History, Southside | Empires of sound and linguistic politics - Hindustan Times
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History, Southside | Empires of sound and linguistic politics

Jun 23, 2022 11:19 PM IST

South India's history and politics are complex and intertwined — and this is most evident in its languages. Here, I explore their vibrant and surprising past, including how the linguistic innovations of Southern India often outpaced those of the North.

Southern India today is a land where language is imbued with profound meaning. From as early as the 1930s, the question of what language would be taught in schools, which language would be used by ruling classes, and more importantly, what identity a language signifies has been one of the great driving forces of modern South Indian politics. From a North Indian perspective, the most obvious example of this is the stiff resistance to claims that Hindi alone is a “national” language. From within South India, however, the picture is much more complex. For centuries, the languages of the South have had a turbulent relationship with each other and with those of the North, rooted in issues of caste, class, aesthetics, migration and political change.

For centuries, the languages of the South have had a turbulent relationship with each other and with those of the North. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
For centuries, the languages of the South have had a turbulent relationship with each other and with those of the North. (Shutterstock)

Between Sanskrit and Vernacular

The great polities of medieval Southern India — a term referring broadly to the lands south of the Narmada river between c. 600–1500 CE — were among the most consistently innovative of their time. Over nearly a millennium of its history, we’ll see some recurring themes: A great openness to new ideas, a keen eye towards aesthetics and political utility, and to our modern eyes, an almost bewildering refusal to adhere to binaries in the use of language.

In the 4th century CE, with the emergence of the Gupta empire in Northern India, Southern Indian elites had begun to adopt new modes of organising and presenting themselves. Crucial to this was Sanskrit. Once a language used primarily for religious ritual, by the 4th century Sanskrit was also the language of an impressive body of metaphysical, aesthetic, dramatic, poetic, and worldly thought. The Gupta emperors made the use and mastery of Sanskrit integral to their self-presentation as culturally-accomplished men of war, ruling as kings of kings. Connected to this was the patronage of Puranic, temple-based Hinduism and the support of Brahmins, both as members of the ruling class and as ritual experts.

Within decades of this new politico-cultural complex gathering momentum in the Gangetic plains, we begin to see it in Southern India. New dynasties in the region corresponding to modern-day Karnataka used the Sanskrit language to elevate themselves from more commonplace chiefs, as well as to connect themselves to pan-Indian elites. Rather than Old Kannada — dialects of which most of their subjects spoke — dynasties such as the Chalukyas and Kadambas deployed Sanskrit in grants to temples and Brahmin institutions. Empire-builders such as Chalukya Pulakeshin II presented themselves as Sanskritic upper-caste kings descended from Puranic heroes, supporting concepts that had first taken root in the North, such as the patronage of Brahmins. By the 8th century, according to Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, nearly 80% of Chalukya land grants were in Sanskrit. The extent of the Deccan adoption of Sanskritic culture was such that we can only form the blurriest outlines of what Old Kannada have been like before the emergence of these polities.

The extent of the Deccan adoption of Sanskritic culture was such that we can only form the blurriest outlines of what Old Kannada have been like before the emergence of these polities. (Shutterstock)
The extent of the Deccan adoption of Sanskritic culture was such that we can only form the blurriest outlines of what Old Kannada have been like before the emergence of these polities. (Shutterstock)

In the Tamil-speaking regions of the deep south, the Pallava dynasty of Kanchipuram was also notable for its patronage and use of Sanskrit. However, they were building a state in a very different language environment from that of the Deccan. The Tamil language already had a vast, prestigious corpus of literature, known as the Sangam literature, patronised by local chiefs and kings from as early as the 2nd century BCE. On the one hand, the utility of Sanskritic cultural ideas was irrefutable, and the Pallavas actively encouraged the settlement of Brahmins in villages through their territory while also establishing an important centre for Sanskrit literary production in the deep South. Pallava court poets such as Dandin were ranked by medieval writers in the same league as North Indian greats such as Kalidasa. On the other hand, Pallava scholar Emmanuel Francis has shown that they also adopted Tamil verse forms and royal titles in their inscriptions.

