Social Formations of Early South India

Item Code: NAF918
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Rajan Gurukkal
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9780198089391
Pages: 368
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 350 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

This book presents and incisive analysis of social formations in present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala from pre-historic time to early medieval period. It examines the transformation from agro-pastoral to agrarian social formation by exploring the economy, technology, and historical processes of state formation in the two regions. The Introduction establishes the theoretical basis of ‘social formation’ and reviews the major debates surrounding social change in south India.

This volume will interest students, scholars, and teachers of ancient and medieval history, archaeology, and sociology, particularly those concerned with south India.


About The Author

Rajan Gurukkal is the Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.



This volume consists of revised versions of my essays, written over the last two decades and mostly published in their original form in certain national/international journals or books. The essays deal, broadly, with the socio-economic and political processes of the Tamil South in the period from the earliest to the early medieval. ‘Thematically and spatio-temporally interconnected, the essays pertaining to aspects such as economy, technology; social relations, institutions, agrarian structure, political processes, state, writing, and so on, have culminated into this volume.

The essays are grouped into four sections: Historiography and Method, Early Social Formations, Social Transformations, and The New Social Formation. The first section seeks to delineate aspects such as sources, historiography, and methodology. The second group of essays deals with the various aspects of the ancient society from its pre-historic beginnings, traced from the archaeological relics in the form of cave paintings and etchings of a new rock shelters in the southern Western Ghats as delineated in the first essay. The rest of the collection examines human development at a later phase represented by the tribal social formation in the forested environment of the Tamil macro region as understood in the light of allusions in the ancient Tamil heroic poems, the productive forms and forces of change in the ancient society, the characteristics of its economy, their limiting impact on plough agriculture, the spread of writing and literacy; the features and dynamic of the ancient social formation, and the discursive processes in it, as construed using all the available sources in the perspective of people and landscape.

The third section includes essays that probe the processes of transformation of the social formation. Starting with the discussion of the transaction from the ancient to early medieval in the Tamil macro region with a closer look at the historical processes of the formation of the state, the socio-economic processes of the transition from clan and lineage through hereditary occupations and caste, and the transformational implications of the spread of writing have also been discussed. There is an essay specifically dealing with the series of radical transformations of the various aspects of the social formation of ancient Kerala, which deserve the prefix ‘great’.

The final section covers the structural and institutional features of the new social formation, namely, the agrarian social formation into which the ancient, that is, the agro-pastoral social formation dissolved itself. The first essay delineates the temple that was the pivotal institution of the agrarian social formation in the Tamil South as well as Kerala. The next essay, examining the experience of Kerala, takes on the historical antecedents of the birth of the caste system, the most crucial institution that subsumed the relations of production and strategies of labour realization of the agrarian social formation. ‘The next essay through a case study of the Pandya Country; deals with the instituted character of the reservoir system of irrigation and its technology, a significant aspect of the agrarian social formation.

‘The essays despite their temporal disparateness and thematic divergence do converge on the central thesis of social formation that has been the methodology and framework of understanding for me all these years. They are independent individually but remain interconnected and amenable to ordering with a sense of sequence about the historical social development, thanks to their methodological consistency. Some of the properties of these essays are their integration of multiple sources and application of analytical tools like structuralism and semiology for heuristic purpose, social theoretical approach, systemic understanding, explanatory nature, thrust on the characterization of interfaces, and exploration of forces and processes of structural transformations. Each essay being a highlight of its own topic but pursued along the track of social formation constrained its author to discuss ‘the part’ as a fraction of ‘the whole’, notwithstanding the defect of repetition. The agro-pastoral social formation being the ‘whole’ for several essays, the ‘part’ discussed as the topic in each had to be shown as ‘a part of the whole’ for leaving every essay an accomplished stand-alone piece. A collection of such free-standing essays suffers from the fault of repetition ad nauseam. I, therefore, crave for the indulgence of my readers.

These essays are relevant in the context of representation of South Indian history catching up and the course on ‘social formation’ being introduced both at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels as a widely addressed theme of explanatory history; They cater to the academic requirements of students graduating in the discipline, and teachers as well as researchers engaged in South Indian history. That there is no book available on social formations in early south India as yet, is a reason worth stating by way of justification for the volume. I shall be delighted if it succeeds in serving the purposes of its readers.

