Mysore and the rhythms of its Geography

Just finished the first volume of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism. It is truly a magnificent piece of work and would encourage anyone interested not just in the tales of kings and queens and their betrayals and affairs to read once in their lifetime.

The first thing you realise when you are done reading the Structures of Everyday life is the different time scales at which human life goes on. The fastest time scales deal with fashion, politics, wars and heroes, and has traditionally been the kind of history we learn. Then comes the structures of society and economy, which change more slowly, and the kind of change that the Marxists like to worry about. As I mentioned previously, movement (of something) is what is of most interest, and it is due to this reason the these two types of history are dominant. The third type, which Braudel’s book brings about is the material life of the masses, what they ate, drank, wore, built houses with, ploughed fields or carved stones with, moved from one place to another with and how these change. These facets of life are shown to change at a very slow pace, and to a large extent these determine what is possible or not. This is due to the fact that however quickly the more ‘enlightened’ people may want the world to change, the change must happen at the level of the majority of the population, and they change very slowly and reluctantly. Only violence on a large scale can change things at the pace the saviors of the world would want it to change, as the world has witnessed often.

Consistent with my views on evolution/history, the question I would like to pose is the following: How did the geography of Mysore determine how its people lived and interacted with each other and with the world around them? What are the constraints they faced, and how did they go about eliminating them or working around them?

The geography of the Mysore region is somewhat acceptable to humans at best. Being on an elevated plateau, the temperature are somewhat tolerable. The Ghats form natural boundaries on the east and the west and the south. If any water happens to flow on the right side of the Ghats, one can hope for life to exist, and luckily, there happen to be a couple of rivers which are the lifeline of the region, mainly the Cauvery, Tunga, Bhadra and the Krishna. However, these are not perennial like the Ganga and this is a huge constraint to the development of human societies by restricting transport and agricultural options. The soil, on the whole is not the greatest unless we look at the river valleys. The land is mostly uneven and thus prevents the construction of large scale irrigation works like canals. Indeed, the Mysore region was known more for its local tank irrigation (which is why there are so many lakes in the region) than for its canal system like in say Tamil Nadu or (for a better contrast) North India. The 1881 census listed more than 20000 irrigation tanks in the Mysore Region. The fact that this region receives rain from both the forward and retreating monsoons probably encouraged water harvesting activities further.

One of the major issues with large scale irrigation works is that it cannot be done by one or two villages — it has to be planned, executed and maintained centrally. My knowledge of Mysore history is not all that great, but I would expect the growth of strong, large kingdoms (native to it, not like the Vijayanagara Empire) to be less preferred as opposed to local chieftains because the local geography did not necessitate such structures. This would imply that there were strong local governance structures, something one has to explore in more detail.

When irrigation is not there, certain types of crops are out, especially rice. In fact, if one looks at the geography of crop cultivation in this region, rice and sugarcane were almost always grown very close to river beds, with the rest of the higher regions being cropped with millets and pulses. Rice, then, would be an unlikely candidate for staple food, and the food habits of villagers even fifteen years into the past bears testament to this fact. Rice was mainly an export item, which was sent to the various ports along the coast.

Agriculture being highly dependent on rainfall, any shortage was always a disaster. This induced people to hoard grains from good years. The population itself would probably have followed the vagaries of the rainfall, with a drought causing a famine and corresponding reduction in population. However, data to support this in precolonial india is simply not present. Also, it would have encouraged cultivation of more hardy crops like millets, giving another reason why ragi and its cousins are very popular in this part of the country. Go to the coast, and people prefer their boiled rice over ragi rottis.

Iron was the only mineral of any consequence during olden times that was found in the Mysore region, and it produced some of the finest steel the world has ever seen. It was exported to Persia (probably in return for Persian horses) and swords made from this steel are supposed to be the reason of the superiority of the Persian army over the Europeans for quite some time.

Thus, it can be seen that the geography and climate play a very important role in shaping the various activities that any culture or civilization has to perform to sustain itself. It constrains the type of polity and economy that can develop. When the British arrived, they probably would have felt suffocated by the economic environment they found themselves in, and resolved to change it to suit their needs. Capitalism arrived on Indian shores like an unstoppable force, only to meet the immovable object of the daily life of its inhabitants. How they managed to get it to move to their rhythms is another story.


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