Civilizing Tamil: The Language Classical
The search for authentic first principles as the foundation on which to rebuild a modern community did not lead all of tamiḻppaṟṟu towards religion and Shaiva scriptures. Instead, with the help of the secular sciences of comparative philology, archaeology, ethnology, and history, a new source for these was located in ancient Tamil heroic and love poems of the so-called Canḳam age of the early centuries C.E. Hitherto completely outside the horizon of contemporary scholarly awareness, these poems were “discovered” and published between the 1880s and 1920 primarily because of the efforts of C. W. Damodaram Pillai (1832-1901) and U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar (1855-1942). The story of this “discovery” in all its fascinating detail has yet to be told, but it is important to register some of its manifold effects on tamiḻppaṟṟu.
Most immediately, with this “discovery,” the antiquity of Tamil literature, dated up until then in colonial histories to the late first millennium, was now pushed back, at the very least, to the early centuries C.E., and in the writings of some devotees to the beginning of time itself. These poems not only deepened the antiquity of Tamil literature, but quite as crucially, within a few years of their being made public, they came to be valorized as the repositories of an ideal and perfect Tamil society, prior to its colonization by either the British or, more enduringly, by the Brahmanical Aryans from the North. They were combed to generate nostalgic portrayals of an ancient Tamil people who were adventurous and heroic; who roamed the high seas in pursuit of gold and glory; who were “hospitable and tolerant in religion,” “egalitarian” and “rationalist,” fun-loving but contemplative and philosophical as well (Kanakasabhai 1966). Most significantly, these poems were tangible proof that Tamilians were speakers of the only “living” “classical” language and the proud possessors of a great “civilization,” the most ancient in the world. Devotional narratives, regardless of their ideological differences and political commitments, are saturated with the pride that their authors experience in being the modern day inheritors of this ancient literature. In his memoirs, S. Ilakuvan (1910-1973), a Tamil college teacher who was imprisoned in 1965 for his participation in the anti-Hindi protests, has this to say about the effect on his young mind when he learned in college about the antiquity of Tamil and the wealth of its literature:
The glories of the ancient Tamil land and the eminence of Tamilians captured my heart. I became convinced that classical Tamil (uyartaṉic cemmoḻi) had to have been the mother of all the languages of the world. I was saddened that our great and glorious Tamil country has today lost its name, and languishes away as a small part of Madras [Presidency]. I resolved that my life’s mission lay in restoring the rights of the Tamil land, and the preeminence of Tamil. The battle for Tamil is the battle of my life.
Similarly, M. P. Sivagnanam (1906-1995), who hailed from an indigent working-class family and could afford only a primary school education, studied these poems on his own when he was in a colonial prison in the early 1940s. He writes of his experience on reading one of the anthologies of the Canḳam corpus, the Puṟanāṉūṟu:
I gained consciousness of belonging to a community called Tamilian when I first read the Puṟanāṉūṟu. Before that, I knew I was a Tamilian. But it was only on reading the Puṟanāṉūṟu that I realized that the Tamil-speaking people had their own unique history, their own unique customs, their own distinctive political traditions, and their own nationality. Tamilians have had their own unique motherland (tāyakam) and its name is Tamilnadu, I realized. Tamilnadu had been ruled for thousands of years by Tamilians. It struck me that no empire from the North had ever subjugated Tamilnadu or Tamilians during the Canḳam period. When I learned that men and women lived as equals in those days, my heart rejoiced. I forgot myself when I read the poems about the heroism of the mothers who sent off their young, innocent sons to the battlefield thronging with spears. I thanked God with all my heart for the good fortune of being born in such a Tamil land.
Again and again, there are similar examples of the wonder and admiration that the poems of this ancient literary corpus elicit from Tamil’s devotees. They have been invoked as models for personal belief and behavior, as inspiration for public and political action, and as the founding charter for an ideal society of the future in which Tamil would reign supreme, once again.
