Centre for South Indian Studies

Prof K.A. NILAKANTA SASTRI ( 1892 – 1975 ) The Indian Indologist who over saw the establishment of Department of Indian Study in the University of Malaya

The Indian Indologist who over saw the establishment of Department of Indian Study in the University of Malaya. Prof K.A. NILAKANTA SASTRI

(compiled using various references in web by  Ch Kalyanachakravarthy Research Associate with help of Sri Anirudh )


Born on August 12, 1892 into a Telugu Niyogi family in the Tirunelveli district, Sastri pursued History from Hindu College, Tirunelveli. Later, secured an MA degree from the renowned Madras Christian College in 1913.

From 1913 to 1918, he worked as a lecturer in the Hindu College, Tirunelveli. After a brief two-year stint as History professor in the newly-inaugurated Banaras Hindu University (BHU), he was appointed as Principal of Meenakshi College, Chidambaram. From 1929 to 1947, Sastri served the University of Madras as a Professor in Ancient Indian History and archaeology. Through the span of these two decades, Sastri’s scholarship fetched him worldly acclaim. He became a veritable colossus in the study of South Indian history, and his reputation only enhanced after his retirement from the University of Madras. He served as Professor of Indology in the University of Mysore from 1948 to 1956, and in 1953 was also invited to visit Malaya to oversee the development of the Department of Indian studies in the University of Malaya.  In 1959, he was a Visiting Professor in the University of Chicago, USA. Taking note of his prolific contributions towards Indian history writing, Professor Sastri was awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan in 1958.

Sastri wrote as many as 150 research papers and 22 books. He nurtured a deep interest in South Indian political history, and wrote extensively on the cultural ties between South India and South-east nations. In fact, he passed away in 1975 as an Honorary member of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Professor Shastri’s academic contributions need to be located in the political context in which he operated. South India, in the early decades of the twentieth was witnessed significant political developments that shape the contemporary situation in the region as well. In the 19th century, British writers like F.W. Ellis and Bishop Robert Caldwell wrote essays constructing a folk identity for non-Brahmans, projecting them as inheritors of a ‘buried Dravidian culture’. Fault-lines between Brahmins and non-Brahmins only deepened with the onset of the 20th century. With the national movement stirring up the populace, a parallel movement exhorting an indigenous Tamil identity gained currency in South India.

With EV Ramaswamy Naicker exiting the Congress in 1925 and initiating the self-respect movement, divisions had reached a crescendo. One decisive factor underpinning these ruptures was (and continues to be) a skewed perspective of history highlighting Tamil culture as entirely indigenous, having no connections whatsoever with North Indian (Brahmanical) culture. Professors like Shastri courageously combated such divisive theories, and brought the numerous connections between South Indian and North Indian cultures.

Not that Sastri was not swayed by political compulsions. In the early stages of his career, Sastri- echoing the general impulse of his times- argued for a distinct Tamil culture. However, he later significantly diluted his statement, claiming that the most striking feature of the Sangam Age was its ‘composite quality’ which was the ‘result of two originally distinct cultures, best described as Aryan and Dravidian’. By the 1940s, he further asserted that ‘Sanskrit is the pivot of our whole culture, and Tamil is no exception to the rule’. This way, he resolutely stood his ground inspite of the political situation that shrouded his career.

Nilakanta Shastri, despite setting such lofty standards of scholarship, had his own limitations. His identity as a Brahmin may have shaped his historical outlook, bringing an element of bias into his academic works. Noboru Karashima notes that ‘as a Brahmin, his inclination was to emphasise the role of North Indian and Sanskrit culture in the development of South Indian society’.





  1. Singaravelu (1982). “Obituary: Professor K. A. Nilakanta Sastri (1892-1975)”. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. 55(1): 94. JSTOR41492918.

The Modern Review. Prabasi Press Private, Ltd. 1975. p. 22.

Rahman, M. M. (2006). Encyclopaedia of Historiography. Anmol Publications PVT LTD. p. 346. ISBN 81-261-2305-2ISBN 978-81-261-2305-6.

“Famous Alumni”. Alumni Association of Delhi and North India,Madras Christian College. Retrieved 6 November 2009.

S Ganesan, ed. (1971). Professor K. A. Nilakanta Sastri felicitation volume: in commemoration of his 80th birthday. Prof. K. A. Nilakanta Sastri Felicitation Committee. pp. About Section.

Journal of Indian history, Volume 53. Dept. of Modern Indian History. 1975. p. 350.

Muthiah, S. (19 April 2004). “High school to university”. The Hindu: Metro Plus. Archived from the original on 13 December 2004. Retrieved 12 November 2008.

“History”. Department of History, University of Madras. Archived from the original on 22 April 2008. Retrieved 7 September 2008.

Sreedharan, E. (2004). A Textbook of Historiography, 500 B.C. to A.D. 2000: 500 BC to AD 2000. Orient Longman. p. 462. ISBN 81-250-2657-6ISBN 978-81-250-2657-0.



  1. https://historicalindia.org/article/k-a-nilakanta-sastri
  2. Professor K.A. Nilakanta Sastri (1892-1975), by  Singaravelu, pg.[1], Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society
  3. Sectional Presidents Address: Dakshinapatha: Where does the path lead us, by Ganapathy Subbiah, pg.[51-56]
  4. A Concise History of South India: Issues and Interpretations, by Noboru Karashima, pg.[xvii], Oxford University Press