Episode 7: South of India from 200 BC to 500 AD

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The History podcast crosses the Vindhyas and heads towards the Deccan.  Maneesh is in conversation with Jay and Shrikanth on all things South of India between the period 200 BC to 500 AD.

Among other things, the speakers talk at length about the Sangam literature.

Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar makes an appearance too.


@jayvtweets   @shrikanth_krish    @maneesht

Sources and References:

1. A History of South India by K. A. Nilakanta Sastri
2. The age of imperial unity (The history and culture of the Indian people Vol 2)
3. Comprehensive History of India Vol.2, The Mauryas and the Satavahanas, Edited by K. A. Nilakanta Sastra
4. The First Spring: The Golden Age of India (Part -1) by Abraham Eraly
5. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century by Upinder Singh
6. Coromandel: A Personal History of South India by Charles Allen
7. Ashoka in Ancient India by Nayanjot Lahiri
8. The Sangam Age by V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar (ARTICLE)
9. The Beginnings of Civilization in South India by Clarence Maloney (ARTICLE)
10. Archaeology of the Sangam Age by K. V. Raman (ARTICLE)
11. Urbanization in South India: The Role of Ideology and Polity by R. Champakalakshmi (ARTICLE)
12. The Vedic-Puranic-Sastric element in Tamil Sangam Society and culture (A Study of Purananuru-First Section) by M. G. S. Narayanan (ARTICLE)13. Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence to Identify the Tamil Kingdoms of Early Historic South India by Shinu A. Abraham (ARTICLE)14. Kalinga and Andhra: the process of secondary state formation in early India by Sudharshan Seneviratne (ARTICLE)

15. The Wonder that was India – AL Basham

16. Tamil – A Biography : David Shulman

17. Early Tamil Epigraphy : Iravatham Mahadevan
19. Sangam translations in English : https://sangamtranslationsbyvaidehi.com/


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2 years ago

I listened to the podcast – felt that it was a regurgitation of 70’s wisdom – it left out many of the newer congruences and directions proposed by the Late Shri Iravatham Mahadevan and Shri Nagaswamy – acclaimed epigraphists and historians from South India.

Straight off the bat – Shrikanth leaves out one of the central intersecting points between the North Indian and South Indian literary tradition – the Hermit/Wanderer/Rgvedic composer – Sage Agastya.

Agastya is perhaps the only historical figure to be referenced in the Rgveda, Aranyakas, MBh, Ramayana and Purananuru – that’s serious heft for one single person to achieve – in literary traditions from 3000 kms apart. Mahadevan used the core of Agastya’s story to decrypt the IVC symbols “alpha” and “omega” with the linguistic interpretation of “jar-born” (Agastya legend).

The oldest syntactically complete Brahmi inscription (or fragment) ever found in India is in the South – from the 6th century BCE – a Keeladi potsherd from the Vaigai Delta.

The Western Indology dating of Sangam Literature (which this podcast faithfully parroted without critical analysis) is a downright sham. If we go by those dates – Buddhism is referenced in the literature of the South only by the 1st century CE – a full 300 years after the Mauryas. Much later than archaeological evidence of Buddhist artifacts. Makes absolutely no sense.

Both Iravatham and Nagaswamy alluded to this as the “spatial-temporal gap”.

Other points –

1. The “Kalabhra Interregnum” is probably the period of Kharavela.

2. Genetically – some of the highest IVC clines are found in a Western India to Southern India gradient.

3. It is Adhiyaman – not Adigaiman!

4. Early Buddhist Texts (EBTs) are an extremely poor source (!) for understanding the South (Sujato and Brahmali). Reasons below –

EBT’s have no geographic awareness of lands beyond the Mahajanapadas.

EBT’s do not reference Siva or Murugan worship

Archaeologically the earliest evidence for Sramanic influence are exclusively Jaina in the South.

5. Indra worship is referenced quite extensively (more than Vishnu/Thirumal) in Sangam literature – this is a very clear pointer to greater or equal antiquity to the Upanishads/Brahmanas.

Shrikanth Krishnamachary
Shrikanth Krishnamachary
2 years ago
Reply to  Ugra

Thanks for the comment!

The purpose of these podcasts is to offer the mainstream view w.r.t. understanding a certain period. At least that’s how I see it. Should we discuss fringe views first, for an audience that may not even be aware of the mainstream view? Not sure.

There are always theories out there that are more off-beat and quixotic. We can’t do justice to all of them. E.g. There’s this theory pushed by Herman Tieken that Sangam literature is much more recent. Written in 8th-9th cen CE!

On Keezhadi – it is too fresh and new, with little to no consensus on the findings. Nothing to conclusively suggest we had Tamil Brahmi in 6th cen BCE

Agastya was discussed towards the end of the podcast

Athiyaman is spelt differently in different sources. Neelakanta Sastri does give “Adigaiman” as one of the forms of the name.

EBT is by no means a great source on the South. We barely discussed EBT in this episode, except for a stray reference to the story of Bavari.

2 years ago

The classification of theories as fringe or mainstream have no bearing on the truth. Heliocentrism was a fringe theory in the West up to the 15th century. Sober historians/members of the commentariat shouldn’t bother with the label.

Publication of Shinde/Narasimhan 2019 caused the instantaneous death of the mainstream theory (Baird et al) of an exclusive Fertile Crescent origin of agriculture.

With respect to archaeology – there is no wiggle room.


The Tolkappiyam/Old Anthologies frequently mentions in detail the social structure of the Tamil country and happens to describe every class – including the ruling class and soldiers.

villum vēlum kaḻalum kaṇṇiyum /
tārum mālaiyum tērum māvum /
maṉ peṟu marapiṉ ēṉōrkkum uriya

Tol Porul (628-84)

Bow, lance, anklet, flower, garland, wreath, car and sword—these belong to the petty kings.

The Tolkappiyam frequently mentions swords as in the above couplet. Swords represent a unique transition in Bronze Age and Iron Age societies for close combat. Swords enabled both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Production of swords from smelters required considerable technological and resource investments. That could only be made possible by a centralized surplus distribution overseen by kings and chieftains.

Which is why I had to snort when Jay remarked “…..tribal societies…”.

Purananuru and Agananuru frequently mentions the role of the blacksmiths in society. Pliny (Elder) mentions the import of steel from South India. The famous Wootz Steel is a corruption of the Tamil word “Oothu” which mean “to pour”.

Swords made their first appearance in Europe in 900-700 BCE. The oldest iron sword in South India is from the site of Thelunganur near Salem, dated by AMS to 1400 BCE. (2017)

An iron economy was fully established throughout South India by 700 BCE. Exports begin to happen only when there is considerable skilling and stability of the supply chain. The Purananuru which is at the lower end of the Sangam literature is already in the 7th century BCE.

Most Western linguists who come out of non-oral cultures end up dating the recension or the redaction. They are completely blind to material culture which offers firmer grounds for scientific dating.

The extraordinary Tamil literature corpus was the outcome of a societal surplus from world leading iron technology. It is the job of the commentariat to critique and not to regurgitate the status quo.

2 years ago
Reply to  Ugra

I think what Jay referring is the 3 kingdoms haven’t made central currency system which shows lack of full fledged control over political spectrum, instead trade took front seat for these kingdoms, also the other guy then replied to Jay that these kingdoms are far from tribal

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