The South, ascendant

November 2, 2006

The South, ascendant  

Rajeev Srinivasan on the rise of Southern India

I recently landed in Trivandrum, in the midst of a light rain-shower: the northeast monsoon is active in Kerala. The plane described a wide circle out to sea and then made its descent and I was reminded once again that Trivandrum is, just as San Francisco is, a dramatically beautiful airport to land in, as you make your final approach over the water. The knife-edge-straight beach stretches as far as you can see, with just a cove here where fishing-boats shelter, and a breach there where a stream’s delta fans out.

The Arabian Sea has many shades of color: muddy where a river (maybe the Neyyar; perhaps it is the Veli Lake) drains its sediments, forming a brownish fan-tail out to sea; a lovely aquamarine in the shallows close to land; and a deep indigo as the land falls off precipitously towards the continental shelf. Off to one side is the Kovalam Leela Hotel, nestled against the side of a steep hill much like a terraced Balinese hillside.

All around is an expanse of green: a carpet of coconut trees, broken now and then by an expanse of paddy fields following the meander of a now-extinct river; several brown and swollen rivers marking their paths to the sea; and ahead, like a scar on the red, red soil, a hillside being eaten away by clay-miners. Red earth and pouring rain, I was reminded of the soul-stirring Sangam-era Tamil poetry: “But in love our hearts are as red earth and pouring rain, mingled beyond parting.”

As we descend through threatening cumulus clouds, the land is invisible now and then. Then, as the plane descends to the runway, the sleight-of-hand wears off: the dense green carpet below is misleading. This is no tropical rain-forest: obscured by the palms, the place is teeming with houses, people, cars; a whole town springs to view, to complement the few large buildings that soar over the treetops.

This is my home, regardless of where I go; San Francisco, my other home, is only second-best. I love to return to this heart-breakingly beautiful land: the idea of Kerala, or perhaps the ideal, is extraordinarily attractive, although the reality may be less so. I was feeling a little nostalgic, as I had heard about the imminent celebration of the golden jubilee of the creation of the State of Kerala on November 1st, 1956; and also because this marks ten years of my writing for Rediff: my first column was on October 28th, 1996.

This golden land; this land, beloved of the gods; this most fortunate of lands, blessed with rains [“Sibilant, sinuous, sinister” at ], covered with nature’s bounty, a veritable primeval garden. A very long tradition of agriculture: they used to cultivate eighteen different varieties of rice, and innumerable ones of bananas, not to mention mangoes, jackfruit, tamarind, teak. A true storehouse of genetic variety, especially in the last few untouched virgin rain-forests of the Western Ghats. Its core competence is agriculture: it has some of the best-watered and richest soils in the world. And Kerala also has a very distinctive and sophisticated culture of creativity, as seen in its magnificently understated wooden temples and the dramatic performances of kathakali, koodiyattam and theyyam.

I am a big fan of South India. If I were to try to view the rest of South India from the perspective of a native (see my previous column, Geography is Destiny, I would have much to be proud of.

All of the four States were formed on the same Rajyotsava Day, November 1st, 1956.

If I were a Tamil, I would celebrate Tamil Nadu, with its glorious traditions exemplified by the overwhelming temple towers and rich produce of the Kaveri Delta in Tanjavur, and the modern industrial success stories of Chennai and Coimbatore. Not to mention the fabled Pallavas and Cholas: the Pallava ‘Descent of the Ganges’ in Mahabalipuram, from 1,400 years ago, is still a marvel. Karikala Chola’s 2,000-year-old Grand Anicut still stands as an amazing feat of irrigation engineering, and Rajaraja Chola’s fleet of 1,000 years ago that defeated the maritime Srivijaya empire of Sumatra clear across the Indian Ocean was the largest fleet ever assembled before the 19th century.

Tamil’s classical Sangam literature is fascinating too, with, among other things, its classification of the land based on the flowers: mullai (jasmine) for the forest, kurinji for the hills, neythal for the coast, marudam for the grasslands, and palai, with its intoxicating flowers forever associated with yakshis (driads), for the semi-arid lands.

