The Missionary Devotee
Along the beachfront in Madras city called the Marina are a series of statues that dot the mile-long esplanade, commemorating various personalities from the Tamil past, distant and recent: the sage Tiruvalluvar, the author of the Tirukkuṟaḷ Kannagi, the heroine of the epic poem Cilappatikāram; the seer poetess, Auvaiyar, who wrote numerous didactic verses; Kamban, the author of the Irāmāvatāram; the poets Bharati and Bharatidasan; and the nationalist V. O. Chidambaram. Interspersed among these statues are three others whose plaques identify them as the “Italian savant” Veeramamunivar [Beschi] and the “English scholars,” Robert Caldwell and George Pope. It is perhaps not surprising that in 1968, when the DMK government set up these statues to commemorate the Second International Tamil Conference, these three Europeans should have joined the ranks of poets and scholars who are revered within the devotional community as among the noblest of Tamiḻttāy’s numerous gifted sons and daughters. For a special aura surrounds those Westerners who, over the centuries, came to Tamil’s home, learned the language, and spread its glories in distant lands. They have been integrated into Tamiḻttāy’s family as her “noble sons” they have been made honorary Tamilians. In his memoirs, after a discussion of his correspondence in 1891 with the French scholar Jules Vinson over some missing texts, Swaminatha Aiyar proudly notes that while Tamiḻttāy was being cast into fire and floods in Tamilnadu, her jewels were well-preserved in a distant city like Paris (Swaminatha Aiyar 1982: 688-89). Elsewhere, he rejoices that Tamil had crossed the seas and found such love abroad (Swaminatha Aiyar 1991c: 4). Similarly, a long prose poem called Tamiḻ Vaḷarnta Katai (The story of Tamil’s growth) flags the contributions made to Tamil through the ages by such hallowed figures as Kumarakuruparar, Sivagnana Munivar, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Arumuga Navalar, and Sundaram Pillai, and then notes:
The text then laments, “Our Tamilians do not have the tamiḻppaṟṟu that these [men] had. Alas ! Alas! O Tamilnadu!”
And then came the scholars from foreign lands; With his lofty Tēmpāvaṇi, the eminent Veeramamunivar raised [Tamil] to new heights; The noble Caldwell joyously bestowed upon Tamil a comparative grammar; The incomparable G. U. Pope gifted [to it] his translation of the Tamil Veda, the Vācakam; He prided himself as a student of Tamil; Scholar Winslow created its dictionary, and supported Tamil and praised it. (Navanitakrishnan 1952: 22-23)
Indeed, a virtual hagiography has emerged around these figures whose “missionary” presence in the region is glossed over in favor of their role as “Christian devotees” of Tamiḻttāy. Adulation of these European missionaries within devotional discourses contrasts curiously with the powerful critique of missionary linguistics in Western academic circles in recent years. For rather than innocently recovering dying languages and lost literatures, missionaries colluded with colonial power structures in reconfiguring “native” vocabularies, restructuring “indigenous” grammars in accordance with Western categories, superimposing alien ways of conceptualizing languages over conventional notions, and so on (Cohn 1985; Fabian 1986; Rafael 1988). However, Tamil’s enthusiasts, and even academics in Tamilnadu today, rarely allege that these missionaries violated Tamil, though they so accuse other “foreigners,” such as Brahmans and Aryans from North India. And yet some missionaries themselves acknowledged that they had been responsible for creating a new kind of Tamil. Thus George Pope wrote in 1900 in the preface to his much lauded translation of the Tiruvācakam:
There exists now much of what is called Christian Tamil, a dialect created by the Danish missionaries of Tranquebar, enriched by generations of Tanjore, German and other missionaries; modified, purified and refrigerated by the Swiss Rhenius and the very composite Tinnevelly school; expanded and harmonized by Englishmen, amongst whom Bower (a Eurasian) was foremost in his day; and finally, waiting now for the touch of some heaven born genius among the Tamil community to make it as sweet and effective as any language on earth, living or dead.
Occasional antagonistic statements about these missionary devotees did surface within Tamil devotional discourses, in Indianism in particular as part of its attack on colonialism and English. Subramania Bharati complained in 1906 that while the colonial government was only too happy to extend its patronage to (“white”) missionaries like Pope and to their scholarship, it did not help out Tamil scholars like Swaminatha Aiyar who had for years slaved over ancient manuscripts (C. S. Subramaniam 1986: 362). Years later, Sivagnanam carefully noted the “great service” done by Caldwell, Pope, and others, which deserves “immense praise.” Nevertheless, they also sowed the seeds of separatism among Tamilians and widened the gap between Sanskrit and Tamil, he writes. Furthermore, they did not contest colonial rule nor oppose the oppression of Tamilians by the British. “Christian missionaries came to the Tamil land not to help Tamil grow but to spread Christianity,” he concludes (Sivagnanam 1970: 51).
All the same, Sivagnanam also notes that “from its early past, Tamil has never been the sole possession of the people following a particular religion. From the beginning of history it has been the people’s language, transcending religious differences” (Sivagnanam 1970: 48). And indeed, this statement accounts for the remarkable absence of animosity towards the European missionary among a large majority of the devout. They assert, in terms that we have now come to identify as Orientalist, that the missionary interest in Tamil only proved that even the West was mesmerized by its beauty. Moreover, these missionaries only demonstrated that devotion to Tamil transcends religious boundaries, for Hindus, Muslims, and Christians are all children of Tamiḻttāy and members of the same Tamil family. Love for Tamil is a superior form of love, precisely because it does not recognize sectarian and religious differences. Christian devotees of Tamil are living proof that Tamil is a truly ecumenical language. Not surprisingly, these missionaries are appropriated by the devotional community, “converted” into honorary Tamilians, and enshrined as adopted “sons” of Tamiḻttāy.
