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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Tamil Studies in Germany - Thomas Malten

Tamil Studies in Germany

Prof.Thomas Malten
Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies,
Cologne University and Department of Lexicography,
Institute of Asian Studies, Chemmanchery, Chennai

Lecture at Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai, 17 March 1998
[see also Proposed Closure of Tamil Studies in Germany, 14 November 2004]

In the preceding lectures we have heard about contributions made by German missionaries to Tamil studies particularly in the field of Tamil lexicography and grammar. The study of Tamil language and literature in Germany today - the topic of my lecture - is pursued mainly at two universities, the University of Heidelberg and the University of Cologne. [This is meant in the sense that people are specifically employed for this particular field of teaching and research in Indology - there are of course many more German universities where Tamil has been taught at some time or other in the recent past].

Academic Tamil studies in Germany are based on the efforts of the missionaries, their establishment at universities, however, is of quite recent origin - about 30 to 35 years back, in the 1960s, when the first two World Tamil Conferences were held at Paris and Chennai, which may have helped in 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 Tamil language and literature have developed tremendously in many branches, particularly during the last 100-150 years.

The works of Arumuga Navalar, the rediscovery and publication of the ancient classics begun by U.V. Swaminatha Aiyar, the appearance of the poet Cupramaniya Parati, the development of a thriving modern narrative prose literature, beginning with the publication of the first Tamil novel, Vªtan¤yakam Pi¥¥ai's "Pirat¤pa mutaliy¤r carittiram " in 1879 followed by R¤jamaiyyar's "Kamal¤mp¤¥ carittiram" a few years later and a host of prose works in this century have all served to make the study of Tamil a very worthwhile and rewarding academic subject in many countries of the world today.

It is because of this that recently the Institute of Indology in Cologne has been officially renamed as "Institute of Indology and Tamil Studies".

The only explanation I can find for the rather late establishment of Tamil Studies in Germany, is that in the first part of this century the history of Germany was overshadowed by the catastrophies of the two world wars. Only in the past 40 years Germany has enjoyed continued peace and prosperity in this century. But these are the necessary preconditions for the opening and establishment of new academic pursuits in the field of the languages and literatures of Asia.

[In German academic parlance: "Orchideenfach" - a subject of study likened to an orchid flower, being considered as rare, beautiful, bizarre, expensive - and, well - rather useless, is the implication.]

Between the two world wars Tamil studies had been kept up by two former missionaries. One was Hilko Wiardo Schomerus, a professor of theology who among other things translated the Vin¤yaka pur¤ºam and the Citampara mah¤tmyam, both yet to be published and Hermann Beythan [known here as: Peyt¤Ê C¤stiriy¤r, who closely worked with the noted Tamil scholar Mª. V¯. Vªºuk-p¤lappi¥¥ai at Madras]. He was a lecturer at the Institut fuer Auslandskunde at Berlin and author of a detailed grammar of Tamil published 1943 at the height of the war. This grammar is still very useful when studying the complexities of the morphological system of Tamil. It is now being prepared for a re-edition at Cologne using Beythans own annotated copy, kept at the Staatsbibliothek Berlin. Schomerus and Beythan died in the aftermath of World War II leaving their work unfinished.

Tamil Studies in Germany are institutionalized as part of the wider study of the classical (and nowadays also several modern) Indian languages and literatures usually referred to as Indology, of which there are professorial chairs and institutes at eighteen German universities.

I shall now try to retrace the development of Tamil Studies at the universities of Heidelberg and especially of Cologne in some detail and I hope that in the course of this lecture some questions like:

- What is the extent (and limitation) of Tamil study and research in in Germany?
- What are the current research projects, especially in collaboration with institutions in TamiÈn¤·u,
- What are the future prospects in this field?
[- And may be also the question: What are the reasons that Germans study (and should study) Tamil?]

can be, at least partly, answered.

Around 1965 two new chairs of Indology were established, one at Cologne University, one at Heidelberg University. To the chair at Cologne the late Prof. K. L. Janert was appointed. His staff consisted in succession of Prof. Mary M¤cil¤maºi [1968], who died recently, Dr. K. N¤ccimuttu, now Professor of Tamil at the University of Trivandrum, and Dr. P.R. Subramanian, who worked for nearly ten years at Cologne university before returning to TamiÈn¤·u. He is now chief lexicographer and main driving force behind the innovative Tamil dictionaries taÉk¤lat tamiÈ-tamiÈ akar¤ti and taÉk¤la maraputto·ar akar¤ti, both of which have set new standards in Tamil lexicography. [May his path breakiing dictionary work continue and get the recognition it so richly deserves!]

