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Fine-tuning Regional History

of rich capitalist countries, but also to provide raw materials and cheap labour. These other aspects of the situation are distinct from the role they can play in boosting overall demand. But Patnaik, like Luxemburg, does not sort through these distinctions carefully.




Fine-tuning Regional History

Nupur Dasgupta

he essays in this volume focus on historiography and the possibilities in the history of early medieval south India. South India is generally represented as a big, singular block in most history books written for college students with streamlined data and often hackneyed interpretation. The volume being reviewed is segmented into three parts, each representing the author’s engagements with the subunits of the region, viz, the Tamil land, Karnataka and Kerala. As a result, our attention is effectively drawn to the importance of the inverted triangle in the Indian peninsula, which has most often been dealt with a glaring lack of appreciation – especially for the singularities of the zones and their histories.

Disentangling ‘South India’

The author, Kesavan Veluthat, a veteran in the field, justifies this collection in the preface, stating that it presents a reading of the history of south India “different from what is available now”. His hope that the collection will awaken interest in the informed scholar and students as well as the general reader is not unfounded. This is not only to do with how he discusses the problems of

Economic & Political Weekly

october 3, 2009

The ‘Early Medieval’ in South India by Kesavan Veluthat (Delhi: Oxford Collected Essays, OUP), 2009; pp vii

+ 356 with index, Rs 695.

writing the region’s history as a unit. It has

also to do with how he lays out the param

eters essential to the understanding of this

history in the given temporal framework

and how in the process the temporal frame

is provided with a historical character that

has now become a crucial aspect of doing

the history of pre-colonial India.

So far as the problem of spatially denot

ing the context, the author has raised a

crucial issue. He anticipates a criticism of

his “assumption” of a “South India” in the

early medieval context. This awareness

illu minates new directions in historio

graphy. Situating both Kerala and Karna

taka prominently in the geo-social and

political framework is a daunting task.

Aware as he is of the limitations, of scope,

historiographical frame, and application

of analysis to data in the case of these

three subunits, Veluthat has yet done jus

tice in at least bringing this to the atten

tion of the scholars.

Since Veluthat and M G S Narayanan

had first looked into the phenomenon of

vol xliv no 40

religious institutions more than 30 years back,1 the early medieval in south India has been enriched by numerous scholarly works. Informed readers are f amiliar with the research of stalwarts like Y Sub

barayalu, N Karashima, Burton Stein, George Spencer, K R Hall, R Champakalakshmi, James Heitzman, and o thers working in more specific fields like L eonid Alayev, Rajan Gurukkal, Vijaya Ramaswamy, Leslie Orr, Padma Kaimal, among others. Many of the themes a ddressed in the essays in the book under review have been dealt with by other e xperts on south Indian history. There is thus the risk of these being compared to relatively recent interpretations on the subject. There is also the danger of seeming to be repetitive when 20-year old e ssays are included in a newly published volume. The introduction to the book, therefore, needed to be explanatory, justifying the significance of this volume. A reader acquainted with the author’s work, however, would find the qualities he has consistently maintained through the last two decades, bringing the perspective of regional history into the macro paradigm of Indian history. In the p rocess the “early medieval”, itself a c oncept redolent with theoretical problems and tropes, has been brought into sharp focus as the central historical c ontext within which the history of the r egion is reviewed.


This volume is justified on two major grounds. First, by providing selective h istories of the three sub-cultural zones, K esavan Veluthat opens the door to possibilities of comparative study and takes us out of the whirlpool of Cola studies, which the history of the region has become. Second, the essays have been selected with a clear notion of how the early medieval in south India would stand explained. Taken in the individual contexts of the three subunits, this approach gives the collection a comprehensive character.


The introduction is followed by an article which delves into the issue of periodisation and history writing. Veluthat uses the socioeconomic parameters in temporal phases to understand the transitions in history. Not only is the “early medieval” essential to understanding and justifying periodisation of Indian history, it is necessary to explore this paradigm in its depths if one is to write a history of south India. This is the very phase which witnessed the crystallisation of agraraian relations, state formation, institutionalisation of most of the social and cultural phenomena that characterise the region and that time – vestiges of which may be traced even in the present century. The author has illuminated the play of these parameters in the creation of a political frame which, he emphasises, is the early medieval state in south India.

Broadly speaking, three different historiographical models can be identified on the subject of state formation in early medieval south India – the conventional Sastri model, Stein’s “segmentary state” theory and the discourse formed by historical materialism. Veluthat’s engagements with early medieval south India, as he himself points out, comes as the outcome of the “conjuncture” formed by the meeting of these three. The author asserts that there is a l acuna in such engagements in recent historiography. The essays included here touch upon themes that are important a spects of the early medieval society, as diagnosed by historians of all schools. Land rights and land-based hierarchy, l abour structure, social institutions, productive and revenue units, religious units and institutions, the processes and nature of state formation, the state and its agents were the vital phenomena in this historical context. These form the basic parameters for the various discourses currently being offered by scholars ranging from historians to social anthropologists. The early medieval is seen to evolve against the fabric set by these parameters and the graph of development is observed to qualify these themes in a manner that is selfexplanatory. Veluthat’s historiography fits within this frame of reference and is yet distinctive in that it nurtures the details of the regionalities in their contextualised nuances. At the same time his perception plays out in full in the broader canvas of the early medieval in India.

The rise of temple cities in early medieval south India is a very popular theme, not only among historians but also among sociologists and anthropologists. The s econd essay in the first part of the volume has a brief overview of the phenomenon

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october 3, 2009 vol xliv no 40

Economic & Political Weekly


in the context of all the three sub-regions. The author views this development from his own historical materialist perception, fortified with analysis drawn from substantial epigraphic and literary sources, including astronomical texts and local puranas and the works of historians like R Champakalakshmi. Most commendable is the author’s excellent deconstruction of the puranic myths, to link the early medieval negotiations between the sacred and the political.

