FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 14

Canberra, 30 July 2013

SHARDS OF LIGHT IN PENINSULAR HISTORY
Section I
THE AGASTYA CONNECTION
The history of Peninsular India starts to take recognisable shape only with the chronicling of the southern movement of the ‘Aryans’ from the north. This is indicated in literature, both of the south and the north, and through legends that abound about the heroes of ancient times. These sources indicate that the areas south of the Vindhya ranges were uncharted till around 1000 B.C. after which there was gradual increase in available knowledge. Along with this development, the stories in the epics and the Puranas start to take on more of a historical reflection of the process of cultural assimilation of the Peninsula with northern India.   
Early References – The Books
Manu described Aryavarta, the land or abode of the Aryas, as the land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas that was contained between the eastern and western oceans. [The western land borders were not particularly delineated since that is from where the Aryans arrived.] Further, he also mentions an area named Pariyatra, meaning the end or the boundary of the ‘yatra’—literally the journey; but in this case, more likely the range of communications—which terminated at the northern and western part of the Vindhya ranges. This is perhaps the first mention of the unknown geographic region beyond the Aryavarta in the south. There is also mention of the Peninsular India in the Vedas. In a relatively late hymn in the Rig-Veda, it is mentioned that an expelled Aryan went south to the Dakshinapada (literally meaning, turning the feet to the south) although the extent of his journey is not mentioned. The Aitreya Brahmana mentions the kingdom of Vidarbha (Berar) and its King Bhima in scanty detail.
It is in the Sankhayana Srautasutra (a major Yajnika text of the Rig Veda) that the first detailed account of the southern part of India is given. It mentions that the great sage Viswamitra condemned 50 of his sons, who were jealous of his favourite son Sunahsepha Devarata, to live on the southern borders of Aryavarta. It is thought that they married or cohabited with the local women and their descendants were called Dasyus, who are believed to be the Andhras, Pundaras, Sabaras, Pulindas and Mutibas of the Peninsula. By the time the Rig Veda was written, the Aryanisation of the north was already complete, although the areas south of the Vindhya Mountains had yet to be encroached upon. The lands south of the Vindhyas were the abode of the pre-Aryan inhabitants. It is estimated that the exiling of Viswamitra’s sons could have taken place around 1000 B.C. although there is no certainty regarding the date. However, the episode is indicative of the fact that some Aryans married southern women and their off springs were considered ‘impure’, hence the derogatory name Dasyus. The next mention of the Peninsula is in the Aitreya Aranyaka (the Aranyakas are part of the Hindu Sruti, composed in Vedic Sanskrit and frequently form part of the Brahmanas and the Upanishads), which mentions Cherapada and the Cheras of the south. An obscure part of the text mentions some transgression by these people of ancient and fundamental injunctions although no details of the exact nature of the lapse are given. Although this cannot be taken as concrete evidence, it could be construed as proof that the customs and traditions of the Malabar region had started to diverge from the rest of the South Indian people fairly early in history. [This could account for the arrogance and the distinctly different, irreverent attitude to authority and life in general that the ‘Keralite’ of today displays in a multitude of ways—both direct and subtly nuanced.]
A contradictory piece of evidence is the writing of Panini, the famed grammarian who lived around 600 B.C. He only mentions Kalinga in the east and does not display any knowledge of the lands south of the Narmada, except the region of Asmaka at the headwaters of the Godavari River. The details of the Peninsula dated around 1000 B.C. therefore seems to be unauthenticated. The next mention of the South is found in the Buddhist text Sutta Nipata, which details the life of a renowned teacher Bavari from Kosala. Bavari is reported to have settled in Assaka near the Godavari in Dakshinapada and built an ashram (hermitage) there. [This could well be the same Asmaka mentioned in Panini’s writings.] Bavari was a teacher well-versed and learned in the Vedas and performed Vedic sacrifices in his ashram along with having a retinue of pupils. This early teacher could be taken to have been the first to commence the task of gradual colonisation or ‘Aryanisation’ of the Peninsula. The process was obviously peaceful and one of osmosis or permeation rather than a shock brought about through a direct clash of competing cultures. The ashrams of ascetics and sages in the Dandaka forest mentioned in the Ramayana of Valmiki confirms the peaceful process that such teachers initiated in the slow colonisation of as yet unknown territories. The Sutta Nipata also mentions the travel of Bavari’s pupils to the north to meet the Buddha, providing details of the route that they took. They are reported to have travelled through Patithana (Paithan) in the Mulaka country, then Mahishmati (Mandhata) on the Narmada prior to reaching Ujjain. [As in a number of cases in ancient history, even in this instance, the Buddhist text provides clear evidence of events and the evolution of history while concentrating on recording the story of Buddhist leaders and teachers.]
