Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Tamil Language & Cerebral Power

15 November 1992

It was Winston Churchill who once said, "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see". So, to learn the future of  the Tamil language, one should study its past...


Tamil is the leading member of the Dravidian family of languages, which consists of over 20 languages spoken traditionally in the Indian subcontinent. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language (1991), authored by David Crystal, observes that,

"Tamil has the oldest written records of this family, dating from the 3rd century BC, and scholars believe it to be close to the ancestor language, known as Proto-Dravidian. But, despite the historical records and associated reconstruction, there is little agreement about the origins of the language, or its speakers. One tradition speaks of migration from land to the south, now submerged; other views suggest a movement from Asia, via the north-west, perhaps around 4000 BC....There is, however, strong support for the view that Dravidian languages were once spoken in the north of India, and were gradually displaced by the arrival of the Indo-European invaders".

Aramaic and Tamil

The monthly magazine the Middle East  reported in August 1991 that Aramaic, the language in which Jesus would have preached to his followers two millennia ago, is on the verge of extinction. Therefore, it is appropriate to compare the past development of Aramaic and Tamil simultaneously. In terms of generational scale, one millennium consists of only 40 generations (In 25 years, one generation produces its progeny to continue the cultural traditions.). Therefore, only 80 generations separate us from the time of Jesus and the Apostles.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th ed, 1990), Aramaic language was the lingua franca of the Near East around 500 BC (when Buddha was reforming Hinduism in India). The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds as well as portions of the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic. It had its greatest influence in the Middle East culture from circa 300 BC until circa AD 650 and was supplanted by Arabic. Now, the western dialect of Aramaic is spoken by only 6000-odd residents of a mountain village Maaloula, which lies 50 km north of Damascus, Syria. The eastern dialect of Aramaic survives in a few villages of Iraq, southern Turkey and the south-western Soviet Union.

Two millennia ago, the world population was around 250 million. It is an irony that though the message of Jesus Christ has spread all over the world in a multitude of languages, the mother tongue of the Messiah is now struggling to survive.

The Tamil language was relatively lucky to enjoy a strong vitality for the past 2000 years. It has been estimated that at the time of Jesus, India had a population of about 100 million. The Tamil-speaking population in India and Eelam would have been in the range of 8-10 million, two millennia ago. Within 80 generations, Tamil continues to survive, but Aramaic is now on the verge of extinction. How did this happen?

Four `C' Powers

I can postulate the influence of four `C' powers, which enabled Tamil to live and Aramaic to struggle for survival. These are, cerebral (cultural) power, commercial power, crown (and civil) power and combat power. It is the combination of these four powers which had allowed the Tamil language to survive till now. Let me illustrate the significant roles of these four `C' powers briefly.

(1) Cerebral (cultural) power: The cerebral power of approximately 1000 intellectuals at the most, during the last 80 generations, was influential in elevating Tamil into a culturally rich language. The authors of Tolkappiyam, eight anthologies of secular poetry of the Sangam period and Tirukkural (all written between the 1st and the 4th century AD), the religious saints collectively called 63 Nayanars, great poets of merit (Ilanko, Kamban and Auvayyar), goliards (Kavi Kalameham and Arumuga Navalar), composers (Arunagirinathar, Arunasala Kavirayar and Gopalakrishna Bharathy), folk physicians collectively named Chittars and religious hymnodists (Pattinattar, Thayumanavar and Ramalinga Swamigal) produced voluminous literary material to enrich the Tamil language.

(2) Commercial Power: Tamils had engaged in commerce with other nations from time immemorial. Till 500 years ago, marine navigation was one of the strong points which symbolised the Tamil commercial power and combat power. Prof. Walter Wallbank observed in his book, A Short History of India and Pakistan (1958),

"In general, Tamil civilisation was very advanced, based as it was on a flourishing sea trade. Tamil rulers, especially the Cholas, had great fleets which sailed to Ceylon, Burma, Java and even the Far East. In 45 AD, the use of the monsoon in navigation had been discovered and, taking advantage of these prevailing winds, ships could now cross the Arabian Sea instead of hugging the coast. The trade of Tamil Land with Rome was particularly active, as Europe greatly prized the spices, perfumes, precious stones and textiles of south India. Several Roman colonies were set up in Tamil Land, and it has been estimated that the annual drain from Rome to India approximated 4 million dollars".

(3) Crown (and Civil) Power: Jawaharlal Nehru, in his Glimpses of World History, makes reference to the crown (and civil) power Tamils enjoyed between the 3rd century AD and the end of 12th century. Almost 60 years ago, in a letter dated June 23, 1932, to daughter Indira, Nehru wrote:

"Farther south and east in India lay the Tamil country. Here from the 3rd century to the 9th, for about 600 years, the Pallavas ruled.... it was these Pallavas who sent out colonising expeditions to Malaysia and the eastern Islands. The capital of the Pallava state was Kanchi or Conjeevaram, a beautiful city then and even now remarkable for its wise town-planning.

"The Pallavas give place to the aggressive Cholas early in the 10th century. I have told you something of the Chola Empire of Rajaraja and Rajendra, who built great fleets and went conquering to Ceylon, Burma and Bengal. More interesting is the information we have of the elective village panchayat system they had. This system was built up from below, village unions electing many committees to look after various kinds of work, and also electing district unions. Several districts formed a province."

Then Nehru writes about the rise of  the "Pandya kingdom, with Madura for its capital and Kayal as its port. A famous traveller from Venice, Marco Polo, visited Kayal, the port, twice in 1288 and in 1293. He describes the town as 'a great and noble city', full of ships from Arabia and China, and humming with business."

(4) Combat Power: The combat power, which had been inter-twined with the crown power and commercial power, hardly needs further description. The combat history of the Pallava, Chola and Pandya dynasties has been recorded by many historians, including Nehru.

In the letter quoted above, Nehru succinctly summarised the Tamil combat power in one paragraph.

"The Tamil Pallavas rise on the east coast and the south and for a very long period they hold sway. They colonize in Malaysia. After 600 years of rule, they give place to the Cholas, who conquer distant lands and sweep the seas with their navies. Three hundred years later they retire from the scene, and the Pandyan kingdom emerges into prominence, and the city of Madura becomes a centre of culture and Kayal a great and busy port in touch with distant countries".

Nehru also infers another interesting point from the observation recorded by Marco Polo on the medieval Tamil Nadu. The chronicler from Venice had written about the imports of large number of horses into south India by sea from Arabia and Persia (currently Iran). Nehru noted, "It is said that one of the reasons why the Muslim invaders of India were better fighters was their possession of the better horses. The best horse-breeding grounds in Asia were under their control". This suggests that the medieval Tamil military strategists were preparing themselves to stop the Muslim invasion spreading towards south India, at the time of Marco Polo's visit.

The Past 500 Years

Well, the history of past five centuries (only 20 generations) show the decline of crown power, combat power and commercial power among the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Eelam. Only cerebral power sustained the Tamil language to its current status. The languages which were relatively late entrants to the cultural world such as English, French, Spanish and Arabic gained elevated status because those who spoke these languages began to dominate the world by crown power, commercial power and combat power.



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