The Tyranny of Civilization
An undiluted enchantment with the Canḳam age undoubtedly floods the entire devotional community. But its poems were of special interest to a particular regime of tamiḻppaṟṟu that I characterize as “counter Orientalist classicism.” This regime’s fundamental agenda lay in securing acknowledgment—from the world at large, but especially from the colonials and from the Aryan North—of the “civilizational” status of Tamil culture. It went about this task by demanding recognition of an ancient truth that had been grossly overlooked by Orientalism, colonialism, and metropolitan nationalism: namely, that Tamil, too, like Sanskrit, was glorious, polished, and perfect. It is centamiḻ, “refined Tamil.” Yet Orientalism and the colonial state had classified it as a “vernacular,” as a corrupt derivative of Sanskrit, and denied its great texts the status of “literature.” Classicism thus sought to rescue Tamil from its current lowly status as a mere “vernacular” (uṇṇāṭṭu moḻi) and to have it reinstated in all its glory as a “classical” language (uyartaṉic cemmoḻi) that was, like Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, the vehicle for a lofty, unique, and refined literature, culture (paṇpu), and civilization (nākarīkam) (Suryanarayana Sastri 1903: 132-34). The historian Nambi Arooran (1980: 70-110) has skillfully charted the growing demand among Tamil scholars and politicians from the early decades of this century for recognition of Tamil as a classical language on par with Sanskrit (and Arabic and Persian) in the curriculum of Madras University. I would suggest that there were other gains to be made in securing such a recognition, besides ensuring the victory of “non-Brahman” (Tamil) over “Brahman” (Sanskrit) in the struggle for power in the region. A less tangible, but nonetheless potent, consequence lay in the possibility that Tamil speakers, too, might now demand membership to that select club of “civilized” cultures of the world whose languages had been deemed “refined” and “classical.”
It has been suggested that “the colonies of the European empires were in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the context of a new and doomed efflorescence of European discourse about virtue, race, and civilization, even while that discourse was in a process of radical reconsideration in Europe as the alternative ontology of ‘political economy’ advanced” (Kelly 1991: 11). Tamil devotionalism as conducted in the classicist idiom offers one striking illustration of such an efflorescence, although I will reserve judgment (for now) on whether this was necessarily “doomed.” Unlike neo-Shaivism, which retreated into the domain of an (imagined) uncolonized religion to conduct its project of resistance and renewal, classicism took its battle right into enemy territory. For the concept of “civilization” was no innocent classificatory device through which Orientalist and colonial knowledges neatly organized the messy world of culture(s). Instead, it was a fundamental technology of rule in which colonial dominance was secured by institutionalizing a hierarchy of differences, not only between the “West” and the “Orient,” but between the various regions, cultures, and communities of the subcontinent as well, on a developmental scale ranging from savage barbarism to civilized perfection. Language was one tangible index by which such differences of cultural and moral worth were measured. The “inflectional” Indo-European, representing the summit of linguistic (and racial) achievement, was the standard by which the “tonal,” “isolating,” and “agglutinative” languages that were not Indo-European were evaluated: the latter were declared incapable of expressing complex, abstract, refined thought. Correspondingly, their speakers were “primitive,” “barbarous,” and morally deficient (Curtin 1964; Metcalf 1994; Spadafora 1990).
Such notions were embedded in numerous discourses on language, race, and progress that came to the attention of Tamil’s devotees. Consider the following unflattering portrayal of the “Turanians,” a linguistic and racial group into which, through much of the late nineteenth century, many colonial narratives placed Tamil speakers:
And consider the response by one of Tamil’s devotees, Nallaswami Pillai, to such a characterization:
We may say generally that a large number of them…belong to the lowest Paleozoic strata of humanity[,]…peoples whom no nation acknowledges as its kinsmen, whose languages, rich in words for all that can be eaten or handled, seem absolutely incapable of expressing the reflex conceptions of the intellect or the higher forms of consciousness, whose life seems confined to the glorification of animal wants, with no hope in the future and no pride in the past. They are for the most part peoples without a literature and without a history[,]…peoples whose tongues in some instances have twenty names for murder, but no name for love, no name for gratitude, no name for God.