Interestingly, while modern South Indian politics sees a sharp distinction between “native” Tamil and “foreign” Sanskrit, it seems that the distinction was not as clear in medieval Tamil Nadu — especially when we think about the evolution of religion alongside politics and language. Prof Indira Vishwanathan examines the vibrant Tamil verses of the Shaivite bhakti saints Appar and Sambandar, composed around the 7th-8th centuries when the Pallava experiments with Sanskrit were taking hold. Competing with Jains for royal patronage, these saints travelled through Brahmin and Vellala (an upper-caste landowning group) villages, singing praises to the god Shiva in various temples.

To Sambandar, himself a Brahmin whose ancestors had been settled in the region by royals, the only way to be truly Tamil was personal devotion to Shiva, expressed in Tamil verse — but also, paradoxically, to know the Sanskrit Shaivite texts, the Agamas. These, he held, held the true essence of the Sanskrit Vedas, which (to him) had by this point become intertwined with elite Tamil culture. In the Tevaram, Book 6, verse 301.1, he sings:

“See the god [Shiva]! See him who is higher than the gods! See him who is Sanskrit of the North and southern Tamil and the four Vedas!”

Creating regional worlds

Ironically, it would be in the Deccan — where Sanskrit court culture had been adopted with such enthusiasm — that India’s first decisive turn away from cosmopolitan Sanskrit would take place.

In the mid-9th century CE, the Deccan emperor Rashtrakuta Amoghavarsha I commissioned a work known as the Kavirajamargam. This was the first text in human history to develop a theory of the relationship between a vernacular language and a cosmopolitan one such as Sanskrit, the domain of elites. With it, Amoghavarsha aimed to create a register of Kannada with aesthetic and poetic qualities comparable to the literature of the Sanskrit world. (In a sign of how pan-regional this world was, the Kavirajamargam was based on a Sanskrit poetic manual by the Pallava court poet Dandin from roughly a century earlier).

Amoghavarsha’s text set out rules for the composition and mixing of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Kannada sounds and grammatical rules, standardising the many dialects of Old Kannada into an elite register. Literature, at least according to Amoghavarsha and other Deccan elites, could only be produced in a vernacular language after rigorous philological analysis and the application of courtly aesthetic ideals. Folk ballads and epics must certainly have existed, but they were (rather condescendingly) not considered literature. Nevertheless, the effect of Amoghavarsha’s Kavirajamargam was immediate and dramatic: writes Pollock, “the proportion of records in Sanskrit shrank from about 80 percent in the period 741–819… to 15 percent in the period 819–974, and to a negligible 5 per cent by 996.”

It seems that courtly vernaculars such as this appealed to local elites, and helped bring them into imperial political structures in a way that Sanskrit simply could not. The Kavirajamargam is among the first signs that the South Indian worldview no longer required validation from Northern ideas; elites were instead seeking to create their own regional literary and cultural worlds. This can be seen in new local Mahabharatas such as Pampa’s 10th century Kannada Vikramarjunavijayam, where hitherto pan-Indian heroes such as the Pandavas perform rituals in the Krishna and Godavari rivers and go into exile in Deccan forests. By the 11th century, Telugu also saw its first Mahabharata; while this was not based on a formal manual like the Kavirajamargam, it also had considerable Sanskrit influence, especially in poetic metres and vocabulary.

A similar trend away from Sanskrit can be observed in the Tamil regions with the meteoric rise of the Chola empire in the 11th century. Like their Deccan contemporaries, the Cholas also moved towards producing literature in their own language. In a neat reversal of the Pallava’s use of Tamil-inspired Sanskrit, the Cholas used Sanskrit-inspired Tamil in their royal panegyrics or meykkirtis. Chola military expansion also led to Tamil becoming a truly trans-regional language, with Tamil enclaves in Sri Lanka and even China speaking it. Indeed, according to Tamil scholar David Shulman, Sri Lankan Tamil continues to preserve unique medieval linguistic features.

