On Hermann Gundert’s life in India from 1836 to 1859 and his contributions to education and to Malayalam

In the over two decades that Hermann Gundert spent in India, mostly in the Malabar region of Kerala, he lived a life of service as a missionary, linguist, educationist, writer and publisher. He established schools for the marginalised sections of society. He mastered Malayalam so well that he compiled the first dictionary in the language.

Published : Jul 22, 2021 06:00 IST

Hermann Gundert.

Hermann Gundert.

ALL over the world Hermann Gundert may be known as the grandfather of the Nobel laureate and German writer Hermann Hesse. But in south India, most people know Hesse as the grandson of Hermann Gundert. The biographer Günter Baumann writes on Hesse:

“His grandfather, Dr Hermann Gundert, had been a famous scholar who was preoccupied with the Sanskrit and is still well-known in India today. His mother told the little boy anecdotes of her time in India…. The young boy was extremely sensitive and open to this and so this early confrontation led to a lifelong preoccupation with Indian religion.” (Baumann, 2002)

Hesse reminisces fondly about how his grandfather influenced him in his childhood. For the young Hesse, Gundert’s study room was nothing short of a visual treat, full of books and artifacts that he had collected in India. Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946 for his famous work Siddhartha , acknowledges his grandfather in his autobiography:

“Fortunately, like most children, I had learned what is most valuable, most indispensable for life before my school years began, taught by apple trees, by rain and sun, river and woods, bees and beetles,.. taught by the dancing idol in my grandfather’s treasure room.” (Hesse,1973)

Translator of Bible

“Gundert has been called ‘the Luther of Kerala’. His translation of the Bible is still used there. His dictionary and grammar remain standard works. His legacy to the Tübingen University Library contains unique material for linguists and Indologists. The University of Tübingen is known as Gundert’s University in Kerala.” (Press Release, Tübingen University dated June 25, 2015)

Gundert was born in Stuttgart, Germany, on February 4, 1814. He was keen on being a part of the system of Christian missions prevailing in the 19th century to serve people and spread the message of God’s love. He joined the lower seminary in 1827 at Maulbronn and later the Protestant seminary at the University of Tübingen, from where he received a doctoral degree in philology in 1835.

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He reached India in July 1836, that is, 185 years ago, and made a strong impact on Kerala, particularly the Malabar region. He was a voracious reader and a great scholar who developed a keen interest in learning various languages. Since Gundert worked with British missionaries in south India, he was well versed in English, Sanskrit and in most south Indian languages, including Tamil. No wonder he learnt the Malayalam language within a short time and translated the Bible into Malayalam. What is more, he mastered the language so well that he compiled the first dictionary in Malayalam. Many valuable language documents that Gundert collected are preserved in Tübingen University.

Gundert was one of the great missionaries of the Basel Mission, which was established in 1815 in Basel, Switzerland. The main motive of the mission was to spread ‘the love of God’ to one and all. It was only from 1834 that it started sending missionaries to the Malabar coast. Gundert married Julie Dubois, another missionary, in July 1838. They accepted an offer from the Basel Mission to work in Mangalore (now Mangaluru). From there, they went to Tellicherry (now Thalassery) in Kerala and established a mission station.

Rev. Gundert was among the pioneers who made educational facilities available for the people of Malabar. On May 14, 1839, Gundert started a school that taught in Malayalam in Tellicherry with 12 students. He was able to teach children from all religious groups. He also succeeded in establishing a second school in Dharmadam. When Gundert was concentrating on learning, teaching and writing Malayalam, his wife established the first female day school at Tellicherry in 1840. It was during his stay in Tellicherry that he published 13 books in Malayalam, including a translation of the Bible. As a linguist and missionary, most of his life in Kerala was spent in Thalassery.

In 1857, considering Gundert’s enthusiasm and sincere approach, the then government of Malabar made him the school inspector, the first to be appointed to that position in the Malabar region. Until he returned to Germany in 1859, he lived the life of a missionary and an educationist by establishing schools to impart knowledge to children and the marginalised sections of society, mostly in south India. Even after returning to Germany, Gundert continued his scholarly pursuits. He died on April 25, 1893, in Calw.

