The kings of the South

When I plan to travel, some parts of southern India slip out of my mind. I recently remembered that Madurai is as old as Ujjain, Banaras, or Patna. This post is an attempt to get the outline of the chronology straight in my mind.

The statecraft of the Pandya, Chola and Chera kingdoms find mention in the 3rd century BCE treatise on administration and economics called Arthashastra. Ashoka’s edicts, from about this time, mention some of these kings. Trade routes linked the northern and southern kingdoms, and Ujjain, which lay on one of these routes, prospered as a result. This early period of Tamil culture was recorded in the literature of this, the Sangam, era. The literary tradition is believed to have continued until about the end of the 4th century CE. Madurai hosted some of these early meetings (called sangam) of poets, playwrights, and writers.

The next records come from the early period of Hindu revival in the 7th century CE. The shore temples of Mahabalipuram (featured photo) were built in the the early part of the 8th century CE by a Pallava king. There was a resurgence of the Pandyas of Madurai at this time. The conflict between the Pallavas and Pandyas presented an opportunity for the growth of the Chola empire. By the 11th century this empire extended all the way to South East Asia. The southern kingdoms were great sea traders, having links to the east as well as westwards to Africa and the Arabs. The earliest known travel guide, the Skanda Purana, from just before the start of this era, lists several sites in southern India as important points in grand religious tours of India. There are scattered remnants of the great architectural works of this time through the south of India, but most of the sites mentioned in the Skanda Purana were rebuilt later.

The medieval period was a time of warring kingdoms. The slow decline of the Cholas allowed smaller kingdoms to gain hold again. The rise and fall of these kingdoms was interrupted by outside events in the 13th century CE. During the Mongol era, the expansion of the Delhi Sultanate was contained within India. Iltutmish of Delhi held off the hordes of Genghis Khan to the west of the Indus, but also sent his forces as far south as Madurai, which his generals sacked in 1316 CE. This led to the formation of the Sultanate of Madurai, independent of Delhi, The subsequent centuries, with their mix of Hindu and Muslim kingdoms saw some of the best of the architecture that we can see today.

In the 17th century CE, the Maratha armies captured parts of Tamil Nadu, and were then displaced by the Mughals. In the power vacuum of the later Mughal period, local kings again held power. Many of the major temples of southern India were rebuilt or extended in the 17th and 18th centuries. After this European maritime powers captured large parts of southern India and launched operations into the rest of India from these bases.

Heading for the hills

Map of the Munnar-Valparai-Kodai area

April is pretty cruel over most of the Indian plains. Just the right time to head to the hills. Unfortunately the Himalayas are a little too far for a quick trip, and the Sahayadris are not high enough to provide a respite from the hot and humid weather in Mumbai. Our thoughts turned to the region where we spent a nice weekend about a year back. We just heard about Valparai, booked a hotel, and went off. So now, we looked at the map and realized that we had found an area ripe for summer.

The hot plains towns of the south, Kochi on the Kerala coast, Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu, form a tringle of entry points to the wonderful hill towns of the Western ghats. The most well-known of these are Munnar in Kerala and Kodaikanal and Valparai in Tamil Nadu. Forests, now protected, rise from the plains at the foot of the Ghats to the elevation of around 1500 meters, which is about the altitude of most of these hill towns. They still hold spectacular species of animals like the Nilgiri Tahr and lion-tailed macaques, along with such a variety of birds that just thinking of them puts a shine in The Family’s eyes. When you peer deeper into the map you find more half-forgotten names from your long-ago school days. There is space here for a lifetime of summers. We will be scratching the surface with a weekend’s trip.

So where do we go? Kochi to Munnar or Madurai to Kodaikanal? Any tips?

The next long weekend

Three weeks from now we have a four-day weekend starting on Independence Day. Just the right time to start thinking about where to go. I thought maybe Madurai, deep in the heart of Tamil Nadu. The Family suggests Amritsar, culturally the other end of India. We might compromise with Lucknow, with its faded memory of culture and extreme politeness.

Some reading is clearly in order. Lucknow brings to mind the Bara Imambara, chikankari work, dussheri mangoes, and galawati kabab. There’s more. Lucknow also brings to mind stories of the Sultan Wajid Ali Shah, lost in songs and courtly manners, arrested by the East India Company, the subsequent failed siege during the war of 1857, the creation of the dance form Kathak and the story of the courtesan Umrao Jaan Ada, steeped in the formality and melancholy of a city which flowered in the 18th and 19th centuries. I look for books on Lucknow. There are many, but they are not available as e-books.

Amritsar is different. It has the golden temple, and the brilliant rustic food of Punjab. One remembers also the turbulent recent history, the siege of the golden temple, and the subsequent separatist terror. But before that there was the symbol of imperial oppression, the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Jalianwala Bagh. Between these events was the partition, symbolized by the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan just outside Amritsar. It seems that the long and dazzling history of the Punjab has been completely erased in our minds by the bloody history of the 20th century.

And Madurai? What does it have apart from the Meenakshi temple? One knows of the colleges and a medical school, an underground neutrino observatory being built nearby, but precious little else. Taking quick look at blogs, I find photos of an impressive palace of the Nayaks, forts outside town, and a zany drink called, quite unbelievably, jigarthanda. There are other large temples, some mosques, and multiple palaces. It is also possible to take a long day’s trip to Kanyakumari. Part of the reason I find it hard to locate books about Madurai is because most of the literature is in Tamil. It is, after all, the real heart of Tamil culture.