Coromandel: A Personal History of South India

Written by Charles Allen
Review by Charlotte Wightwick

Coromandel (a corruption of the Tamil Cholamandalam, after the Chola kings who ruled southern India for centuries) was the name given by European traders to India’s south-eastern seaboard. In this book, Charles Allen explores the history of southern India from the earliest times, piecing together genetics, archaeology, mythology, linguistics and historical sources to provide an overview of the region. The book provides an absorbing introduction to southern India, focussing especially on its diversity of religious beliefs over many centuries.

Like all narrative history covering a large sweep of time, Allen has had to be highly selective about what he includes. Although understandable, this can be frustrating; the existence of highly sophisticated medieval astronomers and mathematicians who invented calculus is mentioned solely as an aside in the last chapter, for instance. Also challenging are Allen’s lengthy digressions into the historiography of his work. The ‘Endnote’ does, perhaps, explain the author’s motivation, setting out the political and religious sensitivities of some of his claims. However, at times this does makes the main historical narrative difficult to follow for a general reader wanting an introduction to the subject. Despite this, Coromandel is a fascinating and intriguing overview of Southern India’s history and culture.