Making Tamil  a classical language:
Fr. Thaninayagam’s contribution


By Rev. Fr. Thamil Nesan

The World Classical Tamil Conference is scheduled to be held from 23rd to 27th of June, 2010, at Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu fulfiling the wishes and aspirations of Tamil scholars, not only from Tamil Nadu but also from all over the world. Several Tamil scholars, linguists and Tamil patriots from around the globe will participate in this great event.

At this memorable occasion, it is very much appropriate to remember gratefully Rev. Prof. Thaninayagam (1913 – 1980) who toiled hard and dedicated his entire life to make Tamil Language, Tamil Literature and Tamil Culture better known and appreciated in the world.

Today, Tamil is one of the few Indian languages taught in many universities of the world. Scholars, who are not of Tamil origin, have undertaken Tamil research. International conferences on Tamil studies are conducted frequently in many countries. Tamil festivals are celebrated in many parts. All this was possible, thanks to the strenuous efforts by one individual: Xavier S. Thaninayagam, a Catholic Priest from Jaffna.

The continuous requests for a Classical Status for Tamil language have been turned down in India for several years, for political reasons, and it is only in 2004 that the central government of India made Tamil a legally recognized classical language of India. Tamil scholars and Tamils were overwhelmingly rejoiced at this announcement, although it came too late. The following languages are generally taken to have a ‘Classical’ stage in the world scenario – Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Sumerian, Sanskrit, Chinese and Arabic. Now Tamil finds itself on that list.

Internationally famed linguist George L. Hart, the Professor of Tamil at the University of California, U.S.A., since 1975 and the current Tamil Chair at that institution, says, "To qualify as a classical status, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.  Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements.  It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich. Let me state unequivocally that, by any criteria one may choose, Tamil is one of the great classical literatures and traditions of the world"

It is not an exaggeration to say that it is due to the untiring efforts of the late Fr. Thaninayagam that the world came to know the classical status of Tamil and finally accepted. As the ever first World Classical Tamil conference is to take place in Tamil Nadu, it is ever fitting to look back at the unique services of Fr. Thaninayagam, an ardent advocate and zealous Apostle of Tamil language of the 20th century.

Xavier Nicholas Stanislaus – later known as Xavier Stanislaus Thaninayagam was born in Kayts. Jaffna, on 2 August1913, the first child of his parents, Naganathan Stanislaus and Cecilia Bastiampillai. He chose the name ‘Thani Nayagam’ – the parental ancestral name after being ordained a priest. The name, having served so well this Catholic ambassador of Tamil culture, now stands immortalised in the history of the Tamil people and Tamil Studies.

From his younger days, he was quite conscious of the linguistic and literary talents that God had given him and he cultivated them well in order to use them in the service of God and men. As a priest he made a deep study of the Tamil language and literature in order to equip himself better for his ministry among the Tamil speaking people of South India and Sri Lanka. Since he was well versed in many European Languages and their literatures, he was able to blaze a trial in the comparative study of Tamil Literature with the literature of European Languages. In this field he definitely had an advantage over other Tamil scholars and he excelled in this field.

He published outstanding books and articles on classical and modern literature. He made better known the contribution of earlier scholars, both through reprints of almost forgotten books and through bibliography and editorial work.

He founded and edited an international journal devoted solely to Tamil studies, with the happily chosen title Tamil Culture for over a decade. It was the journal that paved the way for recognition of the importance of Tamil studies at an international level.

He occupied, with great distinction, the Foundation Chair of Tamil Studies in the University of Malaysia. He travelled far and wide to spread the appreciation of Tamil, both by personal contact and in public lectures, speaking in Italian in Rome and Naples and in French in Paris, where he was appointed to the Chair reserved for distinguished foreign professors at that most prestigious of institutions.

On top of all this and most importantly, he was the inspiration behind the foundation of the International Association of Tamil Research (I. A. T. R) in 1964. Without this, and without Father Thaninayagam, there would have been no First International Conference of Tamil Studies in Kuala Lumpur in 1966 and no succeeding International Conferences in Madras, Paris, Jaffna and Madurai. What had seemed an impossible dream was realized in a splendid fashion. Nor was the impact of his effort and his genius felt in the field of Tamil studies alone; scholars, and lovers of other Indian languages – Sanskrit, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu – were inspired by his achievements to organize international conferences celebrating their languages.

It is worth to quote a comment Fr. Thaninayagam made comparing certain languages: "If Latin is the language of law, French the language of diplomacy, German the language of science and English the language of commerce, then Tamil is the language of Bhakthi". The word Bhakthi may be translated as ‘Devotion to the Sacred and the Holy.’ Coming from one who knew so many languages and who himself was a Roman Catholic priest, this comment is regarded as very significant.

Many international distinguished scholars have stated clearly about his contributions as well as his greatness. Prof. R. E. Asher of University of Edinburgh, U.K. says, "In the spreading within and outside its homeland of an appreciation of Tamil culture, there have been many memorable names during the last three centuries of so, a good number of them Europeans – Ziegenbalg, Fabricius, Beschi, Caldwell, Pope, Arden, Vison, Filliozat, Zvelebil …. Yet it would be difficult to sustain a claim that the contribution of any of these of others whom one might name equalled in range that of Father Thaninayagam."

Prof. M.B. Emineau of University of California, U.S.A., says. "His perfect and beautiful mastery of the English language and its literature was matched, to the astonishment of his Western friends, by his equal mastery of so many of the West’s languages and literature – Latin, French, Italian and who knows what more, That this enhanced his studies in Tamil literature goes without saying"

Prof. E. Sarathchandra of the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka says, "He wore no mask of any sort. Whatever he said he said straight from the heart. And what he said was at once sincere and truthful. There were no half truths in his words…. We never discussed communal harmony together. But he and I talked together of the points of contact. between the culture of the Tamils and the culture of the Sinhalese. How one had enriched the other and could do so in the future."

Prof. C.R. Boxer of the University of London, U.K. says, "He was in the best sense a ‘Citizen of the World’ widely travelled in four continents and on seven seas, he was always alert and receptive to new ideas, people and places; but he was never deflected by them from his vocation as a Roman Catholic Priest."

Fr. Thaninayagam has made a tremendous contribution towards internationalising Tamil Studies. He was a Catholic priest who championed Tamil Culture. Catholic Christianity is an international region and it seemed to have helped him a great deal in his life – time task of internationalising Tamil Studies.

In the midst of all his international activities for the acknowledgement of the antiquity, richness and beauty of the Tamil language and literature, he remained always a devoted priest of God.

He was given the highest posthumous honour in the City of Madurai, India during the Fifth World Tamil Conference held in 1981. On the eve of his first death anniversary, the University of Jaffna conferred on him, posthumously, the Degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.

Fr. Thaninayagam, as his name in Tamil means, was a ‘unique leader’ among Tamil researchers. Each of his achievements was a contribution to the elucidation of Tamil culture.

As the World Classical Tamil Conference is being held in Tamil Nadu it is paramount important to remember Fr. Thaninayagam, the roving Ambassador of Tamil.

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