Middle Kingdoms of India, Part 60

BY: SUN STAFF

Map of the Deccan South, c. 1588


Jul 19, 2015 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of India's great history, religious movements and temple architecture.


The Deccan Plateau and South

'In the first half of the millennium the south of India saw various small kingdoms rise and fall. Most were independent to the turmoil in the Gangetic Plains. Instead, they were facilitating the spread of Buddhism and Jainism to the southern tip of the subcontinent.

During the second half of the millennium, after the fall of the Gupta Empire there was a gradual shift of the balance of power, both military and cultural, from the northern states to the large states rising in the south. In fact, from the mid-7th to the mid-13th Centuries, regionalism was the dominant theme of political and dynastic history in South Asia. Three features commonly characterize the sociopolitical realities of this period:

    First, the spread of Brahmanical religions was a two-way process of Sanskritization of local cults and localization of Brahmanical social order;

    second was the ascendancy of the Brahman priestly and landowning groups that later dominated regional institutions and political developments; and

    third, because of the seesawing of numerous dynasties that had a remarkable ability to survive perennial military attacks, regional kingdoms faced frequent defeats but seldom total annihilation.

Peninsular India was involved in an 8th Century tripartite power struggle among the Chalukyas (556–757 A.D.), the Pallavas of Kanchipuram (300–888 A.D.), and the Pandyas. The Chalukya rulers were overthrown by their subordinates, the Rashtrakutas (753-973 A.D.). Although both the Pallava and Pandya kingdoms were enemies, the real struggle for political domination was between the Pallava and Chalukya dynasties.

The emergence of the Rashtrakutas heralded a new era in the history of South India. The idiom of a Pan-Indian empire had moved to south. South Indian kingdoms had hitherto ruled areas only up to and southern border of the Narmada River. It was the Rashtrakutas who first forged north to the Gangetic Plains and successfully contested their might against the Palas of Bengal and the Rajput Prathiharas of Gujarat.

Despite interregional conflicts, local autonomy was preserved to a far greater degree in the south, where it had prevailed for centuries. The absence of a highly centralized government was associated with a corresponding local autonomy in the administration of villages and districts. Extensive and well documented overland and maritime trade flourished with the Arabs on the west coast and with Southeast Asia. Trade facilitated cultural diffusion in Southeast Asia, where local elites selectively but willingly adopted Indian art, architecture, literature, and social customs. Vaisnava devotional art certainly enjoyed great proliferation during this Middle Kingdom period.

The inter-dynastic rivalry and seasonal raids into each other's territory notwithstanding, the rulers in the Deccan and South India patronized all three religions - Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. The religions vied with each other for royal favour, which was expressed in land grants, but more importantly in the creation of monumental temples. These massive and often ornate structures remain architectural wonders to this day, and a sophistication of structural design that is unparalleled on the planet, during this or any phase of mid- to late-millennial history. Among the enduring legacies of these otherwise warring regional rulers are the cave temples of Elephanta, Ajanta, and Ellora and structural temples at Pattadakal, Aihole, Badami, Mahaballipuram and Kanchipuram.

By the mid-7th Century, Buddhism and Jainism began to decline as sectarian Vaisnavism and Shaivism competed for popular support. Although Sanskrit was the language of learning and theology in South India, as it was in the north, the growth of the Bhakti movement enhanced the crystallization of vernacular literature in all four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada. Authors in these languages often borrowed themes and vocabulary from Sanskrit, but preserved much local cultural lore.

Examples of Tamil literature include two major poems, Cilappatikaram (The Jewelled Anklet) and Manimekalai (The Jewelled Belt), and the body of devotional literature of Shaivism and Vaishnavism, along with the reworking of the Ramayana by Kamban in the 12th Century.

As the dynastic empires of the north moved further south, they served as the catalyst for a nationwide cultural synthesis, and this process of cultural infusion and assimilation would continue to shape and influence India's history through the centuries.


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