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Want to learn more about the history of South India?
Here’s a great book covering the last four centuries of its history:
Who Should Read “Modern South India”? And Why?
Modern South India tells the story of all four cultures which dominate South India’s landscape (Kannada, Malayali, Tamil, and Telugu) through most of the last four centuries.
If you want to become more acquainted with this history, then you will do no wrong buying and reading this book: written by Rajmohan Gandhi, it’s both researched in detail and engagingly written.
And if you like it, we warmly recommend that you consult two more books: even though not as ambitious as Gandhi’s masterpiece, A Brief History of Modern India and India’s Struggle for Independence should help you put things in context.
About Rajmohan Gandhi
Rajmohan Gandhi is an Indian historian, biographer, and politician.
Now 83 years old, Gandhi worked (until 2012) as a research professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA, and continues to teach as a visiting professor at Michigan State University and at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
Grandson of both Mahatma Gandhi (through his father) and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (through his wife’s father), he is a prolific and admired author of more than a dozen books, many of which have been awarded.
Between 1990 and 1992, Gandhi was also a member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament.
Find out more at https://www.rajmohangandhi.com
“Modern South India PDF Summary”
“The sounds and flavors of the land south of the Vindhyas – temple bells, coffee and jasmine, coconut and tamarind, delicious dosai and appams – are familiar to many, but its history is relatively unknown,” implies one of India’s most beloved and most widely acclaimed biographers, Rajmohan Gandhi, in the “Introduction” to his historical overview of South India.
And why is that?
Gandhi lists no less than three reasons:
For one thing, the South is a large area, where, dauntingly, a great deal happened during the 400 years covered in my study. Secondly, while the story of each powerful culture within the South has been studied in depth, few in either the South or the North have attempted an integrated view of the South as a whole. Thirdly, India’s political power has resided in the North, influencing the focus of academia, not merely the media.
And that’s where Modern South India comes in, a monumental study which, in about 600 pages, paints – in vivid colors and details – four tumultuous centuries of South Indian history, filled with everything from civil wars to freedom struggles, from sultans to political leaders and even rockets (yes, rockets!)
In essence – by Gandhi’s own admission – it is “a story of facets of four powerful cultures – Kannada, Malayali, Tamil and Telugu,” but he doesn’t forget that it is also a story of the cultures which have influenced and shaped them: the Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya, Tulu, and some “older and possibly more indigenous cultures often seen as ‘tribal’, as well as cultures originating in other parts of India and the world.”
Let’s delve a bit deeper.
As Rajmohan Gandhi explains in the “Preface” of Modern South India, he was asked to do a study of this sort by Indian novelist and publisher David Davidar, who didn’t forget to remind Gandhi that after the publication in 1955 of K. A. Nilakanta Sastri’s classic work, A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar, “not many have tried to convey South India’s story in a single study.”
Quite appropriately, Modern South India begins where Sastri’s work ends, recapping in its first chapter (“Sails on the Horizon: 1498 – 1697)” the rise and fall of the Vijayanagara Empire (1336 – 1646) and the Deccan Sultanates (1527 – 1686).
And, of course, the narrative begins somewhere around 23 January 1565 when the last great medieval empire of the South, the Vijayanagara Empire, is soundly defeated by the combined forces of the Muslim Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Golconda and Bidar.
Now, you’d expect that after such a deciding victory the Deccan Sultanates would do something with it (like, we don’t know, maybe start a new, even more powerful empire), but it seems that neither of the dynasties got the lesson from the victory (namely, that force lies in unity).
After the victory at Talikota, the Deccan Sultanates reverted to in-fighting, and this made them an easy target for the Mughal Empire, a Mongol empire directly descended from both Timur and Genghis Khan.
At the same time, the Maratha Empire is also on the rise, as are a few other nayakas, princes, chieftains and poligars which rule with different regions across the South Indian plateau.
Of course, the competition raging between all of these makes the job quite easy for the Europeans, mostly the British and the French.