Professor Janert, besides starting a collection of Tamil books for the institute's library, which is now - with a holding of about 40.000 volumes - 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 Winslows famous 19th century Tamil-English dictionary, and finally 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, which shortly is to be published posthumously, as Prof. Janert died in 1994. During his tenure one PhD was produced: Dr. Ulrike Niklas did her PhD thesis at Cologne on the classical work Mutto¥¥¤yiram. She also compiled a very detailed systematic catalogue of Tamil classical literature available in the institute's library, which was also published.

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. Ayy¤turai T¤m-taraÊ (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. In Heidelberg so far three PhDs in Tamil have received their degrees, the first being myself with a thesis on reduplicated verb stems (ira··aikki¥avi) in Tamil, the second Thomas Lehmann, who worked on the grammar of Ca³kam poetry. Before that he wrote a comprehensive syntactic account of Modern Tamil, which was published in Pondicherry. Dr. Lehmann is now working on a grammar of Middle Tamil. The third is Jacques Deigner with a thesis on the syntactic analysis of the verbal participle and infinitive, shortly to be published by the Cologne institute.

At the moment I think there are about ten students studying Tamil in Heidelberg. After the retirement of Prof. Berger unfortunately Tamil can no longer be taken as a subject for a PhD thesis and it remains to be seen whether Tamil teaching will continue after the retirement of Dr. Dhamotharan in two or three years time. It is hoped that Tamil will remain represented in Heidelberg if only due to its importance as THE major South Indian component of Indian culture.

Let me now turn to the current situation at Cologne University.

When Professor Kapp, a specialist in the languages of the Nilgiri tribes and in Comparative Dravidian, assumed his office in 1992 he immediately turned his attention to strenghtening research and teaching in Tamil.

At that time two students were about to finish their M.A. with a specialization in a Tamil subject. One wrote a comparative account of some of Ka. N¤. Cuppiramaºiyam's short stories, the second an appraisal of the works of U.Vª. C¤min¤taiyar. At the moment three PhD candidates are working on their theses, one engaged in an evaluation and a first complete translation into German of the stories of MauÊi, the other on the beginnings of the Tamil novel again together with a complete transaltion into German of Kamal¤p¤¥ carittiram. The third candidate is working on a description of the Siddha medical system of TamiÈn¤·u.

Before Prof. Kapp the study of Tamil had been restricted to a subsidiary subject exclusively in combination with Sanskrit as the main subject. Now students have been given the choice to begin their study with any of the three languages Tamil, Sanskrit and 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 together with 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.

With regard to the library of the institute two decisions were made,

one - to try to get all new Tamil book publications each year,

two - to start a continuous collection of weekly and monthly journals like £Êanta vika·aÊ, Kumutam, Pªcum pa·am and about one hundred other popular journals which are not generally available from research libraries and which have a tendency to end up as peanut or sugar bags shortly after publication.

These journals are now kept safely bound in the dry air on the insect free shelves of a German university institute's library. It can safely be predicted that in 20 or 30 years these publications will give researchers a unique glimpse of the everyday life of Tamilnadu 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. Fifteen students "crowded" our beginners' course in the last winter semester. [An unheard of number I can assure you.]

There are now about 25-30 students in Cologne taking Tamil as their main or subsidiary subject of studies.

Under the German university system an M.A. student of the arts and humanities has to select three subjects for study from different departments, for example German studies combined with linguistics and indology, or indology combined with anthropology and geography.

An average German student entering a university at the age of say nineteen or twenty usually has then only his or her first contact with Tamil, its script, its very difficult grammar and lexicon - at the same time as he or she begins grappling with two more difficult subjects at the university level. This leads to the situation that students will get only four hours of language instruction per week in Tamil. As there are only two or three people to teach courses from the beginner's upto the last year level of an eight semester study course. These factors combine to force the students 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.

A solution to this problem can only come from encouriging students of Tamil to come to Tamilnadu in the semester holidays and on the other hand, having visiting professors from Tamilnadu for different disciplines like linguistics, history, sociology, literature, religion coming to the institute on a regular basis for one semester or so and give lectures, which could be built into the regular syllabus. This will enable students and staff to get a deeper insight into various subjects which are of importance to the study of Tamil and would greatly enhance the quality of the study course. It would make them familiar with the latest research in the field and enable them to built contacts for further advanced studies in Tamilnadu. There is a cultural exchange program between India and Germany under which such a program should be arranged very soon.

Let me now turn to the Tamil research projects which have been taken up by our institute:

1) Digitization or computerization of Tamil literature on a fairly large scale.

This project, named Pongal2000, as it is then to end its first stage, is pursued in collaboration with the Institute of Asian Studies here at Chennai and the Tamil Department at the South Asia Language Center at Berkeley, USA. It has received initial funding from the University of Cologne and has achieved so far the conversion of approximately 10 million words from printed text to machine readable format. 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. Also a selection of the 100.000 Tamil palm leaf manuscripts known to be scattered in the libraries of India and Europe is to be taken up for digitization with Unesco funding at the Institute of Asian Studies. Through this many very rare Tamil works will become available for research. A further factor is that by using machine readable Tamil texts the methods of linguistic or literary research themselves are changed and enhanced as regards the speed, accuracy and depth of research. With this aim in view already four research scholars have taken up training in methods of digital editing, indexing and parsing of Tamil texts at the Institute of Asian Studies since last year.