Albrecht Frenz, who married Gundert’s great-great-granddaughter, is an Indologist who has done research on south Indian languages. He was a German lecturer at the Kamaraj University and at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary in Madurai. He was active in translating the Tamil works Thiruvasagam and Thirukkural . He was the recipient of the Rabindranath Tagore Cultural Award (2006) of the Indo-German Society. Frenz wrote the original biography, Hermann Gundert , in German (N.P. Hafiz Mohammed translated it into Malayalam and it was published by Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, Kerala). In his foreword, Frenz writes that Gundert built on the intellectual and spiritual foundations laid by the 16 century German theologian and religious reformer Martin Luther (Frenz, 2016:6). Luther’s liberal idea that everyone had the right to interpret the holy word and live accordingly influenced Gundert during his long tenure of service as missionary, linguist, educationist, writer and publisher. The biography informs us that Hegelian philosophy and the works of Goethe also influenced Gundert. When he was a student at the Protestant seminary in 1932, he used to quote Friedrich Schiller in his speeches. He liked to practise the concept of individual freedom that Schiller enunciated (Frenz, 2016:48-49). As a student at the seminary, Gundert was not only interested in theology but also developed a great interest in philosophy and history. We find reflections of this enthusiasm for history and geography in the textbooks he prepared for students in Malabar.

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K. Balakrishnan, who also wrote a biography of Gundert, mentions that he came to Kerala after founding six schools with great difficulty in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Gundert designed the curriculum and appointed teachers for these schools (Balakrishnan, 2013:42).

Influence of Rev. Rhenius and Rev. Anderson

When Gundert visited Tamil Nadu, he got the opportunity to stay with the great scholar Charles Theophilus Ewald Rhenius for eight months (August 1836 to March 1837) and jointly study with him the classics of the glorious Sangam era. Rhenius, who was popularly known as the apostle of Tirunelveli (Frenz, 2016:36), greatly influenced Gundert. Rhenius was the founder of the German Evangelical Mission of Tirunelveli. It was from him that Gundert learned the linguistic, philosophical and philological aspects of the Tamil language. This experience helped him learn Malayalam in depth (Frenz, 2016:232).

Breaking caste barriers in school

The great Scottish missionary Rev. John Anderson reached Madras (now Chennai) in 1837, a year after Gundert arrived in India. Gundert became acquainted with Rev. Anderson’s work when he was in Madras. In Frenz’s biography of Gundert, we come across Gundert’s illuminating narrative on Rev. Anderson (Frenz, 2016:69-70) as a missionary with great courage. Gundert mentions the far-reaching social changes that took place after Rev. Anderson established his school and is all praise for his pioneering efforts at breaking the barriers of caste in schools the British administered in the Madras Presidency and in other provinces. Gundert witnessed the social revolution Anderson ignited by admitting students belonging to all castes in his school. Given below are some of Gundert’s observations on this issue in a letter he wrote to his father in Germany. It was originally published in Frenz’s biography. It is interesting to read what one great missionary and educationalist of that time had to say about his contemporary who transformed the education scenario of south India and strengthened the intellectual culture of the region with a Christian perspective. (Thanks are due to Sunil Mathew Paul, an alumnus of Madras Christian College, for translating a valuable part of this letter into English exclusively for this article):

“Three Dalit boys, whose religious identities were not easily conspicuous by their appearance, joined a school in Madras run by Rev. Anderson in October 1838. However, their classmates soon got a whiff of it and put pressure on him to oust the three from the school. But Rev. Anderson stood his ground even after about a third of the 277 boys left the school in protest. Though those students who were not able to digest Rev. Anderson’s progressive ideas managed to join another school, the cream of the group eventually rejoined Rev. Anderson. Thanks to Rev. Anderson’s rigid stand against caste-based discrimination, all schools in Madras, including government-run ones, opened their doors to students from all social backgrounds. As an educationist, Rev. Anderson could instill in his students a deep sense of far-reaching and enduring inner purity through exalted love and his iron will, and his tireless dedication to the newly-enlightened is especially noteworthy.” (Frenz, 2016:70-71)

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Role in Malabar’s progress

“... we [the Basel Mission] do the utmost in our power to establish primary schools in all our churches so that even the poorest and most ignorant may be brought up in all the nurture and a domination of the Lord and may receive that amount of education that will enable them to read and understand the word of God and to became intelligent members of their churches.” ( Harvest Field , 1895:3)

When we objectively study the history of the Malabar region, we understand that it was the missionaries who transformed it by developing educational and health facilities. Moreover, they ushered in social and economic change by training thousands of people in skills such as the making of tiles. The overall progress made in Malabar area is quite palpable after the arrival of the Protestant evangelical mission of Germany, that is, the Basel Mission, which had established its presence there by 1834. Through school education, it uplifted the culture of the people. By establishing hospitals, it improved the health care system and through socialisation, it eradicated the caste system. Since the Basel Mission in Malabar was able to develop a skill-based labour force, the marginalised could elevate their status in society. The manner in which the missionaries of Basel dealt with the social and economic issues of the day gave people some hope that they could free themselves from the clutches of the caste system. Many people from the marginalised sections of the society embraced Christianity. They felt that after conversion, they could walk on the road without being under the control of the so-called upper-class people (Gopalakrishnan, 2010:508). The churches the mission established were instrumental in creating progress in social, cultural and educational fields.