Did we not all read in our school-days that the Tamilians were aborigines and savages, that they belonged to a dark race, a Turanian one, whom the mighty civilising Aryans conquered and called Dasyus, and that all their religion, language and arts were copied from the noble Aryan. Even a few years ago, a great man from our sister Presidency held forth to a learned Madras audience how every evil in our society, whether moral, social or religious, was all due to the admixture of the civilized Aryan with the barbarous Tamilian.
Classicism, like neo-Shaivism, thus set out to contest all such claims—Orientalist as well as metropolitan Indian—that denigrated Tamil speakers as “barbaric” and “primitive,” and that unilaterally declared that the “civilized” Aryan was inevitably superior to the “aboriginal” Dravidian. This battle, however, was fought not on the ground of religion but on the terrains of “literature” and “history,” those domains whose very possession spelled the difference between peoples who led moral and civilized lives and those who barely subsisted on immoral “animal wants.” In this war, the weapon was the “classicality” (uyarttaṉiccemmai) of Tamil with which its devotees would demonstrate the originality, autonomy, and antiquity of their culture and history; the distinctiveness of their language from Sanskrit; its crucial role as a parent of many languages; and its status as the fount of an ancient civilization as glorious as, if not more glorious than, the Sanskritic one (Maraimalai Adigal ; Suryanarayana Sastri 1903).
Like neo-Shaivism, classicism, too, was an oppositional discourse that was conducted largely by an educated, urban, and professional middle-class, attracting academics (historians, litterateurs, philologists, and Tamil scholars), schoolteachers, lawyers, and bureaucrats. Unlike neo-Shaivism, however, a number of Brahman admirers of Tamil, among them V. G. Suryanarayana Sastri, T. R. Sesha Iyengar (1887?-1939), and U. V. Swaminatha Aiyar, joined the ranks of devotees who were nominally Christian, such as D. Savariroyan and G. Devaneyan (1902-81), as well as upper-caste “non-Brahmans” like P. Sundaram Pillai, Maraimalai Adigal, and Somasundara Bharati (1879-1959), and those of Sri Lankan origins such as Damodaram Pillai and V. Kanakasabhai (1855-1906). Like neo-Shaivism, classicism primarily conducted its activities through literary and historical societies, the most famous among them (which continue to exist today, although fairly truncated) being the Maturait Tamiḻc Canḳam, “Madurai Tamil Academy,” founded in 1901 (henceforth Madurai Tamil Sangam); the Karantait Tamiḻc Canḳam, “Karanthai Tamil Academy,” founded in 1911 (henceforth Karanthai Tamil Sangam); and the Shaiva Siddhanta Kazhagam. Like their neo-Shaiva counterparts, with whom they frequently shared members, their contrary views of Tamil notwithstanding, these associations promoted the cause of Tamil in educational institutions, petitioned for the establishment of a Tamil University, encouraged the battle against Hindi, and so on. But most of all, they focused upon editing and printing ancient manuscripts, publishing periodicals and books, holding literary festivals, running libraries, and conducting classes for the study of classical Tamil. As such, they represent the antiquarian and scholastic aspirations of tamiḻppaṟṟu.
The Contest with Sanskrit
Classicism, too, was concerned, like neo-Shaivism, with demonstrating the antiquity (toṉmai) and primordiality (muṉmai) of Tamil, as well as its uniqueness (taṉimai) and purity (tūymai). These were not established, however, by linking Tamil to the world of the gods, as in neo-Shaivism. Instead, it was argued that Tamil is the first language of the first humans to flourish on the face of this earth, prior to the emergence of any other language or people (Devaneyan 1966; Maraimalai Adigal 1948). Indeed, classicism drew upon the secular science of comparative philology to dispute ancient religious stories (which neo-Shaivism had revived) about the divine origins of Tamil, insisting instead that the language was not bestowed upon the world by Shiva, but emerged to fulfill the need for human communication (P. T. Srinivasa Aiyangar 1985: 13-15; Suryanarayana Sastri 1903: 51-57).