By coincidence, this October the kurinji bloomed, as it does once every twelve years, turning the Nilgiris blue, true to its name that means Blue Mountains. Sadly, most of the mountain biosphere that sustains the kurinji has been wantonly destroyed in the last 150 years, with the substitution of native plant species with plantation crops. Tragically, this continues to happen in the South: the trashing of invaluable local knowledge.

Karnakata is my favorite State in the Union. It is a splendid State, with its tremendous range of scenery and flora, from the rainforests of the Western Ghats to the unspoilt beaches of the Konkan Coast; to misty and beautiful Coorg, and then on to the superlative sculpture of Belur, Halebid and Sravangabelagola, and then further north Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole, and most of all, that exquisite teardrop on the face of time, the destroyed city of Vijayanagar. A charming and self-effacing State, but also, thanks to Bangalore, the analog of California and a magnet for the young and ambitious.

Andhra Pradesh is the State that I am least familiar with, but once again its culture goes back a very long way to the zenith of Buddhist ideas, with Amaravati and the great philosopher Nagarjuna. It was also the site of the only source of diamonds in the world for a very long time: Golconda’s fabled mines. Furthermore, although I don’t want to get in the middle of a Karnataka-Andhra war, if I am not mistaken, Vijayanagar, the greatest Empire of the South, spoke Telugu.

It is no wonder that with such a rich heritage, the South is rising again. To be really accurate, the South should include Maharashtra and Orissa as well, which share the geography and to some extent the culture, but I am using the traditional definition of the South as these four States.


28 Responses to “The South, ascendant”

  1. vikuba Says:

    south India has Goa and Pondicherry too and also Lakshwadeep.

  2. chandramahal Says:

    Lyrical, Rajeev. More power to you

  3. Hiren Says:

    The whole of India has a glorious history and one should hope that the whole of India rises to the level of its glorious past.

  4. catchharish Says:

    i was totally expecting some abusive flaming reaction to this piece from Rajeev.. and one Mr.Metlin..has not dissapointed me..

    generally the hatred filled venomous threads, i have found are more common when anybody says just a few good words about Chennai, but now it seems anything from down south is ready to be abused..

    Rajeev’s article was just about the great things from the south that Indians are COMPLETELY IGNORANT of.. I can bet nobody from north would have heard of the Cholas, Pandyas the Kerala school of mathematics or nay even the Vijayanagara empire. Indian history books are filled with reams and tomes about Islamic invasions and mughal rule and have minimal focus on the history of southern India. I remember reading chapter after chapter about the MUghal rule in CBSE and a cople of pages about the great dynsties of south. I always see an inherent and systemic bias towards anything south across Indian polity, public and the dumb ass media borne out of total ignorance and nurtured by stereotypes.

    Anything south is “inferior”, people there speak “Madrasi”, “are dark and by definition not as good looking” and “racists (thats the most funny / pathetic)”

    for e.g Mr. Metlin very condescendingly talks about Karnataka not speaking anything other than “gothila”.
    Lemme think.. am sure somebody from Punjab or MP or from the cow belt speak thousands of languages right. Except for Hindi ppl in the north are incapable of speaking any language. Then you move into south for all the great job oportunities and MAKE NO EFFORT to learn the local language or culture and taunt ppl down for not speaking hindi.. some hypocricy there..

    That said..everything is not nice and dandy in south. It has its own share of problems, biases, both historical and created by the current crop of leaders. But its high time that we recognise, that inspite of all the mocking and hatred that goes againt the south, it is that part of India that leads our country in almost any parameter, it is liberal by indian standards, still holds dear many of Hinduism great and hoary traditions(inspite of being labelled conservative) and is home to some of India’s best and finest. Its ok for ppl like Metlin and other in their tribe to shed their hypocricy and stereotypes for once and appreciate India for its incredible beauty and DIVERSITY.