Fedrick Sunil Kumar, who has done research on the Basel Mission’s missionary work in Malabar and South Canara, observes: “The Basel Mission had a short span of activity in many areas of Malabar promoting educational institutions. While laying special emphasis on religious and spiritual matters, the society also took secular aspects of life seriously. It thus worked intensely in the field of education, literature, medicine, industry and agriculture and in a number of these fields the society was the pioneer in Malabar. Its emphasis on compulsory education and the establishment of schools in every congregation was a novel idea in the field of education. The Basel Mission provided equal educational opportunity for both boys and girls.” (2006:157)

The 64th report of the Basel Mission has references to the importance of schools in changing the mindset of the people to the ethical and religious dogmas of Christianity (1904:1). The educational system of the Basel Mission eventually became a model for the British in south India. The Basel Mission, which focussed primarily on elementary education, started many boarding and day schools in the Malabar region. Its work in the field of education was a breath of fresh air for girls. Since they received training in sewing, writing and knitting, they were able to walk free with their heads held high.

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The Basel Mission took a practical approach and established Anglo-Malayalam schools in Calicut (now Kozhikode), Tellicherry, Kannur and Palakkad. They also started training schools for teachers. It was in Tellicherry that the Basel Mission’s first school of training was established. The mission started an industrial school to equip poor people with skills in carpentry, welding, and so on.

Besides providing local people with employment, the printing press was instrumental in propagating Christian beliefs. The missionaries were able to strengthen Malayalam by printing and publishing many religious, and other, works in the vernacular. We cannot afford to overlook Gundert’s role in this context. It was he who set up the lithographic press in Tellicherry. Keralopakari , the magazine of the mission, was printed here. It carried news other than religious matters, having columns on agriculture, education and world affairs. S.D.L Alagodi in the first volume of The Oxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity (2012:78) writes:

“Besides establishing churches in all these South and Southeast Asian countries, the Basel Mission is engaged in educational, medical, and other social and philanthropic activities, including the development of local languages and literature. In south India, the Basel Mission is known for its tiles and textiles industries established in order to improve the social and economic condition of the people. Unlike many other missions, the Basel Mission has striven to create a casteless Christian community in the caste-ridden society of India.”

Even though the mission built factories, printing presses, knitting units, textile and small-scale industries, its main focus was on school education. Among all the Basel missionaries in Malabar, Gundert stands tall as one who established the mission’s work in the form of churches and educational institutions.

Contribution to Malayalam

“Gundert left behind a substantial body of work in German, English, Malayalam, and Tamil. His great talent extended over remarkable range of specialised fields. Although he came to Kerala as a missionary, he is remembered today mainly for his literary contributions.” (The Oxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity , Vol I, 2012:291)

Gundert wrote Paathamala (1860) to guide children on the path of ethics, a work that contains both prose and poetry. The Malayalam works available in that period were his main source of inspiration . Other than the textbooks for languages, he wrote historical works such as Keralolpathi (1843) and Lokacharithra sastram (printed between 1849-51), in which he tried to summarise the history of the world. Kerala pazhama (1868) was a work in which he highlighted the history of the people in Malabar. Malayalarajyam (1879) is considered the first book on geography. Pazhmacholmala published in 1845 contains Malayalam proverbs relating to Christianity. His Malayalam grammar book and Malayalam-English dictionary (published in 1872) were landmark works. He translated four gospels from the Greek language. Malayala Bhasha Viyakaranam (1851), Rajyasamacharam (1847) and Paschimodayam (1847) were his other contributions to the language. In the preface to his Malayalam-English dictionary, Gundert wrote: “The materials for this work have been collected during more than twenty-five years’ study of the language. The words have been taken from all available sources, from the lips of speakers of all ranks, castes and occupations, from the letters and records of many different districts, and from the writers in prose and poetry of every age.” (1872:3)

The historian A. Sreedhara Menon discusses in detail Gundert’s contribution to Malayalam in his workKerala History and its Makers (2008 ). He observes that Gundert spent most of his time on the development of the Malayalam language and literature and on the education of the poor.