From this point onwards there is an almost continuous flow of information regarding South India, although no one source covers the entire region holistically. In 4th century B.C. Katyayana, a southerner, updated Panini’s grammar and mentions the nations of the extreme south of the Peninsula—Pandya, Chola and Kerala. The Pandyan kingdom was also known to Kautilya, who has written about the pearls and muslin originating from there and the Ashokan edicts mention the island of Ceylon (referred as Tambapanni). These references indicate a more than superficial understanding of the geography of the Peninsula. In the Dharmasutra, written by Baudhayana one of the earliest law givers, there is mention of five customs that was considered unique to the people of Peninsular India—dining with a person who was anupeta (‘uninitiated’); dining with women; eating food that had been stored overnight; marrying the daughter of a maternal uncle; and marrying the daughter of a paternal uncle. [Dining with women could be viewed as being more advanced in the field of women’s emancipation and the higher social status that women commanded in the region; cross-cousin marriages are still prevalent in a number of communities and is prevalent in all classes of people]
There is a story in the Greek annals that states that Heracles (considered to be Krishna in the Indian version of the legend) sent his daughter Pandia to rule the kingdom bordering the Southern Sea. This kingdom was called Pandya with Madhura established as its capital. The name ‘Madhura’ thereafter was adopted in slightly varying styles across the South, in Ceylon and in Java with many towns being named the same. The inference is of a fairly regular north-south movement of people. This story notwithstanding, it can be established with certain assurance that the southward movement of the Aryans took on an established pattern approximately around 1000 B.C.; that it was generally peaceful but steady and continuous; and that all parts of the Peninsula had been penetrated and influenced by the time the Maurya Empire was established in Magadha in the north. The Ashokan edicts in Mysore and Kurnool indicate that the Mauryans held sway that far down south and that there were people resident in these areas who were conversant with the Brahmi script, a decidedly northern language.
The Story of the Sage Agastya
There are many legends about the sage Agastya in the Puranas, the epics, and in folklore that confirm him as a real person of relevance to understanding the beginning of peninsular history. In a very broad manner his story could be considered the demonstrative theme of the gradual Aryan cultural movement into South India. Agastya is a prominent figure in Tamil literature, being considered the father of the Tamil language and the author of its first authoritative grammar. He is also considered to have been the ‘Kulaguru’ (a position that combined the roles of the royal chaplain and teacher) of the ‘divine’ Pandyan rulers. The divinity of the Pandyan rulers stemmed from the claim that they were descendants of Shiva and Parvati who were considered the first king and queen of the Pandya dynasty. [This is a slightly different version of the same claim made in the Greek stories of the daughter of Krishna being the first ruler. However, the more important aspect of the story is the claim to divinity through descend from acknowledged Gods, something that became prevalent in a number of other dynasties in later times.]
The Rig Veda provides a story of Agastya’s birth from a ‘kumbha’ (an urn or pitcher), which can be attributed to imagination and is probably a later addition to the text. Agastya is a complex person to understand and also epitomises some of the concepts, such as the Aryanisation of the Peninsula, which became prevalent in the ancient times as recorded in the epics. He is credited with having composed hymns, and although an ascetic having led the life of a householder with a wife, sister and son, being able to combine the rigours of austerity and penance with the common life. The full story of Agastya as given in the Mahabharata emphasises his connexion with the story of South India. He married Lopamudra, a princess of Vidarbha who laid a condition for his exercise of marital rights, that he would keep her in the same luxury that she was so far used to as a royal princess without breaking his asceticism.
The Story of Vatapi
The only way that Agastya could fulfil his wife’s demand was to obtain great wealth as a gift from a king who would be his patron. He approached three Aryan kings who were unable to provide him with the necessary wealth. Therefore, he and the kings went to Ilvala, the daitya king of Manimati with the request. [Daityas are a clan of Asuras, considered to be the children of Diti and the sage Kashyapa] Ilvala was anti-Brahmin because a Brahmin had refused to grant him the boon of a son equivalent in prowess to Indra, the King of Gods. However, he had the gift of being able to call anyone with his voice and that person would be compelled to appear before him, even if the person was dead! He took his vengeance on the Brahmins by transforming his younger brother Vatapi into a ram, and then offering the ram’s flesh as food to the Brahmins. [Obviously vegetarianism, as we know it as a compulsory part of Brahmanism is of more recent origin] Once the Brahmin’s consumed the flesh, Ilvala would call out to his brother, who would then burst the flanks of the Brahmins and appear before his brother. Obviously, the Brahmins would die. Thus a number of Brahmins had been killed by the brothers.
