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Social Life in Medieval Karnataka
by Jyotsna Kamat


Historians usually give much importance to political events and the study of social life is often ignored. In a democratic set-up, it is the people who matter more than those who rule or govern. The social history of our country in general and of Karnataka in particular has not been brought out so far as an independent study except as a small part of political history. The present study of a few aspects of social life in medieval Karnataka attempts to give a clear picture of our heritage. It covers four centuries, namely, 1000-1400 A.D. and is restricted mainly to the nineteen districts of Karnataka State. It is based on path of my dissertation submitted to the Karnataka University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

However, the size of the Karnataka Empire has changed from time to time and at times it was much bigger than the present State. During the period under study, the territory or part of it was governed by the Chalukyas of Kalyani (973-1200 A.D.), the Kalachuris (1156-1183 A.D.), the Yadavas (1175-1312 A.D.) and the Hoysalas (1022-1348 A.D.). The social life of the people has evolved over a long period of time and it is therefore almost impossible to draw a demarcating line between preceding and succeeding dynasties. Before the Chalukyas of Kalyani, the Rashtrakutas were in power and the latter part of the fourteenth century saw the rise of another powerful empire, that of Vijayanagara. A few references to everyday life under these dynasties have thus become inevitable.

Traditional historical sources by themselves do not provide much information regarding social life. Literary sources --Sanskrit and Kannada, accounts of travelers, sculptures and paintings, besides inscriptions have been drawn upon for this work. Following is a brief account of the utilized sources.

It was customary for the contemporary scholars to study and write in Sanskrit, irrespective of the language of their own region. The Agni Purana, an encyclopedic work, written in the ninth century, has an all-India relevance. It encompasses much of the available knowledge of the time and deals with a variety of subjects like statecraft, elephant lore, medicine, military science, cookery and cosmetics, though dealing mainly with religious rites. Somadeva Suri of Karnataka wrote Yasastilaka Champu (c.959 A.D.), a classic on Jaina philosophy of life. It contains references to flora and fauna of the country, besides several facets of social and political life of the period. Bilhana from Kashmir was a court poet of the Chalukya king, Vikramaditya VI, and wrote his master's biography Vikramankadevacharita. Though it is written in traditional Kavya style and is mainly a literary piece, it provides readers with factual information of court life and festivities, as also outdoor activities of the king and his retinue. Not hailing from Karnataka, Bilhana could observe and note with keen interest certain customs peculiar to the region which normally would have been missed by a native litterateur. Poet-historian Kalhana of Kashmir (12th century A. D.) deals with cultural links between Kashmir and Karnataka, and describes the fashions and coinage from Karnataka introduced by king Harsha in his own country. Chalukya king Somesvara III (1126-1138 A.D.) wrote Manasollasa or Abhilashitartha Chintamani as a handbook of all knowledge for the princes. It deals with many subjects which an ideal king ought to know-from architecture to music and cookery to Kamasastra. Divided into one hundred chapters, it throws light on the contemporary life of the royalty and the nobility, fashions of the elite, their amusements and pastimes. The techniques for the manufacture of unguents as described in this work have been more or less the same as those given in the Agni Purana.

