The British Empire Library

Coromandel: A Personal History of South India

by Charles Allen

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The author has literally travelled far and wide during his writing career. Beginning in the 1970s with stories and broadcasts about the British Raj, Kipling and the Indian princes, Allen became interested in Buddhism and wrote a biography of the great Buddhist emperor, Ashoka. He then turned his attention to Brian Hodgson, the British civil servant posted to Kathmandu who became known as 'the father of Himalayan studies' in the 19th century. Throughout his career Allen has moved easily between these seemingly disparate subjects, tying them together with impeccable research, gentle humour and an undeniable passion for his subjects. His latest book is no different and it is refreshing to have his candid eye cast over south India, often the poor relation of Indian studies. This is a discursive book that embraces the physical geography of the area lying to the south of the Narmada river, its languages, its monuments including early cave paintings, its history and its peoples. The title of the book was inspired by the Europeanised name for the south-eastern coast - Cholamandalam, the land of the Chola rulers, which became Coromandel and which was the name of the 1955 book by John Masters, the popular ex-Indian army author. Like others who were entranced by Masters' book as teenagers, it doesn't read so well for adults today - 'not half as good as I thought it was' says Allen in his Introduction 'but the magic of that word Coromandel has always stayed with me, as the very essence of South India in all its elusiveness and allure'. Many of the people in Allen's book will be unfamiliar to readers - their names seem too long, their languages too alien to those brought up on Hindustani in the north. But is it worth persevering because there are rich stories and ideas here. A giant statue, 113 feet high of the Tamil sage, poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar faces the bay at Kanyakumari, which the British called Cape Comorin. It was funded entirely by the government of Tamil Nadu and took a decade to construct which shows the importance accorded to him today. Thiruvalluvar has been claimed by a number of groups including weavers and semi-nomadic hunters as one of their own. He was certainly a south Indian man but his dates range loosely between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD. Whether he was a real person is not as important as what he stands for, which was against the increasing Sanskritisation of the Tamil language. He is a Tamil symbol and his long masterpiece Thirukkural, written in rhyming couplets, attracted scholars like Francis Whyte Ellis, a Madras civil servant, to make the first translation into English. For those who cannot travel to south India, there is a statue of Thiruvalluvar on the lawn outside SOAS (School of Oriental & African Studies) in Bloomsbury which was commemorated last year by a seminar of Tamil and British scholars. Allen is particularly good on identifying remnants of Buddhist culture that have been almost forgotten as orthodox Hinduism moved south. He postulates that the great Jagannath processions of huge wooden chariots through India's streets may have their origin in the custom of annually parading Buddhist relics - a ratha yatra, or chariot journey. There is much of interest here. Sometimes the reader has to dig a little deep and this is not a book than can be read quickly. But it opens up new vistas for those jaded with conventional histories of India and is warmly recommended.
British Empire Book
Charles Allen
First Published
Little Brown
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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