Indeed, medieval South Indians’ interest in producing elite literature in their own language, based on advanced linguistic and aesthetic ideas, was unparalleled in the subcontinent’s history. (Shutterstock)
Indeed, medieval South Indians’ interest in producing elite literature in their own language, based on advanced linguistic and aesthetic ideas, was unparalleled in the subcontinent’s history. (Shutterstock)

There was nothing comparable to this outpouring of vernacular literature in North Indian courts, which continued to produce Sanskrit literature. Indeed, medieval South Indians’ interest in producing elite literature in their own language, based on advanced linguistic and aesthetic ideas, was unparalleled in the subcontinent’s history. North Indians would only follow suit centuries later. South Indian elites even mention North Indian vernaculars more than their North Indian contemporaries: Someshvara III, Chalukya emperor of the Deccan, mentions forms of Awadhi, Bangla, Oriya, Gujarati, Magadhi, and Marathi in his encyclopedic Manasollasa of the late 12th century. Quite tellingly, he considers them suitable only for song rather than elite literature, since none of them had received the rigorous philological study that South Indian vernaculars had by this point.

Universes of the vernacular

By the 13th century, two transregional superstates that had dominated Southern India — the Chalukya empire of the Deccan and the Chola empire of the Coromandel coast —were in terminal decline. Kalyana, the Chalukya capital, had been located at the crossroads of the Deccan at the intersection of the Telugu, Kannada, and Marathi-speaking zones. The empire’s political structure relied on the patronage of religious institutions by landowning elite castes; due to its transregional ambitions, it had also continued to patronise Sanskrit (as noted earlier, there is no neat binary in South Indian linguistic history). In the late 13th century, an unprecedented Shaivite movement by lower castes and craftsmen shook the Chalukyaempire to its foundations. A major factor in the success of these “Heroic Shaivas” or Virashaivas was their willingness to use commonly-spoken dialects of Old Kannada, set to folk metres, rather than elite courtly languages. Indeed, Kannada scholar HS Shivaprakash argues that the need to appeal to large numbers of people made the poems of the Virashaivasone of the most important impulses in Kannada literary history.

The destruction of Kalyana — which some historians link to the Virashaivas — led to smaller regional empires emerging in each linguistic zone formerly dominated by the Chalukyas. A spectrum of patronage from newly-emerging Marathi in the north to well-established courtly Kannada in the south, corresponding roughly to where they were spoken, could be observed. To the east, the regions corresponding to modern-day Telangana, which had hitherto seen the use of both Telugu and Kannada, began to emphasise Telugu as a way of setting themselves apart from their former Chalukya overlords. The Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal expanded to the Andhra coast, where we have already seen Telugu literature being produced; henceforth Telangana would increasingly be identified as Telugu-speaking, as Telugu peasant-warriors and poets from the coast moved into the Deccan. As a Shudra dynasty, the Kakatiyas shunned the high-caste structures that the Chalukyas had used, instead developing a system that used local military men known as nayakas (“leaders”).

This complex linguistic tapestry was disrupted by the armies of Delhi in the 14th century. As disastrous as this was for older kingdoms, it led to two fascinating linguistic developments. The first was the fusion of Hindavi, the language of Delhi, with regional Marathi, Telugu and Kannada to create Dakhni — Urdu’s older South Indian sibling, that would go on to sparkle in Deccan Sultanate courts till the 17th century. The second was the meteoric rise of Telugu. The new Vijayanagara polity, which grew to dominate South India, relied extensively on Telugu nayakas from erstwhile Kakatiya territories to maintain its control — many of them of mercantile or “lower” caste backgrounds. Nayakas would establish polities in Tamil Nadu in the 15th century, while the Vijayanagara imperial centre invested enormously in highly ornate, musical Telugu compositions. After the decline of Vijayanagara in the 16thcentury, its nayakas would make Telugu the most important cosmopolitan language of the South, a dynamic that would last until well into the 19th century. Of course, the picture continued to be quite complex at the local level — in Tirupati and Srisailam, great centres for Telugu devotional poetry, texts were also composed in Tamil and even Marathi.

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From engaging with the North to creating their own regional worlds, the languages of South India have a history as rich and complex as any in the subcontinent — policymakers ignore this at their peril. However, though modern linguistic states and politics reduce much of these interactions to binaries, history shows us that languages, like people, are complicated and ever-shifting. The very syllables that South Indians speak today have stories that transcend simplistic regional boundaries, full of turbulent political and religious history.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian and author of Lords of the Deccan

The views expressed are personal

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