Tamilology and a German quest

Print edition : April 25, 1998

Material relating to the study of ancient Tamil literature and culture by German missionaries in the 18th century could provide new insights into the Tamil past.

THE arrival in A.D. 1487 of Pedro De Covilham, a sea-faring adventurer from Lisbon, in what is today Kozhikode on the Kerala coast, followed 11 years later by the historic landing of another Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, in the same place, opened a gateway to India for Europeans. In 1604 Heemskirt, a Dutch Admiral, landed at Sadraspatnam in the area now included in Chengalpattu district in Tamil Nadu. These visits paved the way for commercial ventures and the formation of the Dutch East India Company (1602) and the Danish East India Trading Company (1612). Travel notes and diaries of sailors and traders were the earliest documents that offered glimpses of India to the West.

The first organised attempts to observe and study the lives of the people were made by Catholic and Protestant missionaries from France, Germany and Italy who came between the 16th and 19th centuries. Although they came "to spread the message of the Gospel," many of them took a keen interest in getting to know the socio-economic conditions of the people of their adopted regions besides their language and literature. Prominent among such missionaries were G.U. Pope, C.J. Beschi (known in Tamil as Veeramamunivar) and Robert de Nobili. Lesser known among these pioneering Indologists were the German missionaries who worked among Tamils in the 18th century.

Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the first German Lutheran missionary sent to India. This sketch appeared in the book ES begann in Tranquebar (1956).-

ES begann in Tranquebar

New light was thrown on the contributions made by these German Tamilologists at a series of lectures sponsored by the German Consulate-General in Chennai and the Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, in mid-March. Addressing a press conference prior to the lectures, German Consul-General Klaus Shroder observed that studies by Germans of Tamil language, literature and culture preceded those of Sanskrit by about 100 years. In the early 18th century, German missionaries in the service of the King of Denmark came to Tamil Nadu to preach the Gospel. Grammatica Dumulica (1716), a book on Tamil grammar (printed in Halle), by Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (1683-1719), the first German Lutheran missionary sent by the Danish King, was the first major published Indological work. This was followed by a number of dictionaries, lexicons and translations of Tamil literary works published by other missionaries. The works by the German pioneers, however, did not receive the attention that they deserved and soon Sanskrit studies eclipsed Tamil studies in Europe, the Consul-General said.

Five lectures were delivered by three researchers - Dr. C.S. Mohanavelu, Reader in History, Presidency College, Chennai, Dr.Daniel Jeyaraj, Dean, Lutheran Heritage Archives, Chennai, and Dr. Thomas Malten of the Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies, Cologne University, Germany. Dr.R. Vijayalakshmy of the International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai, gave an introductory lecture on "German contributions to Tamil studies".

Mohanavelu's doctoral research led him "to investigate the origin of German Indology and trace its development over the past three centuries in a particular branch - German Tamilology" (German Tamilology by C.S. Mohanavelu, Saiva Siddh-anta, Chennai, 1993). He holds the view that although German Indo-logy dates as far back as 1652, with the arrival in India of the German Jesuit Heinrich Roth (1620-1668), effective and significant German interest in Indology came to be realised only from 1706, when Ziegenbalg arrived at Tranquebar, (Tarangampadi in Tamil) with a Royal Danish order to propagate the Gospel among the "Malabarians", as Tamils were known in Europe in those days.

GERMAN interest in India began in strange circumstances, almost by default. The Danish East India Trading Company acquired coastal territory spread over 45 sq km in Thanjavur district - Tranquebar - from the ruler of Thanjavur, Raghunatha Nayakar, in the 17th century for an annual rent of Rs.3,111. The territory was later ceded to the Danish Crown. The King of Denmark, Frederick IV (1699-1730), planned to send missionaries to Tranquebar to spread Christianity. No Danish national came forward to join the mission.

However, many people from neighbouring Germany offered to fulfill the Danish King's wish. Professor Francke, a devoted Lutheran pastor in Halle, sent a band of young German theologians to Copenhagen for training before being sent to Tranquebar. These persons were instructed "to handle there in Eastern India nothing besides the holy doctrine... and teach nothing besides it" and to write down in their diaries and letters proposals to promote missionary activities. "Their very mission, the conversion of the natives to the Protestant faith, was however, overshadowed by their interest in other facets of the native society," Mohanavelu said in his lecture.

The Tranquebar missionaries were eager to learn Tamil and study its rich and ancient literature mainly to get closer to the people among whom they had to work.

When Ziegenbalg arrived at Tranquebar he was influenced by the then prevailing opinion in Europe that "Malabarians are barbarians." But he soon found that this opinion was unfounded. In one of his letters, he wrote: "As soon as I had gained a little acquaintance with their language and could talk to them on various subjects, I began to have a much better opinion of them and when at last I was able to read their own books, I found that the Malabarians discussed the same philosophical subjects as the Savants of Europe and that they have a regular written law, wherein all theological subjects were treated of and demonstrated." Ziegenbalg conveyed his impressions to the pastor in Halle, Francke, who was instrumental in sending him to Tranquebar and requested him to have the letters published so as to remove the impression that "Malabarians are barbarians." Francke did not oblige: his reasoning was that "... the missionaries were sent out to exterminate heathenism in India, not to spread heathen nonsense all over Europe."