    Jai Hind

  5. saiganesh Says:

    Hello Mr.Metlin,
    I am sure there are lot of things that are wrong about India and may be a whole lot of things that is bad about South India. But sometimes it feels nice to see the good things of one’s own place. I think there is nothing wrong in that. Just because one writes about the goodness of the South doesn’t mean he has to be a bigot.

    You seem to feel that it is OK not to read about the Cholas and Pandyas and in the same vein you think you will compromise not learning about the Mauryas. I feel every Indian should learn (and be proud of) about all of our history, be it North or South. I sure am proud of the legacy of the Mauryas and Guptas as well as the Cholas and Pandyas.

    (By the way it is OK that you have not learnt about the Pandyas , but please don’t confuse them with the Pandavas).

    It is nice to know that you have learnt all the curse-words in all the 4 languages, but Rajeev seems to have a talent to quote both Vallathol and the Sangam Tamil Poetry. Try the good things and see if you still feel the same level of hatred.

    And really what kind of statement is this “South knows nothing of the Patriotism”. Kodikatha Kumaran, Vanchinathan, Rajaji, Subramania Bharathiyar, Thillaiyadi Valliammai, Veerapandia Kattabomman, Subramania Siva, V.O. Chidambaram Pillai and the list goes on about the South Indian Patriots. Just because Karunanidhi, Periyar and the goondas are not patriotic doesn’t make the south un-patriotic. Can I measure the patriotism of the North by using Mulayam Singh Yadav or Syed Shahabuddin as the scale. No I would definitely not.

    If you think the South wanted confederacy then please don’t forget the 1980s Punjab or the current Kashmir or Assam. Problems are there everywhere and if you want to throw mud or insults or arm wrestle – yeah, you could. But can you write a “feel good” article about North India or the whole of India for that matter? If you can please go ahead and that would be a good counter to what Rajeev has come up with.

  6. Alamandrax Says:

    hi catchharish and saiganesh. really appreciate your effort.

    on a side note, please check this out:

    especially, please note this particular part of the article: “Jay W. Forrester described a phenomenon that often happens in flamewars whereby participants talk past each other. Each participant employs a different mental model (i.e. due to fundamental differences in their assumptions about what a particular word or concept means, they are actually discussing two different things).”

    cheers. keep the flame war bright! i hope you get something substantial out of it.

  7. Alamandrax Says:

    metlin you worthless tool! oops. i meant troll 😛

  8. catchharish Says:

    Mr.Metlin, guess u have bitten more than u can “chew”..

    U r “response” (if i can even use the term) seemed more like rantings of a mad man..who is ignorant,illogical and a bigot waiting to make an ass of himself..

    Feel free to continue to use this forum to spew more of u r ignorance :-).. am sure readers of this blog would not mind some fun..

  9. Alamandrax Says:

    heh heh. sure. whatever keeps you up nights.

  10. Hey, give the Tams *some* credit. They came up with suicide bombing before the Mullahs did.

  11. Alamandrax Says:

    They came up with suicide bombing before the Mullahs did.


  12. rajeev2007 Says:

    Well, the Japanese can take credit for suicide bombings even earlier: Kamikaze.

    As for you, Metlin person, my blogs have been trolled by smarter and more interesting people than you before. But you write very clearly — in the process demonstrating that you are some kind of a rebel without a clue. If your problem is that you’re a Katherine Mayo-type gutter inspector, of course you’ll only see the dirt wherever you look, and not the good stuff. Anyway, whatever turns you on, boy. This is my first and last comment to you.

  13. metlin Says:

    HAHAAHAHA! You deleted all my comments, way to go fanboy. Hear something you don’t like? Like the truth?

  14. Alamandrax Says:

    i don’t think that was the point. but like he said, whatever turns you on. keep at it. works in iraq, works here too.

