One of my all-time favourite places is the temple of Somanathapura. It is less visited than other famous Hoysala shrines such as Belur and Halebidu, in part because it lies off the beaten track. The words ‘beaten’ and ‘track’ need to be taken literally. For two-thirds of the way one drives along the (now fairly decent) Mysore road, till at Maddur one turns left to bump and belch along some thirty miles of pot-holes, craters, ditches, and worse. But whoever said that the path to the Almighty was easy? For at journey’s end lies this jewel of a temple, with no worship or worshippers, and with its exquisite sculptures still more-or-less intact.
Halfway between Maddur and Somanathapura lies the village of Malavalli. It has a very large tank, in which breed all kinds of birds, from humdrum herons to the glorious Painted Stork. The village appears fleetingly in the old Gazetteers, as a place near which Tipu Sultan’s men once fought a bloody battle with British forces. But as one passes Malavalli nowadays, viewing with pleasure its lovely landscape, the paddy fields and the ponds and the birds, who would think that a gun was ever fired in anger there?
Malavalli has been untouched by war for the past two hundred years; so, in fact, has the whole of South India. This fact needs to be more carefully pondered by professional historians as well as by ordinary citizens. For of which other part of India, or indeed of the world, could one say that two centuries have passed since the cannons boomed and the tanks roared? In this respect we South Indians have been very fortunate indeed.
The first part of India to fall under the British yoke was the east. But the region was by no means at peace. In the 19th century there were major tribal and peasant rebellions, while the first half of the 20th century saw a wave of communal riots culminating in the horrors of Partition. Then, in 1970-1, there were the troubles in East Pakistan, which saw the flight of nearly 10 million refugees into eastern India. In December 1971, there was war itself.
The last part of India to be subdued by the British was the north. The Sikhs fought on till the 1830s. So did the Sindhis. Then came the great uprising of 1857 and, a mere ninety years later, the mass killings and exchanges of population associated with the division of the Punjab. The sovereign nations of India and Pakistan were created, but the fighting did not stop. It was North India which bore the brunt of the wars of 1947-8, 1965, and 1971, as well as the skirmish of 1999.
The west of India was conquered after Tipu and before Ranjit Singh. It was in 1818 that the Peshwas were finally defeated, and the city of Puné came under British occupation. But the Pax Brittanica did not necessarily mean the coming of social peace. After the north, it was the west which was the epicentre of the rebellion of 1857. After the north, it was the west which saw, at close quarters, the battles between India and Pakistan. After the north it was the west which has witnessed the most violence between Hindus and Muslims.
Leave India for a moment, and cast your eye on some other parts of the globe. The vast continents of Africa and Latin America have seen civil war upon civil war for pretty much the last two hundred years. The bloodshed of the American Civil War (the capitals denoting the uniqueness of its horrors) is beyond the imagination of the ordinary Indian. Millions of Americans also died in the two World Wars, and many thousands more in later conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and now, Iraq.
The continent most affected by warfare in modern times is, of course, Europe. The two most horrific wars in human history were fought mostly on its soil. These were in the 20th centuries; but the Europeans had been battering one another all through the 19th and 18th centuries as well.
Wars, big and small, affect the civilian population in a variety of ways. Tanks approach them on the ground; bombs fall on them from the sky. Their young men are recruited as cannon-fodder; their young women avariciously set upon by conquerors. Shortages and scarcities abound.
Of all the regions of the world, perhaps only Oceania has been as lucky as South India. Since the early battles between the European colonizers and the indigenous communities, the massed guns have been silent there too. But they have been used elsewhere—thus Australians and New Zealanders died in their tens of thousands during the two World Wars, fighting to protect their British monarch. This massive loss of life scarred generations of their countrymen, those who had lost sons and fathers in lands faraway.
Of all the regions of India and the world, only we in the South have been exempt for so long from the horrors of war and civil strife.
Published in The Hindu, 11/11/2007