When I started looking for books on history of South India, I stumbled upon a non-Indian scholar who devoted 5 decades studying South India and Tamil inscriptions and was conferred the Padma Shri award in 2013, one of India's highest civilian award, for his contribution towards History of South India. In a rare gesture, the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh flew to his country to hand over the award to him personally.
If I didn’t tell you his nationality, chances are your first guess would be that he was British. Or maybe American or German or French. Or even Australian or Canadian. No, none of them.
He was actually Japanese - Noboru Karashima (24 April 1933 – 26 November 2015).
Noboru Karashima, the distinguished scholar and historian of South India, was Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo and Taisho University in Japan and died in Tokyo last year, at the age of 82. A steadfast friend and admirer of India in general, and Tamil Nadu in particular, Professor Karashima has exercised a strong intellectual influence on a generation of Tamil scholars, both in Japan and India.
For five decades, Karashima ploughed meticulously through thousands of Tamil inscriptions, unpacking little-known facts about medieval South Indian society. His methods were innovative, and his conclusions challenged entrenched views. As the citation for Fukuoka Academic Prize in 1995 noted, Karashima rewrote the historical accounts on South India.
His seminal contribution to South Indian history was his use of statistical techniques to distill information from a mass of inscriptions, thereby lending his interpretations and conclusions a more sound and reliable base.
Professor Karashima was instrumental in setting up the International Association of Tamil Research, and had been its president from 1989 to 2010. He was the principal organizer of the 8th World Tamil Conference in Thanjavur in 1995.
He authored following books -
- A Concise History of South India. Issues and Interpretations
- Towards a New Formation: South Indian Society under Vijayanagar Rule
- A concordance of the names in Cōl̲a inscriptions
- History and society in South India
- Ancient to Medieval: South Indian Society in Transition
So how did this brilliant man from Japan get so intrigued by Tamil and History of South India?
As a young school boy, living in Kamakura, Japan, immediately after World War II, amidst soldiers from the United States occupation force, Karashima encountered a dreadful experience. While traveling to a school located in Tokyo, an American soldier pushed him out of a packed train. ‘The unpleasant touch and the fear,’ provoked the young Karashima to ponder, “If they are Westerners, who am I if I am not white?” The unpleasant experience and hardships faced by his family later within Japan, when they returned to Tokyo after living for some time in Korea, also provoked him to look at the ‘mechanism of society and history.’
The bigger quest Karashima had in mind was to understand ‘what Asia really is.’ To this end, he decided to compare Chinese and Indian civilizations and inquire ‘what is common that is different from western civilizations.’ He was familiar with China and decided to study India. While many in Japan at that time tried to understand India through the popular triad of Buddhism, Sanskrit and North India, he decided to look at the less studied South India, learn Tamil and understand the society.
Language and inscriptions were keys to studying South Indian history, and Karashima wanted to equip himself. In 1961, he came to Chennai or Madras, as it was known earlier, and enrolled in the University of Madras for a year. For the next two years, he worked and trained at the epigraphy office of the Archaeological Survey of India, which was then located in Ooty. He returned in 1969 for three years and spent more than half of the time in the epigraphy office. He would become the president of the Epigraphical Society of India in 1985.
Karashima had good reasons to focus on inscription-based history writing. He estimated that there were about 57,000 inscriptions in South Indian languages, while Sanskrit and North Indian language inscriptions numbered only 23,000. Most of these inscriptions had identifiable structures, repetitive terms, and contained a host of information.
Towards the last phase of his life, Professor Karashima turned his attention towards History of Vijayanagara. His book ‘Towards a New Formation: South Indian Society under Vijayanagar Rule’ marks important milestones in Vijayanagara historiography. India shall remain forever indebted to this great scholar from Japan.