2) The Pongal2000 project is closely connected with the production of a comprehensive digital Tamil(-English) dictionary being developed by the Institute of Asian Studies together with our institute, for which the digital Tamil texts are used as lexical source material. 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 far about 15 major dictionaries have been converted and allow already a much faster access to meanings of Tamil words than the conventional method of thumbing pages. Many dictionaries, like the Malabar-English dictionary of Fabricius or the three volume of the Madurai Sangam Dictionary published early this century and many more of the rarest kind will become available for easier reference and for lexicography in particular. For the edition of important bilingual Tamil dictionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries, mostly in manuscript form, we collaborate with Professor Rajamanickam SJ of the De Nobili Research Institute at Loyola College, Chennai.

3) A number of major classical texts like the complete Ca³kam and Postca³kam literature, Cilappa·ik¤ram, Periyapur¤ºam, Tiruv¤cakam, Kampar¤m¤yaºam to name at random a few 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. These texts can be searched for the occurrence of particular words or verses much like an index but can also be read in sequence in Tamil script much like a book. It is the first large online depository for any Indian language and further enhancements are being made under the Pongal2000 project at the Institute of Asian Studies where several scholars are working full-time on this project.

4) Another major project of our institute is the construction of a computerized catalogue of Tamil printed books based primarily on our computerized library catalogue. It is intended to incorporate bibliographical information from other sources and is believed lead to a much clearer and detailed picture of the history of published Tamil literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The final tally of books will be around 100.000, but noboy knows the exact number now.

5) At our institute Dr. Niklas is working on a descriptive catalogue of Tamil manuscripts kept in German libraries, a long term program of the Staatsbibliothek Berlin and the Academy of Sciences at Goettingen; she is very shortly also to present her post PhD thesis (Habilitation) on Tamil rhetorics (V¯rac-Èiyam-Ala³k¤rappa·alam in comparison with Taº·iyala³k¤ram). This will qualify her to become the first homegrowm full Professor of Tamil at a German university.

6) The first number of a multilanguage online-journal named 'K-lam - A Mirror of Tamil Culture' has been launched recently. It comprises translations from Tamil literature, documentation of popular Tamil culture including festivals and cinema among other things, and is put together by the students and the staff of the institute.

I think it can be said that Tamil studies in Germany are firmly established for the forseeable future, at least at the University of Cologne. There are a number of bright and motivated students who have to be encouraged to continue their academic careers in this field. Much depends on long term academic activities and there are in my opinion two basic factors which will determine their future:

One is the building up or intensification of contacts and exchange of students and staff with Tamil research institutions here in TamiÈn¤·u and other countries where Tamil is spoken. This seems to me the only way of enhancing the quality of Tamil teaching and research in Germany. We would be very glad to receive concrete proposals in this regard.

The second and closely connected with the first is the full-scale application of Information Technology in the field of Tamil Studies which will enable a much easier and more comprehensive access to and a sharing of resources between people in the numerous academic institutions especially here and elsewhere in the world. This has already begun in Europe and America and I appeal to the concerned people here to put information about Tamil research activities and their results here on Web sites and also encourage more scholars on all levels to avail themselves of the existing email facilties which are after all not at all expensive or difficult to use.

We are very fortunate to have, in the person of the German Consul General, a friend and supporter of Tamil Studies and his diplomatic capabilities will, I am sure, go a long way to greatly promote the cultural exchange between Tamilnadu and Germany, as has already been done by his organizing this lecture series.

I would like to close my paper with the remark that many relevant details that should find the way into a written account of Modern Tamil studies in German had to be left out here as I could not refer to our library in preparing this paper and I think that some topics missed by me can be elaborated on further in the following discussion. There are certainly several people in this audience who can throw light on many details connected with this topic.

One example of an entirely new development at our institute is that an increasing number of students of Indian origin who have grown up in Germany are now starting to study Indian languages in an effort to acquaint themselves with their cultural background in an intensive way. There are also a number of Indian academics residing in the area who have taken up teaching Indian language and other courses for the benefit of the students.

A new effort at establishing Tamil at the University of Halle, where, as we know, everything started, is being made by Dr. Habil Michael Bergunder, who is here among us, to take up the study of Tamil language and culture begun by Ziegenbalg and his successors. I may also mention, that Dr. Daniel Jeyaraj, dean of the Gurukul Archives, is going to present his thesis on Ziegenbalg's Malabarisches Heidenthum to the University of Cologne for a post doctoral degree.

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