On the visit of Agastya and the three kings, Ilvala initiated the same game. He offered the flesh of the ‘ram’ Vatapi and while the kings knowing the consequences were sad, Agastya ate the entire food. However, when Ilvala called his brother to come out only air came out since Agastya had already digested the food! Ilvala was contrite and gave Agastya and the kings great wealth. The granting of wealth was also conditional on Agastya having to correctly predict the amount that Ilvala was considering gifting to him, which Agastya was able to do. Vatapi is the name of the fortified capital city of the early Chalukyas in western Deccan (now called Badami). Contemporary research points to this general area being the location of the two daitya kings, which would make the story of Vatapi the first connection of Agastya with the Peninsular south.   
There are other stories regarding Agastya in the Mahabharata—that he drank up the waters of the ocean to assist the devas in defeating their adversaries who had taken refuge at the bottom of the sea; that on a trip to the south (for unspecified business) he prevailed upon the Vindhyas to stop growing till he came back, which he never did; and in the Tamil tradition, Agastya’s southerly march was initiated to balance the south and the north on the occasion of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati for which all the Gods had gathered in the Himalayas in the north. Some historians accept the stories of stopping the growth of the Vindhyas and the drinking of the oceans as allegorical representations of the continuing spread of Aryan influence to the south and then across the oceans to the islands of the archipelagic South East Asia.
It is interesting that the concept of Aryans as being humans and the inhabitants of the peninsula sub-humans or demons (essentially lesser beings in terms of intellectual and cultural development) is first expressed in the Ramayana in relation to Agastya. During their journey to Agastya’s ashram Ram tells his brother Lakshman of how Agastya overpowered a deadly demon and made the area habitable, giving credence to the concept that Dandakaranya was made fit for the ‘Aryan’ inhabitation by the defeat of the ‘asuras’ or demons by Agastya. In another part of the Ramayana, Viswamitra (another sage of great repute) explains to Ram the story of Tataka the demoness who had been ravaging the ashrams of the Brahmin sages in the region. It seems Agastya had killed Tataka’s husband Sunda and was thereafter attacked by Tataka and her son Marica to extract revenge. Agastya cursed them both, turning Tataka into an ogress and Marica into a rakshasa. From then till the time Ram killed her and gave her salvation she had been extracting revenge on the ‘new settlers’.
The idea is very clear. The gradual movement of Aryans into the Peninsula was contested by the local inhabitants, who were overcome in a number of ways—through physical annihilation, through subterfuge, and also through the gradual integration of two dissimilar cultures. There are reports of a number of Agastya ashrams in the south, which has led to the formulation of a sceptical theory that Agastya was only a mythical figure. This is incorrect. The stories that are told of Agastya are generally allegorical in nature and the establishment of a number of Agastya ashrams also has to be viewed within a similar context. Both the stories and multiple ashrams indicate a movement south of the people from the north and the opposition that was put up in some places by the local inhabitants.   
In some versions of the Ramayana, there is a story alleged to have been told to Ram by Agastya himself, that the Dandaka forest (from the foot of the Vindhya ranges to the far south) had become uninhabitable because of a curse by the sage Bhargava. Thousands of miles of land was made desolate and wilderness by the curse. Agastya caused rain to fall and made the region habitable for several rishis (sages) to establish their ashrams there. This story is similar to the legend of the creation of Kerala by Parasurama. [Parasurama was a great sage, and also considered one of the incarnations of Vishnu] However, evidence suggests that both these accounts are of much later origin and are not found in any of the older versions of the Puranas. Even then, this story could provide an explanation for the peculiarity and uniqueness of some of the Kerala institutions.
The Creation of Kerala
Parasurama killed his mother Renuka, on the orders of his father Jamadagni. In order to expiate this great sin he undertook the mission to exterminate the Kshatriyas who were great enemies of the Brahmins. The extermination was achieved in 21 separate expeditions at the end of which, and on the urging of the sage Viswamitra, he gifted the entire earth to the Brahmins. Since he then had no place to call his own, with the assistance of Subrahmanya (son of Vishnu) and through his own penance, he obtained from Varuna the God of the Seas permission to obtain some land on which to live. The extent of the land to be so obtained was to be determined by one throw of his parasu (battle-axe). He threw the parasu from Kanyakumari and reclaimed the land up to Gokarnam, brought in Brahmins to people this area, and settled them in 64 gramas (villages). He also provided laws and institutions for the Brahmins and other settlers who accompanied them. This story is also outlined in Kannada inscriptions of the 12th century A.D. in relation to the creation of the Konkan coast, the coastal strip to the north of Kerala.    
