Seminary XXXII: Michael Wood shows us India from England (and vice versa)

The last week of October was pretty much solidly medieval, both in the sense of being “incompatible with Orlando Bloom’s overwhelming dreaminess“, in as much as various personal things chose that time to tank and yr. humble correspondent took a little while to cope and become a functional human being again, hence the long period without posts – but it was also because almost every day of the week had some notable of the medieval field speaking somewhere or other. On the 27th October it was no less a personage than Michael Wood, I mean “television’s Michael Wood” (although television might have been surprised by the twenty-minute conversation he had with someone afterwards about manuscripts of William of Malmesbury) and he was speaking to the UCL Medieval Interdisciplinary Seminar to the title “Cholans and West Saxons: kingship and court culture in tenth-century England and India”.

Cover of Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages

Cover of Michael Wood's In Search of the Dark Ages

Cover of Michael Wood's The Story of India

Cover of Michael Wood's The Story of India

Mr Wood has a lot of interests, but his scholarly work, which is not negligible for all that he calls himself “a lapsed historian”, has focussed mainly on the reign of King Athelstan, and his In Search of the Dark Ages is still one of the more accessible starter books for an introduction to how the history of that period unrolled and has been studied. However, more lately he’s been making programmes about India, and he appears to be getting deep into research into the formation of a Tamil empire in the south of India at about Athelstan’s, or at least Æthelred the Unready’s, time, under Rajaraja (King of Kings) Chola I circa 1010 C. E. So the organiser of the seminar, John Sabapathy, had got him along to try and talk about both together. Unfortunately this ambitious project had had to be limited because of a recent stay in hospital—Mr Wood was still using a crutch to get around the room this night—and so what we got was less prepared than I think he would like to have given us. It did include some new TV footage fresh from the editing room but the sound couldn’t be made to work, so the initial introduction to the Indian milieu didn’t quite gel. Once he got going with the evidence however, he hardly had to construct anything, just to tell us what was there.

Front right of the Brihadeshwara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Front right of the Brihadeshwara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

When Rajaraja pulled together this empire from his capital at Thanjavur, largely at the expense of an older empire ruled by the Pandyans, who were in contact with Augustan Rome and had to deal with the first Christian settlers in India, he put up this little place to focus people’s minds on his new deal. Well, OK, I say little by way of wilful understatement: the Brihadeshwara Temple is over 200 ft high and has been in continuous use since its establishment in the early eleventh century. Furthermore, its lower reaches are covered in inscriptions (of which I can’t find a picture), meaning that the place has almost got more text on it than we have of Anglo-Saxon charters, a comparison Michael was well-placed to make. The records so inscribed include land-grants, royal decrees, succession notices, wills, all the kinds of document we might expect from England at the same time and a few others besides. There’s also a massive pictorial scheme of decoration in sculptures and painting, though the latter is almost all gone. It’s an incredible source just by itself, and then there’s the nearby library. The Sarasvati Mahal library houses, among quite a lot else, some 35,000 manuscripts of this and the following eras, including more of those documents and not a few books, literature and history included, written either on palm-leaves or in very solemn cases on copper plates, which I just loved because unorthodox documentary material is becoming an interest of mine. (Googling for supporting images for this post threw up the fact that the books of the library are being digitised even as we speak, which is all to the good.)

Hindi palm-leaf manuscript

Hindi palm-leaf manuscript

Poems of the sage Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya inscribed on copper plate

Poems of the sage Sri Tallapaka Annamacharya inscribed on copper plate

So there is an incredible source base here and of course much work has been done on it, of which the West by and large knows nothing, as why should it? We can’t actually study the whole world at once. I asked a local expert afterwards, and was told that starting reading on this era is Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri’s A history of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar (4th edn. Madras 1967). I hope some day to find time to read it. But, given that only half the paper was about India, what did we get from the comparisons? This is where I think Mr Wood would have liked those extra days he spent in hospital back, as he was only able to point out that there were parallels, and then encourage us to guess what they might tell us. But there are some. Consider: a newly-forged empire establishes a monumental centre of cult in a planned town to commemorate its new position. Am I talking about Thanjavur? Or Winchester? The kingship has heavily sacral overtones but actual access to the sacred is governed by a separate élite of learned men whom the king controls, but of which he is not part, and who use their own special written language: the Sanskrit-writing Brahmins or the Latinate Anglo-Saxon Church? (One difference here is that in the Cholan Empire the sacred language is not carried into documentary record as Latin is in England – the inscriptions on the temple are in Tamil.) And further parallels could be drawn between the network of lesser temples in villages and the establishment of the English parish network, and royal appropriation of cults of saints (which South India has too as long as you don’t mind chopping the definition of `saint’ a bit; `venerated holy men’ might be closer, but the structures of cult are not dissimilar).

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

The frontispiece of King Edgar's charter to the New Minster at Winchester, showing his offering of the charter itself to Christ in majesty, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course persuasive parallels are often less significant when one looks at other places and times that don’t do things the same way, and I don’t think we were getting here at any universals of new kingship and state formation or anything, but the idea of using one place as a model for the other and what that might tells us was quite intoxicating, especially given the amazing monumental continuity and spectacle that one had to play with. That’s one piece of Anglo-Saxon society it’s too easy to forget just because it’s been stomped all over with new building, but though the Brihadeshwara Temple is rather a special case, consider if you want how our reaction to it now might be like that of Wessex yeomen coming to Winchester for the first time and seeing the palace and minsters dominating the regimented and invulnerable-looking town… Not perhaps quite like this, but the game is the same I think, don’t you?

Another part of the Brihadeswara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

Another part of the Brihadeswara Temple, from Wikimedia Commons

4 responses to “Seminary XXXII: Michael Wood shows us India from England (and vice versa)

  1. Since I live in a heavily Tamil-speaking neighbourhood in Toronto, this article caught my eye. I can see Chola iconography in shop windows along my street. I’ve long been a “fan” of the Chola era.

    The comparisons with contemporary England are neat, but we must keep in mind the difference of scale. The Cholas were the centre of a web of trade and diplomacy that ranged from Egypt to China, and the impact of their art and literature on places where they traveled and traded extensively, such as Indonesia, was gigantic. Chola navies invaded and conquered Srivijaya in the Malayan archipelago.[58] Chola armies exacted tribute from Thailand and the Khmer kingdom of Cambodia. Bengal and Sri Lanka submitted to Cholas suzereignty. The English kingdom of the 11th century was small potatoes by comparison, and stuck on the margins. Elizabethan England would actually make a better comparison.

  2. I take the point about the scale, but I might quibble about England’s marginality. At the time it’s being the economic breadbasket of a system spanning the North Sea and quite a lot of Scandinavia, linked to Rome and beyond, and yes, it’s not the same as reaching from Malaya to Bengal but in European terms it’s probably the most powerful state then functioning. Margins of what? The world? Where’s its centre, then?

  3. Since this is my mother’s hometown, thought I can point you to some pictures to the inscriptions in the temple:

    Cheers,

    Ram

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