Last week, a prospective buyer looking around our flat spent an inordinate amount of time staring at the railway lines converging at Howrah in the 1892 map of Calcutta that hangs in our living room. She informed me rather excitedly that the locomotives would have been made in Springburn or Polmadie and transported via the Clyde to the docks at Glasgow to be shipped to India. And did I know that some of these locomotives are apparently still in operation?

I smiled and let it go as I know that it is difficult to get away from that peculiar British strain of colonial nostalgia especially when you live in Scotland. Also, this wasn’t just a one-way street. I remember seeing the same enthusiasm in my father-in-law, visiting from Calcutta, as he came home one evening enquiring if I knew that Dr So-and-So, Surgeon General of the Madras Presidency from 18xx to 19yy, happened to be buried in the cemetery across the street. His daily stroll, we discovered, mostly involved walking around the cemetery reading the tombstones.

These manifestations of a colonial hangover are benign in the lay person, but can be quite the opposite if you are, say, Charles Allen, prolific author of many historical books on South Asia, whose latest outing – Coromandel: A Personal History of South India – is intended to shed a spotlight on the peninsula south of the Narmada. Even before we get to any history, Allen declares his biases – he is a secular humanist and, with some reservations, he sides with the Orientalists – and what’s more, the obligatory elephants of the maharajah and the cobra in a child’s bedroom have already made an appearance. None of this portends well for the book ahead and the discerning reader, at this point, would rightly brace herself for another nostalgia-fuelled Orientalist adventure but I’d urge her to keep ploughing ahead, for she’d be pleasantly surprised.

Stories, not one story

Coromandel is a well-researched and well-narrated work that delves deep into some of the most fascinating strands in the history of South India, providing a tantalising glimpse of what the fitted-in jigsaw puzzle could look like. Allen is a true storyteller – his conversational and fast-paced narrative weaves together a multitude of threads lucidly into a series of stories that the reader can’t get enough of. Refreshingly, at no point does he attempt the case for an overarching theme or raison d’etre. And other than for the occasional personal connection, there is not much evidence of colonial nostalgia.

Allen begins with geography – the continental drift and plate tectonics that created the Indian plate, i.e., the peninsula forged in volcanic fire and ash, which then collided with the Eurasian plate, an event from which most of North India took shape. The eastward migration out of Africa brought South India her earliest inhabitants, who were primarily hunter-gatherers. The book moves to that controversial part of Indian history where even experts fear to tread – that of the Indus Valley/Harappan civilisation and the question of Aryan migration.

But Allen is on solid ground here, and his conclusions are in line with recent research – he sees no merit in the out-of-India theory. There is definitely no sign of horses in the Indus Valley. The Saraswati is likely to be a river in Afganisthan. And, most important, there is an obvious contrast between a culture so rooted in the physical world that it left behind ruins of well-planned urban settlements, seals, toys, and an elusive script, and the one that followed it – that of a nomadic, pastoral people who were first and foremost invested in rituals and words, ie, knowledge or veda.

Debunking the Agastya myth

From the North-West, Allen takes us back down to Kanyakumari, where he tries to makes sense of the legend of Agastya, the Aryan rishi who supposedly brought the gift of the Tamil language down to the Southern peoples. He tries to reconcile the Tamil and Sanskrit versions of the story with other sources. He follows a perfectly logical line of thought – that there is no record of Agastya or his work until hundreds of years later, and even the person positioned as his most famous disciple, Tolkappiyar, the author of the Tamil grammatical work, the Tolkappiyam, makes no mention of his supposed master. So, he concludes that Agasthya is a symbolic representation of the arrival of Vedic/Sanskritic culture in the south, but also underlying it are stories of a pre-Vedic (but post-Harappan) migration of a people with other deities and non-Sanskrit languages.

