Tamil studies and Jaffna Tamils



The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, who started Christian missionary operations in Jaffna in 1816, encouraged Tamil studies with special emphasis on Tamil literature. They wished to know the main Tamil texts. They wanted also to upgrade the Tamil language used by the inhabitants of Jaffna. The American Mission in Boston therefore wanted all subjects taught in Tamil in the mission schools of Jaffna. Accordingly, an English department where all subjects had to be studied in English was started at Uduvil Girls’ School in 1897.

Batticotta seminary, Vaddukoddai, the flagship school of the American Mission, placed much emphasis on Tamil language and literature. The teachers were American, including G. Dashiel for Sanskrit and P. K. Haselltine for Tamil. H. R. Hoisington, a graduate of Cambridge University, who arrived in 1836, and became principal in 1845, mastered Tamil and Sanskrit, (presumably after he arrived in Jaffna.) He studied Saivism and astronomy and translated writings on these two subjects into English. He also compiled a treatise on Hindu astronomy.

The Triennial reports of the Seminary stated that ola manuscripts of Tamil works were held by elite Tamil families, but that orthodox Tamils hid their books from the American Mission. The missionaries needed these as they were looking for points of contact between Christianity and the native religions. They were able to obtain, translate and study the Skanda Purana, a Hindu religious text, but when Batticotta wanted to teach Scanda Purana in 1828 there was a boycott. the Hindus had interpreted it as a move to ridicule the text.

Batticotta taught a range of other Tamil writings, by 1830, including ‘Thirukural’ (Sangam literature) and ‘Nanool’ (Tamil grammar). Ramayana was added later. Tamil composition was encouraged at Batticotta and there were exams on Tamil studies. Batticotta set up a Tamil class in 1828 to train Tamil teachers. The Batticotta seminary, it is held, was responsible for the emergence of a Tamil intellectual elite and a Dravidian identity in Jaffna.

The American Mission had two printing presses at Nellore and Manipay dating from 1820. Ancient Tamil texts were printed for the first time in the Mission press in 1835. The Mission started a newspaper ‘Morning Star’ in 1841. It had four pages, two each in English and Tamil. Many journals were started in Jaffna thereafter. In 1853 there was the ‘Vithyatharpanam’ with two equal sections in Tamil and English. Weslyan missionary Rev Peter Percival’s Anglo-Tamil dictionary (1838) and A Collection of Proverbs in Tamil with their Translation in English, were published by the Jaffna Book Society.

The linguistic and religious awakening among the Tamil Hindus in Jaffna was largely due to the pioneering efforts of Arumuka Navalar (1822-1879). His interest was in reforming the Saivite religion, not Tamil studies but he contributed to the revival of Tamil by making Tamil the language of the Saivite revival. This was an important contribution to the development of modern Tamil studies both in Ceylon and South India, said K.M. de Silva. His school, though only for Vellala, also promoted literacy and Tamil studies. Arumuga Navalar had a profound knowledge of Tamil classical texts and published critical editions of these. He was one of the early adaptors of modern Tamil prose, introducing Western editing techniques. He adopted a simple and lucid style of Tamil prose writing, said K.M. de Silva.

Navalar had two printing presses, one in Madras and the other in Jaffna. He bought his first press in 1849.He was one of the first to use the modern printing press to preserve the Tamil literary tradition. His Madras press issued two texts prepared by Navalar, a teachers guide and a poem. These were the first efforts at editing and printing Tamil works for Saiva students and devotees. These were followed by graded readers, such as Bala Potam (Lessons for Children) in 1850 and 1851. They were simple in style, similar to those used in the Christian schools.

According to information held on the internet, Arumuga Navalar produced approximately 97 Tamil publications of which 23 were original writings. There were also forty edited versions of works on grammar, literature, liturgy, and theology that were not previously available in print, as well as 11 commentaries. Commentaries on grammars included Kandihai Urai on the Nanool. With this ‘recovery, editing, and publishing’ of ancient works, Navalar laid the foundations for the recovery of lost Tamil classics.

