No one in the know of Chola history could ever think of comparing their greatness with Mughal rule, but not so with those who know only the Mughal rule. Such a horrendous comparison was done by Devi Yasodharan whose world view of history is shaped by American TV shows and knowledge of Indian history, by online search.
I came to know about her through a tweet on her article promoting her book in Hindustan Times.
What she has written in the article is something called “Vanja-pugazhchi ani” in Tamil grammar – i.e., seeming to praise someone while actually demeaning them or pulling them down. She has treated Cholas and also Sangam age Tamils in a demeaning way in her articles published in other magazines around the same time, in the guise of promoting her book. Some of the incorrigibles in her writings are given below.
Her worst ever write-up has appeared in Huffington post under the caption “From Tortoise Meat To Roasted Peppery Goat, The Cholas Of South India Revelled In Feasting”. I am sure anyone from Tamilnadu, or in the know of Tamil’s past would be appalled at reading this title and can anticipate the material written under.
She is concentrating on Cholas of the medieval period – particularly Rajendra Chola. They are ‘cool kids’ and foodies. She thinks that it is fun writing about their food habits and recipes. The issue is she is bringing out these aspects in a ‘historical’ fiction where she wants to be historically correct in portraying the scenes. Is she correct in her portrayals? What is the cool stuff she has got to say about the people under Rejendra Chola?
“They were a society fond of alcohol and good food. Feasts thrown by kings ended with a happy, drunk populace, and included meat, fruit and liquor that was "strong like an enraged snake".
This is not from Rajendra Chola period but from Porunar Arrup Padai dedicated to Karikala Chola. Karikala Chola belongs to Sangam age which is more than 1000 years before Rajendra Chola’s time. A gap of 1000 years is too big and lot of improvements in life style take place within that time.
Her focus is on 11th century Chola empire which is better known for agricultural food production. The adage is “Chola Naadu Sorudaitthu” ( Chola land is known for food – the cultivated variety). Kudanthai (Kumbakonam) and Tanjore are well attested in the hymns of Alwars as prosperous centres of food production. Tanjore continues to be regarded as the granary of South India. One cannot show a single inscription on the Cholas of this period feasting on exotic recipes of animal food.
But she portrays the 11th century port of Nagappatinam as “a city that had street food with plenty of choices, from duck eggs and goat meat cooked out in the open to more varied options, including roasted nuts, sweet jaggery rolls, rice cakes and crackers”. So her heroine is a like a modern day girl, walking down the street munching something bought in one of the shops – something unseen even in today’s Nagappatinam streets.
The best parallel to street scenes of olden days is found in Silappadhikaram - in Pumpukar of Chola kingdom. This text gives a good picture of the entire city. The street scenes that Devi Yasodharan imagines are only restricted to ‘Maruvur Pakkam’ – the region allotted for traders, foreigners and sellers. All kinds of things are sold here, including the animal food. But Silappadhikaram mentions the sale of animal products in just two lines at the most, while mentioning about sale of other products in many lines. This shows the number or proportion of meat traders in comparison with traders of other goods. In any society meat eaters are there and they were there in Chola’s country too. But to concentrate only on that part as if the entire society is fond of exotic animal food is a misnomer.
What she is portraying is actually found in Sangam age texts, like Perum Panarrup padai and Porunar Arrup padai. Only these two texts describe in detail the kind of food prepared in every region on the way. But these two texts stand apart as a kind of travel- advice to fellow bards who are hesitant to undertake an arduous journey through tough topographies. They are poor and have to walk all the way. These bards convince them to take up the journey by explaining them the route, the habitats on the way, the places of halt, the hospitality of the people and the kind of food available to them.
Their narration shows that one can expect sea food in coastal habitats. When one crosses forests, one gets food made from hunted animals. When one crosses the habitat of cowherds (Ayar), one is treated with milk and vegetable products only. In the regions where cultivation was the norm, only vegetable foods are mentioned. There is even mention of a Brahmin habitat (in Perum Panaarrup padai) and the food cooked by them. That food continues to be popular in Brahmin households of Tamilnadu even today. The beauty of the narration is that anyone crossing these habitats would be received with affection and offered food that is available with them– in the best sense of Athithi bhojanam. Anyone reading these texts would not miss the narration of how the people used to receive the traveller by calling him or her as son, daughter or father or mother. That is the essence of culture – that existed then. If Devi Yasodharan has brought out this feature in her book, that is real history. But leaving them aside, this author is literally salivating at the recipes of the forest dwellers and hunters of the Sangam age, while describing her novel set in 11th century time period of the Cholas.
The food she has explained in the Huffington Post article is from Sangam texts explained above. She has conveniently assigned them to Rajendra Chola’s times.
For example, she says,
“The wandering poets of the Chola empire often were invited into households for a meal, and they used that opportunity to make friends and observe the local culture. In the places they visited, ingredients were modest but exotic: meat from 'short-legged' boars or porcupine, as well as forest fruit and vegetables like bamboo, elephant-foot yam, jackfruit and jamun”.
