BI-CENTENARY OF ROBERT CALDWELL(1814-1891) – A POLYGLOT MISSIONARY

The history of Tamil has undergone a remarkable rejuvenation in the opening decades of the 19th century in the hands of European missionaries. They all belong to  various denominations of Christianity but their only and one objective was proselytising the native Indians into Christianity. Hence learning of local languages became imperative for them.

They learnt Tamil, for example so thoroughly as to produce Tamil – English Dictionaries and highlighted the uniqueness and eminence of Tamil. The Tamil prose they have developed well and brought it to the door step of commoners. They have liberated Tamil from the poetic confines of the pundits  and donned it with lucidity and clarity. Of all these foreign missionaries, the one who was commemorated on the 7th of May 2014 was Robert Caldwell. He studied Tamil in a comparative aspect and established its ancientry and supremacy.

This Irish-born Caldwell became a Protestant Missionary at the young  age of 20. The London Missionary Society enabled him to enter the Glasgow University where he studied Latin and Greek along with Theology and comparative philology.

The London Society deputed him to serve in Madras in January 1838. He learnt Telugu and went on tours to Telugu speaking areas also. Just three years afterwards, he was posted at Idaiyangudi in Tirunelveli District and worked among the illiterate Palmyra climbers and agricultural workers. As a typical evangelist, he not only preached Bible but started schools and induced boys and girls to get enrolled as students. He was eminently instrumental in educating the poor illiterates.

As a multi-lingual scholar, he proved himself the best after the publication of his book, A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Family of Languages in 1856. This volume written in English is an eye-opener to highlight the importance of Tamil as a classical language.

Caldwell has established that Tamil is the earliest of all Dravidian languages and in  a way  a parental language to Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada in the South of India, and even a tribal language Brahui in Afghanistan. The Tamil is as old as Sanskrit, capable of standing on its own in its structure, Grammar, vocabulary and literary heritage.

Tamil is in no way a dependant on Sanskrit. In indicating numerals, case-endings, syntax and numbers, Tamil has proved itself unambiguously original. He has also established after a comparative paradigm that hundred thousand words of Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada can be traced back to the Tamil root words. Later n, they became heavily Sanskritised is a different thing. Entry of Sanskrit into Tamil was also there but Tamil kept its individuality.

It is with this comparative note that Caldwell silenced the Sanskrit scholars who went on arguing that there had been no Tamil without the base of Sanskrit. He has also proved that Sanskrit belongs to the Indo-European family of languages but Tamil is topping the list of a separate Dravidian family of languages. The credit of establishing the distinctive identity of Tamil as a separate language goes to Caldwell.

Even though the word ‘Dravidian’ has already been there, it has been documentarily popularized by Caldwell. Caldwell has also written A Political and General History of Tinnevelly (1881). In 1849, he wrote a book, Nadars of Tirunelveli but it was subjected to criticism and subsequently withdrawn
However, Caldwell’s contribution to the growth of Christianity and to that of Tamil is marvellous. His comparative Grammar inspired the non-brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu.

On the occasion of the Second World Tamil Conference at Chennai, roughly about eighty years after the death of Caldwell, his statue was erected near the Marina Beach at Chennai in 1967. In honouring the memory of this great multi-lingual scholar, a postal stamp was also issued on that occasion by the Government of India.

Roughly about fifty three years he served in Tamil Nadu. Even though he breathed his last in Kodiakanal, his mortal remains were buried in Idayankudi in the precincts of the Church that he himself had built earlier. Among the comparative philologists and among the scholarly public, Caldwell is very well remembered for his selfless service, scholarship and sincerity of purpose.

- Dr. Palany Arangasamy

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