India and The World at Large is Waiting for a Tamil Soft Power Resurgence: Dr Nagaraj Paturi

India and The World at Large is Waiting for a Tamil Soft Power Resurgence: Dr Nagaraj Paturi

"Tamil happens to be the richest source for those researching and reviving Indic indigenous knowledge systems and Indic indigenous soft power" says Director,  Inter-Gurukula-University Centre, Indic Academy Dr Nagaraj Paturi.

A teacher of Vedic Aesthetics/Poetics as applied to Classical Literature, Traditional Indian Grammar and Modern Linguistics for several decades, CSP spoke to him about Tamil as source of India's soft power. Dr Paturi says:

Entire 'Hindu' society is indebted to Tamil society for its contribution in preserving the vibrant temple culture in many of its massive temples, vibrant classical music and dance traditions, preservation of the itihasas and puranas with a large number of folk versions well seeped into the deep intricacies of Tamil folk, tribal and popular life.

Is Tamil language an element of India’s soft power in a way that distinguishes it from other languages?

Certainly. The potential of each regional Indian language and the literature, knowledge systems and soft power is unique. But the conservative, local-centric and localization-centric worldview of Tamils preserved many ancient folk and classical aspects of Indic cultural heritage, counterparts of which are found lost in other regions of India.

For example, there are certain regional traditions of Indic medical systems like the Siddha system that are preserved here intact. The wellness oriented medicine - influenced food and culinary culture that is found in all its diversity throughout India is more a part of household culture among Tamils than elsewhere. The temple-centric soft power aspects such as the knowledge of Aagamas, sthaapatya, design and temple-centric legacy of social, physical and mental wellness etc., the secretive Yogic traditions etc. are well preserved here. India and the world at large is waiting for the potential of a Tamil soft power resurgence to benefit India in particular and the world at large now more than ever.

How did the declaration of Tamil as a Classical Language trigger a sort of classical language rivalry among other Indian languages, did this help growth of regional languages?

The story starts with the use of the word ‘Classical Language’ with reference to Indian languages, by the Europeans particularly the British. European connotation of 'classical' comes from their own categorizing of ancient Greece and Rome as ‘classical’. As part of this, they classified Greek land Latin as 'classical' languages and in contrast, called their contemporary European languages as 'vernacular' and 'modern' languages. [For all European 'nations' formation of nations was part of the development making modern history modern. Ancient history of Greece and Rome were considered as the common heritage of all modern European nations (irrespective of whether these nations had historical connection with ancient Greece and Rome or not.)]

Following this, they categorized Sanskrit and Persian under 'Classical Languages' and all the contemporary major languages of India under Modern Languages’. Tamils, who have been pro-ancient and conservative and take pride in their language, culture, temples, food etc. with origins in a very ancient past, were not able to accept the 'modern' label.

Meanwhile, Europeans came up with theories of Indo-European languages and Dravidian languages according to which Tamil (and other south Indian languages) have no genetic relationship with Sanskrit. The Aryan-Dravidian theory which resulted from these language family theories created a new rivalry between Tamil and Sanskrit.

Now the fight of the Tamils to get a classical status to get out of the 'modern' label turned into a fight for the position of a language more ancient than Sanskrit. Finally when Government of India, in 2004, declared Tamil as a classical language, Tamils felt highly fulfilled. As part of this declaration GoI allotted Rs 100 crore for the development of Tamil.

This declaration and allotment of a big funds made other language groups start fighting for classical status for their languages. Finally in 2008, GoI declared Kannada and Telugu too as classical languages. They too got Rs 100 crore allotted for the development of each of those languages. Very soon, Malayalam and Oriya too got the status. These developments made Tamil loose its unique position as the only language other than Sanskrit having the status of Classical language.

Did this help hinder the growth of regional languages? If the intended meaning of this question is that taking pride in ancient nature of a language may hinder the progress of the language towards contemporary applications, yes, this is a theoretical possibility, logically imaginable. Many people argued that craving for a classical status is the same as craving for a dead language status and is not compatible with the living nature of languages like Tamil.

