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European Missionaries and the

Study of Dravidian Languages


European Missionaries and the Study of Dravidian




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European Missionaries and the

Study of Dravidian Languages

(Notes on some books and manuscripts held

in the British Museum)


Assistant Keeper, Department of Oriental

Printed Books and Manuscripts, British Museum.

The Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts has altogether one hundred and fifty Dravidian manuscripts in its possession: some of them are written on palm-leaves in the traditional manner of the South, others on paper bound in book form. Little is known about the history of the collection apart from the fact that the earliest manuscripts belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the founder of the Museum. They are but twenty seven in number-Oriental languages did not rank highly amongst Sloane's many interests-and none of them can be dated earlier than the beginning of the 18th century.

Quite a large number of manuscripts are extracts from the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana or works on sectarian Hinduism. There are two letters of Haidar Ali written in Kannada and a Telugu bond from the year 1755 which relates gravely that the second son of Kasuvana of Kolambakam has borrowed 'six pagodas of the Chennapatnam coinage' from the wife of Mr. Gramson. Two Telugu manuscripts on local history - a history of Kondavidu and a more general outline of Indian history giving the genealogy of some ruling families - might interest the historian whereas the student of Malayalam literature might like to look through an abridged version of 'Pamanujan Eluttacchan's Bharatam.

With eighty seven manuscripts Tamil is not only the best represented language; it has also some of the most interesting manuscripts of the whole collection. There are, to name but a few, grammatical works like Nannul and Tolkappiyam, a metrical vocabulary and works by the famous Auvaiyar and the even more renowned Kamban. It is possible that a few palmleaf strips belonging to the original Sloane collection - a work on bodily organs, some Tamil alphabet - were written before the 18th century but they are so fragmentary that it is impossible to date, or even place, them with any accuracy. The two most valuable manuscripts, however, are the ones written by Father Beschi and Batholomaus Ziegenbalg.

The first Europeans who studied the Tamil language were Jesuit missionaries working in Portuguese-owned parts of the subcontinent. Like the Spaniards the Portuguese had always claimed that their overseas conquests were not merely a result of greed for exotic riches but the direct outcome of a genuine desire to spread Christianity among the inhabitants of the globe. To justify this argument they saw to it that their bands of reckles marauding adventurers were accompanied by pious Friars, and when Vasco da Gama landed in India at the close of the 15th century he faithfully followed the same tradition. Some of those early Portuguese priests acquired, without doubt, a knowledge of the vernacular but we know of none who had specially distinguished himself in this field.

St. Francis Xavier, on the other hand, far from interesting himself in a realistic study of native languages, considered the translation of the Catechism into Tamil to be a task one could accomplish with the help of some intelligent bilingual "natives in a matter of 'several days'. 1 He saw only one aim, a quick conversion of as many as possible, and while still in India, his eyes were already fixed on China and Japan. Fortunately some of his successors were less singleminded. Roberto de Nobili, a Jesuit like the restless visionary Xavier, not only acquired a thorough knowledge of Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit, but also made the first tentative attempts in the realm of Tamil prose. The most gifted among the early pioneers, however, was Father Beschi. A linguist and a creative poet of equal distinction, he made a definite contribution towards the development of the language by reintroducing the pulli and the distinction between long and short 'o' and 'e'. The Department possesses his Tamil-Latin dictionary written in Beschi's neat hand, it bears the date 1744 on the title page.

The 18th century saw a general increase in the study of vernacular languages. In 1706, four years before Beschi joined the Jesuit Mission in India, the German Lutheran Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and his colleague Heinrich Plutschau landed in Tranquebar. They came under the patronage of the Danish King Frederic IV who had suddenly decided to take an active interest in the spiritual life of his Indian subjects. Whether this desire was genuine or whether Frederic saw himself as an 18th century Joao III is difficult to tell; in any case, his interest soon wanned and the newly founded Tranquebar mission had to look elsewhere for moral and financial support.