These scenes appear in Porunar Arrup padai (a Sangam text) on Karikal Chola and in Perum Panarrup padai on Ilam Tirayan of Kanchipuram. The meal of short-legged boar is found in Perum Panarrup padai, in the kingdom of Ilam Tirayan, in a place called ‘Pattinam’ near a coastal habitat called ‘Neer-p-peyar’. The elephant-foot yam and jackfruits were offered in farms that are found inland and occupied by agriculturists. There is no mention of animal food in that habitat.
She continues to describe as follows:
“Fatty pieces of porcupine are from animals 'killed by female dogs'. The poet sits in the same courtyard where these dogs are leashed, waiting for the meal. He watches the women mix the meat with sweet tamarind and buttermilk, admires them for their beauty.”
This is also a mixed-up narration from Ilam Tirayan’s country and not Chola’s country – definitely not Rajendra Chola’s country.
Towards the end of that article she mentions about a recipe made of “avarai beans (broad country beans), cooked in tamarind gravy”. This is also found in Ilam Tirayan’s country and not in Chola’s land.
Another obsession of hers is liquor. She attributes the narration found in Sangam texts to Rejendra Chola’s period. There are 48 synonyms for liquor in Tamil thesaurus (Chudamani Nigandu), but they are not like the liquor of present times. They were all largely restricted to a different age, i.e., the Sangam period. From Sangam texts we come to know that only women prepared and sold liquor. This gave them the name “Pazhaiyar Magalir”. Pazhaiyar means old, here it refers to old stuff that was allowed to ferment. The preparation methods are given in some texts like Porunar Arrup padai and one can prepare them to check if they are same as present day liquor.
Comparison with Mughals.
More than all these, what shocks me most is her comparison of Cholas with Mughals! Comparison or analogy is indeed an easy way to explain who Cholas were and what type of people they were. But the comparison done by Devi Yasodharan shows what type of person she is and how far one can take her for granted when it comes to intellectual stuff.
The Hindustan Times article quoted in the tweet begins with exposing her knowledge of great empires of India. According to her Mughal empire comes first as the great empire. How did she come to this conclusion? Elsewhere in the same article we get an answer for this. It is through an online search of what she calls – ‘a decidedly unscientific search online for Mughal related books’ through which she found 2000 titles on Mughals. She allows herself to be carried away by those books developed in the 60 plus years of leftist narration of Indian history but bemoans on actual records of Cholan period from academic texts (perhaps supported by epigraphy) – as something not “written with an eye to the crowd”.
History is not written with an eye on the crowd. Devi Yasodharan is free to write anything with an eye on the crowd, but she should not have taken up history for background, by meddling up with facts. Chola history is something imprinted in the minds of Tamil readers by writer Kalki whose book Ponniyin Selvan is a real historical novel in which history was not twisted even a bit but presented well with an imagined story. As one who has not even known the Mughal history, her treatment of Cholan history and comparing it with Mughal history is a bad joke. Finding them published in magazines like Huffington Post is crudest joke of all.
The best (or the worst) part of her knowledge is seen in the Hindustan Times article wherein she compares the Cholan architecture with Mughal architecture. She thinks that
“The spectacular Chola bronzes are semi-nude human figures, with sensuous curves and slender limbs. The art of the Mughals have, on the other hand, restraint as a key feature”.
Typical of one who has no knowledge about rules of architecture that has gone into making temples and the various sculptures, she finds “emphasis on human beauty, turning the gods too into erotic human sculpture”. She goes to the extent of saying that “the (Cholan) queens had their likenesses carved in temples in the form of goddesses — slender and elegant, royal and divine” in The Hindu article. Can she show evidences for these claims?
It is only from her we come to know that Cholan kings were protected by women body guards – who even accompanied them in war -fields to safe guard them! Leave alone the Chola king – even a soldier of that time period would commit suicide on hearing this portrayal like this. For the first time I am coming across a claim like this on Cholan kings. There is no such reference in Sangam texts or even to Medieval Cholas. I wonder on what basis she is making these claims.
I have doubts about her sources as I can see that she thinks, the text Perum Kathai is reflective of Tamil society. Perum Kathai is originally a story set in North India (Ujjain and Magadha) with North Indian characters (Udayana is the hero) but written in Tamil as a secondary text by a Jain ascetic, only to prove that Jains were capable of writing on mundane and love life. The clever woman, acting as a peace maker in Perum Kathai, that Devi has mentioned in The Hindu article , was not of Tamil origin.
To top this all, she concludes in her Hindustan Times article with an imagination of what if a Chola and a Mughal meet each other. She writes,
“The Mughal aghast at the Chola’s taste for strong alcohol, perhaps, and for any kind of meat that can be killed with arrows or caught by dogs, for his love of raucous, public dances, and the women with their bare legs and arms.
And the Chola might rub his chin in bemusement at the Mughal, who is wearing a turban that makes him sweat in the summer, who opens up his chess board when it’s such a nice day out; baffled at his cultural restrictions of everything fun, watching him as he hastily diverts his eyes from the beautiful girls”.
What a distortion of facts! This is the best commentary – self commentary on what she knows and what one can expect from her. In her article (here) she compares Chola kings with her favourite TV (American) show, the ‘Game of Thrones’. It shows how serious she is about the facts of history. It is unfortunate that such a person was the speech writer of Narayana Murthy! But then is Narayana Murthy ever known as a best speaker? Perhaps we know the reason now!