FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 12

Canberra, 30 May 2013
PENINSULAR INDIA: OF MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS
[GOING SOUTH OF THE VINDHYAS: AN EXPLANATION Even a cursory glance at the available literature on Indian history reveals that there is an absolute bias towards recounting the history of the northern part of the sub-continent, specifically that of the Indus-Gangetic plains, and labelling it the history of the larger ‘Indian Nation’. This preoccupation with the northern region of the sub-continent in the study of the history of India leads to an inadequate understanding of the broader Indian history—it ignores the role of the Peninsula in shaping the overall history of the peoples and the nation. Peninsular India, generally considered to be the entire area south of the great Vindhya mountain ranges, is generally referred to as the Deccan or the Deccan Plateau—the term ‘Deccan’ being a convenient and familiar corruption of the Sanskrit word ‘Dakshin’ meaning south. However, in earlier times, the Deccan Plateau indicated a far more restricted territory that encompassed the lands of the Telugu speaking people, the Maratha country and most of the area that was ruled by the Mysore dynasties. It did not include the Malabar Coast and southern Tamil countries. Study and analysis of the chronological and political history in combination with the socio-economic and cultural developments of Peninsular India and their influence on events is a holistic approach to the study of Indian history. No generalisation of India is possible without proper evaluation of regional historical developments. Therefore, as the earlier chapters have very broadly looked only at the developments in the northern part of the Indian sub-continent, a number of following chapters will examine the developments during ancient times in the Deccan Plateau.]  
The geography of an area has a direct bearing on its development in terms of economy, culture and the inherent ethos of the inhabitants. Therefore a general understanding of the geography of a kingdom, empire or nation is essential as a foundation to understanding its history. This is particularly important in the case of Peninsular India which has a diverse range of geographical features that have influenced its history. [The intention here is not to delineate the history of South India as being separate from that of the north, but to emphasise the fact that Indian history cannot be studied or understood as that of the north or the south in isolation.]
The Vindhyas
The Vindhya mountain range is a rugged mountain tract varying in width and height stretching from east to west along the Tropic of Cancer that separates the Deccan Plateau from the northern part of the Indian sub-continent. The northern side of the ranges slopes gently with hardly any well-marked spurs or steep valleys. In contrast, the southern side has a steep gradient from the mountain crest to the Narmada river valley, reminiscent of a mountain wall, with several forest clad spurs overlooking the narrow trough of the river valley, which is bounded on the south by the Satpura, Mahadeo and Maikal ranges. From the southern slope of the Satpura ranges the River Tapti flows parallel to Narmada towards the west and the Arabian Sea with the River Mahanadi flowing east to the Bay of Bengal. Thus the Vindhya Mountains and the three rivers form a double wall that separates and isolates Peninsular India from the north. From time immemorial these natural geographic features have been serious challenges creating hindrance to effective communications between the northern and southern parts of India. In the long history of India, before the British consolidated the entire sub-continent into one entity, the north and a majority area of the south formed part of the same empire only on three other occasions.
The peninsula thrusts into the Indian Ocean between the Arab Sea and the Bay of Bengal arriving at a point—Cape Comorin, now called Kanyakumari, at 8 degrees North latitude. The nucleus of the peninsula is a triangle of very old rocks starting in the north at the Satmala-Ajanta ranges and culminating in the south at the Nilgiri ranges, giving it a plateau relief. The western edge of the plateau is very steep whereas the slopes to the east are easy and gentle in most places. The edge of the basic plateau forms the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats, the names being self-explanatory. From the Cape, the Malabar Coast stretches unhindered for 1000 miles to the north-west and the Coromandal Coast extends initially north and thereafter north-east for a slightly lesser distance. Both the coasts have only very limited places that make good harbours, the west having better sites than the east—Cochin, Goa and Bombay. The Deccan Peninsula [In this chapter I have used the terms Deccan Plateau, Deccan Peninsula, and Peninsular India interchangeably and to mean the area of the sub-continent south of the Vidhyas.] lies halfway between the ancient maritime route between the Mediterranean and China and straddles the Indian Ocean. It was therefore inevitable that the peninsula would develop maritime trade with both the West and the East necessitating the maintenance of strong navies by the kingdoms of the region. [The principalities of the Malabar Coast were also reputed to carryout piratical activities, under state sponsorship, which must have been a lucrative activity!]
