Myth of Christian contribution to Tamil – 4
by Thamizhchelvan on 24 Jul 2010 1 Comment

Tamil prose and Christian farce!

An oft repeated propaganda is that Christian missionaries introduced “Prose” writing in Tamil. A blatant lie! When Tamil Hindus have been adept at art, literature, music, architecture and theatre, wouldn’t they have been good in prose too? Is it not outrageous and insulting to say that people from Europe came and introduced prose writing to Tamil Hindus?


Tamil as a language is at the least 2000 years old. Starting from the Sangam Era, Tamil tradition has been a literate tradition with written records, preserved down the centuries by late classical and early medieval Tamil Brahmin and Saivite Hindu scholars. It was not an ‘oral’ legacy as alleged by Christians and Dravidian racists.


We have had commentaries on almost all ancient literary works, Sangam and post-Sangam, in prose, by learned scholars such as Ilampooranaar, Senavaraayar, Peraasiriyar, Parimelazhagar, Nachinaarkkiniyaar and Deivachchilaiyaar. Saivite Hindu Adheenams have helped preserve the Classical Tamil literary tradition down the centuries. The important fact to be noted is that the continuance and preservation of written Tamil literary heritage happened despite repeated invasions and unsettled political conditions. 


The rich tradition continued in more modern times by devout Hindus such as U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, Ramachandra Dikshidhar, Neelakanda Shastri, P. Narayanaswami Iyer and Raghava Iyengar, etc in Tamil Nadu and staunch Hindu activists such as Arumuka Navalar, C.W. Thamotharam Pillai and Swami Vipulananda in Sri Lanka. 


The so-called contribution of Christian missionaries comes nowhere near the contribution of these devout Hindus to Tamil scholarship in recent times. That is mainly because these devout Hindus had Bhakti, involvement in the growth of Tamil language, passion towards the culture of the soil and the mind to sacrifice everything for the development of the language, continuance of the culture and preservation of the tradition. The missionaries focused destructively on the Christianisation of the native culture. They had ulterior motives unlinked to the Tamil language - consolidation of European rule in India and conversion of the natives to the religion of Europe.


The Lexicon story!


The website says, “The task of setting down on paper the alphabet, grammar, rules and vocabulary of the Tamil lexicon began in Christian schools, towards the end of the 19th century. It was pioneered by Father Swamy Gnanapragasam, who transcribed hundreds of ancient scripts into print. A statue in his honor can be seen in Jaffna city. His work was continued by Father Hyacinth Singarayer David, a master in Indo-Aryan languages and doctor in linguistics, who published six volumes of the lexicon...”



This is an inappropriate claim - the alphabet, vocabulary and rules of Tamil lexicon by far precede the Christian colonial missionary era. It seems Tamil Scholars in Sri Lanka are divided over the acceptance of Father Gnanapragasam as a scholar and historian. Some say he had made claims on history and linguistics that were not backed by historical evidences. For example, he said Tamil was the mother of all languages in the world! They also say that none of his works were peer reviewed by well known academics on the subject or published in reputed journals of history; he lacked post-graduate training in the historical method and was hardly a scholar of note.


Long before the arrival of Christian missionaries we had “Nigandus” or dictionaries. Tamil scholar/poet Dandapani Desikar’s direct student Sri Maniyan, who had written lexicons for many ancient Tamil literary works, says, “Nigandus were in the form of poetic verses, which made the students, teachers and research scholars to remember them easily. These Nigandus have been there since 11 century CE. But, the dictionary of alphabetical order was introduced by Foreigners”. (Interview in Rasanai monthly magazine, July 2010, Chennai) To claim that “Prose” writing was introduced by Christian missionaries and only because of their contribution Tamil got a second life in the 18th century and survived is outrageous.


Padires; Proselytisers; Printers!


The fact of the matter is that the white Christians imported ‘printing machines’ from their countries and introduced printing technology here. What for? To help them in proselytisation works and to speed up the process of conversion!


Before the introduction of paper and printing, valuable books in Tamil language were written on both sides of “palm leaves” and committed to memory. Writing on the palm leaf, a common practice in those days, was a difficult work which only a trained person could do (so also writing on stone, copper plates etc). Several written leaves were bound together with wooden or brass boards at each end and tied up into a book. For referring to anything in a book, it had to be untied, the relevant page spotted, and the matter read. This laborious process was quite easy to Tamil Hindus.


But the missionary found it extremely difficult. So he transported the printing machine, the paper and the techniques, from his native west. Another great handicap with the palm leaf was that only one copy could be written at a time; it could be duplicated only by hand copying one at a time. Every pupil under a teacher copied his own book in manuscript. But for the proselytizing missionary, many copies had to be taken at a time for distribution among prospective converts. Hence the printing machine was essential for them.


We may note that printing for the first time in India was in the Tamil language. Printing machines were imported by Jesuit priests and the first books in Tamil Nadu were printed in Tirunelvelli. The books printed through German collaboration for Danish Protestant missionaries were in vogue in the east coast around Tranquebar in Thanjavur district. (We have already seen that the German Protestant Padire Barthalomaus Ziegenbalg printed the Tamil Bible through a German machine owned by Danish Church in Tranquebar).


Similarly, the British established a printing press at Vepery in Madras for their own missionaries. The East India Company had a law which prohibited natives from opening any printing press or from printing any book. Only foreigners and missionaries (including native Christians) were permitted printing. The admirers among native Christians say the missionaries did great service to Tamil by introducing printing. But, it was done with an ulterior motive. In the matter of printing, only missionaries were encouraged by the Company. Printing in local languages helped the missionaries in their conversion work and the Company wanted proselytisation. The history of printing in India, as of any other progressive enterprise like education, shipping or even medicine, is the history of suppression of Indian activities.


Ellis, who was a civilian, and Munroe, who was governor of Madras, both took great trouble to get the Press Law annulled, but this was done only in 1835. But for this ban, printing of Tamil books by eminent Tamil Hindu scholars of the day would have commenced even in the 18th century, and a great volume of classical Tamil literature could have been preserved through print.


The Company positively helped only in the loss of a vast literary wealth in the whole of India. The loss is said to be the greatest in Tamil, because Tamil had the largest heritage of ancient classical literature in the whole of India, barring perhaps Sanskrit. (‘History of Early Printing’ from “Christianity in India – A Critical study” by Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan) 


This being the truth, the claim by Christians and Dravidian racists that Christian missionaries helped the development of the Tamil language is outrageous, atrocious, and simply fallacious. It is evident that the Christian establishment in fact destroyed the Tamil language and culture to a great extent by not allowing natives to own printing presses and print books by promulgating a law to this end. Ergo, this is the “great Christian service” to Tamil!!!


(To be concluded…)

The writer is a freelancer

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