Posted on November 28th, 2021


Language became an important element in the formation of new states in Europe in the 19th century. The emphasis was to be on the mother tongue, the language spoken in the home. The first International Statistical Congress of 1853 raised the question of including language in the    Census and the 1873 Congress recommended that language be included. Analysts observed that asking such a question would itself generate linguistic nationalism. It forced people not to select just a nationality, but a nationality connected to language.

Hobsbaum pointed out that in Europe national language was almost always an artificial construct. Most of the time people spoke dialects, not standardized language. French was the language of administration from about 1853 but even in 1789 it was spoken mainly in the central regions. It was not spoken at all in the north and south of France. Only 18% spoken high French. The same applied to German and Italian. In Germany there was High German which included local dialects such as Schwabisch. When Italy was formed only 3% spoke sophisticated Italian. Israel rejected Yiddish and created a new variant of Hebrew as the national language  of Israel.

Language was thereafter used as a unifying and emotional symbol of these new nation states of Europe. The Tamil Separatist Movement latched on to this.   The Tamil Separatist Movement announced The Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon constitute a distinct nation with its own language.  

The Jaffna Peninsula was a part of the Rajarata during the Anuradhapura kingdom. It was known as Nagadipa. The language was Sinhala. The Tamil language was introduced to Jaffna much later, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Landless, low caste laborers, from Tamilnadu, were brought into Jaffna Peninsula by the Dutch and British in the 18 and 19 century to work on the tobacco plantations in Jaffna. The Tamil settlements in Jaffna started then.  It is unlikely that they were Tamil scholars.

The Tamil language was entrenched in Jaffna by the American Missionaries who descended on Jaffna in 1816. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, based in Boston, started Christian missionary operations in Jaffna in 1816.   They encouraged Tamil studies with special emphasis on Tamil literature. 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.  Batticotta seminary, Vaddukoddai, the flagship school of the American Mission, placed much emphasis on Tamil language and literature. Tamil composition was encouraged   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 teachers were American. Christian missionaries trained in biblical Hebrew arrived and began learning Tamil, observed Shulman.  There was 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]  A system of Tamil shorthand for the Tamil language was invented by Rev Fr P Dunne, principal of St Patrick’s College(1889-1901)   in 1900, he published a concise Tamil – English Dictionary.

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. In 1853 there was the ‘Vithyatharpanam’ with two equal sections in Tamil and English. 

Arumuka Navalar (1822-1879) was known for reforming Hinduism, not Tamil language   but he contributed to the revival of Tamil by making Tamil the language of the Saivite revival. He promoted literacy and Tamil studies. This was an important contribution to the development of modern Tamil studies both in Ceylon and South India, said K.M. de Silva. 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, added de Silva.

According to information held on the internet, Arumuga Navalar produced approximately ninety-seven Tamil publications of which twenty three 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 eleven 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.. However, Jane Russell stated that Tamils were not conversant with classical Tamil even at 1946.

The Tamil language, in the meanwhile was in difficulties in its home state of Tamilnadu. By the end of the 14th century, Tamil had lost its dominant position in Tamilnadu. Tamil never regained that sovereign position.

Around 1364, the Tamil kingdom in South India was conquered by the Vijayanagara kingdom of Karnataka.  Tamil kingdom was thereafter administered by Vijayanagara officials from present day Andhra Pradesh.  Tamil was displaced by Telegu, the language of Andhra Pradesh. The kingdom was thereafter administered in Telegu. The Nayakkar kings of the Udarata kingdom who came from Tamilnadu spoke Telegu, not Tamil and were known as Andhras.

The Tamil kingdom later splintered into small, weak kingdoms, known as the kingdoms of Madura, Trichinopoly, and Tanjore, with Madura going under the Muslim Nawab of Arcot in 1734.  Telegu continued to dominate. 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 Tamil language was rescued and re-instated in Tamilnadu by the Christian missionaries who arrived in Tamilnadu from the 17th century onwards .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. Robert Caldwell introduced the notion of a separate group of Dravidian languages in his  ‘A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages, ‘(1856).

Madras also had it native researchers, notably Caminat Aiyar, who spent a good part of his life scouring the Tamil country for more manuscripts and editing them. Caminat Aiyar brought to light ancient, largely forgotten master works of Tamil literature.

The British administration in Madras helped in the recovery of Tamil. From 1820 onwards they supported the campaign to foster and reform Tamil language and literature. Publications of lost classics was a valued colonial period activity, observed Shulman. Language teachers were given secure jobs. The first section of Tolkapiyam was published in 1847 in Madras. But most of the manuscripts found could not be dated.  Some would have been recent, said Shulman. 

