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‘Unless knowledge of epigraphy develops, no ancient or medieval history of this country can be studied'

Interview with Noboru Karashima, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo

— Photo: M. VEDHAN

Noboru Karashima: “Somebody had to sound the alarm on the IATR, which got entangled with local politics.”

It is now over 50 years since Noboru Karashima, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo, published his first study on the medieval economic history of South India – a small essay on land control in Allur and Isanamangalam villages in the Cauvery delta, based on a study of Chola inscriptions. With that he pioneered a methodological framework for studying inscriptions, and for interpreting the mass of information that this historical source contains. He is today a pre-eminent scholar on the medieval history of south India. He has also contributed significantly to a rich tradition of Japanese social science research on India, with his hallmark of careful empirical research. In this interview given to Parvathi Menon in Bangalore, the Japanese scholar speaks on his recent work, the state of historical research in universities and government institutes in India, and his deep concern over the uncertain future of the discipline of epigraphy in India.

Professor Karashima, you have done path-breaking work on ancient and medieval south Indian history. You have also been part of the group of Indian and foreign social scientists who, since the mid-1960s, have nurtured and given academic shape to the broad discipline of what is called Tamil Studies, through publications, collaborations, and most notably, through the work of the International Association for Tamil Research. You recently quit as President of the IATR, citing your discomfort with its proximity to the political establishment in Tamil Nadu as one of your reasons. What do you think is the future of the IATR and Tamil Studies in general?

I have already clarified my thoughts and stand concerning the Tamil Conference and the IATR, in an article published in The Hindu on July 23, 2010, and have nothing more to say about it. Somebody had to sound the alarm about the IATR, which got entangled with local politics, and that is what I did. The reason for my resignation as its President is that I had no hope of reviving the IATR from within. In addition, there were the factors of my age and health. I hope its resurrection will be taken up by young and sincere Tamil scholars.

After the publication of your last book, Ancient to Medieval: South Indian Society in Transition, you and your collaborators have moved on to researching the religious history of the medieval period, and the role of mathas. What are your conclusions here, and do they fit in with your theory of economic change in medieval south India?

I wanted to relate the socio-economic changes that occurred in the 12th and 13th centuries to the contemporary religious movements, something I did not touch on in my recent book. For that purpose, I organised a project on the study of inscriptions with references to mathas, called “Medieval Religious Movements in South India: Study of Matha Inscriptions,” with my colleagues Y. Subbarayalu, P. Shanmugam and others.

There were two religious traditions which caused the development of matha activities in the Tamil country, and I will explain them briefly.

The first was the Bhakti movement of the period from the 7th to 10th centuries, which is attested to by the recitation of Devaram hymns and Tirumurai in mathas of the 11th century and after. The second is the North Indian Brahmanical tradition brought by the influx of Saiva ascetics to the Tamil country during the 11th and 12th centuries, which is shown by the appointment of those Brahmana ascetics as rajagurus by Rajaraja I and Rajendra I.

These two traditions merged when the people of the lower social sections, such as cultivators, merchants, artisans, [members of the] hill tribes and soldiers, who had increased their power during the 12th century, also joined in matha activities in the 13th century, as our study of the inscriptions indicate. Their activities are spread all over the Tamil country. Sivananabodam, written in Tamil by Meykandar, a Vellalla ascetic, in the 13th century, is the hallmark of this fusion of the two traditions and the establishment of South Indian Saivasiddhantism in the 13th century.

Thus, we can say that the social change that occurred in the Tamil country during the 12th and 13th centuries, which I have clarified in my recent book, was well related to the religious movement too.

There is a great deal of published historical work on ancient and medieval south Indian history. How would you describe the state of research into the history of the late-17th and 18th centuries, when with the onset of colonialism the region experienced considerable economic and social turbulence?

I should say that it is still insufficient and unsatisfactory. There is not enough work that goes into the source material properly. There are lots of new ideas around which history is written, but we need to reconstruct history more substantially by studying the sources.

Past studies on the period emphasised the point that British colonial rule devastated the Indian economy entirely, but recently many scholars have begun to argue that the Indian economy continued to develop during the 18th and 19th centuries also.

This issue should be studied from the angle of the Asian economy, particularly its commercial development, and its relationship to British imperialism and global history.

The most important thing is to study historical change based on material showing domestic conditions, and not only from the Portuguese, Dutch or British trade records. In that sense, recent studies of my colleagues, H. Kotani who examined Maratha documents on the watan system; T. Mizushima and H. Yanagisawa, who studied economic change by analysing British land settlement, are very significant. If we continue such studies, we may be able to get a clear idea on the economic conditions of the 18th century.

Why do you think the 18th century is a neglected period? Is it because of the difficulties in reading source material, or because of a waning interest in history?

I think that in general there is deterioration in the quality of historical studies in the universities in the south. When I first came in 1961 and joined the Department of Ancient Indian History and Archaeology [of the University of Madras], scholars like K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and N. Venkataramanayya had done some very substantial work studying inscriptions and literary sources. I would also like to make the point that while the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu was historically very important and socially progressive, especially their view that the caste system needed to be changed, it unfortunately had an anti-intellectual tendency. The situation was something like what took place in China during the Cultural Revolution, a movement that may have been historically necessary to some extent, but did great damage to academics.

What about the government research institutes?

I think they suffer even more, and I don't know why. I think not enough attention is being paid to them. The Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India used to be an archaeologist. But for an interim period of several years, IAS officers took the place of the DG and they did not have any knowledge of archaeology itself. A similar thing happened in the State departments of archaeology too. Of epigraphy IAS officers did not know anything, and as a consequence the Epigraphical Office has suffered. For a considerable period until recently there was no recruitment of new epigraphists in the office. When I first went to Ooty in 1962 to the Epigraphical Office, the atmosphere was active and intellectually dynamic. Dr. K.V. Ramesh, Dr. B.R. Gopal (he is no more) and Dr. S.H. Rithi were young epigraphy assistants who subsequently did very good work. Now that atmosphere has been lost, as there has not been any encouragement for epigraphists for a long time. Unless the knowledge of epigraphy develops, no ancient or medieval history of this country can be studied. These days most scholars, Indian and foreign, depend on summaries of the inscriptions that appear in the annual reports. They therefore don't go into the material.

What do you think can be done to encourage epigraphy?

We have to start a system of contracting work to outside epigraphists to work on the inscriptions. Fortunately this has happened recently. The Tamil University came forward to help in digitalising the impressions (rubbings) preserved in the Mysore Epigraphy Office of the ASI and I appreciate the decision taken by the ASI and the Tamil University. Two new epigraphists were appointed recently in the Mysore office. I can only hope the situation will gradually improve.

And if not?

If not, the study of ancient history will die in this country! I am not saying this lightly at all, and am very afraid of this happening. We are really at a critical stage, I should say. If this happens, history will be built only on the basis of ideas and theory, and not on substantial work based on historical sources.

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