  15. vjsingh Says:

    It’s nice to see some parts of India rise. The efforts of people down south should be appreciated. Someone was cribbing about northerners not knowing about Cholas, Pandyas etc. Well I am from the north and I distinctly remember studying about Cholas, pandya and the great kingdoms they built. CBSE gives a shoddy treatment not only to South’s history but also to the kingdoms of the north before the Mughals.

    Also something was said about northerners being hypocrites and not making efforts to learn the local language and culture. Well this is true but the people in the south and particularly Tamils are alike, they are so chauvinistic (and obsessive)about Tamil that they cannot tolerate anybody speaking any other langauge in their presence (You can feel this in Chennai, Coimabtore and Trichy.. where I have spent more than three years).

    As far as the progress goes yes there is no doubt that south is developing faster than any other region barring Gujrat & Maharasthra. But it’s more because of factors like presence of engg & medical private colleges for the last 30 years (main reason why Software is concentrated in Bangalore & Chenai)
    And ploitics ( why all the electronics manufacturing companies are coming up in TN.. this because of Dayanidhi using influence in Central Govt to push all the telecom,IT FDI to Chennai, TN)

  16. […] As we descend through threatening cumulus clouds, the land is invisible now and then. Then, … Impressive article i thinkLink to original article […]

  17. sresha Says:

    Rajeev, you seem to have limited (or NO) knowledge of Kannada and Karnataka. Kannada was widely spoken in Vijayanagara empire and most of the literary sources found in that era are in Kannada. For more information visit

  18. rajeev2007 Says:

    Several people have pointed out that I did not talk about Goa or Lakshadweep or Pondicherry. Well, there are several other smaller territories in the South as well, for instance Mahe. But I was focusing my attention on the four big states that came into being on Nov 1, 1956. Also, Pondicherry is quite similar to Tamil Nadu; and Mahe and Lakshadweep to Kerala, although I admit there are interesting cultural differences due to various influences. Goa is very different, and I don’t think Goans consider themselves part of the South anyway.

    Yes, it is true that I have limited knowledge of Kannada, as has been pointed out many times by Mysore Madhwa. I am not sure this is a handicap: few people know all about more than one language and literature. A K Ramanujam was one. I know Malayalam very well indeed, though, and I look at everything else through that prism. I am not apologetic about it, either.

    As for Karnataka, I lived there for several years, and I have visited many of the major monumental sites there, and I have read up as much as I could on Vijayanagar. I don’t pretend to be a native, I accept in all humility that local Kannadigas know more about Karnataka than I do.

    But the one thing I do know is that Vijayanagar had an immense influence on the entire South, and that it is not given enough credit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the main reason the South is doing well today is due to Vijayanagar protecting it from Mohammedan invasions during the extraordinarily violent Sultanate period in the North. I am greatly impressed by Vijayanagar, and sad that it is not given the respect it is due.

    The jury is still not out on the languages used in Vijayanagar, and it doesn’t matter that much. I believe Vijayanagar literature was in Kannada, Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil (I guess I should now complain that they didn’t do anything for Malayalam :-)). The Wikipedia entry on the Vijayanagar Empire suggests that it is a matter of dispute as to which language predominated in the Empire. I would tend to go with the opinion of Nilakantha Sastry, who wrote the authoritative History of South India. He is of the opinion that Telugu was the language, but then written classical Telugu and classical Kannada are easy to confuse, I suppose.

    Someone mentioned a Tulu background too. And that there were Tulu inscriptions on Vijayanagar coins. Now that would be curious, because Tulu does not have a script even today. I have been to Tulu-nadu to go to the fabulous Kollur Mookambika temple, and all the signs were in Kannada or Malayalam.