Rev. P.Percival (Wesleyan then Anglican) was appointed first Professor of Vernacular Literature at Madras University in 1857. He knew both Tamil and Telegu. The first section of Cilapattikaranam was printed by Bower and Muttiaya Pillay in 1868 and was part of the curriculum for students of Tamil in government colleges.

The American mission in Jaffna   went to Tamilnadu to help revive the Tamil language there. Tamils scholars trained at Batticotta were sent to help upgrade Tamil literature in Madras. The very early texts had gone out of circulation by the middle of the 19 century and were in need of ‘recovery. Manuscripts of Manimekalai, Cilapattikaranam for instance were missing. A bundle of palm leaf manuscripts were discovered in the library of the Tiruvavatutirai mutt in 1883.

The Jaffna Tamil who was most active in this was C.M. Thamotharampillai (1833-1901) 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 advertised in Madras for Tamil manuscripts, obtained them, edited and published them, using his earnings to do so.  He collated manuscripts, noting variant readings. 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.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand,   Sinhala maintained its status as a sovereign language up to 1815. Sinhala continued in use thereafter, throughout British rule.  Sinhala literature and Sinhala grammar were carefully preserved and looked after by generation after generation of bhikkus and laymen during this period. Complete manuscripts of major Sinhala writings, such as Mahavamsa, Jataka pota, Vittipot, and   Kadaimpot were available in plenty, in good condition, in personal and temple collections in the 1930s. Unlike Tamil,  Sinhala language, Sinhala grammar, Sinhala literature did not collapse.No outside intervention was needed. The Christian missionaries only had to prepare Sinhala-English dictionaries for their own use.

Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) was a Danish specialist on languages. In 1816, Rask left Denmark to learn about languages in the East and to obtain manuscripts for the Royal Library, Copenhagen. He went to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Persia,   India and then Ceylon. Godakumbura says that Rask learnt Sinhala in the three months he stayed in Madras. From Madras Rask arrived in Jaffna in November 1821 and learned Sinhala from C.E.Layard, the CCS officer stationed there, using the Sinhala version of the New Testament of the Bible. He came down to Colombo and collected   Sinhala manuscripts to take back to Denmark. There is no mention of Tamil.

The fact that Rask did not study Tamil, though he was in Madras and Jaffna, indicates that Tamil did not have a high position at the time. The South Asian collection of the Royal Library, Copenhagen, today has 1127 manuscripts in Sanskrit, 310 in Pali, 169 in Sinhalese, 97 in Tamil, and 13 in Urdu.  It has 2640 printed books in Sanskrit, 860 in Hindi, 690 in Urdu and 180 in Sinhalese. There is no mention of Tamil.

The Tamil Separatist Movement declared that the Tamil language had an unsurprised classical heritage. The Ceylon Tamil of the British period held that there was a wonderful Tamil literature. Tamil is seen as the classical language which produced the oldest literature of the Dravidian languages, they said.

Ceylon Tamils announced that Tamil is one of the longest-surviving classical languages in the world. It was described it as “the only language of contemporary India which is recognizably continuous with a classical past.” The variety and quality of classical Tamil literature has led to it being described as “one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world”.

In Sri Lanka, Simon Casie Chetty produced ‘The Tamil Plutarch’ (1859) A Summary Account of the Lives of the Poets and Poetesses of Southern India and Ceylon. In this book Casie Chetty said that Tamil is peculiar to part of India, which was formerly under Chera, Chola and Pandiya kings and of those of the eastern and northern provinces of Ceylon.

 Tamil occupies the most distinguished rank. It is one of the most copious, refined, and polished languages spoken by man. Few nations on earth can perhaps boast of so many poets as the Tamils. Poetry appears to have been the first fixed form of language amongst them; they have not a single ancient book that is written in prose, not even the books on medicine. There were three different Sangams, or Colleges at three different periods, for the promotion of literature, concluded Casie Chetty.

But the reality is different. Actually, we don’t even know the original name for the two greatest Tamil literary works – Tolkappiyam (just means “an ancient classic”) and Thirukural (“divine verses”), said analysts. Like most of Indian history, we just know these things from secondary works written by others, but a lot of things are unknown. The Sangam texts were lost or became irrelevant in the mediaeval times and came to be rediscovered in the 19th century.

Today, Hindi and English are the two official languages of India .In Tamilnadu, the home of the Tamil language, Tamil   ranks third, below Hindi and English. The rank order of the most spoken languages in India is Hindi, Bengali, Telegu, Marathi and Tamil.

Tamil is recognized as an official language only in Sri Lanka and Singapore.  Tamil is   recognized as a minority language in South Africa, Malaysia and Mauritius. Tamil is used as one of the languages of education in Malaysia, along with English, Malay and Mandarin. (Continued)

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