But much more had to be done to upgrade Tamil literature in Madras and younger alumni from Batticotta went across to help, notably C. M. Thamotharampillai (1833-1901). Thamotharampillai and Navalar were contemporaries and good friends (Hoole, 1997). Thamotharampillai learnt Tamil under his father, a first generation Christian, who had briefly attended Batticotta. Thamotharampillai also studied at Batticotta where he did a Tamil translation of the Book of Genesis from the Bible. He graduated from Batticotta in 1852.

Thamotharampillai did a stint at ‘Morning Star’ then moved to Madras to become the editor of the Tamil daily ‘Thinavarthamani’ started by the Wesleyan Mission. He also taught at Presidency College, Madras and gave Tamil tuition to high officials. He became ‘highly influential’ by 1855. Thamotharampillai got a Bachelor of Arts degree from Madras University in 1858 and passed the law exams of Madras University in 1871. He was a High court judge for Puthukkodai, Tamilnadu, from 1887 to 1890. But his main interest was in the Tamil literature available in the Madras area.

Thamotharampillai advertised for Tamil manuscripts, obtained them, edited and published them, in Madras, using his earnings to do so. He collated manuscripts, noting variant readings. His approach was philological and historical not devotional. He published around 13 Tamil manuscripts including ‘Veerasoliyan’. He published several works which were considered lost, where only parts of the manuscripts were found in olas here and there. These included 'Ilakkana vilakkam' and, more importantly, the third part of Tholkayam, the ‘Porulathikaram.’ Thamotharampillai ‘searched high and low’ and brought this manuscript to light in 1885. He handed over manuscripts that he was not using to others to process. Thamotharampillai’s contribution to the Tamil language in discovering and publishing lost manuscripts is well recognized in Tamilnadu.

It is useful to compare the situation of the Tamil language with the status of Sinhala. The Tamil kingdom was conquered by Karnataka in the 14th century. The kingdom was thereafter administered in Telegu. The kingdom later splintered into small, weak kingdoms, Madura, Trichinopoly, and Tanjore, with Madura going under the Muslim Nawab of Arcot in 1734. The language continued to be Telegu. The Nayek families, who supplied the Udarata kings in the 18th century, spoke Telegu, not Tamil. There was a Telegu literature in Madras in the 19th century and the British rulers recognized Telegu. Telegu manuscripts numbering 3335 collected during British rule were sent to Hyderabad in 1960.

The neglected Tamil language was rescued and elevated by the Christian missionaries who arrived in Tamilnadu from the 17 century .They had to learn Tamil to convert the natives to Christianity and in the process they helped to revive Tamil language and literature. The leading personalities in this were two Italian Jesuit priests, Roberto de Nobili (1606-1656) and Constanzo Beschi (1680-1742) also German Lutheran priest B. Ziegenbalg (1682-1719). They collected Tamil manuscripts, made translations and compiled grammars.

G.U.Pope (1830- 1857) a Wesleyan priest, translated many Tamil texts into English and British Civil Servant F.W. Ellis (1810-1819) made a large collection of Tamil manuscripts. Rev. P. Percival (Wesleyan then Anglican) was appointed first Professor of Vernacular Literature at Madras University in 1857. He knew both Tamil and Telegu. Rev. Robert Caldwell introduced the notion of a separate group of Dravidian languages in his A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages (1856).

The situation was very different in Sri Lanka. Sinhala maintained its status as a sovereign language up to 1815 and continued in use thereafter, throughout the British rule. Sinhala literature and Sinhala grammar were carefully preserved and looked after by generation after generation of bhikkus and laymen. Complete manuscripts of major Sinhala writings, such as Mahavamsa and Jataka pota were available in plenty in personal and temple collections in the 1930s. Unlike Tamil, Sinhala literature was not in bits and pieces and no outside intervention was needed. The Christian missionaries only had to prepare Sinhala-English dictionaries for their own use.

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