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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 26, may 1-15, 2009
Tamil studies in Germany
(From a lecture at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai,
by THOMAS MALTEN, Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies, Cologne University.*)

The study of Tamil language and literature in Germany has been pursued mainly at two universities, the University of Heidelberg and the University of Cologne. This is said in the sense that these two universities alone employ people specifically for this particular field of teaching and research in Indology; there have, of course, been many more German universities where Tamil has been taught at sometime or other.

Academic Tamil studies in Germany began with the efforts of the missionaries in the 18th Century. Their establishment at universities, however, is of quite recent origin, in the 1960s when the first two World Tamil Conferences were held in Paris and Chennai, creating an awareness and interest in the subject.

The reason for the establishment of Tamil studies at the University level in Germany can be found in the recognition of the fact that Tamil is the only classical literary language of India besides Sanskrit and that the Tamil language and literature have developed tremendously in many branches, particularly during the last 100-150 years.

The works of Arumuka Navalar, the rediscovery and publication of the ancient classics begun by U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, the appearance of the poet Subramania Bharati, the development of a thriving modern narrative prose literature, beginning with the publication of the first Tamil novel, Vedanayakam Pillai’s Piratapa Mutaliyar Carittiram in 1879, followed by Rajamaiyyar’s Kamalampal Carittiram a few years later, and a host of distinguished prose works in this century have all served to make the study of Tamil a worthwhile and rewarding academic subject in many countries of the world today.

It is because of this that the Institute of Indology at the University of Cologne was officially renamed as “Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies”.

Between the two World Wars, Tamil studies were kept alive by two former missionaries. One was Hilko Wiardo Schomeurs, a Professor of Theology who, among other things, translated the Vinayaka Puranam and the Citampara Mahatmyam. The other was Hermann Beythan (known in India as Peytan Castiriyar, who closely worked with the noted Tamil scholar Me.Vi. Venukopala Pillai in Madras). He was a lecturer at the Institut Fuer Auslandskunde in Berlin and author of a detailed grammar of Tamil published in 1943 at the height of World War II.

Around 1965 two new chairs of Indology were established, one at Cologne University, and the other at Heidelberg University. To the chair at Cologne, the late Prof. Janert was appointed. His staff included, in succession, Prof. Mary Macilamani (1968) and Dr. P.R. Subramanian, who worked for nearly ten years at Cologne University before returning to Tamil Nadu where he became an outstanding lexicographer.

Professor Janert, besides developing the Institute’s library, which, with its holding of over 40,000 volumes, is the biggest Tamil library outside India, was engaged mainly in lexicographical work which resulted in the publication of a dictionary of English loan words in Tamil. The first reprint of Winslow’s famous 19th Century Tamil-English dictionary, and the production of a voluminous dictionary of Modern Tamil verbs running to more than 2000 typed pages with copious illustrative example sentences in Tamil and English, is shortly to be published posthumously, as Prof. Janert died in 1996. During his tenure one Ph.D. was produced: Dr. Ulrike Niklas did her Ph.D. thesis on the classical work Muttollayiram. She also compiled a detailed and systematic catalogue of Tamil classical literature available in the Institute’s library.

At about the same time in Heidelberg, Prof. Berger, after becoming head of the department of Indology at the South Asia Institute of the University, appointed Dr. Ayyadurai Dhamotharan, a linguist from the University of Trivandrum, to head its Tamil section in 1968. Dr. Dhamotharan published, among other works, a noted bibliography of Tamil dictionaries which contains more than 600 entries. At Heidelberg, by the new millennium, three Ph.Ds in Tamil had received their degrees, the first being myself with a thesis on reduplicated verb stems (Irattaikkilavi) in Tamil, the second, Thomas Lehmann, who worked on the grammar of Sangam poetry (before which he wrote a comprehensive syntactic account of Modern Tamil), and Jacques Deigner with a thesis on the syntactic analysis of the verbal participle and infinitive. After the retirement of Prof. Berger, Tamil unfortunately could not be taken as a subject for a Ph.D. thesis.

