Sub-project Tamil Studies

Script, Print, Memory: Re-establishing the Caṅkam in Tamilnadu

Principal investigator: Prof Dr Harunaga Isaacson

Research associate: PD Dr Eva Wilden


Manuscripts in Tamilnad

The overall number of manuscripts transmitted in Tamilnadu can only be roughly estimated. According to the catalogue of Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts (published in the 1990s by the Institute of Asian Studies), the number of Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts is approx. 25,000. However, this catalogue comprises only the larger libraries. If one takes into consideration the smaller collections of innumerable temples and private households, the figure ought to be at least twice as high. Moreover, the available catalogues abound in incomplete and/or misleading information, since they are mostly based on library-intern catalogues which most often had the form of old handwritten lists mirroring a much earlier state of affairs, before material was lost or became unusable.

Conservation of course is a very special problem, given the conditions of the South-Indian climate. Because of humidity and insect rapacity, manuscripts had to be copied roughly once every one hundred years. After that period the first holes begin to appear and, consequently, gaps in the text arise. This remains true even in the case of regular cleaning and treatment with lemon grass oil. Today, the life expectancy can certainly be increased by maintenance under air conditioning, although it is not yet clear for how long. In any case, the financial means for such treatment are not available in the country. An encouraging development is that in India, too, the attitude towards these rich materials is slowly changing. Not long ago, a manuscript was thought obsolete as soon as the text was printed as a book. It is chiefly this notion that explains the state of neglect one is confronted with in many South-Indian libraries. Another factor is, as so often, the sheer mass of what has been transmitted. As far as Tamil is concerned, since it acquired the status of a classical language, in 2006, there have been public summons to hand over manuscripts. It appears that many thousands of manuscripts, mostly from private collections, have come together. Most of them remain to be identified.

The situation is slightly different in the case of the paper manuscripts. Paper is the material that slowly began to replace palm-leaf at the beginning of the 20th century, that is, in a period when printing was already established, but great numbers of manuscripts still had to be simply reproduced in order to prevent the loss of information. In smaller, more remote and poorer libraries, the practice of copying by hand was kept alive well into the 1960s (and perhaps even beyond). So, firstly paper manuscripts are important because they bear the only surviving testimony for older disintegrated palm-leaves. Secondly, they convey the first traces of an editing process. The scribes often consulted more than one manuscript, noted variants or even collated, and they were in many cases the first to break up the earlier scriptio continua into metrical units, to complete its imperfect vocalisation and to mark the ligatures. Precisely for that second reason, however, they were not held in high esteem, being regarded as relics of an incomplete editing process, and so they were never catalogued or in any way integrated into preservation schemes.

Script, Print, Memory - Re-establishing the Caṅkam in Tamilnadu

The present project is dedicated to a sub-group of about 150 among those Tamil manuscripts. It represents the last physical testimony of a body of literature for which Tamil gained in 2006 the status of the second classical language of India besides Sanskrit, the so-called Ca?kam corpus. Mostly fallen into oblivion by the end of the 19th century, those texts were reconstructed on the basis of a small number of palm-leaf manuscripts scattered all over Tamilnadu. It took several transitional steps to make this corpus available to the general public in the form of commented editions. The process of transcription from terse and elliptical palm-leaf notation to several more explicit forms of paper manuscripts into printed texts and the subsequent recreation of a literary (and political) heritage has up to this day not been studied in detail.

The oldest palm-leaf manuscripts may reach back about 200 or 300 years. They are written in a scriptio continua that distinguishes neither metrical units nor word borders.

The single poems are separated only by the name of the author and the poem number. There is also no unequivocal vocalisation or a mark for consonant ligatures. For a "normal" reader, such a text is virtually incomprehensible. The first step towards deciphering is found in the early paper manuscripts. The scriptio continua is kept intact, but the poems are separated by indentation. The modern marks for vowel length and for vowel-less consonants are mostly not yet attested. The text is enriched by variants and corrections, marginal glosses add explanations and sometimes even rudimentary commentaries. Quite often we can observe a plurality of hands. In many cases, additions based on further sources cannot be distinguished from the editorial work of the scribe.

The second generation of paper manuscripts does already have an altogether different look. The text has been split into lines and metrical feet. The difficulties connected with that step are betrayed by the many transitional forms where line breaks are often corrected more than once. The vowel length is noted, if not always in a reliable way, and the dots above the line, named pu??i, mark consonantal clusters. Here too we find variants and corrections between the lines. The later paper manuscripts have completed this process of transformation. They differ from the early editions only in being mostly free from annotation and often without commentary.

With the first editions one group of texts has managed the transition from the obscurity of a few rural monastery libraries into a canonical corpus and cultural heritage.

This process can be characterised as a decipherment but also as a recreation. Along with the restitution of a tradition of knowledge it means writing a new version of a political past and consequently a new future.