I am indebted to many for my studies. M.G.S. Narayanan, who taught me what research means; R. Champakalakshmi, who guided my studies; and Romila Thapar, who showed me the depth of historical explanation, are the foremost among them. I acknowledge my indebtedness to each one of them. I am grateful to Raghava Varier, my sole research mate and Kesavan Veluthat, my critic friend who patiently went through the draft and helped improving it. I put on record the benefits of the discussions I had with Y. Subbarayalu, Noburu Karashima, Shereen F. Ratnagar, K. Rajan, and K.N. Ganesh. Bindu, O.M. helped me out with checking the diacritical marks throughout the manuscript. Jalaja has been the absent cause of all the research I have done and Krishnaraj its destination. I owe the professional quality of the book to the editors of the Oxford University Press. My gratitude to them is beyond words.



The essays in this volume overtly endeavour to depend on the theoretical framework of social formation, in identifying and piecing together meaningful clues from the sources so as to the character of the societies under review. According to the framework, understanding historically existing landscapes and people, starts with inquiries into the material processes of social appropriation of nature and the social processes of distribution of the material appropriated. This basic understanding helps us inquire into the level of technology and nature of social relations against the background of which we are able to make sense of the political ideas, institutions, and cultural practices of the people. Social formation is, therefore, the structured and interconnected of a people’s relations, socio-political institutions, customs, rituals, cultural practices engendered by a given level of technology and of subsistence and survival in time. The primacy of the economic is insisted upon as determinant ‘in the last instance’ but to be the least about it. The concept of social formation is not new to Indian historiography, thanks to the book by R.S. Sharma, which conceptualizes historical processes of ancient Ganga valley, ingenuously harping on historical materialism.’ Conceptualization of formation processes of ideas and institutions in the Ganga valley is familiar too, thanks to the studies by Romlia Thapar, creatively engaging the riches of social theory.

Social Formation Theory Social formation owes its theory to historical materialism, which makes the expression technical, signifying Marx’s theory of the stages of social development as well as a society in any of the stages in time. Marx used the term ‘social formation’ (gesellschafisformen) first in his economic manuscript to mean society as a system constituted by the economic, political, and ideological aspects in their interconnection. Marx and Engels used the term to designate society in terms of its mode of production. Social formation is, therefore, generally defined as a concept of the social whole consisting of the same structural levels that figure as part of the characteristics of the mode of production. Historical materialism, the actual ‘science of history’ constructed through the use of Marxist categories of knowledge derived through dialectical materialism, is distinct for the teleology of social developmental sequences and the dynamic of change unfolded through the theory of mode of production. Mode of production may be briefly defined as a systemic combine of forces and relations of production presupposing given labour processes and institutional forms of appropriation. Broadly, it means a combination of structures or levels or instances such as the economic, juridico-political, ideological, and theoretical, determined ‘in the last instance’ by the economic. The theory of mode of production presupposes three things: the economic base, the juridico-political superstructure, and the ideological super-structure. The economic encompasses the social strategies of subsistence and survival, and the ideological, the entire gamut of cultural aspects including religion. Base superstructure correlation and the schema of sequential stages, often made undeservedly rigid, the former to the extent of mistaking the analogy and the latter, the illustration, for theory.

Any attempt at defining the concept of social formation should begin with the oft-quoted passage in Marx’s preface to The Critique of Political Economy which is the ever best expression about it. Marx says,

An aggregate of human beings constitutes a society when, and only when, the people are in some way related. The essential relation is not kinship, but much wider; namely, that developed through production and mutual exchange of commodities. The particular society is characterised by what it regards as necessary; who gathers or produces the things, by what implements; who lives of the production of others, and by what right, divine or legal cults and laws are social by-products; who owns the tools, the land, sometimes the body and soul of the producer; who controls the disposal of the surplus, and regulates quantity and form of the supply. Society is held together by bonds of production.

The term society in the passage stands for social formation. This is clear when he says,

In the social production of their means of existence, men enter into definite, necessary relations which are independent of their will, productive relationships which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive force. The aggregate of those productive relationships constitute the economic structure of the society, the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of the material means of existence conditions the whole process of social political and intellectual life.

