CARNATIC, or Karnatak (Kannada, Karnata, Karnatakadesa), a name given by Europeans to a region of southern India, between the Eastern Ghats and the Coromandel coast, in the presidency of Madras. It is ultimately derived, according to Bishop Caldwell (Grammar of the Dravidian Languages), from kar, “black,” and nadu, “country,” i.e. “the black country,” “a term very suitable to designate the ‘black cotton soil,’ as it is called, of the plateau of the Southern Deccan.” Properly the name is, in fact, applicable only to the country of the Kanarese extending between the Eastern and Western Ghats, over an irregular area narrowing northwards, from Palghat in the south to Bidar in the north, and including Mysore. The extension of the name to the country south of the Karnata was probably due to the Mahommedan conquerors who in the 16th century overthrew the kingdom of Vijayanagar, and who extended the name which they found used of the country north of the Ghats to that south of them. After this period the plain country of the south came to be called Karnata Payanghat, or “lowlands,” as distinguished from Karnata Balaghat, or “highlands.” The misapplication of the name Carnatic was carried by the British a step further than by the Mahommedans, it being confined by them to the country below the Ghats, Mysore not being included. Officially, however, this name is no longer applied, “the Carnatic” having become a mere geographical term. Administratively the name Carnatic (or rather Karnatak) is now applied only to the Bombay portion of the original Karnata, viz. the districts of Belgaum, Dharwar and Bijapur, part of North Kanara, and the native states of the Southern Mahratta agency and Kolhapur.
The region generally known to Europeans as the Carnatic, though no longer a political or administrative division, is of great historical importance. It extended along the eastern coast about 600 m. in length, and from 50 to 100 m. in breadth. It was bounded on the north by the Guntur circar, and thence it stretched southward to Cape Comorin. It was divided into the Southern, Central and Northern Carnatic. The region south of the river Coleroon, which passes the town of Trichinopoly, was called the Southern Carnatic. The principal towns of this division were Tanjore, Trichinopoly, Madura, Tranquebar, Negapatam and Tinnevelly. The Central Carnatic extended from the Coleroon river to the river Pennar; its chief towns were Madras, Pondicherry, Arcot, Vellore, Cuddalore, Pulicat, Nellore, &c. The Northern Carnatic extended from the river Pennar to the northern limit of the country; and the chief town was Ongole. The Carnatic, as above defined, comprehended within its limits the maritime provinces of Nellore, Chingleput, South Arcot, Tanjore, Madura and Tinnevelly, besides the inland districts of North Arcot and Trichinopoly. The population of this region consists chiefly of Brahmanical Hindus, the Mahommedans being but thinly scattered over the country. The Brahmans rent a great proportion of the land, and also fill different offices in the collection of the revenue and the administration of justice. Throughout the country they appropriate to themselves a particular quarter in every town, generally the strongest part of it. Large temples and other public monuments of civilization abound. The temples are commonly built in the middle of a square area, and enclosed by a wall 15 or 20 ft. high, which conceals them completely from the public view, as they are never raised above it.
At the earliest period of which any records exist, the country known as the Carnatic was divided between the Pandya and Chola kingdoms, which with that of Chera or Kerala formed the three Tamil kingdoms of southern India. The Pandya kingdom practically coincided in extent with the districts of Madura and Tinnevelly; that of the Cholas extended along the Coromandel coast from Nellore to Pudukottai, being bounded on the north by the Pennar river and on the south by the Southern Vellaru. The government of the country was shared for centuries with these dynasties by numerous independent or semi-independent chiefs, evidence of whose perennial internecine conflicts is preserved in the multitudes of forts and fortresses the deserted ruins of which crown almost all the elevated points. In spite, however, of this passion of the military classes for war the Tamil civilization developed in the country was of a high type. This was largely due to the wealth of the country, famous in the earliest times as now for its pearl fisheries. Of this fishery Korkai (the Greek Κόλχοι), now a village on the Tambraparni river in Tinnevelly, but once the Pandya capital, was the centre long before the Christian era. In Pliny’s day, owing to the silting up of the harbour, its glory had already decayed and the Pandya capital had been removed to Madura (Hist. Nat. vi. cap. xxiii. 26), famous later as a centre of Tamil literature. The Chola kingdom, which four centuries before Christ had been recognized as independent by the great Maurya king Asoka, had for its chief port Kaviripaddinam at the mouth of the Cauvery, every vestige of which is now buried in sand. For the first two centuries after Christ a large sea-borne trade was carried on between the Roman empire and the Tamil kingdoms; but after Caracalla’s massacre at Alexandria in A.D. 215 this ceased, and with it all intercourse with Europe for centuries. Henceforward, until the 9th century, the history of the country is illustrated only by occasional and broken lights. The 4th century saw the rise of the Pallava power, which for some 400 years encroached on, without extinguishing, the Tamil kingdoms. When in A.D. 640 the Chinese traveller Hsüan Tsang visited Kanchi (Conjevaram), the capital of the Pallava king, he learned that the kingdom of Chola (Chu-li-ya) embraced but a small territory, wild, and inhabited by a scanty and fierce population; in the Pandya kingdom (Malakuta), which was under