Going From Hand to Hand:
Networks of Intellectual Exchange in the Tamil Learned Traditions

Tamil manuscript

Classical Tamil can lay claim to being the oldest poetic tradition on the Indian sub-continent after Sanskrit. Its literature may have been committed to writing for the first time around the 6th century, with oral predecessors that reach back at least to the beginning of the Common Era.
For a good thousand years, poetic anthologies of love and war and the theoretical treatises describing the poetic conventions they follow have been accompanied by a huge variety of exegetical materials, culminating in a number of great medieval commentaries. However, the palm-leaf manuscripts at our disposal are at best some three-hundred years old, the paper manuscripts for the most part younger still. While printed editions as a rule come with a unified commentary, manuscripts exhibit an often bewildering variety of additions, ranging from occasional glosses and supplementary information in prose and verse to amplified commentaries.
This wealth of primary material is yielding inexorably to the ravages of a sub-tropical climate, for the most part not even properly catalogued. With each crumbling leaf, our chance diminishes of arriving at an understanding that goes beyond the thin but strident official version of how the Tamil intellectual universe was construed, how it interacted with other parts of the Indian world, how it participated in the trans-regional dialogues, but also how it filtered down locally to reach smaller communities and private libraries. Fifteen years of digitisation on the part of an international team in collaboration with the EFEO Pondicherry have brought together the most important testimonies. The areas on which the international team works include codicology, digitisation, collation, text-critical analysis and cultural history. The goal is to reconstruct the processes of interaction and transmission that took place prior to the putative ‘Tamil renaissance’ of the 19th century – a revision of the pre-print history of one of the great ancient literatures of mankind.

Network of collaboration for NETamil

Tamil manuscript

The current follow-up project is:
Texts Surrounding Texts
Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in
South-Indian Manuscripts
(collections of the Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi)


Between March 2014 and August 2019, this project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration in the form of an ERC Advanced Grant under grant agreement no 339470. Since then, the NETamil site has been transformed into a platform that functions as a node for the various follow-up project and hosts a repository of the material brought together by the team. This repository is currently under construction and not yet accessible online. It will contain the team’s collection of digital images for Classical Tamil manuscripts on palm-leaf and on paper (from Indian and European libraries) along with a descriptive catalogue, e-texts along with critical editions and annotated translations as they are being completed, digitised versions of old and rare books and articles difficult to find, as well as a glossary-cum-concordance of the texts and manuscript paratexts worked on.

In recent years, progress has been made both in the digitisation of Indian manuscripts as well as in the field of codicology, setting new standards for cataloguing. The trend is towards putting online the images along with elaborate catalogues. One important aspect of well-catalogued digital collections is the possibilities they offer for statistically relevant research both with respect to questions of script development as well as dating and with respect to the various paratextual elements such as colophons, prefaces and satellite stanzas with their wealth of information on the provenance and transmission of the objects in question. Both Hamburg and Paris still house important collections of Indian manuscripts which have been lying more or less dormant. The Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) holds Europe’s most remarkable collection of some 700 Tamil manuscripts, along with several smaller collections in Sanskrit and various local languages. The state and university library of Hamburg (Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Carl von Ossietzky, i.e. Stabi) has a similar collection of almost 500 manuscripts, most from Southern India, the majority in Sanskrit, but also some in Tamil and other vernaculars. Thanks to existing local and European funding, two teams, embedded in an international network of specialists, have already been established in both places and work towards opening up both collections for further historical research.