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In his essay “Cultural Logic of Dictionary-Making: An Analysis Based on Hermann Gundert’s Dictionary”, Anoop V. says: “Gundert’s Malayalam-English dictionary is the earliest dictionary of Malayalam language, which is prepared in a scientific manner and attained acclaim in scholarly discussions. Along with being helpful to the missionaries, the pain and care that the lexicographer had taken in the collection of words and its arrangement is well commended.” (Translation Today, 2014:157)

Scaria Zacharia and Frenz evaluate Gundert’s works: “He is famous for a systematic, scientific approach to cultural phenomena. So he is praised as a pioneer of disciplines like Kerala History and Malayalam folklore.” (1993:15)

The government of Kerala portrays the life and works of Gundert on its website on Kerala culture thus: “In 1815, a protestant mission known as the Basel Mission was established with headquarters in Switzerland. India was an important centre of its activities. The Mission began functioning here at a time when caste discrimination was at its height. The Gundert couple had moved to Travancore in October 1838. They came to Illikunnu in Telicherry district in April 1839. The house where they stayed later came to be known as Gundert Bhavan. It was from here that he made great contributions to Malayalam language and literature. All his children including Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse’s mother were born here.

“Though missionary work was his main aim, Gundert possessed a passion for language and literature. He spent much time for Malayalam. Some of his important works include Polukarp charitam , Smaranavidya , Manushya hrudaym , Christusabha charitam , and translation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into Malayalam - Sanchariyude prayanam . He had more than fifty works to his credit; these included diverse disciplines such as religion, history, science, language, literature, etc. By the time he returned to Germany in April 1859, he had spent nearly two decades in Kerala. A Malayalam-English dictionary which he began compiling in Kerala was completed in Germany.”

Jojan Job is an assistant professor, Department of Philosophy, Madras Christian College (Autonomous), Chennai.


Balakrishnan , K. (2003): Hermann Gundert, Calicut: Mathrubhumi Books.

Baumann, Günter (2002): “Hermann Hesse and India”, November, http://www.gss.ucsb.edu/projects/hesse/papers/baumann-hesse-and-india.pdf

(1895): “Basel German Evangelical Mission”,Harvest Field, Vol. VI, August, Mysore: Wesleyan Mission Press, p. 315.

Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala, \http://keralaculture.org/hermann-gundert/638

Sunil Kumar, N.I., Fedrick (2006): “The Basel Mission And Social Change - Malabar And South Canara: A Case Study, 1830-1956”, unpublished thesis, University Of Calicut.

Frenz, Albrecht (2016): Hermann Gundert, translated by N.P. Hafiz Mohammed, Tirur: Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University.

Gopalakrishnan, P.K. (2010): Keralathinte Samskarika Charitram , Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala Bhasha Institute.

Gundert, Hermann (1992): Keralolpathiyum Mattum, Kottayam: D.C. Books.

Gundert, Hermann (1872): Malayalam and English Dictionary, Mangalore: Basel Mission Press and Tract Depositary.

Hedlund, Roger E., Jesudas M. Athyal, Joshua Kalapati and Jessica Richard (eds) (2012):TheOxford Encyclopaedia of South Asian Christianity, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Hesse, Hermann (1973): Autobiographical Writings, edited with introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski, translated by Denver Lindley, Toronto: First Noonday printing.

Kurup, K.K.N. and K.J. John (1993): Legacy of Basel Mission and Hermann Gundert, Calicut: Gundert Death Centenary Committee.

Menon, A. Sreedhara (2008): Kerala History and Its Makers, Kottayam: DC Books.

Scaria, Zacharia and Albrecht Frenz (eds) (1993): Dr Hermann Gundert and Malayalam Language, Changanassery: Centre for Kerala Studies.

V., Anoop (2014): “Cultural Logic of Dictionary-Making: An Analysis Based on Hermann Gundert’s Dictionary”, Translation Today, Volume 8, Number 1.

(1904): 64th Report of Basel Evangelical Mission Society for the year-1903, Mangalore: Annual Reports of Basel Evangelical Missionary Society in South Western India.

Press Release (2015): Tübingen University, Tübingen, June 25.

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