  19. srkpriv Says:


    You are a moron! You know why you are a moron!. Because reality is very different from fantasy. You must be one frustrated northie from one of those BIMARU states that is begging the developed states of the South to survive. Your view as to southies are dark! will carry you only so much regardless news to you 80% of indians are brown or light brown or dark skinned only!. I can read your frustrations very easily!. north inspite of its lofty fantasy hasn’t produced a single achievement in the last 1000s years and they were b**t f**ed by every arab/turk/mongol on their way to India and so no wonder you guys are so F***ed up in your life!. On the other hand my dear Metlin South has excelled and has survived well in its relative geographic distant location. North is definitely a failed state congregated by inferior northies while south on the other hand is inhabited by superior dravidians who have proven that they can survive and be successful in every walks of life!. So you can drag your inferior northie a*s to your homeland and sit in the corner and cry why you are such a failed race and a society as a whole!.

    Goals Team
    0 North
    1 South

  20. srkpriv Says:

    vjsingh”And ploitics ( why all the electronics manufacturing companies are coming up in TN.. this because of Dayanidhi using influence in Central Govt to push all the telecom,IT FDI to Chennai, TN) ”

    HE IS DOINT SQUAT TO TAMIL-NADU GOVERNMENT FYI!. Bringing industries and companies is a STATE MATTER. They are the ones who can give tax breaks, lands and so on and hence they are the one who do things!. The central minister is not influencing or directing the investments. Tamil-Nadu has very less central ministers in its history but regardless tamil-nadu has consistently performed well in attracting industries. Mostly due its good ports and other infrastructure facilities. Dravidians are generally (note generally) very progessive minded and hence its is no surprise!. When Nokia came to tamil-nadu the government was AIADMK (which is opposing part of Marans party). Not only that Jaya brought BMW also and in her previous terms (without any ministries in centre) she brought Ford and Hyundai as well to tamil-nadu.

    So do other states in terms of attracting industries they are doing a great job!. If Maran were to send things to tamil-nadu he would have sent the SemIndia as well to tamil-nadu, but, all four states of south competed very very intense for that project but it went to andhra finally!.

  21. srkpriv Says:

    “Hey, give the Tams *some* credit. They came up with suicide bombing before the Mullahs did.”

    You guys were the first to invent how to shoot a PM being a body guard!. You guys are good for nothing what you guys can do is spit pan and guthka on each other and call it a holi!.

  22. srkpriv Says:

    “Well this is true but the people in the south and particularly Tamils are alike, they are so chauvinistic ”

    No body is imposing you any language like how northies do!. We are not asking you to learn tamil or other languages as part of the school curriculum we are asking you to pick it up when you are atleast in south. We learn the language whereever we go!. But we dont want to learn ‘hindi’ just because we might go to north or something. Where as the government is imposing ‘hindi’ on everybody in the name of unity. We are not hating ‘hindi’ we are just fighting its imposition that’s it!. My patriotism is gonna come in tamil and I dont care and it is not my problem you cant understand it or comprehend it!.

  23. anilrao Says:

    Dear srkpriv

    It is true that when the south was not prosperous, south indians were looked down upon by few sections of the crowd from north. We still need to give respect to Hindi as our national language, learn it to the core, and when someone makes a mockery of south indians’ language skills, we need to give a fitting answer in Hindi.

    Being a Kannadiga I have to thank Hindi Prachara Sabha from Tamil Nadu in helping me learn Hindi to a better level. Seclusion from main stream is not a good thing. I hope the outlook about Hindi changes in Tamilnadu some time soon.

  24. anilrao Says:


    I am a Tulu Kannadiga. Tulu has a script of its own even though it is not in contemporary use. Look for Wikipedia article on Tulu, which also mentions that Tulu may be the first dravidian language, given its rudimentary nature, which is open for debate.

    Your note on Vijayanagara empire having majority Telugu speaking subjects is a news to me. So far I didn’t even know that there was a debate on this. I did some research. There are many stories on the rise of Vijanaga empire which is located at the border of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Hakka and Bukka, the founders are referred to be from KURUBA cult, which is a Kannada word. Referring to California in 21st centrury as the 7th economy of the world with Los Angeles as its largest city with majority hispanic population does not mean that hispanics alone contributed to the success of California or that they built it or that they nurtured it. My cousin who was brought up in Bellary, Karnataka learnt Kannada language with her teacher using Telugu as the medium. Across the border in Mantralaya you get to hear Kannada. So it is quite possible that there were Telugu speaking people in Vijayanagara. Hakka and Bukka themselves were working in Warangal before they built the empire.