Ranking high among these adopted sons is Constantius Beschi (1680-1746/7), who was honored with the name Veeramahamunivar, “heroic great sage,” by fellow Tamil scholars for his demonstrated mastery of their language. A native of Castiglione in Italy, Beschi joined the Society of Jesus in 1698, and came to Tirunelveli around 1711. Over the next few years, he served in various adjoining parishes before he moved to the general region of Tiruchirapalli where he spent most of the rest of his life (Caldwell 1881: 240-43). Tamil’s adherents take delight in noting that Beschi cast off his European clothes, adopted the ochre robes and lifestyle of a mendicant, learned Tamil, and “Tamilized” his Christian name as Dairiyanathan. Beschi is best known for his pioneering work in grammar and lexicography, but his crowning achievement was the narration of the life of St. Joseph in Tamil in his poem Tēmpāvaṇi, probably completed around 1729. Within the devotional community, Beschi’s works are represented as “adding to Tamiḻttāy’s beauty” the Tēmpāvaṇi in particular is “the gift to Tamiḻttāy on behalf of the Christian religion” (Sivagnanam 1970: 48). Beschi died in 1747 in Ambalakadu and is buried there, but in the words of a fellow devotee, his Tēmpāvaṇi adorns Tamiḻttāy as an “unfading garland” (Sethu Pillai 1964: 10).
It is with equal affection, if not more, that the services of Reverend Robert Caldwell are celebrated. Caldwell published a number of works on the history and religious practices of southern India, many of which contain several disparaging statements on its cultural practices (Dirks 1995), but he is most remembered as the author of A Comparative Grammar of Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages (1856). Although Caldwell’s assertions have not gone unchallenged in the devotional community, there is general consensus that he laid the groundwork for the tremendous groundswell of pride in Tamil in the century following his work. In the words of a fellow devotee, Devaneyan Pavanar, “Tamil’s antiquity was spread all over the world by that worthy man, Caldwell; the seeds for taṉittamiḻ [pure Tamil] were sown by [Suryanarayana Sastri]; the revered Maraimalai Adigal raised it into a plant; I am cultivating it into a tree” (quoted in Tirumaran 1992: 109). Thus Caldwell has been not only incorporated into the family of Tamil’s devotees but given pride of place at its head, by one of their own.
Robert Caldwell, born in Ireland in 1814, arrived in Madras in 1838 as a missionary for the London Missionary Society. He spent most of his life in the small town of Idayankudi near Tirunelveli with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and in 1877 he became bishop of Tinnevelly. A fellow devotee, R. P. Sethu Pillai, writes with affection that in the fifty odd years he worked in Tamilnadu, Caldwell went home on furlough only three times. When he went back to England the third time, his friends there begged him to stay. But he refused. “I have lived all these years for Indians. As long I am alive, I will toil for them. I will give up my life in their land.” And so he did, and when he died in 1891, he was buried in Idayankudi on the grounds of the church that he had himself built. “Caldwell Aiyar worked selflessly for fifty-three years for Tamilnadu. Is he not one of Tamiḻttāy’s true sons?” concludes Sethu Pillai (1964: 32).
And there was George Pope (1820-1908), beloved among Tamil’s enthusiasts for translating into English their most revered texts, the Tirukkuṟaḷ and the Tiruvācakam. Late in his life, Pope recalled a conversation he had with a “native friend in South India.” He reportedly said to him: “ ‘I am going to live for Tamil. It shall be my great study; your people shall be my people; and I hope that my God will be theirs.’ The friend replied: ‘Sir, that is very delightful; but it means for you contempt and poverty.’ ” Tamil’s devout mention with delight that although he himself had declared that “Tamil scholarship is the direct road to poverty,” Pope dedicated his entire life to the “service of Tamil” (Sethu Pillai 1964: 11).
Born in Nova Scotia in 1820, Pope and his family emigrated to England, where at fourteen he resolved to become a missionary. He set sail for India in 1838, reportedly studying Tamil for the first time on his eight-month voyage over. He became so good at it that he preached his first sermon in Tamil upon landing in Madras. Attached at first to the Wesleyan Missionary Society, he later joined the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. His base of operations was Sawyerpuram in Tirunelveli district, where he founded a seminary. Around 1850, now married, Pope moved to Tanjavur; there, under the tutelage of the Tamil poet and fellow Christian Vedanayaka Sastri (1774-1864), he immersed himself in the study of ancient Tamil literature. This was also the most productive of his years in India, when he wrote a number of Tamil handbooks, textbooks, and dictionaries. After stints in Ootacumand and Bangalore, he returned to England in 1880 and joined Oxford University in 1884, where he taught Tamil and Telugu. It is then that he published his translations of the Tirukkuṟaḷ (1886), the Nālaṭiyār (1893), a partial translation of the Maṇimēkalai (1900), and, most important, the Tiruvācakam (1900). With great enthusiasm, an admirer, Saravana Pillai, greeted Pope’s translation of the Tiruvācakam:
In this world, surrounded by oceans and abounding with languages, Who is that great scholar who rendered into faultless English our divine Tamil Veda's truths in such a manner that even those who do not know the glorious Tamil may understand? Born as jewel of the English land, He has with affection embraced our precious Tamiḻttāy as his foster mother. He is a worthy Christian preceptor. He is the notable who bears the name Pope (quoted in Sethu Pillai 1964: 18)
Although Pope did not die in the Tamil country nor is he buried there, Tamil enthusiasts mention with satisfaction that he had insisted that his epitaph should bear the phrase tamiḻ māṇavaṉ, “student of Tamil.”