The Mauryas, the Tamils and the Historian Dr. Sarkar: An Encounter

This article is part 2 of 5 in the series Facets of Dravidianism

The previous episode recounted Dr. BGL Swamy’s firsthand experience of the nature and contours of an “official” Tamil history complete with concocted names for “pure Tamil” flora. If this was the state of affairs in the science department, it was taken to an entirely different level in the History department.

Dr. Swamy narrates how his university had endowments that allowed it to conduct annual memorial lectures on different subjects. The decision as to who had to be invited each year to deliver these lectures was taken by an Endowments Committee constituted by the University officials for the purpose. For about two years, Dr. Swamy was part of the Endowments Committee formed for the purpose of disbursing the annual endowment funds for the History department. When this Committee unanimously decided to invite the renowned scholar of history, Dr. Sarkar for that year’s lectures, the university consented.

For his lecture, Dr. Sarkar had chosen a topic related to the history of the Mauryas. Dr. Swamy writes how the “pure” Tamils had both an affinity for and hostility towards the Mauryas. Their reasoning went thus: if it was shown that Tamil literature reached its zenith during the period of the Mauryas, it would automatically establish the antiquity of Tamil texts—this was the reason for their aforementioned affinity for the Mauryas. But the “pure” Tamil history also held that it was the same Mauryas who raided the Tamil country and destroyed it—needless, this was why they also bore hostility towards the Mauryas.

In Dr. Swamy’s words,

The Sangam Literature mentions the word “mOriyar” at a certain place. At another place, there’s the usage of the compound word, “nOtrukkaNNavar.” The “pure” Tamils of our time firmly believe that the first word refers to the Mauryas and the second (which means “people with one hundred eyes”) signifies the ShAtakarNis (or ShAtavAhanAs). Therefore, they argue that the verses that contain these words were undoubtedly composed during the reigns of the Mauryas and the ShAtavAhanAs—i.e., during the third and fourth century BCE.

Dr. Swamy had tried in vain to present his reasoning countering this conclusion of the “pure” Tamil history. He presents the following analogy that he put forth during the course of his arguments:

“This reasoning is strange—let’s say I write a story set in the Vedic period. If you conclude after reading my story that "Dr. Swamy lived in the Vedic period," how would that sound as a method of rational argument?”  

The consequences were predictable. Dr. Swamy was instantly branded as an enemy of the Tamils and clubbed together with the other two historical enemies: The Mauryas and ShAtavAhanAs.    

The logic and wisdom of drawing a direct equation as mOriyar=maurya and nOtrukkaNNavar=ShAtavAhanAs based purely on likeness of sound wasn’t a question that even occurred to these “pure” Tamils. Dr. Swamy further narrates how the more hardcore elements among the “pure” Tamils had unshakeable faith in and vociferously proclaimed the following as historical facts:

  • Both the Maurya and ShAtavAhanA royal dynasties belonged to the “Aryan Group.”
  • Right from the pre-Christian era, both these dynasties began to oppress the Tamils, the original “AdivAsis” of South India.
  • Both these dynasties decimated Tamil literature and culture and that’s when the Aryan-Dravidian wars began.

And then Dr. Swamy narrates how in his lecture, Dr. Sarkar methodically examined these mythological elements and conclusively showed that neither the Mauryas nor the ShAtavAhanAs came as far as the Tamil country. In the words of Dr. Swamy,

Dr. Sarkar said that the word “mOriya” denotes a people from the Konkan region, and that the meaning of the word “nOtrukkaNNavar” must be inferred from the context in which it was used.

This didn’t go down well with both the “pure” Tamils and the “warrior” Tamils. They rudely interrupted Dr. Sarkar’s lecture and displayed their protest by yelling and jeering.

“The speaker is an Aryan. His habit is to always look down upon us,” they raised slogans of this sort.

Not a single Tamilian clapped after the lecture was over. Nor did they show respect for the speaker’s scholarship. Half the audience left the lecture midway screaming curses in chaste Tamil. The other half sat there ignoring the speaker completely and conferred among themselves. Although the “pure” Tamilian who had assumed charge as the Chief Organizer of the programme shared the same feelings as his compatriots in the audience, he didn’t express them owing to the inevitability of decency that his position demanded of him. Therefore, feigning extreme courtesy, he said, “The Esteemed Scholar must visit us once again and deliver more such lectures.”

The lecture hall resonated with the cacophony of dog-barks and catcalls.

Dr. Sarkar was astonished at the behavior of the audience. But then, he smiled after learning about the background that had unleashed this behavior.

A Dinner Saga

The same night, Dr. Swamy had arranged a small dinner party to honour Dr. Sarkar. He had also invited the Chief Organizer and four other friends. One of them was a Tamil Professor; the other three had indulged in dog-barking and catcalling earlier in the day. Dr. Swamy describes how they had all arrived “akin to a cat closing its eyes and drinking milk thinking the world would be unable to notice it,” and had “donned the garb of utter humility.” Dr. Swamy personally introduced Dr. Sarkar to each person upon which they “sheepishly bared their teeth and profusely praised his lecture.”

Then the Tamil Professor “took it upon himself to launch into an impromptu lecture extolling and educating Dr. Sarkar about the glories of Tamil culture, Tamil literature, Tamil Science, Tamil Music and allied Tamil-only topics.” And then, in a bid to show off his knowledge before Dr. Sarkar as well as to test Dr. Swamy’s knowledge about the greatness of everything related to Tamil, he initiated the following quiz. The ploy behind this quiz writes Dr. Swamy, was to corner him.

“Shaar (sir), does an elephant have teeth?”

“Of course it does.”

“So you see shaar! You learnt this fact so late in history after reading science! Thousands of years ago, our Sangam poets had learnt it directly by capturing elephants and examining them! The Sangam literature contains lots of information related to elephant teeth!”

An exasperated Dr. Swamy writes, “had he spoken to me in this stupid fashion under entirely different circumstances, I’d have perhaps delivered him a tight slap. But because he was now my guest, I checked my anger.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Sarkar who had been keenly following all this “was mutely giggling.” He then asked the Tamil Professor a question in a disarming fashion.

“What is the dating of your SilappadikAram?”

“Third Century BCE!”


Fifth Century BCE!”


“Seventh Century BCE!”

“The year of your birth?”

“55 BCE!”

“You’re indeed fit enough to live in that era.”

The group clapped loudly and laughed raucously. Dr. Swamy writes how it took more than a moment for the bewildered Tamil Professor to understand what had just occurred.

“His face reddened,” writes Dr. Swamy, and "after glaring at everyone there," he made an excuse of having some urgent work, got up and prepared to leave. In an effort to pacify him, Dr. Swamy told him to stay for dessert. Now the Tamil Professor was rage personified. He refused the dessert claiming that the insult meted out to him had filled his stomach, and left the place.

What transpired next is best savoured directly in Dr. Swamy’s own words.

It was 10 at night when this happened. The Tamil Professor directly went to the Vice Chancellor’s house and gave him an adverse report of what had occurred at the dinner. “You have filled the [History Endowment] Committee with only Aryans! The Aryan members have naturally selected another Aryan as the speaker. And you endorsed their selection. Now look what has happened—a direct humiliation of Tamil itself! A massive, utter humiliation!”

I later learned that the Vice Chancellor had erupted in fury, twirled his moustache and patted his biceps.

A University Syndicate meeting was called for the very next day. It passed this resolution: “Because all the members of the Endowment Committee share the same mind set, it stands to reason that the decisions of the Committee will be unanimous and unidirectional. Therefore, it has been decided to disband the existing Committee and constitute a new Committee comprising members who have diverse views.”  




Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


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