The Relevance of Agastya
There is no mention of Agastya in the early Tamil texts, now known as the anthologies of the Sangam Age. However, there is indication in some writings that he was known. The author of the poem Manimekalai mentions Agastya’s relation to the sage Vasishta and also the story of his miraculous birth. This poem is an important piece of the puzzle since it gives further details of Agastya from a Tamil perspective. It states that Agastya lived in the Malaya hills and was a friend of the Chola king Kanta. On King Kanta’s request Agastya is supposed to have released the river Kaveri from his water pot. The poem goes on to aver that Agastya advised another legendary Chola king who overthrew the hanging castle, ‘Tungeyil’, and instituted a ‘Puhar’, an annual festival of India. Naccinarkkiniyar, a 1400 A.D historian who wrote based on the authority of ancient authors, tells the story of how the demon king Ravana who was terrorising the south of the peninsula was persuaded by Agastya to retire to Lanka and not trouble the mainland.
Perhaps the most important relevant aspect of the Agastya story is his connection to the grammar of the Tamil language. Reference to him in this regard appears first in the work Iraiyanar Agga Agapporul Urai, which contains the legends of the three Tamil Sangams. Agastya took part in the first two Sangams. After the first Sangam, Agastya is supposed to have written the fundamental Tamil grammar called Agattiyam and therefore, is considered the father of the Tamil language. However, this work is lost in antiquity and the work that followed the second Sangam, called Tolkappiyam is now considered the oldest extant work on Tamil grammar. There is debate regarding the connection between the two texts and two distinct theories have emerged, each with its own logic and ardent supporters. One theory is that Agastya was the founder of the Tamil language, providing its first grammar in the text Agattiyam. The subsequent work, Tolkappiyam, was written by a student of Agastya (Tolkappiyan, after whom the text is named) who followed the logic of his guru’s (teacher’s) seminal work while also making substantive modifications. Perasiriyar (lived around 1300 A.D) a famed annotator believed that Agattiyam was written before the sea inundated and confined the Tamil country to the area between Cape Comorin and the Vengadam hills, an event mentioned in the preface to Tolkappiyam.
The other theory runs in slightly different, but similar lines. It accepts that Tolkappiyan was one of Agastya’s students and also the best. However, this theory mentions tensions between the mentor and the disciple because of a combination of the brilliance and independent thinking process of Tolkappiyan and Agastya’s short temper and jealousy of his student’s abilities. There is a story attached to the rest of the narrative. The story goes that Agastya deputed Tolkappiyan to escort Lopamudra, his wife, from the north on her journey south to join her husband. He prescribed a minimum distance to be maintained between the two during the perilous journey. However, the River Vaigai was in spate and during the crossing, Lopamudra was saved by Tolkappiyan from drowning. Obviously the minimum prescribed distance between them had not been maintained. On arrival at Agastya’s ashram, the sage cursed both of them that they would not go to heaven and Tolkappiyan retorted by cursing his guru back in the same terms. [The jealousy of an older husband to the younger friends of his young (and beautiful) wife is an age old tradition and has played out in different ways throughout history, while also having been the subject of innumerable stories, novellas and dramas—some forgettable and some immortal like Shakespeare’s Othello.] In this context, this story must also be seen as indicative of the controversy regarding the influence of the northern ‘Aryan’ people on the inhabitants of the Peninsula. The debate between the two theories and the fact that it is still on-going can be attributed to the contemporary attitude of the southern peoples towards what they consider the imposed influence of Sanskrit on the local languages. However, the fact remains that there is no mention or reference to Agattiyam in Tolkappiyam, either in the text or in its preface by Penambaranar, an accepted teacher of grammar.
The stories regarding Agastya’s life and activities in the lands south of the Vindhyas brings up a number of possibilities and conjunctures. Agastya’s connection to Tamil grammar was emphasised during 8 and 9 century A.D., a time period that coincides with the rise to power of the Pandyan dynasty. The stories and legends regarding Agastya and his connexion to the language were elaborated in later times. In this process, the attempt to gradually give Agastya primacy in the evolution of the language and more importantly of the Tamil culture can be seen. [The essential sub-conscious need felt by the people of South India to have an ‘Aryan’ connection to their culture, for ‘approval’ by the northern people is still visible in the peninsular states of modern India. Is this a sort of sub-conscious feeling of inferiority brought about by age-old subjugation?] However, such attempts have also created backlashes. The ‘Aryanisation’ of the south was a quiet penetration, which was accepted more by default than as a conscious act, since it was more a silent transformation—gradual and imperceptible. When attempts were made to impose a Vedic sage as the cultural icon of the south, from whom all cultural glory emanated, there was an obvious backlash in terms of counter claims and assertions. The stand-off between Agastya and Tolkappiyan, including the claims of authorship of the grammar (which could be considered the foundation of a culture), has to be seen in this context. The legends and stories are essentially arguments for and against the steady and increasing influence of the ‘northern’ Aryan civilisation and the resulting dilution of the local culture, language and way of life. As yet there is no amicable solution to be seen on the horizon.    

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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