The story of northern contacts with the early peoples of South India is fascinating. It is however very dim in its details and is naturally so; being such it affords opportunity for the adventurous historians to indulge in imagination.
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are early instances of reference to the south the former more elaborately than the latter. A good part of the Ramayana deals with the happenings in the Deccan, the Tamil country and Ceylon.
Perhaps a third only is concerned with the events in the north. This epic narrates how the Lord of Lanka instigated his agents to destroy the peaceful hermitages in the forests of the Deccan. The sojourn of the hero in the Deep South and his successful war against Ravana (by the way a word equated by some scholars with Iraivan, i.e., king) incidentally mentions many things concerned with the south. It is possible that a lot of this is interpolation.
In the case of the Mahabharata at least it can be held confidently that the stories of Arjuna’s exploits in Madurai are a contribution to the story by the authors of the southern recession of the epic. We will have occasion later to show that Vijaya’s marriage with the princess in Madurai was not a part of the epic story.
But a garbled version of the marriage of Vijaya of ancient Ceylon with a Pandyan princess and also how the reference in the Purananuru to what has been called a Chera participation in the Mahabharata war was after all a local affair between the Satavahanas and the Tamil rulers in historical times and has nothing to do with the epic. The persistence of certain scholars in holding fast to the older but false theories cannot stand in the way of those interpretations being easily disproved.
Going back to earlier times one finds a total absence of knowledge of and therefore reference to South India in the Vedic and immediately post-Vedic literature. Down to the days of the Upanishads there is no indication whatsoever of northern knowledge of South India. It is only in the post-Buddhist period that some evidence in this regard is available.
The early Aryans called North India Aryavarta, i.e., the abode of the Aryans. They knew that a vast stretch of land lay in the south and they called it the ‘Dakshinapatha’. Dakshinapatha included the Deccan and extreme South India.
One of the reasons why the Aryans did not immediately after their occupation of the Gangetic plains fan out in the southern direction was the Dandakaranya stretching from the Vindhyan Mountains practically over the whole of the Deccan with the exception of the coastland on the east and on the west and which provided an effective barrier. Crossing the jungle and overcoming the dangers inherent there were not easy for even the hardy. But even this was overcome by the more adventurous among the Aryans. Panini, the Sanskrit grammarian does not seem to know the south but Katyayana, Patanjali, Kautilya and Bandhayana give evidence of their knowledge of the south.
Kautilya’s in his Arthasastra refers to the pearl fisheries of the Pandyan kingdom and Baudhyana in his Dharma Sastraic prescriptions refers to the different socio-religious practices of the southerners, contra-distinguished from those of the northerners. This Dharma Sastra writer was somewhat suspicious of the southern Brahmin who he thought was culpable of anachara (deviation from the law).
He especially referred to certain practices in the south some of which till the other day persisted and a few are still practised, for example, dining with women, eating cold rice kept overnight and marrying the daughter of one’s maternal uncle or paternal aunt. The last two practices are known as cross-cousin marriages. Baudhayana again does not approve of overseas travel, particularly for the Brahmins.
But we know of historical instances of this law being violated especially by the Kaundinya who left for Fu-nan to found a kingdom there. These are real and historical references while the Suttanipata of the Buddhist canon speaks of a rural settlement in the Assaka country in the Dakshinapatha. The earliest Aryan references to the Deccan are to be found in the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas.
The Sankhayatia Srautasutra mentions the Vedic rishi Visvamitra condemning his 50 sons to an excommunicated life beyond the Aryavartha in the south and referring to them as the Dasyus, an expression which includes the Sabaras, Pulindas and the Andhras. The Aitareya Aranyaka speaks of the Caeras as the Cherapada.
Katyayana perhaps of the 4th century was a grammarian who supplemented Panini and possibly for the first time in literature referred to the Cheras, the Cholas and the pandyas. These were early and dim glimmerings of Aryan knowledge about the south.
The Asokan edicts which mention not only the Chera, Chola, Pandyas but also the Satiyaputras (in north-western Tamil country) and the Tambaparmi (Ceylon) are the first instance of North Indian epigraphic reference to the south. Megasthenes who stayed in the court of Chandragupta Maurya also mentions the Pandyas and this is surely the earliest foreign reference.