Last evening, my husband and I were at the Asia Society in New York, to attend a reading and performance by William Dalrymple and Vidya Shah and her orchestra. This event was arranged in conjunction with the Society’s current exhibit on Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857. The evening was, for the most part, interesting and entertaining. Dalrymple’s narrative, drawn largely from his book, The Last Mughal, was studded with entertaining anecdotes that brought his characters to life. Vidya Shah complemented and supplemented his stories with songs and poetry from the great and little-known poets and songsters of that era.
Dalrymple then went on to describe the Delhi of that era as a place that embraced intellectual curiosity. Theology, science, poetry, literature, art, all thrived in the great madrasas of the city. Then came the first Indian War of Independence, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in Meerut. Delhi soon became the center of the sepoy uprising, but with its shabby administrative infrastructure, it lacked the capability and competence to run the mutiny. The British, taking advantage of the disarray and limited means of the rebels, crushed the rebellion; Delhi crumbled. It witnessed unimaginable horrors and bloodshed and this once-great city soon lay in ruins. Bahadur Shah Zafar and his family surrendered. His sons were killed, many in plain sight of their father, now a beaten, broken old man, who, after spending time in a prison in Delhi where he was displayed like a beast in a zoo to visitors, and where, in silence, he wrote poetry on the walls with a burned stick, was transported into exile to Rangoon on a bullock cart. And thus did the mighty Mughal Empire come to an end.
Interspersed with Dalrymple’s narrative were songs and poetry sung by Vidya Shah. Her voice lacked modulation and subtlety, and, while the songs she picked were an enriching counterpoint to Dalrymple’s chronicles, her rendering of them had a blaring quality that took away from the pathos, humor and poetry of the words.
All of this was fascinating and enjoyable, but I was annoyed by something Dalrymple said at the beginning of his talk. He spoke of the might and reach of the Mughal Empire, which at its height in the 17th century, covered most of India - except for a small sliver in the south - all of Pakistan, and a large portion of Afghanistan. With a dismissive wave of his hand he appeared to dispense with and brush off the south of India. As if whatever was happening there was of no consequence when compared to the grandeur of the Mughal empire. It annoyed me because this is something I have had to put up with right from my school days. Our History of India text book relegated the Chola, Pandya, Pallava, Chera, Vijayanagara, Chalukya, Hoysala, Satavahana and Rashtrakuta empires to one chapter where they were all bundled together with scant regard for any depth or detail about their achievements.
I am not saying that one history is “better” or more important.than another. But I do resent that much of what I know of the history of south India is from my own reading, not from what I was taught in school. I have no idea how things are today, but this north-India centric view of Indian history angers me.
And so, dear reader, here is my response: an account of what was going on in part of that sliver of south India - mostly the Tamil lands - while the glory of the Mughal dynasty bedazzled the rest of India.
THE VIJAYANAGAR EMPIRE: 14TH CENTURY TO 16TH CENTURY
As the Islamic invasions of and influence in northern India gained in strength, five brothers, who had fled the Telugu lands, established the beginnings of an empire on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in modern Karnataka in the early 14th century. Their aim: to protect and defend the Hindu religion and way of life from the Muslims and other foreign influences.
Their empire grew rapidly, extending its power over the Hoysala lands, and successfully holding in check the Delhi sultans and the Muslim Bahmani kingdom in Hyderabad to the south. Its history is one of a succession of wars, and the eminent historian, Nilakanta Sastri, describes the empire as essentially a “war-state”, with its military needs controlling and guiding its actions.Many defeats were suffered, but there were also numerous victories, and the Vijayanagar Empire spread over most of south India. Local governors, called Nayaks, were appointed to administer the various territories. Tamil country had three “Nayakships”, in Thanjavur, Madurai and Gingee. The empire reached its peak during the early 16th century reign of Krishnadevaraya, who enjoyed a great many military victories, and during whose reign the arts and literature blossomed.
Travelers from Italy, Persia and Portugal to the city of Vijayanagara have left wonder-struck descriptions of the wealth and power of the empire. Cultural and economic life was lived at the highest standards. Large numbers of seaports conducted and controlled trade with many nations, both to the east and the west.
The constant warring eventually took its toll; the empire suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Delhi Sultans at the battle of Talikota in 1564. In Tamil country, the local Nayaks declared their independence, and took over the rule of their territories.
THE NAYAKS: 16TH TO 17TH CENTURY
The best-known of these were the Thanjavur and the Madurai Nayaks. The first of the Thanjavur Nayaks was Sevappa Nayak, who had had a distinguished career under Krishnadevaraya. His son was Achyutta Nayak, under whose reign the Srirangam Temple in Tiruchirapalli, widely regarded as the largest functioning Hindu temple, benefited greatly from his largesse. The most well-known was Raghunatha Nayak, who ruled in the first decades of the 17th century, and who was well-renowned for his patronage of music and literature. He established a library in Thanjavur, Saraswathi Bandar, where the works of his court scholars were stored. This library went on to become, under a future ruler, the Saraswathi Mahal library, one of the finest in the world with its priceless collection of rare and ancient art. Raghunatha Nayak was instrumental in setting the stage for the European presence in India, by allowing the Danish to establish a settlement in Tarangambadi (Tranquebar).