In all such matters, classicism, too, of course contended with the hegemonic influence of Sanskrit, not so much as a “divine” language but as India’s paradigmatic classical tongue. A century of colonial linguistic practice had only reinforced the ancient Sanskritic dogma that all languages (of India) are corruptions of a primordial, eternal Sanskrit. British scholar administrators and their Brahman teacher-assistants based in Calcutta’s Asiatic Society and College of Fort William had declared Sanskrit as the fount of Indian “vernaculars,” the sole generator of high Hindu civilization, and the only language worthy of comparison with the lofty Greek and Latin. This is a story that has been already told many times (Kejariwal 1988; Kopf 1969).
What has been less noted is the resistance to such formulations that arose almost from the beginning of colonial rule among British administrators and missionaries based in South India. Skeptical about the clubbing together of the languages spoken in “their” part of the subcontinent with the northern tongues, these men were especially critical of the characterizations of Tamil or Telugu as “vulgar derivatives” of Sanskrit. This skepticism was first voiced in Alexander Campbell’s Grammar of the Teloogoo Language (1816) and in Francis Ellis’s introduction to that grammar. Tamil and Telugu, it was argued, form “a distinct family of languages, with which the Sanscrit has, in latter times especially, intermixed, but with which it has no radical connection” (Ellis 1816: 2). In the 1840s and 1850s, other philological analyses reinforced such assertions, frequently referring to Tamil in this process as “copious,” “elegant,” “refined,” and “cultivated” (Asher 1968; Singh 1969: 78-88). In 1855, Tamil was even declared “a rival of the ancient Sanskrit” (Bower 1855: 158). All such scattered observations were consolidated in 1856 in Robert Caldwell’s Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages, which used the word “classical” to characterize centamiḻ, “correct Tamil” (Caldwell 1856: 31); authorized the name “Dravidian” to refer to the “family of languages” of South India, distinct from Sanskrit and its Indo-European family of tongues (28-37); insisted that Tamil “can dispense with its Sanscrit altogether if need be, and not only stand alone but flourish without its aid” (31); and suggested that prior to the arrival of Aryan Brahmans, the “elements of civilization” already existed among the Dravidians (77-79).
Tamil’s devout found much that was flattering in Caldwell’s Grammar, which lent the authority of comparative philology (and the West) to the claims of autonomy and distinctiveness of Tamil made in its pre-colonial texts that tamiḻppaṟṟu resurrected. Yet Caldwell’s hallowed status notwithstanding, all his ideas were not wholeheartedly embraced, pace recent scholarly evaluations of the missionary’s impact on Tamil cultural politics (Dirks 1995, 1996; Ravindiran 1996). Indeed, many devotees resented his claim that the term tamiḻ had derived from the Sanskrit words draviḍa or drāviḍa (Chelvakesavaroya Mudaliar 1929: 9; Damodaram Pillai 1971: 3-6, 34-35; R. Raghava Aiyangar 1979: 4-13). Others objected to his attempts to establish affinity between the Dravidian and “Scythian” families of languages, insisting instead that the former was completely distinctive and autonomous (T. Chidambaranar 1938: 5; Devasikhamani 1919: 26). Many also set aside his suggestion that Dravidians had migrated into India, proposing instead an autochthonous origin which placed them in the subcontinent from the beginning of time (T. Chidambaranar 1938: 10). Finally, there were even those who resisted Caldwell’s classification of Tamil as a “Dravidian” language, insisting that the word draviḍa had been used in the past for Tamil-speaking Brahmans alone (Damodaram Pillai 1971: 34-39; Devasikhamani 1919: 9; Somasundara Bharati 1912:1). Their resistance is not surprising, for in spite of some eulogistic portrayals of Dravidian culture in the writings of some colonials (like C. D. Maclean and Gilbert Slater), which the devotees found useful to invoke, the dominant colonial image of the Dravidian, as created through census records, administrative manuals, and district gazetteers, is captured in this unflattering picture of the 1891 Census:
This was a race black in skin, low in stature, and with matted locks; in war treacherous and cunning; in choice of food, disgusting, and in ceremonial, absolutely deficient. The superior civilisation of the foreigner [the Aryan] soon asserted itself, and the lower race had to give way.…The newcomers had to deal with opponents far inferior to themselves in civilisation, and with only a very rudimentary political organisation, so that the opposition to be overcome before the Arya could take possession of the soil was of the feeblest.
