Feature Article

India to declare Tamil as classical language

[TamilNet, Saturday, 18 September 2004, 02:45 GMT]
The Indian Union Cabinet, which met on Friday morning, decided to declare Tamil a "classical language," Press Trust of India (PTI) reported Friday. The declaration comes after years of lobbying by Tamil scholars including Prof. George Hart, Professor of Tamil, University of California, who wrote in April 2000, "To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture."

After the Cabinet meeting, Information and Broadcasting Minister, S Jaipal Reddy, said the government would consider assigning Sanskrit and other languages in this category, depending on their "heritage and legacy," the PTI report said.

Earlier, The President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in his address to the Parliament on 7 June, expressed his support for declaring Tamil a classical language.

Tamil is an official language in the state of Tamil Nadu in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore.

"The Classical status for Tamil language accorded by the Centre marked the fulfillment of a 120-year-long dream of Tamil scholars and political leaders in Tamil Nadu" reported United News of India on September 18.

"The declaration merely recognises a fact known about Tamil and will not create a new status for the language. Tamil's classical status is already known the world over by its length (duration of existence) and depth (amount of literature). Tamil's classical status will be known by its intrinsic work and not by a gazette notification," The Hindustan Times of September 19 quoted Mr. I. Mahadevan, a noted Indologist, as saying.

"Tamil is the only Indian language which has two levels — a classical level, which is more than 2,000-years-old and the modern spoken level. Sanskrit as a spoken language is virtually extinct. And in this sense Tamil shares a unique status with Greek and Latin since these too have these two components", wrote the Hindustan Times.

Prof.George HartFollowing are excerpts from Professor Hart's statement on the status of Tamil as a classical language written on 11 April 2000:

"Tamil is one of the great classical literatures and traditions of the world.

"First, Tamil is of considerable antiquity.  It predates the literatures of other modern Indian languages by more than thousand years.  Its oldest work, the Tolkappiyam, contains parts that, judging from the earliest Tamil inscriptions, dates back to about 200 BC.  The greatest works of ancient Tamil, the Sangam anthologies and the Pattuppattu, date to the first two centuries of the current era.  They are the first great secular body of poetry written in India, predating Kalidasa's works by two hundred years.

"Second, Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India that is not derived from Sanskrit.  Indeed, its literature arose before the influence of Sanskrit in the South became strong and so is qualitatively different from anything we have in Sanskrit or other Indian languages.  It has its own poetic theory, its own grammatical tradition, its own esthetics, and, above all, a large body of literature that is quite unique.  It shows a sort of Indian sensibility that is quite different from anything in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, and it contains its own extremely rich and vast intellectual tradition.

"Third, the quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it is fit to stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Chinese, Persian and Arabic.  The subtlety and profundity of its works, their varied scope (Tamil is the only premodern Indian literature to treat the subaltern extensively), and their universality qualify Tamil to stand as one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world.  Everyone knows the Tirukkural, one of the world's greatest works on ethics; but this is merely one of a myriad of major and extremely varied works that comprise the Tamil classical tradition.  There is not a facet of human existence that is not explored and illuminated by this great literature.

"Finally, Tamil is one of the primary independent sources of modern Indian culture and tradition.  I have written extensively on the influence of a Southern tradition on the Sanskrit poetic tradition.  But equally important, the great sacred works of Tamil Hinduism, beginning with the Sangam Anthologies, have undergirded the development of modern Hinduism.  Their ideas were taken into the Bhagavata Purana and other texts (in Telugu and Kannada as well as Sanskrit), whence they spread all across India.  Tamil has its own works that are considered to be as sacred as the Vedas and that are recited alongside Vedic mantras in the great Vaisnava temples of South India (such as Tirupati).  And just as Sanskrit is the source of the modern Indo-Aryan languages, classical Tamil is the source language of modern Tamil and Malayalam.  As Sanskrit is the most conservative and least changed of the Indo-Aryan languages, Tamil is the most conservative of the Dravidian languages, the touchstone that linguists must consult to understand the nature and development of Dravidian.

"In trying to discern why Tamil has not been recognized as a classical language, I can see only a political reason: there is a fear that if Tamil is selected as a classical language, other Indian languages may claim similar status.  This is an unnecessary worry.   I am well aware of the richness of the modern Indian languages -- I know that they are among the most fecund and productive languages on earth, each having begotten a modern (and often medieval) literature that can stand with any of the major literatures of the world.  Yet none of them is a classical language.  Like English and the other modern languages of Europe (with the exception of Greek), they rose on preexisting traditions rather late and developed in the second millennium.  The fact that Greek is universally recognized as a classical language in Europe does not lead the French or the English to claim classical status for their languages.

"To qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit several criteria: it should be ancient, it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.  Unlike the other modern languages of India, Tamil meets each of these requirements.  It is extremely old (as old as Latin and older than Arabic); it arose as an entirely independent tradition, with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other languages; and its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich.

"It seems strange to me that I should have to write an essay such as this claiming that Tamil is a classical literature -- it is akin to claiming that India is a great country or Hinduism is one of the world's great religions.  The status of Tamil as one of the great classical languages of the world is something that is patently obvious to anyone who knows the subject.  To deny that Tamil is a classical language is to deny a vital and central part of the greatness and richness of Indian culture."

S.S. Vasan of Trinity College, Oxford said in his article that appeared in "The Hindu" on 7 June that "Tamil has at long last gained recognition in India is wonderful, but not enough. The next step is to get other nations to recognise the classical status of Tamil and also have it recognised by world bodies like the UNESCO... Recognition by UNESCO would bring in the much-needed international funds to support the ongoing work to preserve the cultural and linguistic heritage of Tamil."

External Links:
UCBerkeley: Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language
The Hindu: The classical status of Tamil


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