But this theoretical possibility is not valid in the case of Tamil and Sanskrit. The either-or model of classical so dead or living so modern was developed after Latin which is classical and is treated as dead vis-a-vis living European languages, which are all modern. Some Tamil lovers like the classical so dead status for Sanskrit, while not accepting the same for Tamil. Though Sanskrit is not living in the same sense as in the case of Tamil, Sanskrit cannot be called dead in similitude to Latin. Latin has no life in the modern period the way Sanskrit has. The point is Tamil and Sanskrit are both classical and living languages. So claiming / accepting classical status for Tamil or any other regional language of India does not contradict their living modern nature and hence does not hinder their progress.

Moreover, getting classical status provided a great opportunity for the revival of classical studies, researching classical sources, developing contemporary relevance of the classical aspects of these languages. However, a lot more needs to be done in the classical studies of regional languages.

How is Tamil different from other Indian languages and what is its appeal to people outside the Indian fold?

Tamil is different from North Indian, North-Eastern and Santhali-like languages which are Indo-European (more particularly Indo-Iranian), Sino-Tibetan (Tibeto-Burman), Austro-Asiatic (Mundarian) languages respectively. But it shares many similarities with different Indian languages including Sanskrit and Prakrit on account of India being a Linguistic Area (Sprachbund) and the resultant 'convergence' among Indian languages. It is closer to south Indian languages on account of its being a Dravidian language. Among south Indian /Dravidian languages, it is considered to be the most conservative in the sense that it retained most forms and features of the proto-Dravidian.

Another distinction is that its literary records are the most ancient among all the south Indian languages. It is the earliest among the south Indian languages to have shifted from oral to written communication and into regional language / mother tongue medium from Sanskrit medium. It has also the distinction of having the least number of Tatsama (word-root not localized) Sanskrit borrowings and having almost all the Sanskrit borrowings as Tadbhavas (words localized to the level of word-root). (This intense tendency of localizing the borrowings gives the impression of no borrowings and as such Tamil is understood by its speakers and viewed by outsiders as having no Sanskrit in it.)

Tamil is the only Indian language which continues the pre-modern tendency of diglossia, i.e., the form used across the regions and social groups for common communication purposes like media, public lectures, official language, textbooks etc.  All these features of Tamil being local-centric, localizing and conservative are consistent with the Tamil society's general orientation in the arenas of culture, politics etc.

What is Tamil’s relationship with Sanskrit and how can this be a point of interest to International linguists (what does the changing relationship and borrowings between these two languages teach us about how languages interact, develop and change?

Tamil's interface with Sanskrit is almost as old as that of other south Indian languages. But the way Tamil received the influence of Sanskrit, as I already said, is different from the way other south Indian languages did. In Telugu and Kannada there are a significant number of Tatsama (word-root not localized) Sanskrit borrowings alongside equally significant number of Tadbhavas (words localized to the level of word-root). Tamil having almost all the Sanskrit borrowings as Tadbhavas (words localized to the level of word-root), makes it look distinctly different from the other three major south Indian languages.

Regarding the interest of international linguists, it is the learning of Tamil by Bishop Robert Caldwell which made him realize the distinction of south Indian languages from Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages and lead to the formulation of Dravidian Family of Languages (1856). This interest in the distinctions of Tamil continued to attract many international scholars to its study along with other Dravidian languages during the early 20th century and later.

It should be noted that including Bishop Caldwell, the interest of many international scholars included highlighting and emphasizing the fault lines in Indian society. (He identified south Indian Brahmins with Indo-Europeans, partly based on his belief that the Indo-Europeans had "higher mental gifts and higher capacity for civilisation". Caldwell asserted that the low-caste Chanar were not merely Tamil speakers but an 'indigenous Dravidian' people, distinct ethnically and, most critically for him, religiously, from their high-caste oppressors, whom he referred to as 'Brahmanical Aryans' (in this case 'Aryan' as an ethnic signifier for foreign and 'Brahmanical' to signify the 'Hinduism' of the high-caste). *

These wildly speculative claims, well outside the scope of linguistics, were intended "to develop a history which asserted that the indigenous Dravidians had been subdued and colonized by the Brahmanical Aryans". However, the first edition of Caldwell's grammar was 'met with firm resistance' by the Chanars precisely because they 'did not like the idea of being divorced from Brahmanical civilization', the very division Caldwell was hoping to exploit.