In such statements, which were also picked up by many a metropolitan nationalist narrative to pursue the agenda of salvaging Indian pride by taking refuge in Aryanism, the white, virile, civilized, energetic, and superior Aryan is starkly contrasted with the dark, feminine, menial, and aboriginal Dravidian. Correspondingly, the latter’s language, too, is “aboriginal,” uncivilized, and inferior. So the 1901 Census of India observed: “In India, the Indo-Aryan languages—the tongues of civilization…—are continually superseding what may, for shortness, be called the aboriginal languages such as those belonging to the Dravidian, the Munda, or the Tibeto-Burman families.…[I]t may be added that nowhere do we see the reverse process of a non-Aryan language superseding an Aryan one” (Government of India 1903: 248-49). This particular statement in the Census was authored by George Grierson, who headed the ambitious Linguistic Survey of India project for the colonial state (published 1903-28). It is telling that the underlying premise of this authoritative survey was that the “civilized” Aryan languages are inherently superior to the “aboriginal” non-Aryan. So, commenting on the progressive shrinkage in the spread of Dravidian languages, Grierson noted, “Aryan civilization and influence have been too much for [them]” (Government of India 1903: 279). And in the Linguistic Survey, although the “importance” of Tamil is recognized, and the antiquity of its literature noted, it is not unambiguously adorned with the mantle of classicality and civilization, as is Sanskrit (Grierson 1906: 298-302).
All the same, slowly but cautiously from the 1920s on, the colonial state began to concede the antiquity and “copiousness” of Tamil, and its status as a “cultivated” language. Dravidian speakers of today, the Census of 1931 admitted, have “a culture of very great antiquity[;]…speakers of Dravidian languages [were] the ancient inhabitants of Mohenjadaro and perhaps the givers of culture to India” (Government of India 1933: 454-55). The Census was here alluding to the recently discovered archaeological remains of the Indus Valley in Mohenjadaro and Harappa, which pointed to a sprawling prehistoric urban civilization rivalling Mesopotamia and Egypt. To the delight of many a Tamil devotee, this prehistoric civilization was declared to have been possibly Dravidian by some colonial archaeologists. Thus Maraimalai Adigal quoted John Marshall in 1941:
They (the orientalists) pictured the pre-Aryans as little more than untutored savages (whom it could have been grotesque to credit with any reasoned scheme of religion or philosophy). Now that our knowledge of them has been revolutionized and we are constrained to recognize them as no less highly civilized—in some respects, indeed, more highly civilized—than the contemporary Sumerians or Egyptians, it behoves [sic] us to re-draw the picture afresh and revise existing misconceptions regarding their religion as well as their material culture.…The Indus Civilisation was Pre-Aryan and the Indus language or languages must have been Pre-Aryan also. Possibly, one or other of them…was Dravidic.
Maraimalai then proceeded to overwrite Marshall’s tentative conclusion with the following sweeping pronouncement:
If Sir John Marshall had had a first hand knowledge of the Tholkappiam and some other ancient classics of Tamil, he would have easily shown in corroboration of what he stated as regards the pre-Aryan antiquity of one of the Dravidian languages, that Tamil, alone, and not any other, as he vaguely affirmed, must have been the language spoken and cultivated by the pre-Aryan inhabitants of the Indus Valley.