The Western Ghats
When viewed from the Arabian Sea, the Western Ghats give the impression of a gigantic sea-wall, which it actually is. The range is steep and rugged with an average height of about 2000 feet in its northern extremity; becoming 4000 feet by the time it reaches the latitude of Bombay [for the sake of antiquity I will continue to call present day Mumbai by its old name ‘Bombay’, since it was by that name that the city which developed from a small fishing village called Mumbai was known at its inception!]; and increasing in height southwards to the peak of Dodabetta at 8760 feet in the Nilgiris. The only gap in the Western Ghats is immediately south of the Nilgiris—the Palghat-Coimbatore Gap, that stretches 20 miles north to south at a height of 1000 feet AMSL. This gap has played an important role in the history of the southernmost part of the peninsula throughout history, being the only low-land access to Malabar from the Carnatic. South of the Palghat Gap, the Ghats rise to slightly higher with Anaimudi being the highest peak at 8841 feet.
The crest of the Western Ghats runs on an average between 50 to 100 miles from the Arabian Sea, although in some places the coast narrows to as little as 5 miles and there are also some spurs that end as cliffs into the sea. [For example, my ancestral home is only 3 miles from the sea and four miles from the Western Ghats.] Between the Ghats and the sea is a narrow strip of rough wetland.  From a seafarer’s perspective, this is a formidable landscape to try and make a landing. North of Goa (situated at 15 degrees North latitude) the Ghats become covered by thick basaltic lava flow with the maximum thickness reached at the Bombay latitude. The weather has, over the years, shaped this deposit into natural citadels that could easily be converted to fortresses. The fortresses so created formed the dominant backbone of the military defence on which the Maratha supremacy was crafted in the 17th and 18th centuries AD.
There are also a number of passes that provide trade routes from the coastal plains to the interior, although they are not as inviting as the Palghat Gap. The Trimbak Pass north of Bombay at the source of the River Godavari clears a path from the sea to the north Deccan and the Thal Ghat is the pass through which the Bombay to Agra road is built. There are a number of minor passes but the most famous is the Khandala Pass at a height of about 2000 feet that is used to connect Bombay to Pune in the interior. The southernmost passes are the Shencotta Ghat and the Aramboli Pass that are the primary routes from Travancore into Pandyan territory.
The Eastern Ghats
Unlike the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats is gentler in its climb down to the sea and the belt of low land, the Carnatic, is much drier as well as smoother. Consequently, the eastern side of the plateau is also not as grand as its western counterpart. It is also scattered, broken and of a lesser average height than the Western Ghats, although geologically it is the older of the two. The Eastern Ghats start in Orissa (Odissa today) running parallel to the coast for about 50 miles south to Andhra till 16 degrees latitude, and then recede from the coast. Thereafter, it runs due south till Madras, and then turning south-west to form the southern edge of the Deccan Plateau. The Eastern Ghats generally slope south-east, influencing the flow and course of the three major rivers—Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri—as well as a number of lesser rivers. There are two ranges that predominate the Eastern Ghats—one enclosing the triangular plateau of Ahmednagar between the Godavari and Bhima rivers; and the other the Mahadeo ranges between the Bhima and Krishna rivers. There is also another range that is associated with the Eastern Ghats—Nallamalai—which runs north to south from the banks of the River Krishna to reach the Penner valley. The average height of this range is about 2000 feet, although it rises to 3000 feet in some places. The Nallamalai ranges are sparsely populated today because of a scarcity of water, but the remnants of old forts, temples and wells indicate previous occupation at a much greater density.
The Monsoons and Local Vegetation
The Western Ghats stands tall as an obstruction in the way of the rain bearing South West Monsoon from the Arabian Sea. The west takes almost all the moisture, having an average annual rainfall of 80 inches in the plains and 300 inches in the high ranges. In contrast, the eastern leeward side is a rain shadow region receiving scanty, variable, and unreliable rainfall, never in excess of an annual average of between 35 and 40 inches. Accordingly, the vegetation is also different on either side of the peninsula. The western plains and the Ghats have evergreen, dense forests with trees of great economic value, such as teak, rosewood, ironwood and luxurious growths of bamboo growing wild, while the coastal plains abound in coconut, betel nut cassia, cardamom and pepper. The Deccan Plateau has deciduous forests and the Mysore region is famous for its odoriferous sandalwood trees. The trees on the eastern slopes are shorter than and not as dense as found in the heart of the plateau. 