Received with what amounted to an almost open hostility by the majority of Europeans living in Tarnquebar, Ziegenbalg was immediately thrown into close contact with the natives of the town. Within eight months he had mastered the Tamil langtuage and was busy exploring the literature of the people he had come to convert to a new faith. There is a manuscript numbering 23 folios in the Departmental collection bears the title Verzeichnis der Matabarischen Bucher Written in German, in a thin ornate hand, it is a catalogue of some hundred and twelve Tamil works. It had been composed by Ziegenbalg and sent to Denmark in the year 1708. Though Ziegenbalg's name is not mentioned in the manuscript, those acquainted with his other works and the numerous letters he wrote during his stay in India cannot fail to recognise him as the author. The little manuscript a description of Ziegenbalg's vernacular library in Tranquebar - is valuable for two reasons; first it gives an account of a number of Tamil works which have since been lost, and secondly, due to Ziegenbalg's special way of writing, it allows interesting glimpses of popular Hinduism and local social life as they must have appeared to a foreign missionary some two hundred and fifty years ago.

The Museum has a good number of Ziegenbalg's early printed works. Most of them are letters giving detailed descriptions of his life in Tranquebar, his studies, all the impressions and discoveries a man in his position and with his particular bent of mind was apt to make every day in a confusingly strange and utterly different country. There are three issues of the Propagation of the Gospel in the East; a first edition printed in London in 1709 and two third editions published in 1718. The two third editions contain an appendix entitled An account of the Malabarians in the form of questions and answers. Another set of letters appear in Merkwurdige Nlabarians in the form of questions and answers. Another set of letters appear in Merkwurdige Nachrichten aus Ost-Indien of which the Museum has a third edition published in Leipzing in 1709.

Ziegenbalg's interest in Tamil literature and his study of the Hindu religion, though, as he himself was always quick to point out, only pursued for the purpose of converting the 'heatherns' more easily to Christianity, did not always find approval among his more orthodox associates in Europe. The Museum has an amusing little pamphlet, published anonymously in 1710 and modestly entitled Aufrichtiger Beytrag zum Kirchen-and Schul-Bau in Ost-Indien which is, in fact, a rather spiteful condemnation of Ziegenbalg's work and method, talking hypocritically about the 'two dear young and unexperienced people' (i.e. Ziegenbalg and Plutschau) who themselves badly misguided, 'deceive the poor heathens' and turn them into 'children of hell twice over'.2

As a Lutheran Ziegenbalg saw his main task in a propagation which, in this circumstances, meant translation of the Bible. The Museum has a few early works by Ziegenbalg, Grundler and Schultze like, for example, the Novum Jesu Christi Testamentaum ex originali textu in lingum Damulicam versum opera & studio printed in 1722, the "Biblica Damilica" published 1714-1728 and a book of psalms Liber Psalnorum Davidis Regis-et Prophetae, ex originali textu in linguam damulicam by Benjamin Schulze bearing the date 1724. There is also a palm-leaf manuscript in the Departmental collection which the List of Oriental Manuscripts, vol. i, describes as Novum Testamentum, lingua et characteribus Malabaricis, codex in foliis palmarum 106 exaratus atque e tranquebar transmissus. Apparently the manuscript had been purchased at the same time as the already mentioned Verzichnis der Malabarischen Buchner. It was written at the beginning of the 18th century and is undoubtedly the work of a missionary from Tranquebar but before identifying it as one of Ziegenbalg's own manuscripts careful study would be needed.

The history of priting Dravidian, mainly Tamil, characters falls into two parts; the history of printing vernacular languages in India and the history of printing those languages in Europe. In 1556 the Jesuits had brought a printing press to Goa. At first this press was mainly used for printing Portuguese tracts meant to be distributed amongst resident members of the Society but soon a set of 'Malabar' characters was cut and in 1578 the first Tamil book, a translation of Francis Xavier's Doutrina Christe by Henrique Henriques, appeared in print. The fact that the Portuguese used the term 'Lingua Malabar' for denoting the Tamil language caused a considerable amount of speculation as to whether the language of this work was Tamil or Malayalam but Geog seurhammer, in a recently published study, decided the question definitely in favour of Tamil.3 Though the Jesuits began to set up printing presses in several parts of Portuguese held India, trying their hands, with varying degress of success, on the Kannada and Devanagari scripts, they did not succeed in establishing the idea of printing firmly on the subcontinent and towards the middle of the 17th century all their efforts came to an end.