The nature and basis of human relations are made clear by Engels in his remark that the most common feature of all social formations is surplus labour’ (labour beyond the time required for the labourer’s own maintenance), and appropriation of the products of this unpaid surplus labour.

Structuralist Marxist theorists endeavoured to restate the theory of mode of production by putting its science first, and its knowledgeable application as a powerful instrument of analysis primary, in order to check its uninformed usage for mechanical typological reduction. What has been to the fore by these theorists is the strength of the theory as the theory of theory It was structuralist Marxist theorists like Louis Althusser, Balibar, Barry Hindess, Paul Q. Hirst, Maurice Godelier, Nicos Poulantzas, and a few others who gave the expression ‘social formation’ a more specific thr1ical connotation. In Reading Capital, Althusser and Balibar define social formation as a ‘totality of “instances” articulated on the basis of a determinate mode of production,’ which is an explanation of complex associations in a society. They specify three ‘instances’: the economic, political, and ideological, signifying ‘practices’ as essential constituents of a social formation since they refer to basic ‘functions without which human social existence cannot be conceived.’ The economic practice refers to ‘the transformation of natural resources into socially useful products,’ political practice to ‘the reproduction and administration of collective social relations and their institutional forms,’ and ideological practice to ‘the constitution of social subjects and their consciousness.’ These ‘instances’ are themselves distinct structural levels of ‘social relations’ and ‘practices’, each of which processes a functional unity across more specific structures. Practice is central to the concept of every ‘instance’, for all levels of social existence are based on social practices, but this hardly implies autonomy of human agency. It is not the human agency that is decisive about ‘instances’ and ‘practices’, for they are relations determined ‘in the last instance’ by the economic. This is opposed to the humanist readings of Marx offered by Lukács, Gramsci, and others, which on the contrary stress the role of human agency in the history of social development.

A variety of diverse practices exists for all time in the ‘complex unity’ of any given social formation. The economic, political, and ideological ‘instances’ function as a system of interrelated and interdependent ‘practices’ and institutions as an ‘articulation’, of unified relations of domination and subordination. Althusser calls this homologous unity of distinct and uneven manners of determination, ‘structural causality’. Nevertheless, he is sure of the ‘relative autonomy’ of ‘instances’ in the case of particular social formations of any region, which have unique patterns of development, thanks to the specific historical matrix and cultural conditions of existence. While Althusser recognizes the decisive role of the mode of production in determining the nature of the social formation, he rejects the mechanical presumption that the economic instance invariably determines the exact nature of other instances like superstructures, because of the relative autonomy of each instance as exemplified and illustrated by the difference in empirical experiences across regions. He maintains that each instant has its own relative autonomy securing a place and function in the complex unity of the social formation. The ‘instances’ are invariably ‘uneven’ and consequences of contradictions inherent in the assemblage of the van of articulations are beyond prediction. At the same time the theoretically accessible link between the two and the primacy of the economic in ‘the last instance’ cannot be overlooked. Althusser’s argument is that there exists a structured hierarchy of determinations in relatively autonomous institutions and practices, and that therefore, we cannot characterize social formation as a system in which everything causes everything else. We cannot characterize it in a structuralist essentialist totality where every practice as a part signifies the whole either. Althusserian ‘structural causality’ thus makes typological reduction of social formation unacceptable for its mechanistic determinism, but not in any way by implying eclectic indeterminacy, valid.

Social relations are manifestations of concrete relations engendered by the economic practice that is realized, reproduced, and transformed through a relatively autonomous process. In economic practice, contradictions exist within and between subsistence strategies of social groups, in spite of fact that the dominance of one or the other in terms of productivity is explicit. In political practice, contradictions exist within and between relations of representation and relations of hegemony expressed in the antagonistic interests of those who effectively control the institutions of collective social organization, and the social groups within the s formation lacking such control. In ideological practice, contradictions exist within and between relations that empower and enable individuals as social subjects and relations of subjection, which restrict individuals to specific roles and capacities. Althusser emphasizes ‘the contradictions between and within the structured relations and practices that constitute human beings social subjects, and places, positions, and roles as the social space within which all human practice necessarily occurs’. In short, any social formation is ‘a complex hierarchy of functionally organized institutions or instances whose unity can be neither ignored altogether nor reduced to a single closed system.