    Coming to the script used, there can’t be much confusion between Telugu script and the Halegannada (Old Kannada) script. The latter looked similar to Tamil. Contemporary Kannada script (Hosagannada) was not around during Vijayanagara time.

    Only fact that supports your theory is the Telugu influence seen to date in Sringeri Vidya Peeta. Hakka-Bukka’s Guru Vidyaranya aka Madhwa Bhatta was the Jagadguru from Sringeri Mutt. Sringeri is well inside Karnataka !

    – Anil

  25. trulyindian Says:


    The very first thing thats falwed with the article is the title itself.
    “India is rising and South is making major contributions” – I am with you.

    Dear srkpriv – “Imposition” ? may be u need another word cause there are certain things imposed on you when u were born…

    U were born Indian – imposed on you
    U r national anthem – imposed on you
    U r national flag – imposed on you
    many more thing and like wise your National Language

    You dont have a choice here my dear friend.And just so you have more calrity of our country…every state in the North have its own language too(Bihar – bhojpuri,Gujarat – gujarati,MP- malwi,Maharashtra – marathi, Rajasthan – mewari,rajasthani,Punjab – punjabi )….but we have to align ourselves to a common stream…

    I guess its the regional environment in Chennai which makes this all sick because i have had many childhood tamilian friends back in Bombay and they never had this kind of thought process…

  26. catchharish Says:

    A simple ( and beautiful) piece of prose describing Rajeev’s journey to the South and his expression of happiness at the region’s growth has eventually (not suprisingly) ended into a full blown case of hating South(espescially Tamils and their language).

    It is very very sad and downright stupid to equate love of the land and patriotism to speaking/ understanding Hindi. They are NOT analagous by any stretch of imagination.

    People who constantly cringe and complaint about Tamil, hardly know anything about the language(its history dates as far back as Sanskrit) and more importanly have yet to rise about the stereotypes that surround things/ppl from South.

    Also lets not involve the politicians or their brand of politics from TN in this dicussion.Their brand of politics is despicable and condemenable, but the lack of an alternative in the state is the reality. They are hardly representative of the people of that state(that is true for every Indian state or even India).

    One of the bloggers who seems to be from the North seems to have a refreshingly honest take on this issue (AN EXCEPTION TO THE RULE). For many of these guys here who seem to think otherwise take a look at this

  27. asbeg Says:

    rajeev, you wrote a splendid clipping! it’s a great thing he mentioned that nov 01 was the golden jubilee-you upgraded my gray cells. 75% I agree with you.
    the cons were u shouldn’t mention Orrisa in ur wish list. In my opinion, I didn’t like the people; just like the BIMARU states. Also, the 4 states you mentioned that karnataka is my favourite.

    Alhamdulilah, i have travelled the whole south, but i found that Karnataka, especially bangalore, is polluted a lot. i have been a resident there some months ago. to my dismay, I found that it is quite different from other south regions- it has also become a BIMARU state and it has lost its cultural flavour. the ethics and etiquettes are almost like the north. drop karnataka and add pondicherry to your list. Go there, you will love it!

  28. pulikeshi Says:

    >> Coming to the script used, there can’t be much >>confusion between Telugu script and the Halegannada
    >>(Old Kannada) script. The latter looked similar to >>Tamil. Contemporary Kannada script (Hosagannada) was >>not around during Vijayanagara time

    Kannada script never looked like Tamil script at all. Look up the “Halmidi Shaasana” for instance believed to be the oldest Kannada inscription dating back to 450 A.D and you’ll see it looks nothing like Tamil at all; you can already see its resemblance to the modern script. Very rearly in its inception, Kannada, unlike Tamil, incorporated all the sounds of Sanskrit, so the script had to be very different from Tamil.

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