Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakalatha Mukund – A Review – Part 3

Role of State and Polity 

An 16th Century Map of Madurai shows the Nayak fortresses and streets around the Meenakshi Temple

 
From 3rd to 6th century the history of Tamilakam is not known much except for the fact that a group called Kalabhras or Kalapparargal, who are described as an evil-race in Tamil works, ruled. It was during this time that Buddhism and Jainism spread in the Tamil region. Many historians note that it was during the Kalabhra rule that Silappadikaram, Manimekali, and Patinenkilkanakku were written. R S Sharma, in his Early Medieval Indian Society, rather foolishly compares the Kalabhra reign to a revolution of landless against the landed aristocracy. One can only guffaw at the extent to which the Marxist historians will go ahead to affix their personal world view into a reading of general history. 


Kalabhra interregnum was followed by four centuries of Pallava rule and this imparted to the Tamil society its distinct characteristics that are present till today including local institutions; temple based urban centres, and a strong relation with the south-east Asian nations through military, commercial and cultural exchanges. It is amusing to know that one of the last of the great Pallavas, Nandivarman II, whose rule lasted for 65 years, was a prince of the collateral branch of the family which had been ruling in Champa (present day southern Vietnam). He was selected by a college of senior officials of the Pallava capital when the direct Pallava line had died out. 

Chola dynasty dominated Tamilakam from about mid-tenth century, after the Pallava and Pandya dynasties had faded away. Chola region was called as the Cholamandalam, fancifully altered in the present as Coromandel. We still call the east coast of India as Coromandel Coast. 

These two dynasties actively promoted the local-governance, whose existence in turn pre-date any of the mentioned powers. For centuries Tamilakam had been a region of fragmented and unstable polity and because of that the local assemblies had done the job of administering the local inhabitants. It had persisted even during the Pallava- Chola rule and continued to exist post 13th century. There was a hierarchy of administrative units beginning from ur or village, nadu or sub-region, kottam or district/region, and finally nagaram or city. While the affairs of the ur, nadu and kottam were handled by local assemblies, nagaram was handled by an assemble of local merchants, since nagarams were mainly urban clusters with prime commercial importance. Mukund, repeatedly invokes the scenes of various nagarams, their cosmopolitan population having not just the Tamil people, but also families of the merchants from far away land, the different languages one could hear in the market places of nagaram. Number of nagarams increased during the Chola empire. 

There is a delicious portion of the book that explains how the markets in the nagarams were divided into kadai (shop), angaadi (markets), and perangadi (wholesale market). She explains: 
 

“The shops and markets were located on streets in the market zone which were referred to as perunteru, big or main streets. The nagaram was always associated with the big street and always referred to as ‘the nagaram of such and such big street’. To this day one can find a ‘big street’ in the central zone of most old cities in Tamil Nadu. This pattern of markets and trading can be seen even today in all major temple towns where the roads leading to the temple are lined with shops buzzing with traders and buyers.” 


I was momentarily transported to the busy Avani Moolai and Masi streets circling the Madurai Meenkshi temple while simultaneously being reminded of the Big Street in Tiruvallikeni (Triplicane), Chennai which houses the fabled Parthasarathy Temple. Books can indeed enable you to be at two places together.

The main duty of nagaram was to govern local trade. It was a link in a hierarchy of markets, linking the villages to market town, which was linked to higher order centres like the managaram and porttowns. It collected taxes, gave police protection, performed street cleaning and so on. In addition to its role as a marketing institution, the nagaram was actively involved in the administration of temples. In specific, they managed the accounts of deposits and donations made to the temple and their utilization. They also arranged various cultural programmes, much like a modern day temple committee. 

Mukund lists some curious anecdotes from her key reference material South Indian Inscriptions. She writes:
 

“A fine was imposed on the management when it was demmed fit, as happened when three nagarattar (administrators of a nagaram) of the Thillaisthanam Temple in Tanjavur district were found guilty of mismanagement of temple funds.”


Towards the end of Chola period, nagaram assembly began associating themselves with various merchant guilds, which in turn collected taxes from them. Mukund contends that Nagarams survived well into the 16th century because of such association even as ur, sabha and nadu disappeared under Vijaynagar rule.
Quick Links to Other Parts –

  1. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 1
  2. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 2
  3. Merchants of Tamilakam: Pioneers of International Trade by Kanakaltha Mukund – A Review – Part 4
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