The Nayak rulers of Thanjavur and Madurai were not on particularly friendly terms. They had differing opinions on what the terms of their allegiance to their old masters, the now-weakened Vijayanagar rulers, should be. In Madurai, the Nayaks worked hard to restore the temples sacked by the Delhi Sultans, and were also known for their support of art, architecture, literature and music. There were 13 rulers in this regime, of which Tirumala Nayak was the most eminent. A good part of his reign, which was from 1623 to 1659, was spent fending off the armies of the north, in which he was successful. There was also tension with the rulers of Vijayanagar and Mysore, and there was dissension within his own kingdom. Yet through all this turmoil he saw to the construction of many marvels of architecture in Madurai. An example is his palace, the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, a stunning building that is a fusion of Dravidian, European and Islamic styles.
The decline of the Madurai Nayaks began after the death of Tirumala Nayak; the end of the Thanjavur Nayaks came at the hands of the Madurai Nayak Chokkanatha. In the chaos and disarray that presided over these crumbling regimes, the Marathas of western India entered and took control over Thanjavur.
MARATHA RULE: 17TH-19TH CENTURIES
Eight Maratha kings ruled over Thanjavur and its surrounding areas. Of these, the best and most admired was Serfoji II, who ruled in the late 18th and early 19th century. His court was renowned for the high quality of the arts it embraced. Eminent musicians and dancers vied for positions in his court. The reign of Serfoji II coincided with the lives of the most venerated Carnatic music composers: Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar, and Syama Sastry. Sanskrit and Telugu were favored over Tamil, and a lot of the music and literature of the day was composed in these languages. Serfoji II expanded the Saraswathi Bandar library that had been established by the preceding Nayak dynasty, and developed it into the Saraswathi Mahal Library, a source of awe and wonder to this day.
By this time, the British and other European powers were establishing themselves all over India, and were part of the mix of powers vying for land and control. In the chaos of rival rulers and dynasties, one was played against the other, once powerful empires were weakened, and the stage was set for the foreign domination of the land. The Maratha empire in Tamil Nadu came to an end when British annexed their kingdom after the death of the last ruler Shivaji, a weak and ineffectual man who died childless.
THE ENGLISH EAST INDIA COMPANY: 1600 TO 1857
When several European nations, starting with Portugal, discovered that they could make their way by sea to India and thus dispense with the middlemen they had been dealing with for several centuries, a new chapter began in the history of India, that of the colonial era. In the Tamil lands, the power struggle boiled down to the French and the British, with the Dutch and the Danish left with small settlements that were of minor consequence.
The British presence in India began with the English East India Company, a joint-stock company that was founded in 1600 and whose primary activity was trading with India as well as with China. It traded mainly in cotton, silk, indigo, saltpetre, tea and opium, and gradually, its trading pursuits became secondary to its broader ambitions of acquisition of land, power and administrative authority. They took advantage of the rivalries between dynasties, playing one side against the other, and thus achieving more domination and influence.
On August 22nd 1639, Francis Day, an English East India Company employee working under the guidance of his boss Andrew Cogan, obtained the rights from local leaders to a narrow stretch of land on the Coromandel Coast. On that day, on that piece of land, began the history of the city of Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu that is today called Chennai. Until that point the area had been a collection of villages separated by tracts of paddy fields and forests, overseen by a local Nayak. Soon, the construction of a Fort and other buildings was underway; this was British India's first real seaside settlement, built right on the beach. On April 23rd, 1640, the first stage of this British outpost was completed. It was St. George's day, and thus, the Fort was named Fort St. George, a name which stands to this day. The fort complex grew, and within its walls were stately mansions, army barracks, traders homes, well-swept streets, a church, a stock exchange... - in short, a fully-functioning, bustling township.
The British were in regular conflict with the French, who arrived in India in the 1660s. They established a trading post in Pondicherry, further south along the Coromandel Coast from the British Fort St. George. Events in faraway Europe had their repercussions in these outposts: the war of Austrian Succession began in 1740, in which Britain and France were soon embroiled. The navies of these two countries were engaged in numerous battles along the coast, and in 1746 the French in Pondicherry, under the governorship of Francois Dupleix, attacked and occupied Fort St. George. Two years later, when the war in Europe ended, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle restored the Fort to the British.
In the decades that followed, the British control over Tamil territories increased rapidly. After the long and bitterly fought Polygar Wars (against the Madurai Kingdom) of the late 1700s and early 1800s, the British domination over Tamil territory was nearly complete. Under the leadership of Lord Wellesley, the Madras Presidency was established so that the territory under the East India Company’s control could be better administered. In the meantime, as the various royal dynasties weakened and crumbled, the city of Madras grew in importance as an economic and cultural center.