And we all know what would happen next, don’t we?
But wait a second!
Before the British defeated the French and conquered India, they still had to face a formidable enemy in the southern Deccan.
Founded at the very beginning of the XV century, the Kingdom of Mysore expanded its territories throughout the XVII century, especially during the rule of Narasaraja Wodeyar I and Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar.
By the beginning of the XVIII century, the Kingdom of Mysore had already much of what is now Southern Karnataka under its control.
However, it reached the height of its powers in the second half of this century, first under the rule of Haidar Ali, and then – and especially – under the rule of his pretty controversial son Tipu Sultan, who managed to annex parts of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
“Tipu and his father Haidar were central to the 18th century’s second half,” says Gandhi. “Between them, they provided a stable 38-year-rule that not only brought economic progress to a large portion of southern India, and it almost foiled Britain’s conquest.”
And really: by the time Haidar came to power (1761), the Europeans had already asserted their presence on the continent, pitting nominally independent rulers against each other and dividing the Mughal and the Maratha Empire piece by piece.
Haidar – though an illiterate man, in retrospect, a military, and economics genius – allied with the French and fought against the British the First and the Second Anglo-Mysore Wars.
During the latter, the British (and the world) first saw (and were humbled by) the employment of rocket artillery in the history of warfare.
The Mysorean rockets served as the direct basis for the technology behind the Congreve rocket, which the British used effectively during the Napoleonic wars.
Haidar Ali died from cancer during the Second Anglo-Mysore War (1782), leaving his son Tipu Sultan on the throne in the middle of a bloody war.
Even though in 1783, a preliminary peace between France and Britain was agreed (leaving the Kingdom of Mysore ally-less), Tipu did manage to hold his ground on his own, winning several important victories against the British, and negotiating the 1784 Treaty of Mangalore which basically meant that he had won.
Of course, this made the British a bit angry, and during the next two Anglo-Mysore Wars, they got their revenge, killing Tipu Sultan himself, who was killed on 4 May 1799 during the Siege of Srirangapatna, while he was defending his fortress.
Three things before we proceed:
First of all, when we say the British, we do mean the British East India Company which, at around this time, “employed a small country and earned more than the British government itself;” if that’s not enough, the East India Company also employed an army of about 300,000 soldiers – twice the size of the British army itself!
Secondly, Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan were not without serious failings; especially the latter one, who is more than controversial nowadays, for his treatment of Christians and Hindus – as well as for his tyrannical behavior.
But thirdly and finally, both Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan – as well as, say, subsequent freedom fighters such as Pazhassi Raja and Velu Thampi – (to quote Gandhi) “deserve a frank study of their lives in their times, not labels handy for squabbles in our times.”
In other words, Tipu Sultan is part of India’s history and, in his time, he was part of a war against a foreign enemy.
Unfortunately, the last one:
Though the following 10 years saw a string of impassioned rebellions across the South, including the Vellore Mutiny of 1806 and revolts in Kerala spearheaded by Pazhassi Raja (killed in 1805) and Velu Thampi (who killed himself in 1809), the East India Company had conquered the South when it defeated Tipu.
The most important thing that happened during the XIX century as far as South Indi (and India) is concerned was the handing of its rule from a private company (the East India Company) to the British monarchy itself (“A Gift for the Queen”).
Thus, Queen Victoria became the “Empress of India,” and the Glorious Empire went on being as Inglorious as possible when it came to ruling foreign lands.
If the nineteenth century saw South India fighting against the British rule in no more than a few sporadic, isolated military campaigns led by nawabs and rajas, the XX century saw the unification of the subcontinent under the leadership of several prominent leaders and parties.
In addition to the influential national parties such as the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, the Indians united in quite a few regional ones as well, such as the Andhra Mahajana Sabha, the Justice Party, and the Dravida Kazhagam.