Godelier makes a distinction between the concepts of ‘social formation’ and mode of production’. He argues that ‘in defining a social formation, one must produce a synthetic definition of the precise nature of the diversity unity of the economic and social relations which characterize a society at a given epoch.’ He prescribes the following scientific steps to produce a synthetic definition: First of all, it is important to ‘identify the number and character of the various modes of production which are found combined in a particular way within a specific society and which constitute its economic base at a specific period.’ The next step is to ‘identify the elements in the social and ideological superstructure whose origin and function correspond to these various modes of production.’ The step is to ‘define the exact form and content of the articulation and combination of these various modes of production in a hierarchical order, in so far as one mode of production dominates the others, and in some way subjects them to the needs and logic of its own mode of functioning, and integrates them, more or less, in the mechanism of its own reproduction.’

In Godelier’s formulation a social formation is a combination of more than one mode of production, of which one dominates. Any social formation therefore, presupposes at least one mode of production to be subordinate. Godelier points out that when a mode of production, whether or subordinate, is surrounded by the limiting forces of other modes of production within the social formation, its functioning necessarily differs from what it would have been, had the mode of production existed in autonomy. The argument is that any mode of production is a constituent element of a social formation and therefore, it is determined by the properties of the ensemble in which it is situated. According to him what we find in empirical research are not modes of production, but social formation, the structure of which is the result of the combination of at least two distinct modes of production, one of which is dominant and the other subordinate. He argues that it is in this way ‘the concept of social formation is most useful in the analysis of particular, concrete, historical realities captured in the real, irreversible time of given period of history.’ Structuralist Marxists like Nicos Poulantzas, Pierre-Philippe Rey, Emmanuel Terray, and Claude Meillassoux presume that in pre-capitalist social formations an alternative source of contradiction originates from the universality about the co-existence of the several unevenly evolved modes of production that are imperfectly articulated rather than integrated.” They codify the special relationship between the forces and relations of production by arguing that the former were determinants and the latter, dominant.

Poulantzas observes that it is through the study of the structure, constitution, and functioning of various modes of production and social formations, and the forms of their transition from one type to another, that historical materialism ‘has its object, namely the concept of history.’ He shows how concepts like mode of production and social formation in historical materialism are effective in analysing particular situations of regional history through the study of ‘the elemental structures and practices whose specific combinations constitute a mode of production and a social formation.’ It has been pointed out that ‘only impure social formations actually exist, and these will contain several coexisting modes of production with all their constituent levels or even several relatively autonomous fragments of modes of production.’ Poulantzas maintains that it is the dominant mode of production that confers fundamental unity on a social formation.

Pierre-Philippe Rey maintains that a mode of production is dominant within a social formation when it subjects the functioning of other modes of production represented in the social formation to the requirements of its own reproduction. Foster-Carter opines that the precise definition of the social formation therefore, depends upon one’s understanding of mode of production and articulation, that is, the exact combination of forces and relations of production or the connections among structural levels or the connection of a mode of production to a social formation or the connections among modes of production within a social formation. According to E. Terray, a social formation cannot be understood except by beginning with an analysis of the relations of production, which from its base, influencing the system as a whole. He establishes the decisive importance of productive relations by showing the crucial role that the institutional form of labour expropriation plays in the functioning of the social formation. He argues that to understand the structure of relation of production, it is necessary to begin the analysis not only from the mode of production but also from the social formation of which it is a part. Not only the economic infrastructure but also the political and ideological superstructures must be taken into account. Althusser’s application of the Freudian concept of over-determination that refers to the complex set of elements and associations in the context of causation, in fact, precludes the question as to whether the relations or the forces have primacy in social formation. Nevertheless, he maintains that in any given historical epoch, one of the three structural levels that is, the economic, the political, the ideological in a social formation, may have greater influence and determinacy than the rest.