ZIEGENBALG and the other German missionaries maintained diaries and sent them home periodically. These diaries, together with many station registers, letters exchanged, private papers and so on, present a vivid picture of every facet of Tamil life - festivals and temples, arts and crafts, music and dance, legends and fables, rituals and religious practices, ceremonies, customs and manners, diseases prevalent among them and the medicines used, and so on. Keen observers that they were, the missionaries recorded faithfully everything they saw - from the rich riding on palanquins to the poor walking barefoot, from the laid-back lifestyle of the wealthy to the dawn-to-dusk toil of the peasants. Details about the prevalence of child marriage and sati were also recorded.

Ziegenbalg's notes contain information on the Tamils' architectural skill, besides their knowledge of subjects such as astronomy. He refers to Achara Kovai, a book of 100 poems about various ceremonies. Another German missionary, Benjamin Schultze, gives a detailed description of a wedding celebration - the decoration, the food served, the fireworks display, the wedding procession, the expenditure and the value of gifts received by the couple. Karl Graul, the first Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission in Leipzig, details how many kinds of thali (mangalasutra) were used in Hindu marriages. Information on the standard of education, the educational aids, the practice of learning by heart and the prevalence of taking down notes in palm leaf "in short hand" is also recorded.

Mohanavelu referred to a mention in Ziegenbalg's diary about a young Tamil convert named Peter Malleiappen, who accompanied Ziegenbalg to Denmark and gave a "well-sounding" lecture in German on October 26, 1714 in the presence of King Frederick IV. Mohanavelu also cited a reference to J.E. Gruendler, a contemporary of Ziegenbalg who devoted himself to learning the traditional medical practices of native Tamils and in writing a treatise, Malabar Medicus.

Among the later German visitors, Karl Graul occupies an important position. Graul, who came to India in the 19th century, became an expert in Tamil grammar. Friedrich Rueckert translated Tirukkural, a collection of two-line aphorisms in verse form, on such matters as love, kingship and ethics, into German in 1847, and Hilko Wiardo Schomerus translated numerous Saiva Siddhantha works into German.

Dr. Jeyaraj, in the first of his two lectures, detailed the literary achievements of Ziegenbalg and Christoph Theodosius Walther (1699-1741). He said that within two years of his coming to Tamil Nadu, Ziegenbalg could give a summary of 119 Tamil palm leaf books ranging from the ancient grammar tome Tolkappiam to small moral books. In 1708 he translated moral books such as Ulaganeedhi, Konrai Venthan and Needhi Venba. Since most of the lexicons in Tamil were in poetic form, Ziegenbalg set about compiling a dictionary. Within two years the dictionary had a listing of 20,000 words from the areas of theology, philosophy, medicine, history and economics. By 1712 it listed 47,000 words. Ziegenbalg's successors, Fabricius (who compiled A Malabar and English Dictionary), John Peter Rottler and Winslow continued the work and added hundreds of words to the list.

In 1708, Ziegenbalg mentioned that he had compiled a dictionary with 17,000 poetic words, presumably based on Chudamani Nigandu. The dictionary listed new meanings for archaic words. As suggested by Ziegenbalg, Tamil studies were introduced in 1711 at what is now known as the Martin Lutheran University in Halle. Heinrich Pitischau (1677-1746), the missionary who returned from Tranquebar in 1711, and a Tamil named Timothy, were the first Tamil teachers.

Jeyaraj said that Walther compiled a Tamil-Hebrew dictionary. Among his other works were Index Geographicus - Europa Pars Orbis Prima, Historia Sacra (Church history) and Doctrina temporum Indica. Another contribution by Walther was his comparative study of Tamil and Hebrew. In his second lecture, Jeyaraj dealt with German research on South Indian religion in the 18th century.

Dr. Thomas Malten gave an account of the ongoing study of Tamil language and literature in two German institutions of higher learning - the University of Heidelberg and the University of Cologne. Tamil is being taught in many other German universities. According to Malten, the introduction of Tamil Studies followed the recognition of the fact that Tamil is the only classical literary language of India besides Sanskrit, and that Tamil language and literature have developed tremendously in many branches, particularly during the last 100 to 150 years. Malten said that the Institute of Indology at the University of Cologne had been renamed the Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies.

As the lecturers pointed out, the vast collection of original source material (nearly two lakh documents), all handed down by enterprising early German Indologists and now available at Francken's Foundation Archives in Halle, and "the heaps and heaps of yet unconsulted documents" - as Prof. Arno Lehmann described it - could well hold hitherto-unrevealed insights into ancient Tamil culture and literature.

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