Here Gandhi treats his readers with quite a few engaging biographical sketches of prominent South Indian leaders (mostly socialists and communists) such as Annie Besant, EMS, C. N. Annadurai, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy, Perumal Varadarajulu Naidu, Kumaraswami Kamaraj, as well as his very own grandfather (through his wife), C. Rajagopalachari.
Unsurprisingly, Gandhi is at his best when he chronicles this period, especially the Vaikom Satyagraha of 1942-25 which occurred five years before Gandhi’s famous Salt March and which delivered the first major blow against the notion of untouchability in Hindu Society – especially in South India.
“In the Malayalam country,” informs us Rajmohan, “Vaikom helped the freedom and social justice movements to join hands. Elsewhere in India, the news from Vaikom confronted insulated caste Hindus with the ugly realities of untouchability and unapproachability.”
After India won its independence, new states were formed along linguistic lines (Tamil, Kannada, Malayali, Telugu, respectively) on the South: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra.
Gandhi ends his book with a look at the new generation of political leaders and optimism as to what the future holds.
Key Lessons from “Modern South India”
1. The History of South India Is the History of Four Powerful Cultures… And Then Some
2. South India Was Ruled by Many Rulers – and That’s Why the British Conquered It
3. South India: Unity in Uniqueness
The History of South India Is the History of Four Powerful Cultures… And Then Some
As Rajmohan Gandhi says, the history of South India is the history of four powerful cultures: Kannada, Malayali, Tamil, and Telugu.
In fact, modern-day South India is divided along the lines of these cultures in four states: Tamil Nadu (Tamil), Karnataka (Kannada), Kerala (Malayalam) and Andhra Pradesh (Telugu).
However, even more than that, it’s also a story of many other Indian cultures which have influenced and shaped them: the Kodagu, Konkani, Marathi, Oriya, Tulu and even some older and tribal ones.
South India Was Ruled by Many Rulers – and That’s Why the British Conquered It
After the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, the last of the great medieval empires of the South, South India was divided between many kingdoms and rulers: the Deccan Sultanates, the Mughal Empire, the Maratha Empire, and the Kingdom of Mysore were merely the most prominent.
The Europeans – most notably, the British East India Company – used the competitiveness and the enmity between these kingdoms to conquer them, first by intrigue and then by force.
Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan of the Kingdom of Mysore were the last two rulers from the South to oppose the British; after the death of the latter during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, Queen Victoria could proudly call herself the Queen of India.
South India: Unity in Uniqueness
According to Rajmohan Gandhi, there are at least three reasons why South India can be seen as a uniquely unified region of India.
First of all, there are the geographical and the linguistic threads, which “have given the South Indian peninsula its unity and distinctiveness. Because of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, European countries like Portugal, Holland, England, and France impacted the South in ways not experienced by northern and central India.”
Secondly, “the South’s major languages have Dravidian rather than Sanskritic roots, even though their vocabularies have been enriched by borrowings from Sanskrit and elsewhere.”
Thirdly, and finally, “the Dravidian/Aryan question resonates, not necessarily divisively, in many southern minds.”
Be that as it may, to conclude with Gandhi’s words, “fascination with the history of one’s neighborhood can harmonize with interest in the national story.”
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“Modern South India Quotes”Although no political realm named South India ever existed, a cultural, geographical and geopolitical space of that description was long recognized. Click To Tweet The South India story… is a story of a peninsular region influenced by the oceans, not by the Himalayas. Click To Tweet The South India story… is a story of facets of four powerful cultures – Kannada, Malayali, Tamil, and Telugu. Click To Tweet Everyone knows the southern aromas and flavors: jasmine and coffee, tamarind and coconut, the dosai, idli, and appam, and accompaniments that burn the tongue but cannot be resisted. Click To Tweet For the eyes and ears, the South provides lamps, bells, temples, churches, mosques, and shrines, the sounds of its music and the movements of its dances. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Modern South India is dubbed, by its publisher, “a masterpiece in every sense of the word” and described as “a rich, authoritative and magnificent work of history about the South that will be read, debated and reflected upon for years to come.”
For once, this is not merely a marketing trick.