We draw a lot of practical insights from the recuperation of the concept of social formation by Structuralist Marxists, especially Althusser and some of the leading anthropological theorists among them, done in the light of their empirical experience. There are far more theoretical insights to be drawn from the writings of Marx himself, which help deeper probing into historical social formations. Marx’s observation that at the level of features and manifestations of any social formation we see coexistence of the old and the new is an example. His contention that no social formation ever perishes before all the productive forces have developed for which it is wide enough; and, new, higher productive forces never come into being before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself, is another example. A very significant lesson that a historian has to draw from Marx is what Althusser has noted as ‘a central epistemological premise of Marx’s social theory, that is, the cognitive instance up on the difference between phenomenal appearances and the basic underlying reality “the difference between surface appearances and underlying theoretical truth”. Likewise, it is essential for a historian to bear in mind Marx’s distinction between the universality of economic, political, and ideological practices, and the variety of determinate institutional forms, which can be located historically. Re-reading Marx, we learn to avoid the mistaken notion that there exists a single institutional form within every social formation that will correspond to the European historical experience. Also we recognize that while there are differences of economic relations across social formations, there is theoretically accessible universality about the interconnection between every social formation and its set of economic relations. The point is that concrete historical social formations are composed of elements whose inner structural logic is theoretically determined, while historical processes simply break up and recombine these elements in various ways. Theoretically, the number of instances in a social formation is open rather than closed, and it is not the specifications of distinct practices thereof, which are the historian’s interest, however important it is heuristically, for the principal objective should be the hermeneutics of the structural truth. It is important that such features of the social formation are borne in mind at the time of historical analysis of a given period and place.

The central theoretical insight that the historian seeking to analyse the transformation of a social formation is Marx’s ‘primacy thesis’ that theorizes the process of one mode of production dissolving into another, impelled under the dynamic of incompatibility between forces and relations of production. Cohen observes that over a period of time the productive forces with the inherent potential go on developing as long as the relations of production are compatible. For the forces of production to develop further from the point of incompatibility, the relations of production should change. If there is an objective interest in transforming the relations of production to restore compatibility with forces of production, the capacity for bringing that change about will ultimately be brought into being. When forces and relations of production are incompatible, the relations change in such a way that compatibility between forces and relations of production is restored. The social formation cannot be more advanced than its forces of production. Similarly, the forces of production cannot be more advanced than what their relations of production can support. Forces of production in any social formation require from time to time alterations in the relations of production ensuring development-compatibility, the absence of which sets in use-incompatibility and production crisis and the subsequent dissolution of the social formation.

The historiographical advantage of the concept of social formation is its capacity to provide a framework of comprehension enabling holistic perception of history. It helps us view past life as a totality without its being compartmentalized into aspects such as the social, economic, political, cultural, religious, and so on. Althusser’s definition of ‘social formation’ as the total complex of economic infrastructure and superstructure renders plausible a very powerful framework of comprehension for understanding historical societies. It encourages us to focus on the interfaces of well- represented social systems, especially their transitional phases with greater significance, a practice not often followed in the textbooks of history The perspective enables incorporation of insights from cognate disciplines and auxiliary branches of history. There is the possibility of maintaining a better integration of historical narrative with social theory, a method that provides the discipline intellectual depth.




  Preface ix
  Acknowledgements xiii
  Introduction 1
  Conceptual Preliminaries  
  Historiography and Method  
1 Early Social Formations 23
  A Historiographic Review  
2 The Course of Social Historiography of Kerala 59
3 Semiotics of Ancient Tamil Poetics 77
  A Methodological Consideration  
  Early Social Formations  
4 Prehistoric Life in the Southern Western Ghats 95
  Interpreting Rock-art  
5 Tribes, Forest, and Social Formation 121
  in Early South India  
6 Forms of Production and Forces of Change 136
  in Ancient Tamil Society  
7 Early Iron Age Economy 155
  Problems of Agrarian Expansion in Tamilakam  
8 Writing, Literacy, and Social Formations 166
  in the Tamil South  
9 Towards a New Discourse 182
  Discursive Processes in Early South India  
  Social Transformations  
10 Social Formation from the Ancient to 205
  Early Medieval  
11 Historical Antecedents of the State Formation 224
  in the Deep South  
12 Aspects of Great Transformation in Ancient Kerala 242
13 From Clan and Lineage to Hereditary 255
  Occupations and Caste  
14 Spread of Writing in the Tamil South and 272
  Its Social Implications  
  The New Social Formation  
15 Temples as Sites of the New Social Formation 291
16 The Formation of Caste Society in Kerala 306
  Historical Antecedents  
17 Aspects of the Reservoir System of Irrigation 320
  in the Pandya Country  
  Index 340

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