Japanese Scholar Who Caught the Whispers of a South Indian Past

Noboru Karashima's pioneering work helped rewrite the historical account of southern India.

Noboru Karashima, 1933-2015. Credit: Fukuoka Prize

Noboru Karashima, 1933-2015. Credit: Fukuoka Prize

Few researchers have brought as much rigour to studying South Indian history as Noboru Karashima, who died on November 26 in Tokyo at the age of 82. For over four decades, Karashima ploughed meticulously and thoroughly through thousands of inscriptions, unpacking little-known facts about medieval South Indian society. His methods were innovative, and his conclusions challenged entrenched views. As the citation for Fukuoka Academic Prize  in 1995 noted, Karashima rewrote the historical accounts on South India. Some may quarrel with this sweeping encomium, but none would doubt that his scholarship, to borrow his words in praise of another historian, was “most reliable.”

Karashima addressed pressing questions in history: the transformation of societies, the role of caste, the state and its relationship with the hinterlands, land ownership, chieftains, religious institutions and many more. His deep studies often had something new to say. He debunked the notion that Indian villages, particularly South Indian ones, were self-sufficient and economically independent. By studying land transactions and references to different residential areas in settlements, he showed that villages indeed depended on each other. His study of changing land ownership patterns between the 10th and 13th centuries established that individual land ownership increased during the 13th century. He was able to connect this development with the social transformations around that time. New jatis or caste groups formed, and communities hitherto oppressed by Brahmin hegemony acquired power. This challenged upper-caste hegemony even though it did not change the caste hierarchy. `Something new happened’ to South Indian society then, Karashima concluded.

He did not stop his enquiry at the 13th century, as historians before him did. His research expanded and focused on the period under the Vijayanagara kings as well. Continuing with his method of studying inscriptions, Karashima plotted the changing dynamics between the rulers based at Hampi, the capital of Vijayanagara, and their nayaks or chiefs, who administered the larger territory. He explained how these political changes intertwined with leasing patterns of lands, control of production, the creation of artisan settlements and other transformations of South Indian society during the 14th and 17th centuries.

How India came to Karashima

It intrigued many as to why a Japanese scholar would spend five decades of his life combing inscriptions to study South Indian history. Karashima had three answers to this question. He gave the brief one to the impatient, a longer one to the inquisitive who were willing to listen, and the third he held to himself, which he elaborated during his Fukuoka Prize commemorative lecture in 1995. Two negative experiences shaped his questions and quest. As a young school boy, living in Kamakura immediately after World War II, amidst soldiers from the United States occupation force, Karashima encountered a dreadful experience. While traveling to a school located in Tokyo, an American soldier pushed him out of a packed train. ‘The unpleasant touch and the fear,’ provoked the young Karashima to ponder, “If they are westerners, who am I if I am not white?” The unpleasant experience and hardships faced by his family later within Japan, when they returned to Tokyo after living for some time in Korea, also provoked him to look at the ‘mechanism of society and history.’

The bigger quest Karashima had in mind was to understand ‘what Asia really is.’ To this end, he decided to compare Chinese and Indian civilisations and enquire ‘what is common that is different from western civilisations.’ He was familiar with China and decided to study India. While many in Japan at that time tried to understand India through the popular triad of Buddhism, Sanskrit and North India, he decided to look at the less studied South India, learn Tamil and understand the society.

Language and inscriptions were keys to studying South Indian history, and Karashima wanted to equip himself. In 1961, he came to Chennai or Madras, as it was known earlier, and enrolled in the University of Madras for a year. For the next two years, he worked and trained at the epigraphy office of the Archaeological Survey of India, which was then located in Ooty. He returned in 1969 for three years and spent more than half of the time in the epigraphy office. He would become the president of the Epigraphical Society of India in 1985.

Seeing a world in inscriptions

Karashima had good reasons to focus on inscription-based history writing. He estimated that there were about 57,000 inscriptions in South Indian languages, while Sanskrit and North Indian language inscriptions numbered only 23,000. Most of these inscriptions had identifiable structures, repetitive terms, and contained a host of information. Karashima often complained that these valuable sources were not studied systematically. Historians either offered sweeping views of society based on select inscriptions or they overlooked them in favour of Sanskrit sources. With the help of Indian research partners, particularly Y. Subbarayalu, a respected scholar in his own right, his careful study of inscriptions yielded original insights.

11th century Tamil inscriptions on one wall of the Brihadeeswara temple, Tanjavur. Credit: C/N N/G/Flickr

11th century Tamil inscriptions on one wall of the Brihadeeswara temple, Tanjavur. Credit: C/N N/G/Flickr

Karashima used statistical methods, brought in computers to analyse inscriptions for the first time, and prepared exhaustive concordances of inscriptions.   For instance, he studied about 9,500 personal names identified in about 3,100 known Chola inscriptions, and conducted a statistical analysis of 1030 names of Nayakas who were officiating in various parts of Tamil Nadu on behalf of the Vijayanagara Kings during 14th and 17th centuries. He also looked at equally extensive and intricate references to revenue terms.

This approach did not always bring bouquets to Karashima. Historians saw his reliance on inscriptions at the expense of other sources as severely limiting. His empirical work that depended on what is computable in inscriptions was `reductionist,’ complained Sanjay Subrahmanyam, another noted historian. Some cautioned that inscriptional databases themselves could be biased since the content of the inscriptions varied with the place they were found and the context in which they were written. Karashima wanted to keep his approach simple, as he believed that a study of the larger idea of history required focusing on small things. In the South Indian context, inscriptions were the building blocks of history-writing, he insisted. This, as James Heitzman remarked, made Karashima “maddeningly circumspect in his theoretical contributions.” There is no doubt that his work was empirically loaded, but his carefully constructed databases of inscriptions were stepping stones to investigators who followed.

Karashima’s research was not always about dry numbers. His investigation would spot precious nuggets of evidence, which had the potential to shake assumptions about the past. These often turned into a storyteller’s delight. For instance, writing about the challenge to Brahmin hegemony in South India, Karashima brings forth an interesting incident. The 13th inscription from Tirukkachchur details the atrocities committed by five Brahmin brothers such as stealing, raping and murdering. It took considerable pressure from the locals and a real force to quell them. Not completely, clarifies the inscription – only two were captured, while the other three fought the soldiers sent after them and even killed them.

Karashima was not off the mark when he said that inscriptions are “calling us from the past and whispering many things.” He diligently listened, recorded and prolifically wrote about them.

On a personal note, I feel guilty that I could not publish the foreword he wrote five years ago for my compilation of Nilakanta Sastri’s writings in The Hindu published between 1930 and 1961. He readily offered a balanced appraisal of Sastri’s writings and encouraged the initiative. No one has written a reliable general history of South India since Sastri did in 1955, he remarked. In an email to me in 2011 (I was with The Hindu then), he wrote, “I have now started the work of producing a new book on South Indian history from the Indus civilisation issue to Jayalalithaa” with the help of friends. In 2014, he completed it and put together a comprehensive collection of essays titled, A Concise History of South India, but for reasons beyond my control, I could not keep my word.

A. Srivathsan is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed are personal.