The Rivers of the Peninsula
The primary source of all the rivers flowing in the peninsula is the Western Ghats that trap the rain-bearing South West Monsoon in its slopes. The two northern rivers, Narmada and Tapti, are the only major ones that drain west to the Arabian Sea. They flow through relatively deep and narrow valleys and are swift flowing. The three great rivers of the peninsula—Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri—flow in a general eastern direction and drain into the Bay of Bengal. The River Mahanadi could also be perhaps added to the list as a great river of the peninsula. The deltas of these rivers provide a wide expanse of rich soil for the cultivation of irrigated crops. There are also other smaller rivers, notable ones being Penner, Palara, Pennar, Vaigai and Tambraparni.
Narmada. Narmada is one of the seven sacred rivers of India, rising at Amarkantak in the south-east apex of the Satpura ranges in the region of Rewa and flowing into the Gulf of Cambay (Khambat) 17 miles south of the city of Bharuch (‘Broach’ in British times and ‘Barukaccha’ in ancient times) after traversing the country for 801 miles. The river is referred to as ‘Namnadios’ in the Greek book Periplus and ‘Namados’ by Ptolemy. The Narmada follows a fairly straight east to west route because of the straight trend of the valleys influenced by geology. The river is not conducive to navigation because of the steep and rugged valleys through which it flows, its rocky bed, and rapid currents. It drains about 36 000 square miles, mainly on its south bank.
Tapti. The River Tapti, a sort of junior of the two west-flowing rivers, originates at Mullai in the Satpura plateau and flows 436 miles into the Gulf of Khambat. Most of its journey is through valleys that are between 30 to 60 feet deep and therefore, its utility for both navigation and irrigation is limited. However, in the middle of the Tapti valley, there is a 150 mile east to west stretch of plains—the Khandesh plain—that has rich alluvial soil, that in turn has supported the development of large prosperous towns in the region.
Godavari. The River Godavari is only surpassed by the Ganges and Indus in terms of its religious sanctity and, more importantly, for its utility to man. It rises behind Trimbak in Nasik district about 50 miles from the Arabian Sea and runs for 900 miles across the Deccan Plateau to flow into the Bay of Bengal, draining 1,12, 000 square miles in the bargain. It is joined by the River Pranhita slightly below the township of Sironcha and together they drain the entire Satpura and Nagpur region. Further below, Godavari is joined by the River Indravati that drains the Bastar region. The two, now as a joined river flows into the Andhra region where its bed becomes broad and sandy, spreading two miles in width in most places. However, it narrows to as little as 200 yards when crossing the Eastern Ghats on its journey to the sea and forks into two at Rajamundry, creating a large delta region. The eastern fork is called Gautami Godavari and the western one, Vasishta Godavari. The river has been dammed at Dowleswaram.
Krishna. Krishna is shorter than Godavari and is also considered to be less sacred than both the Godavari and Kaveri, although it has the largest drainage of the three. It originates north of Mahabaleswar, a mere 40 miles for the Arabian Sea, flowing almost due south till Kurundvad when it turns east. Since it flows through the hills at this stage, the river is rocky and rapid being of very little use in transportation—in the region of Belgaum the banks are between 20 to 50 feet high. In the doab of Raichur (known as the ‘cockpit of the Deccan’) it receives the River Bhima flowing from Ahmednagar and Pune and later the River Tungabhadra at Bellary in the Kurnool region. Krishna turns north east across the Nallamalai ranges, flows through the Eastern Ghats through a gap 1300 yards wide around 45 miles from the sea, and flows into the Bay of Bengal at Vijayawada. The chief tributary of River Krishna is the Tungabhadra, which is the union of the rivers Tunga and Bhadra at Kudali in western Mysore. The combined Tungabhadra is 400 miles long but is not used for navigation and even irrigation is difficult because of the steep rise of the country around it. Historically, through the centuries the Tungabhadra has formed a natural dividing line—between the Chalukyas of Kalyani and Badami as well as the Rashtrakutas in the north bank, and the Pallavas and Cholas in the south bank. The Tungabhadra was dammed by the rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire near Hampi.