When Professor Kapp, a specialist in the languages of the Nilgiri tribes and in Comparative Dravidian, assumed office at Cologne University in 1992, he immediately turned his attention to strengthening research and teaching in Tamil. One M.A. student wrote a comparative account of some of Ka. Naa. Subramaniam’s short stories, the second M.A. student did an appraisal of the work of U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer. Of three Ph.D. candidates, one was working on an evaluation and a first complete translation into German of the stories of Mauni, the other on the beginnings of the Tamil novel, together with a complete translation into German of Kamalampal Carittiram, and the third on a description of the Siddha medical system of Tamil Nadu.

Before Prof. Kapp, the study of Tamil had been restricted to a subsidiary subject exclusively in combination with Sanskrit as the main subject. He made it possible for students to be given the choice to begin their study with any of the three languages: Tamil, Sanskrit or Hindi. The production of a Tamil primer in German was also begun as well as that of a Tamil-German dictionary for the students of the department. In addition to this, some modern Tamil texts were printed besides an elaborate commentary on grammatical usage and socio-cultural matters to enable students to work through texts faster. In this work, computers were, of course, extensively used.

The library began to acquire all new Tamil book publications every year, as well as 100 popular journals, like Ananda Vikatan and Kumudam, which are not generally available in research libraries.

It can safely be predicted that in 20 or 30 years these publications will give researchers a unique glimpse of the everyday life of Tamil Nadu as well as a good idea of today’s written and spoken language.

All these efforts have led to a remarkable increase in the number of students beginning their study of Indology with Tamil. Unfortunately, due to only a few persons available to teach courses, students have to get much additional information about Tamil language, culture, history and literature on their own initiative, mostly from books. It also means that the teaching of Tamil has to be confined in general to the written variety, whereas it would be equally important to be exposed to the spoken language and dialectal variations.

Tamil research projects taken up at Cologne include digitisation or computerisation of Tamil literature. This project, named Pongal 2000, was in collaboration with the Institute of Asian Studies in Chennai and the Tamil Department at the South Asia Language Center at Berkeley, USA. The final goal is the construction of a Tamil National Corpus which will encompass all major Tamil text categories, classical works starting from the Sangam period as well as prose selected from the earliest Portuguese Tamil prints to the latest contemporary prose works. A selection of the 100,000 Tamil palm leaf manuscript’s known to be scattered in the libraries of India and Europe is also to be taken up for digitisation with UNESCO funding at the Institute of Asian Studies. Through this, many very rare Tamil works will become available for research.

The Pongal 2000 project is closely connected with the production of a comprehensive digital Tamil (-English) dictionary being developed by the Institute of Asian Studies together with the Cologne Institute. One of the first steps consists in gathering and unifying the contents of all major dictionaries which have been written during the last 300 years. During these three centuries at least one thousand Tamil dictionaries have been produced in printed or manuscript form, a truly incredible number. Containing often very diverse information on the change of meaning of Tamil words in the course of time, these dictionaries form the base of a new lexicographic effort in Tamil which aims at tracing the development of the language in the manner and scope of the famous Oxford English Dictionary. So, work on important bilingual Tamil dictionaries of the 17th and 18th Centuries, mostly in manuscript form, is in collaboration with the De Nobili Research Institute at Loyola College, Chennai.

A number of major classical texts like the complete Sangam and post-Sangam literature, Cilapatikaram, Periyapuranam, Tiruvacakam, Kamparamayanam, etc. and their concordances have been made available in transliterated form on the Internet together with an Online Tamil-English dictionary based on the Madras Tamil Lexicon consisting of nearly 130,000 Tamil entries with English meanings and can be used by anyone with an internet connection.

Another major project of the Institute is the construction of a computerised catalogue of Tamil printed books based primarily on the Institute’s computerised library catalogue. It is hoped it will lead to a much clearer and more detailed picture of the history of published Tamil literature of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The final tally of books will be around 100,000.

Work has also been undertaken on a descriptive catalogue of Tamil manuscripts kept in German libraries.

Foot Note: * This lecture was delivered some years ago, but not much has changed today.


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