 1025, Rajendra launched an even more spectacular enterprise. He sent an expedition by sea to attack Srivijaya, an empire in Southeast Asia. Srivijaya had attempted to interrupt the Cholas’ trade links with China. The resulting Chola presence in that part of the world lasted only for about 50 years, but it caused the spread of Hinduism and Hindu arts in Southeast Asia. This influence was profound and lasting.

The last notable Chola ruler was Kulottunga I, who reigned from 1070 to 1118. After him, the dynasty gradually declined, squeezed between the rising power of the Hoysalas to the west and the Pandyas of Madurai in the South. The Pandyas defeated the Cholas in 1279.


The Chola rulers are famous for their architecture. The Brihadeswar temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram are maginficient examples of architecture and sculpture.


The Andhras


The Satavahanas (28 BC – 250 AD), also known as the Andhras, emerged as an independent power in the Deccan in the first century BC. It was founded by Simuka (65 BC – 25 BC). His son, Satakarni (25 BC – 20 AD), succeeded him. After the fall of the Mauryan Empire, the history of the Andhras, commences with the rise of the Satavahanas as a political power. It is said that there were 29 rulers of this dynasty. They ruled over the Andhradesa including Deccan for about 400 years from the 2nd century B.C. to beyond the 2nd century A.D. Simukha, the founder of the Satavahana dynasty, unified the various Andhra principalities into one kingdom and became its ruler (271 B.C. — 248 B.C.). Dharanikota near Amaravati in Guntur district was the first capital of Simukha,

Satakarni II, the sixth ruler of the dynasty (184 B.C.) was an able ruler who extended his kingdom to the west by conquering Malwa. According to inscriptional evidence, he extended the boundaries of his realm far into central India across the Vindhyas, perhaps up to the river Ganges. He ruled for a long period of 56 years. It was the accession of Pulumavi-I that brought renewed strength and glory to their kingdom. He struck down the last of the Kanva rulers, Susarman, in 28 B.C. and occupied Magadha. The Satavahanas thus assumed an all-India significance as imperial rulers in succession to the Nandas, Mauryas, Sungas and Kanvas.


It was during the time of Gautamiputra Satakarni, the 23rd ruler of this dynasty, who ascended the throne in A.D.62, that the kingdom reached its highest glory. He is described as the restorer of the glory of the Satavahanas. His kingdom included the territories of Asika, Assaka, Mulaka, Saurashtra, Kukura, Aparanta, Anupa, Vidarbha, Akara and Avanti, and the mountainous regions of Vindhya, Achavata, Pariyatra, Sahya, Kanhagiri, Siritana, Malaya, Mahendra, Sata and Chakora, and extended as far as seas on either side. It is clear that Gautamiputra’s kingdom covered not only the peninsular India, but also the southern parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. He passed away in A.D.86, and his successors witnessed the dismemberment of their far flung empire. Pulumavi II succeeded Gautamiputra and ruled for 28 years. In spite of serious efforts put forth by him to safeguard the frontiers of his vast empire, the closing years of his reign witnessed the decline of the Satavahana authority. Yajnasri Satakarni’s accession to the throne in A.D.128 brought matters to a crisis. He came into conflict with the Saka Satrap, Rudradamana, and suffered defeat, and consequently, lost all his western possessions. However, he continued to rule till A.D.157 over a truncated dominion. His ship-marked coins suggest extensive maritime trade during his days. With him passed away the age of the great Satavahanas and by the end of the 2nd century A.D., the rule of the Satavahanas was a matter of past history.


The Deccan, during this period, was an emporium of inland and maritime trade. The region between the rivers of Godavari and Krishna was full of ports and throbbing with activity. There was plentiful currency to facilitate trade and the Telugus entered upon a period of great industrial, commercial and maritime activity. Buddhism flourished throughout the period and at the same time the rulers were devoted to Vedic ritualism. They constructed several Buddhist Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas. The Stupa at Amaravati is known as an excellent work of architecture. The Satavahanas were not only the able rulers but were also lovers of literature and architecture. The 17th ruler of this dynasty, Hala was himself a great poet and his “Gathasaptasati” in Prakrit was acclaimed by all. Under the Satavahanas, many Buddhist worshipping halls (Chaityas) and monasteries (Viharas) were cut out from rocks. Some famous examples are Amravati and Nagarjuna Konda.


Though the Satavahana kings followed Brahmanical religion, they also patronised Buddhism, thus revealing the spirit of tolerance.


The famous Buddhist philosopher and exponent of Madyamika philosophy, Acharya Nagarjuna belonged to the times of Satavahanas. He gave a definite shape to the Mahayana form of Buddhism that was ultimately responsible for the absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism. The evolution of Madhyamika philosophy of Buddhism was a distinct contribution of the Andhras to the various schools of philosophy existing in the world. It was under the guidance of Acharya Nagarjuna that the famous center of Buddhist learning flourished at Nagarjunakonda.

It was during the period of Satavahana rulers that the paintings of Ajanta and the sculptures of Amaravathi were carved out. Thus even in the field of painting and sculpture, Andhras developed a distinct school of Art. During the period of four and a half centuries rule, the Satavahanas gave more stability and security to the lives of the people in Deccan than any other political power before.


The decline and fall of the Satavahana empire left the Andhra country in a political chaos.


Local rulers as well as invaders tried to carve out small kingdoms for themselves and to establish dynasties. During the period from A.D.180 to A.D.624, Ikshvakus, Brihatphalayanas, Salankayanas, Vishnukundins, Vakatakas, Pallavas, Anandagotras, Kalingas and others ruled over the Andhra area with their small kingdoms. Such instability continued to prevail until the rise of the Eastern Chalukyas.


Important among them were the Ikshvakus. The present Nagarjunakonda was their capital. They patronised Buddhism, though they followed the Vedic ritualism. After the Ikshvakus, a part of the Andhra region north of the river Krishna was ruled over by Jayavarma. By A.D.514, the land north of the Godavari, known, as Kalinga became independent. The area south of the Krishna fell to the share of the Pallavas, who ruled from Kanchi. The Vakatakas occupied the present Telangana. This state of affairs continued with few changes up to the beginning of the 7th century A.D. But during all this time extended patronage was given to architecture and sculpture. The cave temples at Mogalrajapuram and Undavalli near Vijayawada bear testimony to their artistic taste.


The period of Andhra history, between A.D.624 and A.D.1323, spanning over seven centuries, is significant for the sea-change it brought in all spheres of the human activity; social, religious, linguistic and literary. During this period, Desi, the indigenous Telugu language, emerged as a literary medium replacing the domination of Prakrit and Sanskrit. As a result, Andhradesa achieved an identity and a distinction of its own as an important constituent of the Indian cultural set-up.


This change was brought by strong historical forces, namely, the Eastern and Western Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas and the early Cholas. Kakatiyas came to power during the later half of this period and extended their rule over the entire Telugu land with the exception of a small part in the northeast. Arts, crafts, language and literature flourished under their benevolent patronage.

We thus see that there is a distinct cultural kinship between the North and South India; the Deccan can justly be proud of its ancient languages, culture and genius, which have a strong stamp and character of their own.

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