Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence to Identify the Tamil Kingdoms of Early Historic South India
Posted on January 24th, 2023


For the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the most important documentary source for information on early South lndian culture is a body of prose poetry known as the Sangam anthology. These indigenous texts date to the first few centuries A.D. and comprise the earliest extant examples of Tamil literature. Not surprisingly, this is also the period to which can be traced the first indications of the concept of a “Tamil” identity in South India. Archaeologically, the Tamil Sangam era corresponds roughly to the late Iron Age-Early Historic period (c. 300 B.C. to A.D. 300), which represents a key stage in the development of South Indian material culture. Prevailing analyses of early Tamil society have relied heavily on the historical texts, often at the expense of critically examining the material culture from Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This study examines the relationship between South Indian archaeology and history and argues that any framework for interpreting early Tamil identity must acknowledge the important qualitative differences in the ways that texts and arti£1cts construct and reflect ethnic identity, and that archaeologists and historians must analyze their respective data sets within the larger social, political, and economic practices of early Tamilakam. KEYWORDS: South Asia, South India, Tamilakam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, history and archaeology, cultural-ethnic identity.

Despite the amount of archaeological research that has been carried out in South India, our understanding of the South Indian protohistoric period is still, in many ways, in its infancy. It is only recently that scholars have begun to move away from traditional culture-historical approaches and to draw on the archaeological data to answer specific questions about the processes and conditions surrounding emerging social complexity. Like many other regions of the world that possess a literary tradition, South Asia’s past has been largely built on a foundation of epigraphic and textual evidence (e.g., Kulke and Rothermund 1986; Sastri 1966); one could argue that, for the time period spanning the transition from prehistory to history, it has been South Asia’s documentary record that has chiefly determined current interpretations of its early history. In the same way, the onset of written records in South India made it possible to move away from the tendency to treat the entire peninsular region as a whole and to isolate smaller regions whose texts indicated distinct historical trajectories. In the southern portion of the peninsula—the region that corresponds roughly to the present-day states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu—the existence of a large documentary corpus, both indigenous and foreign, and the occurrence of inscribed coins and cave inscriptions, have given rise to the idea of a separate ethnic and linguistic region known as ‘‘Tamilakam’’ (Fig. 1).

By contrast, the role of archaeology in the consideration of early Tamil identity has been more or less secondary. The common tendency is for South Indian historians to appropriate the archaeological data as a source of correlates for information gleaned from the texts (e.g., Champakalakshmi 1996; Gurukkal 1989; Thapar 1992)—in other words, to use the material record to search out ‘‘known’’ historical patterns, events, or places (Morrison and Lycett 1997 : 216). Archaeologists are equally culpable; it has become customary for South Indian archaeologists to label sites and objects in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as ‘‘Tamil,’’ without considering whether signifiers exist in the material record that substantiate ….

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