We then get to the middle chapters, which make for the most rewarding section of the book – the one covering Jainism and Buddhism in South India, and of the much-underrated Satavahana empire. Allen says that “there is no evidence that Vedic Hinduism, whether introduced by Agastya or any other rishi, entered Tamil country before the arrival of Jains at the start of the third century BCE”.

The Jains were the first to co-opt the nature worship of the earlier inhabitants into their faith, and Allen credits them as the people who are much likely to have been the instigators of the secular Tamil Sangam academies. Furthermore, they are the prime candidates for the introduction of the Ashokan Brahmi script to the south, though if recent research is any indicator and Tamil Brahmi turns out to be older, then this chapter in the history of writing in South Asia will have to be revisited.

Hot on the heels of the Jains came the Buddhists, thanks to Ashoka, whose rock edicts extend as far south as Bellary in Karnataka and are not just confined to northern and central India, as previously thought. This was when Buddhism was fast becoming a proselytising faith, looking outward and embarking on a significant programme of stupa-building and setting up of monasteries, many of them in the deep south.

Ignored empires

Closely associated with the ascendancy of Buddhism in the South were the Satavahanas, whose empire lasted nearly 400 years between 150 BCE and 250 AD, covering a vast stretch of land between the western and eastern coasts. Any one who has seen artefacts in the Amaravati room (no, not “Marbles”) at the British Museum or the exhibits at the Government Museum in Chennai has surely wondered why the people in whose kingdom these were made are not considered as important as the Pallavas who came much later. Allen gives the Satavahanas their due – an empire enriched by Roman trade, where the “Middle Way” came on its own in the monasteries of the South and spread outwards. They left considerable treasures behind in many cave temples and stupa sites, some of which is still to be discovered.

To an extent, the lasting legacy of this empire and the ones that followed it is that both Jainism and Buddhism continue to be present in pockets in South India well after their adherents were supposed to have been vanquished by Adi Sankara and the resurgence of Vedic Hinduism. This is evident in places as far away as Nagappattinam in the Cauvery delta, all the way up the coast to the Jagannath temple in Puri, which, Allen claims, was an original Buddhist site just like the many Sastha temples of Kerala including Ayyappan’s Sabarimala.

As Coromandel moves to the last millennium, it seems to lose its way a bit – or perhaps there is so much to cover that Allen has chosen to write about happenings and places that are not, to this reader anyway, the most interesting. He opts for Cholamandalam, Malabar and Tipu. The imperial Cholas, while too important to be ignored – especially given their maritime pursuits – have been written about so much that one wishes that the Chalukyas or the Pallavas got a bit more space. The section on Malaya to Malabar, tracing recent social and political histories of Malabar and Travancore, covers a lot of territory and time from the pre-colonial era to independence, but one gets the feeling that a reader without prior knowledge will struggle to get a handle on this. This reader, on whom a tedious version of this history was foisted in Class IX, very much enjoyed this particular outing.

Allen’s book is not just the history of the Coromandel coast but also the story of the “discovery” of this history. So, the appearance of a number of colonial era officers, ASI diehards, enquiring doctors, and military men, along with their Indian assistants, linguists and translators, is interpersed with the historical narrative. In the last section, Allen goes further and makes a concerted effort to provide a more rounded view of Orientalist methods and intentions by offering contrary viewpoints – for instance, the records of rampant corruption in temples and the stories of looting not just by colonial rulers. But he has declared his bias clearly upfront. The reader, more likely than not, has her own biases and is not likely to change her view.

Coromandel is not a comprehensive history of South India. Nor does Allen claim it is one. The book is best read as a collection of enlightening and interesting essays on the region from pre-historic times to the present, in rough chronological order. The geography he deals with is too expansive to accommodate an exhaustive version. As for what is not in the book – such as the Chalukyas of Badami, the Bahamani Sultanate and Vijayanagara, caste dynamics and reform movements in colonial Andhra – here’s to hoping that other writers will do them justice in the not so distant future.

Coromandel: A Personal History of South India, Charles Allen, Little, Brown