Pallava suzerainty, literature was dead, Buddhism all but extinct, while Hinduism and the naked Jain saints divided the religious allegiance of the people, and the pearl fisheries continued to flourish. The power of the Pallava kings was shaken by the victory of Vikramaditya Chalukya in A.D. 740, and shattered by Aditya Chola at the close of the 9th century. From this time onward the inscriptional records are abundant. The Chola kingdom, which in the 9th century had been weak, now revived, its power culminating in the victories of Rajaraja the Great, who defeated the Chalukyas after a four years’ war, and, about A.D. 994, forced the Pandya kings to become his tributaries. A magnificent temple at Tanjore, once his capital, preserves the records of his victories engraved upon its walls. His career of conquest was continued by his son Rajendra Choladeva I., self-styled Gangaikonda owing to his victorious advance to the Ganges, who succeeded to the throne in A.D. 1018. The ruins of the new capital which he built, called Gangaikonda Cholapuram, still stand in a desolate region of the Trichinopoly district. His successors continued the eternal wars with the Chalukyas and other dynasties, and the Chola power continued in the ascendant until the death of Kulottunga Chola III. in 1278, when a disputed succession caused its downfall and gave the Pandyas the opportunity of gaining for a few years the upper hand in the south. In 1310, however, the Mahommedan invasion under Malik Kafur overwhelmed the Hindu states of southern India in a common ruin. Though crushed, however, they were not extinguished; a period of anarchy followed, the struggle between the Chola kings and the Mussulmans issuing in the establishment at Kanchi of a usurping Hindu dynasty which ruled till the end of the 14th century, while in 1365 a branch of the Pandyas succeeded in re-establishing itself in part of the kingdom of Madura, where it survived till 1623. At the beginning of the 15th century the whole country had come under the rule of the kings of Vijayanagar; but in the anarchy that followed the overthrow of the Vijayanagar empire by the Mussulmans in the 16th century, the Hindu viceroys (nayakkas) established in Madura, Tanjore and Kanchi made themselves independent, only in their turn to become tributary to the kings of Golconda and Bijapur, who divided the Carnatic between them. Towards the close of the 17th century the country was reduced by the armies of Aurangzeb, who in 1692 appointed Zulfikar Ali nawab of the Carnatic, with his seat at Arcot. Meanwhile, the Mahratta power had begun to develop; in 1677 Sivaji had suppressed the last remnants of the Vijayanagar power in Vellore, Gingee and Kurnool, while his brother Ekoji, who in 1674 had overthrown the Nayakkas of Tanjore, established in that city a dynasty which lasted for a century. The collapse of the Delhi power after the death of Aurangzeb produced further changes. The nawab Saadet-allah of Arcot (1710–1732) established his independence; his successor Dost Ali (1732–1740) conquered and annexed Madura in 1736, and his successors were confirmed in their position as nawabs of the Carnatic by the nizam of Hyderabad after that potentate had established his power in southern India. After the death of the nawab Mahommed Anwar-ud-din (1744–1749), the succession was disputed between Mahommed Ali and Husein Dost. In this quarrel the French and English, then competing for influence in the Carnatic, took opposite sides. The victory of the British established Mahommed Ali in power over part of the Carnatic till his death in 1795. Meanwhile, however, the country had been exposed to other troubles. In 1741 Madura, which the nawab Dost Ali (1732–1740) had added to his dominions in 1736, was conquered by the Mahrattas; and in 1743 Hyder Ali of Mysore overran and ravaged the central Carnatic. The latter was reconquered by the British, to whom Madura had fallen in 1758; and, finally, in 1801 all the possessions of the nawab of the Carnatic were transferred to them by a treaty which stipulated that an annual revenue of several lakhs of pagodas should be reserved to the nawab, and that the British should undertake to support a sufficient civil and military force for the protection of the country and the collection of the revenue. On the death of the nawab in 1853 it was determined to put an end to the nominal sovereignty, a liberal establishment being provided for the family.
The southern Carnatic, when it came into the possession of the British, was occupied by military chieftains called poligars, who ruled over the country, and held lands by doubtful tenures. They were unquestionably a disorderly race; and the country, by their incessant feuds and plunderings, was one continued scene of strife and violence. Under British rule they were reduced to order, and their forts and military establishments were destroyed.
See India: History. For the various applications of the name Carnatic see the Imperial Gazetteer of India (Oxford, 1908), s.v.; for the results of the latest researches in the early history of the country see V. A. Smith, Early History of India (2nd ed., Oxford, 1908), and Robert Sewell, A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar), (London, 1900).
- As a geographical term, Carnatic is not now applied to the district north of Pennar.
- The Pallavas are supposed by some authorities to be identical with the Pahlavas (Parthians of Persia), who, with the Sakas and Yayanas, settled in western India about A.D. 100. Mr Vincent Smith, however, who in the 1st edition (1904) of his Early History of India maintained this view, says in the 2nd edition (1908, p. 423) that “recent research does not support this hypothesis,” and that “it seems more likely that the Pallavas were a tribe, clan or caste which was formed in the northern part of the existing Madras Presidency.” The evidence points to their having been a race distinct from the Tamils.