Fifty years later, in 1711. Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg persuaded the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in London to sent a further 'Portuguese' printing press to India and soon afterwards he was able to obtain a set of 'Malabari' letters from Germany. From then on printing seems to have progressed steadily in India. The position of the Protestant missionaries was, of course, very different from that of the Jesuits. Having no institutional power like the Inquisition at their disposal, they were forced to reply to a much larger degree on the persuasive power of the written word. Moreover, not being directly connected with any political authority, their labours could not be brought to a sudden halt by purely political considerations like the decree of 1684, which had ordered that the vernacular languages of Goa should be replaced by Portuguese. .

None of the early prints produced by the Jesuits is in the possession of the Museum. What has survived seems to have found its way more easily into archives in Portugal or in the Vatican. But, as we have seen above, the Ziegenbalg circle is rather well represented. The Museum has altogether five lengthy Tamil works printed in Tranquebar between the years 1714 and 1730 and a good number of those which appeared later. Most of those early works have two title pages, one written in Tamil, one in Latin.

In Europe no Dravidian language appeared in print before the middle of the 17th century. The first work to display Tamil characters was Philippus Baldaeus Naauwkeurige beschryvinge van Malabar en Choromadel, der zelver aangrenzende, ryken, en het machtig eyland Ceylon. The Museum has two editions of it, one in the original Dutch, one in German; both published in Amsterdam in 1672. The book, a large volume beautifully illustrated, gives but three pages of what is called 'Malabarische Letter-Konst': i.e. a set of Tamil characters with a very peculiar transliteration. , for example is transliterated by 'nha', Ì by 'ra', " by 'hna', and ? is supposed to stand for 'ca', 'ka' and 'qua'. A Character written as 9 and transliterated by 'rra' obviously stands for the present é. To this is added a Tamil version of the Pater Noster and the Declaration of Faith with the original text in Latin written under each line.

A late and scanty beginning - Moreover. Baldaeus's example was not taken up. No further Tamil character appeared in print uniti1 the year 1716 when Ziegenbalg's Grammatica Damulica was published in Halle. The Museum possesses four examples of this work. The characters are large and square, quite different from the ones used in Tranquebar. They resemble Tamil inscriptions of the 15th and 16th century but, on the whole, they are rather pleasing in design. There is , of course, no pulli; Ziegenbalg and Beschi, though working simultaneously in India, were not on sufficiently good terms to exchange their discoveries for each other's benefit.

The relative lateness of Tamil printing in Europe is not really surprising. When, in the middle of the 16th century, the Jesuits started their printing press in Goa they did it to provide themselves with an additional aid to proselytism. To suggest that these pagan languages should be studied for their own sake by pious Christians in Europe would have been heresy enough to attract the attention of the Inquisition. It took a Lutheran priest from Germany in the pay of a Danish king, a mercenary in the realm of faith not bound by the rigidity of monastic traditions, to upset the old equilibrium. Even then many voice were raised in protest and the advance of modern linquistics had to wait for another century.

The Museum has two copies of the first Tamil book printed in English, Rober Anderson's Rudiments of Tamil Grammar: combining with the rules of Kodun Tamil, or the original dialect, an introduction to Shen Tamil, or the elegant dialect, of the language, which appeared in 1821. A year later Benjamin Guy Babington who, like Anderson, had worked in the Madras Civil Service, brought out the text and a translation of Beschi's Paramarata - guruvin katai. Both works were published and printed by the same two firms, both make use of the Pulli but Babington warns his readers in the introduction that 'one exception....... occurs, in the letter 'na' '', which is never marked as quiescent, and the reason is, that the fount of letters which I purchased did not contain the requisite character. It would have been easy to have had a new matrix cut, but of this circumstance I was not aware until a considerable portion of the work was printed; and then, for the sake of consistency it appeared better to make no alterations. Having made this confession he has to add that 'the larger type used for the heading of Chapters, does not contain any dotted letters',4 either. The Tamil characters are square and quite attractive in appearance bearing a certain resemblance to the types used in Halle.