Among Kannada literary sources, Vaddaradhana (c. 900-1070 A.D.) while dealing with tenets of Jainism, gives details about social customs, education of women and refers to certain savouries which have come down to us over the centuries. The Vikramarjunavijayam or Pampabharata and the Adipurana of Pampa (10th century A.D.) give glimpses of court life, amusements and pastimes and of the educational system prevalent in that age. The Lokopakara of Chavundaraya (1025 A.D.) is a vade-mecum of everyday life for commoners and describes cookery, plant protection, medicine, perfumery and cosmetics, besides veterinary science. The Jaina poet Brahmasiva, in his Samayaparikshe, has criticized certain social customs of other religions while upholding his own. Nayasena, another Jaina, has served the same purpose humorously in his work, Dharmamrita. Incidentally, he refers to the status of women in Jainism. In the Vachanas or pithy sayings, Basavesvara, the revolutionary saint, criticises several superstitions of that age and advocates reformation. In the Ragalegalu or blank verse innovated by Harihara (c. 1185-1280 A.D.), glimpses of social gatherings, dance-dramas, fashions in dress and use of cosmetics are given. Nemichandra (c. 1100 A.D.) tells about amusements and leisurely life of the time in his Lilavatiprabandha. The Somanathacharitra of Raghavanka (1200 A.D.) speaks of certain contemporary social customs of the Virasaiva and Jaina communities and the life of courtesans. The Anantanathapurana of Janna (1200 A.D.) refers to court life, sports and amusements. In the Parsvanathapurana of Parsva, a description of dress of different strata of society is found. Choundarasa's Nalachampu tells of dress, ornaments and feasts arranged on the ocassion of a wedding. The Padmaraja-purana of Padmarasa and the Basava-purana of Bhima, both Virasaiva works of the fourteenth century, describe music and dance performances, life in the harems and houses of courtesans and the elite.

The Prakrit work Akhyanakamanikosa of Nemichandra Suri (c. 1073-1083 A.D.) throws light on the dress, food, sports, and pastimes, traders and their activities and corroborates details found in Kannada classics.

Travelers from foreign countries have left behind interesting social data. Alberuni (1030 A.D.) gives some characteristics of the South though he did not visit it. Marco Polo (1292 A.D.) traveled in parts of South India and has left authentic information. Ibn Batuta (1336-1342 A.D.) actually traveled in Karnataka and has vividly described food, dress and other social customs of the time.

Though the inscriptions are written historical documents on stone, regarding dates, deeds and donations of rulers and chieftains, one has to be cautious while using them for social history. Most of them were erected to glorify certain individuals or events, mainly donations and hence are bound to contain exaggerations. It is, therefore, necessary to read in between the lines and draw one's won conclusions. It is also an extremely difficult and painstaking work to collect a word or a line from volumes of inscriptions and sift useful information. However, part of the most interesting and authentic information comes from this source. They tell us about women who distinguished themselves as administrators, philanthropists, patrons of education and about those who faced death bravely.

Most of the sculptors and painters of the time have depicted mythological themes in their creative and imaginary art. But on close scrutiny, one will be surprised to find social themes hidden in these art treasures. Some of these exclusively depict social scenes and others form part of a story. Some are exclusively executed and some are very crude; a few are just miniatures which a casual visitor may hardly observe.

My husband, Dr. K.L. Kamat, has taken extreme pains to visit different temples of the period, some in remote parts of Karnataka and has taken extensive photographs of figures in stone, depicting social themes. He has later drawn line drawings based on these photographs. These drawings are true to the original sculptures. All sculptures do not have the same artistic value.

In order to enhance readability, footnotes have been given where found necessary. Kannada and Sanskrit passages have been translated into simple English; at times original Kannada and Sanskrit words are given in parentheses. The material has been divided under different titles and sub-titles. All the illustrations are numbered serially and relevant numbers are incorporated in the text itself.

I am grateful to Dr. G.S. Dikshit without whose encouragement and guidance this work would not have been completed. I am beholden to Dr. C. Sivaramamurti for his keen interest in my work and for his scholarly Foreword which has embellished my book.

I shall be failing in my duty if I do not acknowledge assistance from my father, Shri G.V. Burde, throughout my work and from my cousin Shri D.R. Amladi, Assistant Director of Archives, Maharashtra State, who took upon himself the sole responsibility of going through my manuscript and made valuable suggestions. I should also be grateful to my husband Dr. K.L. Kamat for all the illustrations and art work for my book.

Shri Shakti Malik of Abhinav Publications deserves kudos for the excellent get-up of the book.

(Jyotsna K. Kamat)



Full Text of Social Life in Medieval KarnatakaSocial Life in Medieval Karnataka
Foreword | Introduction  | Abbreviations
Food & Drinks | Leisure & Pleasure | Vanity Fair | Status of Women
Bibliography | Illustrations


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