Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence to Identify the Tamil Kingdoms or Homelands.
Posted on September 10th, 2020

(Article) Published by University of Hawai’i Press DOI: 1

Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence to Identify the Tamil Kingdoms of Early Historic South India Abraham, Shinu Anna. Asian Perspectives, Volume 42, Number 2, Fall 2003, pp. 207-223 (Article) Published by University of Hawai’i Press DOI: 1


important in the identification of Tamilakam is inscriptional evidence. Within Tamil Nadu, for example, about 80 to 90 rock inscriptions have been discovered in natural caverns. Along with fragmentary epigraphs on potsherds from around 25 sites in southern India (Zvelebil 1992 : 123) and outside South Asia (Mahadevan 1993), they form the strongest linguistic evidence for separating Tamilakam from the rest of South India. The inscriptions range from third abraham . tamil kingdoms of historic south india 211 or second century b.c. to second or third century a.d., and are written in the Bra¯hmı¯ script, which was common throughout the peninsula at the time, but the language is an early form of Tamil. The Tamil inscriptional data varies from the Sangam texts, since they have a di¤erent source and were recorded for di¤erent purposes. These inscriptions were written in what are believed to be Buddhist or Jain ascetic caves, and their purpose seems to be to remind travelers of the bounty of various merchants and kings and their support for these sects (Kennedy 1976 : 6). The inscriptions mostly contain personal and occupational names of donors who endowed the Buddhist and Jain monks with stone beds in caverns (Gurukkal 1989 : 160), and one of their greatest benefits is that they confirm certain king and place names that are mentioned in the earliest Sangam texts (Zvelebil 1992 : 124). Non-Tamil South Asian inscriptions also include references to Tamilakam. Among the most pivotal are the rock edicts of the North Indian Mauryan emperor As´oka, dated to third century b.c. One of the edicts refers to five independent states that presumably existed beyond the southern border of his empire: the Choda (Chola), Pandya, Satiyaputra, Keralaputras (Chera), and Tamraparni (Sri Lanka) (Zvelebil 1992 : 110)—an indication that the polities of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka were not incorporated into the Mauryan realm (Fig. 3). Also relevant is the central Indian Hathigumpha inscription (possibly from the second half of the second century b.c.), which discusses the destruction of a ‘‘confederacy of Tamil powers’’ (Zvelebil 1992 : 103). Outside of South Asia, it is the Greco-Roman writings that provide the most detailed historical information about Tamilakam. India is in fact frequently mentioned in the Western classical literature (McCrindle 1971: xxi). The protohistoric period in South India coincides with a phase of South Asian participation in the flourishing maritime networks of the Indian Ocean. The South Asian subcontinent is well known for having had long-standing, varied, and complex forms of interaction with the external world, and South India is no exception. Historical and archaeological reconstructions of South India during its Early Historic period have placed a great deal of emphasis on the long-distance maritime trade networks to which South India belonged—particularly its links with the Roman Empire (Begley 1996; Ray 1989, 1994, 1995). The network incorporated a number of regions along the Indian Ocean littoral—including the Red Sea coast (Saloman 1991; Sidebotham 1986), the Arabian coast (Whitehouse and Williamson 1973), East Africa (Munro-Hay 1996), Southeast Asia (Ray 1994; Smith 1999), Sri Lanka (Munro-Hay 1996), and China (Ray 1994)—and South India acted as a major node in the interregional transmittal of goods during Hellenistic and Roman times (Charlesworth 1926). Of all the historical sources available for Tamilakam, the Greco-Roman references to South India are particularly useful since they are to a large degree datable and help, therefore, to fix the centuries during which overseas trade flourished. However, most of these texts refer not to ‘‘Tamilakam,’’ but to specific trade centers and ports in peninsular India.

the archaeology of protohistoric kerala and tamil nadu Although extensive portions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been explored and a number of sites excavated (general overviews of the region’s archaeology can be found in Brubaker 2001; Gurukkal and Varrier 1999; Gurumurthy 1991; Leshnik asian perspectives . 42(2) . 212 fall 2003 1974; Moorti 1994; and Ramachandran 1980), the archaeological record for Tamilakam is far from satisfactory. Relatively few radiocarbon dates are available, and there are, unfortunately, no clear sequences or patterns in artifact assemblages that have permitted the development of internal relative dating sequences. Documentation of sites has been inconsistent at best—most published data on Iron Age burials take the form of brief notices, for example, and when excavations reports are available, they tend to rely on existing ill-defined artifact classification schemes. Another issue is the fragmentary nature of archaeological research in South India. Most synthetic studies are delimited by state, making it di‰cult to understand ancient regional patterns that crossed modern political boundaries. Also, scholars have tended to compartmentalize areas of research, focusing on certain site types, such as Iron Age burials or Early Historic settlements, or on Fig. 3. Polities in early South India (c. 200 b.c.–a.d. 300). abraham . tamil kingdoms of historic south india 213 specific material assemblages, such as cave inscriptions or coins. Although some South Indian historians have understood the need to treat all these elements as interrelated parts of a single past social formation (see, for example, Gurukkal 1995 : 239–240), it is only recently that archaeologists are coming to the same realization. A general over

Even this cursory overview of the sites and material culture from Kerala and Tamil Nadu highlights a key point: despite the common tendency for South Indian historians and archaeologists to speak of ‘‘Tamil’’ material culture, the archaeological evidence that sets Tamilakam as a region apart from the rest of South India has never been clearly identified. If one evaluates Tamil cultural identity using Emberling’s guidelines, then the claims of ethnic di¤erence appear to falter, since nearly all the material culture found in Tamilakam—that is, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu—can be found elsewhere in peninsular India. Similarly configured urban centers and habitation sites are located throughout South India and Sri Lanka. And, although the majority of Iron Age burials are situated in South India, they are widely distributed throughout the Indian subcontinent, and only one or two types are unique to Tamilakam. In the same way, the distribution of ceramics, iron, and other artifacts are dispersed across the alleged past cultural-ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries of South India.

‘‘materializing’’ the tamil identity Given the nature and distribution of sites and artifacts across the Tamil landscape, it has been difficult to discern a pattern of style or symbol or process that stands out, making simplistic normative notions of a Tamil identity appear misplaced.”

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Emperor Asoka’s pillars

Ceylon by Sir James Emerson Tennent. 1st edition 1859

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