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
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
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'
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,
of secular poetry of the Sangam period and
(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,
"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
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
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.