Kaveri. Known as the Ganga of the South, River Kaveri flows for 475 miles and is praised in ancient Tamil literature for its life giving quality. Kaveri rises in Brahmagiri near Talakaveri in Coorg, flowing generally south east, it creates great, spectacular falls as it descends the Eastern Ghats and thereafter traverses the Carnatic lowlands before entering the Bay of Bengal through a number of distributaries that create a large delta in Tanjore district. In its journey to the sea, Kaveri forks into two systems and reunites twice, forming two islands—Seringapatam and Sivasamudram. The falls at Sivasamudram was harnessed to produce hydroelectric power in early 1903, at that time considered a great feat on ingenuity. Kaveri has three main tributaries—Kabbani, Hemavati and Arkavati—and below Srirangam it divides into the Coleroon and Kaveri before flowing into the sea. The course of the river is controlled by the structure and terrain of the country through which it flows. The early Chola monarchs had harnessed the flood waters of the River Kaveri for irrigation purposes.
Coasts and Ports
Arab mariners have frequented the Gulf of Cambay (Khambat) in the western coast for centuries and the city of Bharooch was the primary port. It was more important in ancient times than Surat, a far better natural port than Bharooch. The western coast of the peninsula, from Daman in the north to Trivandrum in the far south, has a unity of structure, relief and climate. It also has three natural island harbours in Diu, Daman and Bombay. In terms of relief, the western coast can be divided into two—the Konkan coast in the north from Diu to north Kanara and the Malabar Coast in the south. The Konkan coast is a strip about 20 to 50 miles wide with a number of hills and cliffs jutting out into the sea with a number of rain-filled streams flowing through it. The streams become larger towards the south of the coast with the Sharavati creating the 850 feet Gersoppa Falls. This coastal strip is difficult country to traverse.
The Malabar Coast on the other hand is much broader and the Palghat Gap relieves the isolation felt in the north. The coastline is also broken by inlets and backwaters, with the backwaters flowing parallel to the coast making for easy navigation and facilitating north-south communications. The region is also favourable for the cultivation of tea, coffee and cardamom. The lowlands of the western coast—from Kathiawar to Cape Comorin—were considered the repository of India’s wealth in medieval times. Ancient ports found scattered along the coast bear testimony to the fact that the commerce of the East was centred on this coastal region.
Historically, there has been a striking contrast between the relative political isolation of this coastal country from the rest of India and its generally active contact by sea with the nations of the outside world—the Roman empire, Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese and the rest.
K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, 1975, p.40.
The eastern Coromondal coast changes in levels and around 13th century AD hosted wealthy cities in the Tinnevelli coast—Korkai and Kayal, which were subsequently buried in sand as the sea receded over a period of time. In other places the sea has encroached inland with some townships such as Kaveri-pattinam and Mammalapuram (Mahabalipuram) disappearing under the waves. From the mouth of the Mahanadi to Cape Comorin the coast is uniform and about 50 to 100 miles in width. There is fair anchorage available at Cuddalore and Kakinada, whereas the Golconda coast (the Northern Circars) is a very narrow coastal strip. The delta of the Godavari and Krishna is the rice granary of the south and cash crops like sugar cane, cotton and tobacco are grown inland. The eastern coast is also the site of some of the earliest European settlements. Lake Colair, is the only large natural freshwater lake in coastal Andhra—known as Kolanu in earlier times, its chieftains the Saronathas played an important role in Andhra history.
The Carnatic or Tamil plain increase in width as it goes further south and reaches 170 miles at the Kaveri basin. These plains are completely different to the rest of the peninsula in topography, climate and, perhaps because of it, in history. This is the real South India—the plains where all the great kingdoms of the Southern Peninsula established their capitals and created the land of numerous temples, land of artificial irrigation, evolved from remote antiquity as old as agriculture itself.
Conclusion
In most general histories of India, South India—India below the Vindhyas—figures, if at all, only in a very small way. Vincent Smith, a renowned Indian historian, opines that this is primarily because the records relating to Peninsular India are much more confusing and broken than that of the north and also suffers from an extreme deficiency of really ancient records. However, the history of the Deccan is an integral part of Indian history. In fact, the Deccan is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world and its ancient history—to the extent traceable—is an important constituent not only of Indian history but also of the story of world civilisation. Further, it is in the South that more pre-Aryan India exists than anywhere else in the country—the Marathas of the north western Deccan being the southernmost of the Indo-Aryan-speaking people. The rest of the peninsula, to the west as well as south of the Maratha region, speaks languages that fall into one group, the Dravidian, of which Tamil is the oldest surviving literary tradition.
To understand Indian history, it is necessary to know the story of the South. There is no other option.           

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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