The book has been described as being on occasion "pejorative, outrageous, and somewhat paternalistic. But on the whole, his studies represent a pioneering effort to understand religions completely foreign to the British mind". In the domain of Dravidian linguistics though, it remains a respected work today.

Chidambaram temple (Pic by Jay  Shankar)

What is the changing relationship and how do the borrowings between these two languages teach us about how languages interact, develop and change?

All 'rich' languages of the world acquired their richness through borrowings from other languages. Tamil is no exception borrowing from other languages including Arabic, Persian and English. One of its earliest sources of borrowing was Sanskrit and later Prakrit. But Tamil not only kept the borrowings in the tadbhava form but also conserved native Tamil forms more abundantly than the other south Indian languages. In other words, Tamil's richness is not just due to borrowings but even due to its conservative retention of nativity. In carefully and meticulously conserving its early form to the level of roots and in preserving rich oral and written sources of indigenous knowledge systems of a very ancient past, Tamil is similar to Sanskrit.

But what usually misses the attention of many contemporary observers, emphasising or blinded by the distinctions of Sanskrit and Tamil is the fact that Tamil language, culture and social life evolved into what later came to be known as 'Hindu' culture due to amalgamation of Vedic / Sanskrit with the native language, culture and social life. Hinduism is indebted to Tamil society for its contribution in preserving the vibrant temple culture in many of its massive temples, vibrant classical music and dance traditions, preservation of the itihasas and puranas with a big number of their folk versions well seeped into the deep intricacies of Tamil folk, tribal and popular life.

Because of these facts Tamil happens to be the richest source for those engaged in the researching and reviving the Indic indigenous knowledge systems and Indic indigenous soft power.

Another fact that misses the attention of most contemporary observers of Indian society is that the interface between Vedic and regional languages, cultures and social life did not lead to the total absorption of one into the other. The intercultural interface between the two gave rise to what I call, borrowing from contemporary cross-cultural studies, a 'third culture' which is a mediating culture resulting from the amalgamation of the two.

Interestingly, in India, this third culture became mainstream leaving the original form of both the contributors almost intact. In the case of Tamil, the retention of the nativity, the regional contributor is more intense. As a result, the potential for research and revival of Indic indigenous knowledge systems and Indic indigenous soft power from the Tamil native traditions such as Siddha etc. is enormous.

In a globalising world where only a handful of languages tend to dominate, how should regional and sub-regional languages maintain and cultivate their language and literature. How and why is this of value to the larger global community?

It is true that globalization imposes uniformity, leading to the loss of diversity. Conversely, the awareness about the need for diversity of cultural expressions is increasing. The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions organized by UNESCO in 2005 showed that the whole world is recognising the value of preservation and promotion of regional languages and literature along with their cultures.

But in India, this issue assumes special significance because of the colonial domination of the English language. Borrowed ideas such as the need for a national language have created a new disadvantage for regional Indian languages and literatures.

Sri Rajiv Malhotra-ji exhorted Indians to reclaim their authority for Sanskrit studies. In fact, it is good news that western Indologists in classical regional languages and literature are fewer compared to those in Sanskrit. The number and depth of Indian local scholarship of these languages and literatures too is increasing. So it is time we awaken ourselves and not allow the authority in this area slip from our hands.

Preserving, protecting and promoting local expertise and local perspective in classical regional Indian languages and literatures will be helpful for the global community too in terms of benefits that true diversity offers.


  • [Daughrity, Dyron B. (2005). "Hinduisms, Christian Missions, and the Tinnevelly Shanars: A Study of Colonial Missions in 19th Century India". Alberta: University of Calgary. pp. 4, 7.

(Feature picture of Darasuram temple by Jay Shankar)