This collection of essays affords a comparative overview in some of the significant yet little known aspects of the early medieval genre in Karnataka and Kerala. The main gain from the volume is in this last respect. In fact, to many scholars writing on even the region of south India, the Cera country remains a backwater and, where it finds mention, it is seen as an a ppendage to the dominant history of Tamil land.

Mastery over Kerala History

Veluthat’s masterly sway over the history of Kerala is especially underlined in this volume. He has explored the phenomenon of state formation in Kerala, touching upon interesting details. The early medieval period in Kerala is not only little read by historians in other parts but the historical context is so full of features specific to the region and culture, that one needs to have a deep knowledge and resonance with the data. Rather than beginning with a theoretical model, Veluthat primarily relies on historical data collected from both primary and secondary sources and forays them with an ease born of deep familiarity. The historical process, however, is seen to evolve into a hierarchical society and stratified polity, curiously offset with social, economic, ethnological and ideological pluralities operating within a fabric bonded by symbiotic interests. Three things are worth mentioning in this essay. The historical processes are o bserved as almost flowing from the early medieval to medieval in the context of Kerala, integrating the stages in state and social formations. Second, the extremely complex prism of Kerala society is analysed within a cohesive historical fabric. A third, and most crucial, factor that has been briefly but sharply highlighted is the micro regional pattern within the sub -region of Kerala.

Economic & Political Weekly

october 3, 2009

The predominance of regionality – a

marker of the early medieval – gets high

lighted in the process as does the tiered

power structure. The last has been

e xplored in greater details in the context

of what Veluthat has termed “landlordism

in Kerala”. This essay is more of a tribute

to the pioneer historian Kunjan Pillai, who

is credited with bringing a new analytic

a pproach to the study of the story of the

region. But Veluthat also critiques some of

the premises and conclusions offered by

Pillai and, in doing so, conducts a deep

micro study of the kind that B D Chatto

padhyaya had deemed most necessary to

u nderstand and appreciate the early

m edieval paradigm of regional specificity.

The essay throws some light on the factors

of state formation, land relationships and

associated social status in both the Cera

and post-Cera eras, with reference to

changing patterns of relationships and

economic practices. Both these essays

r eveal an attempt undertaken by the

a uthor to reinterpret the dynamics of the

historical paradigm in the context of early

medieval Kerala from a more critically

n uanced perspective.

The analysis of Keralolpatti reveals a

distinctive take on functional transaction

between narrative and history. An essay

by S Raju had thrown light on the intimate

relationship of the two in Kerala’s regional

idiom observed over a long time. Raju’s

work is anthropological with a longue du

rée perspective. Veluthat’s work is posited

within a historical frame which provides a

contextualised social – psychological – in

tellectual genre, hinting at the develop

ment of a new approach. His conclusion

that the Keralolpatti is not so much a his

tory of Kerala’s antiquity as a record of a

burgeoning historical sense in that

c ontext, reveals how closely the author

e xplored the ethos of the text as well as

the tenets of the philosophy of history. The

last allows the author to defend the pre

colonial Indian tradition of recording the

knowledge about the past in a more

n uanced way, and on the lines adopted by

Romila Thapar.2

The article, “Literacy and Communica

tion in Pre-Modern Kerala”, throws inter

esting light on this rare but significant

a spect of cultural history. The study of

l iteracy and modes of communication is a

vol xliv no 40

comparatively new topic, specially in the field of early medieval south India. Apart from Iravathan Mahadevan’s article published in 19953 and Rajan Gurukkal’s article in 1996,4 both on the examples from Tamil Nadu, little is available in the nature of historical interpretation. Veluthat has used the data to interpret the transitions in social, intellectual, political and administrative contexts of the times, linking these to a historical paradigm of change in early medieval Kerala. The other essays in this section (on Kerala) are equally informative and rich in analysis. We get glimpses of the historiography of early medieval Kerala as a bonus in these e ssays. In the section on Karnataka the two essays included throw light on socioeconomic institutions. Veluthat has analysed these in an idiom which represents a flavour slightly distinct from his later articles i ncluded in the volume. In the process his take on a “New History” paradigm5 comes full circle.

Going through the collection of essays presented in this book, the reader may avail of an additional gain in the form of an opportunity to traverse the scope of the author’s engagements with the history of early medieval south India. One may d iscern in Veluthat’s historiography a bridging of the particularities of the r egional history with the pan peninsular frame, overarching between the structural frame of reference and the dynamism of the contents/agents of history.

Nupur Dasgupta ( teaches history at Calcutta University.


1 M G S Narayanan and K Veluthat, “Bhakti Movement in South India” in S C Malik (ed.), (1978), Indian Movements: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla.

2 Romila Thapar (1992), “Society and Historical Consciousness: The Itihasa – Purana Tradition”, in Interpreting Early India, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 137-73; Romila Thapar (2002), “Recent Trends in the Writing of Early Indian History: Searching for a Historical Tradition”, Journal of the Asiatic Society, Vol XLIV, No 1, 1-16.

3 I Mahadevan (1995), “From Orality to Literacy: The Case of Tamil Society”, Studies in History, Vol 11, No 2, 173-88.

4 Rajan Gurukkal (1996), “Writing and Its Uses in the Ancient Tamil Country”, Studies in History, Vol 12, No 1 (new series), 67-81.

5 Peter Burke (1992), “Overture: The Future, Colophon” in his (ed.), New Perspectives in Historical Writings, University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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