Chera, Chola, Pandya: Using Archaeological Evidence to Identify the Tamil Kingdoms of Early Historic South India

Article excerpt

DESPITE THE AMOUNT OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH that has been carried out in South India, our understanding of the South Indian protohistoric period is still, in many ways, in its infancy. It is only recently that scholars have begun to move away from traditional culture-historical approaches and to draw on the archaeological data to answer specific questions about the processes and conditions surrounding emerging social complexity. Like many other regions of the world that possess a literary tradition, South Asia's past has been largely built on a foundation of epigraphic and textual evidence (e.g., Kulke and Rothermund 1986; Sastri 1966); one could argue that, for the time period spanning the transition from prehistory to history, it has been South Asia's documentary record that has chiefly determined current interpretations of its early history. In the same way, the onset of written records in South India made it possible to move away from the tendency to treat the entire peninsular region as a whole and to isolate smaller regions whose texts indicated distinct historical trajectories. In the southern portion of the peninsula--the region that corresponds roughly to the present-day states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu--the existence of a large documentary corpus, both indigenous and foreign, and the occurrence of inscribed coins and cave inscriptions, have given rise to the idea of a separate ethnic and linguistic region known as "Tamilakam" (Fig. 1).


By contrast, the role of archaeology in the consideration of early Tamil identity has been more or less secondary. The common tendency is for South Indian historians to appropriate the archaeological data as a source of correlates for information gleaned from the texts (e.g., Champakalakshmi 1996; Gurukkal 1989; Thapar 1992)--in other words, to use the material record to search out "known" historical patterns, events, or places (Morrison and Lycett 1997:216). Archaeologists are equally culpable; it has become customary for South Indian archaeologists to label sites and objects in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as "Tamil," without considering whether signifiers exist in the material record that substantiate or refute this notion of cultural separateness. The underlying assumption continues to be that the documentary record serves as the best and most reliable source for knowledge about past identity. As will be demonstrated here, the archaeological data from protohistoric Kerala and Tamil Nadu is not so clear--cut and, in fact, appears to challenge the very notion of a separate culture region. By carefully separating and analyzing the written and material records for Tamilakam (Fig. 2), this study will examine what, if anything, it meant to have a Tamil identity in Early Historic South India.



The relationship between archaeology and history has become a mounting concern among archaeologists, and research in other regions highlights some of the issues that are relevant to this study of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Many archaeologists agree, for instance, that the overwhelming tendency is to privilege the information contained in texts at the expense of data derived from the archaeological record (e.g., Feinman 1997; Morrison and Lycett 1997). Conflicts also emerge when historians focus on the texts at the expense of other materials, while archaeologists limit their efforts to single--site evaluations (Thurston 1997:260). Also, archaeologists themselves can be prejudiced in their selective use of written records to support their findings (Feinman 1997:372). Nevertheless, the rationale for conducting historically informed archaeology is indisputable; combining the historical and archaeological data sets must lead to richer perspectives on the complexities of the past.

Recognizing that history and archaeology are both media by which the past can be accessed, the most basic way of linking the two is to use one record as a means of identifying or corroborating information recovered by the other. …