Maraimalai Adigal was not alone in making such a bold assertion. More than a decade earlier, in the late 1920s, soon after Marshall’s report on the Indus Valley excavations was first published, fellow devotees T. R. Sesha Iyengar and M. S. Purnalingam Pillai had already insisted that “future discoveries and dispassionate researches” would confirm Dravidian authorship of the Indus civilization and “the remote antiquity” of Tamil culture (Purnalingam Pillai 1945: 26; Sesha Iyengar 1989: 32-61). They were able to make such assertions confidently, emboldened as they were by the many claims of classicism which challenged the dominant Orientalist wisdom about Tamil’s place in India’s past, and which proceeded to write an alternate script in which history began not in the North with the Aryans, but in the South with the Dravidians.
Classicism’s status as an oppositional discourse is most apparent in the frequently expressed lament that the achievements of Tamil speakers in India’s history had been totally ignored by scholars, especially those based in the North. As Sundaram Pillai dramatically declared in 1897: “The history of Indian Civilization is the old story of the Giant and the Dwarf. The victories in it are the victories of the vaunting Aryan, while the wounds are the wounds of the bleeding pre-Aryan” (quoted by Nallaswami Pillai 1898-99: 113).
The first step lay in overthrowing this “Aryan bigotry and pride” and rewriting the script of India’s history so as to show how “Dravidian forebears enriched, strengthened and improved the culture of Aryan India” (Sesha Iyengar 1989: 63). Two basic strategies were adopted for such a rewriting. In the one that I call “compensatory,” the aim was to demonstrate that “Hindu” or “Indian” civilization had emerged from a “harmonious commingling of the cultures of the Dravidian and the Indo-Aryan” (Sesha Iyengar 1989: 63). Tamil, it was insisted, “was quite as classical” as Sanskrit, and its literature “is no less ancient, noble, and vast.” Tamil and its literature were thus validated by espousing a parity with Sanskrit, whose value was never questioned. Neither is the divide between “Aryan” and “Dravidian,” seen as distinctive but complementary halves of “India,” nor the legitimacy of the Brahman. As can be expected, compensatory classicism was a strategy that was favored typically, though not always, by devotees who were nominally Brahman, such as R. Raghava Aiyangar (1870-1946), M. Raghava Aiyangar (1878-1960), T. R. Sesha Iyengar, and Swaminatha Aiyar. Their commitment was to a syncretic Indian civilization jointly produced by the “genius” of Tamil and the “genius” of Sanskrit, both of which are necessary and complementary (P. T. Srinivasa Aiyangar 1985: 85).
From the start, but especially by the 1920s, this strategy was challenged by another that I call contestatory, paradigmatic examples of which may be found in the writings of Suryanarayana Sastri, Savariroyan Pillai, M. S. Purnalingam Pillai, Maraimalai Adigal, G. Devaneyan, K. Appadurai (1907-89), and K. A. P. Viswanatham (1899-1994), among others. Contestatory classicism asserted the superiority of Tamil over Sanskrit, rather than the parity of the two. Sanskrit, after all, was a “dead” language in contrast to the everlasting Tamil (kaṉṉittamiḻ). The “barbarian” Aryans had developed into “civilized beings” on coming into contact with the “highly civilized Dravidians” rather than the other way around. For in the ancient past, Tamilians were settled agriculturists, whereas the Aryans had been mere nomadic pastoralists. Tamilians lived in splendid cities and traded with distant lands, while Aryans were still grazing herds. Tamilians were monotheistic and philosophical, whereas Aryans were polytheistic and ritualistic. Tamil had not evolved from Sanskrit, as the Orientalists maintained; on the contrary, classical Sanskrit itself developed under the influence of Tamil (Maraimalai Adigal 1963, 1966; Purnalingam Pillai 1985: 4-5).