The Malayalam-speaking part of southern India, now known as the State of Kerala, had, at quite an early stage, come into relatively close contact with European missionaries and traders. On his first journey to the East, Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut and soon afterwards, with the help of the Raja of Cochin, the Portuguese began extending their influence along the coast. St. Francis Xavier too visited Kerala and a number of charming legends tell of his miraculous success. The Jesuit missionaries did not alwys see eye to eye with communities of native Syrian Christians which had been in existence since the 8th century, but on the whole their efforts brought more response in Kerala than in other parts of the subcontinent. As far as the study of Malayalam is concerned it seems that from 1700 onwards, a number of serious attempts were made by some of the missionaries.

The Department of Printed Oriental Books and Manuscripts has in its collection an interesting palm-leaf manuscript containing eight Malayalam poem on Gospel history, Christian doctrine and hagiology. The Manuscript is supposed to have been written by Johann Ernst Hanxleden, a Jesuit who it seems, was also known as Johannis Ernasidos or - among the navtive inhabitants of Travancore - as Amos Patiri. The date of his death is 1732. An accomplished Malayalam scholar, he composed a large number of religious works in this language and a Malayalam - Sanskrit - Portuguese dictionary. 'In estimating his writing', writes C.M. Agur in his Church History of Travancore, 'we have only to add that What Fr. Beschi was to Tamil literature in South India, Fr. J. Ernasidos was to Malayalam in Malabar'.5

The manuscript is written in a script typical of the 18th century. It consists of 104 folios and the poems are entitled Maranam kond'ula patt', Vidhi-Vidha, Narakam, Moksa-lokam, Devasukanyaka - carita-gana, Mar Tresiya - punya - striyude caritram, Umma-duhkham and Puttan-pana.

Unlike Tamil, Malayalam character were not committed to print before the end of the 18th century. The Bombay University Library is in possession of a Malayalam Grammar which was printed in Bombay in 1799.6 The first Malayalam book printed in Europe seems to have been Giovanni Cristofano Amaduzzi's Alphabetum Grandonico - Malabaricum sive Samscrudonicum, an essay on the Grantha-Malayalam alphabets with table and examples from material supplied by Clemens de Jesu. The book appeared in Rome in 1772 and there is a copy of it in the Museum's collection. Clemens, who died in 1782, spent several years in Kerala where he devoted himself to mission work and a careful study of the Malayalam language. During a visit to Rome he cut and engraved a set of Malayalam types for the press of the Society of Jesus.

Apart from the material directly connected with the study of languages, the Museum has a good collection of letters from Jesuit missionaries in India, some of them written and printed as early as 1550. Reading through them, one cannot fail to be impressed by the remarkable insight of these men who came to India more than four hundred years ago. Trained in an intellectual discipline which did not allow them to come as sympathetic observers, and unlike modern scholars, having no works of reference at their disposal, they yet penetrated deeply into the complex structure of popular Hinduism, seeing the absolute behind the symbol, the central idea in a maze of contradictory manifestations. Anybody attempting to understand South India culture beneath the surface of mere linguistics will find these documents an invaluable source of information.

Footnotes :


1. J..A Richter : A History of Missions in India pp.47, 48.

2. Aufrichtiger Beytrag zum kirchen-und Schul-Bau in Ost-Indien p.2

3. Georg Schurhammer : and G.W. Cottrell : The First Printing in Indic Characters. Harvard Library. Bulletin, vol. vi.2. p.148.

4. C.J. Beschius : The Adventures of Goroo Paramartan. A tale in the Tamil language, accompanied by a translation and vocabulary, together with an analysis of the first story. By Benjamin Babington. p.x.

5. C.M. Agur : Church History of Travancore. p. 1065.

6. Anant Kakba Priolkar : The Printing Press in India. p.11.


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