Thus contestatory classicism reversed Orientalism’s claim that the true genius of India lay in its Aryan past, asserting instead that it is to Tamil and Tamilian culture that Indian civilization owes all, for, in Sundaram Pillai’s words, “what is ignorantly called Aryan philosophy, Aryan civilization, is distinctively Dravidian or Tamilian at bottom” (quoted by Nallaswami Pillai 1898-99: 112). In the logic of contestatory classicism, Aryan Brahmans had not only been responsible for bringing about the end of the Dravidian golden age, but they had also stolen all that was originally and truly Tamil and passed it off as their own (Maraimalai Adigal 1963, 1966; Savariroyan 1900-1901). Misinformed by such crafty Brahmans, Western scholars had got India’s history all wrong. So instead of beginning in the North and with “the Aryan Conquest,” Sundaram Pillai suggested that the “scientific historian” should begin his study in the South, which was after all, “India proper” (quoted by Nallaswami Pillai 1898-99: 113).
Tamil and the Nostalgia for Civilization
From early in this century, Tamil’s classicist devotees went about the task of setting the record straight. The result has been a new—and, from the devotee’s perspective, an infinitely more satisfactory—script for the Tamil (and Indian) past. In “the hoary past” (going back millions of years ago, in many accounts), there had been an ancient mega-continent (consisting of present-day Australia, Africa, and southern Asia) where Tamil had flourished. This was the land referred to as “Kumarikkaṇṭam” in ancient Tamil texts and attested to as “Lemuria” by Western scientists. Classicism offered brief but nostalgic portrayals of Kumarikkaṇṭam, imagined as the home of the first two Tamil academies that produced countless literary masterpieces. This state of prelapsarian bliss came to an end with a series of floods, which destroyed the original Tamil civilization and which compelled Tamil speakers to fan out and civilize different parts of the world, taking their language with them. “Traces of this wide dispersion are found in Palestine, Egypt, Italy, Scandinavia, and far-off Erin in the names of places with the suffix ur, in the modes of life pursued, in the resemblances of the Tamilian myths to those of Greece and to the northern sagas” (Purnalingam Pillai 1945: 4). So, the urban remains of the Indus Valley and the great poems of the Canḳam age were only the later remnants of a much more ancient Tamilian civilization, established at the very beginning of time. Orientalism had thus got wrong not only the history of India, but that of the world as well, for it was the Tamil-speaking land which was the “cradle” of the “whole human race” and of “human civilization” (K. Appadurai 1975; Devaneyan 1966; Somasundara Bharati 1912).
The consolidation of industrial modernity in the West has frequently sparked nostalgia for a life in nature, away from city lights and urban sprawls, amid fresh fields and rolling pastures. Tamiḻppaṟṟu, I have insisted, is a discourse of modernity. But it was conducted in the milieu of a colonial culture whose own ideology of the civilizing mission deemed that the natives lacked “culture” and “civilization.” Tamil’s modern devotees, therefore, yearn not for nature but for culture and for civilization. The archaeological remains of the Indus Valley and the poems of the Canḳam age, not to mention the antediluvian continent of Lemuria, enabled them to claim that Tamil speakers, too, had “civilization,” just “like the Greeks,” but even earlier. In 1967, C. N. Annadurai (1909-69), a devotee of Tamil who was also the chief minister of the state of Tamilnadu, gave a speech at Annamalai University in Chidambaram in which he extolled the virtues of the Canḳam poems and the antiquity of “Dravidian civilization.” He then called upon the students to carry “the message that our classics contain to the entire world and declare that what was the most ancient here is what is being introduced today as the most modern” (quoted in Ryerson 1988: 141-42, emphasis mine). Reversing the logic of Europe’s civilizing mission, tamiḻppaṟṟu thus claimed that Tamil speakers did not need to be granted civilization, for they had possessed it all along, long before any one else, and indeed had bestowed it upon the rest of the world. But such a claim has come with its own costs. For in its anxiety to secure membership in the select club of the civilized, tamiḻppaṟṟu reinforced Europe’s civilizational model of the world. So, ironically, the “uniqueness” of Tamil and its “civilized” state is claimed by demonstrating its similarity with other “civilized” cultures, by insisting Tamil speakers were, after all, “the Greeks of the East” (Purnalingam Pillai 1985: 5-6).