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Bilingual discourse and cross-cultural fertilisation: Sanskrit and Tamil in medieval India

Whitney Cox
Vincenzo Vergiani


Whitney Cox et Vincenzo Vergiani

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1The first intimations of this volume emerged in a series of conversations in the autumn of 2008 in London and Cambridge between the editors and our colleagues Eva Wilden and Jean-Luc Chevillard. All four of us were interested in the intellectual and cultural history of medieval Tamilnadu, a shared interest which had been nourished by frequent meetings with each other and with like-minded teachers and friends at the École française d’Extrême-Orient in Pondicherry. Our initial idea had been very modest: to invite several of these fellow-researchers to a workshop on the inter-translatability of technical terms between Sanskrit and Tamil. Vergiani and Cox, as specialists in the former, were initially (and, looking back, somewhat naïvely) concerned with the ways in which the sophisticated conceptual apparatus of the śāstric traditions we study were imported into Tamil; Chevillard and Wilden, primarily Tamilists, sought to unearth the wider genealogy of linguistic ideas and literary forms they had encountered in Tamil materials.

2The workshop that resulted from these early discussions and led to this volume ranged much more widely than our initial ambitions, and for that we are very glad. While the concern with the technical vocabularies of various branches of knowledge is still in evidence in a number of the essays, it is set within a range of other cultural practices. These practices center upon very broadly conceived interactions between the two languages. It is the mutuality of these interactions that is especially striking and historically significant: over and over in these essays, the poets, scholars, and other professional literati who constitute our collective focus seem to happily trespass the lexical and conceptual boundaries between domains that modern scholarship has tended to compartmentalise into one or the other linguistic code. This is in part a consequence of our chosen focus on the medieval period, during which the interactions between the two languages (and their users) are many and well documented, as opposed to the more opaque world of earlier times. It is equally the case, however, that modern scholarship has been invested in an effort — often unconscious, but sometimes willful and programmatic — to keep the cultural and intellectual worlds of Tamil and Sanskrit sealed off from each other. It is our collective dissatisfaction with this state of affairs that we have sought to register in these essays, and each contributor has offered a possible way forward from his or her own particular angle as our response to this impasse.

3This is not to arrogantly dismiss all prior scholarship en bloc, for there are areas of research on the interactions between Sanskrit and Tamil that have been tackled with significant results in the past. Among them, the comparative study of literature and the history of the acclimatisation of northern Indian religious traditions in the Tamil country have proven especially fertile. Several of the essays in this volume — notably, the contributions of Schmid and Takahashi—build upon this earlier work. However, the dating of the Caṅkam corpus and the question of its independence from northern literatures — perhaps the most frequently discussed as well as the most controversial theme in Tamil literary history — is all but unaddressed here. While this was not the result of any official policy of the workshop or of this volume (i.e. “Caṅkam chronologists need not apply”), the opportunity to look beyond this much-contested area has provided a refreshing stimulus to ask new questions about the oldest Tamil poetic works. Indeed, several of the contributions (see Wilden, Tieken, and again Takahashi), focus upon these earliest texts.

4The study of Tamil epigraphy has been largely untouched by the debates which have dominated the literary-historical field and possesses a research dynamic peculiar to itself. Some of the most innovative scholarship on Sanskrit-Tamil interactions was the product of the pioneering generation of epigraphists: such luminaries as Eugen Hultzsch, V. Venkayya, and K. A. Nilakanta Sastri made signal contributions to medieval history based on their superb control over both languages. In recent decades, however, this kind of philological and hermeneutical work has given way to what might be described as the cliometric revolution in inscriptional studies. Increasingly, historians of medieval South India have concentrated on the collection and analysis of the quantitative data furnished by inscriptional records. This scholarship, whose leading practitioners include Y. Subbarayalu of the Institut Français de Pondichéry and his frequent collaborator Norobu Karashima, has made huge advances in our

5understanding of the social and administrative history of the Cōḻa period especially. While in no way hostile to these methods, the contributions of Orr, Francis, and Lubin here all ably demonstrate that there is still much scope for philological-interpretative scholarship as a means of approaching the Tamil country’s remarkable inscriptional legacy.

6The problems and possibilities of epigraphical study stimulate a critical appraisal of another model with which many of the essays here are in dialogue. The model of cosmopolitan and vernacular literary interaction proposed by the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock, as summarised in his magnum opus of 2006, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, has supplied an argumentative framework that has become more often than not implicit in the recent comparative work on Tamil and Sanskrit, and this volume is no exception. This is most clearly in evidence in Francis’ contribution, which offers a meticulously documented correction of Pollock’s characterisation of the epigraphical practices recorded in the Pallava kingdom. More generally, however, the basic fabric of Pollock’s historical model, in which the superimposition of cosmopolitan Sanskrit catalyses the literarisation of a vernacular speech-form, which only gradually attains equal dignity with the language of the cosmopolis in the literary and political arena, fails rather dramatically to adequately account for the long shared history of Sanskrit and Tamil. Moreover, as Freeman’s essay suggests, this basically dyadic theory leaves significant areas of linguistic life in the subcontinent unaccounted for, notably in the case of the emic theorisation of what would later come to be called “Malayalam”, where the emergent theory had to locate itself with regard to two transregional languages possessed of classical heritages, Sanskrit and Tamil. The problematic place of Tamil within his model is something, it need be said, that Pollock himself readily admits; and it would be a mistake to claim (as has been done in semi-scholarly forums on the Internet, for instance) that this simply invalidates his broad-minded attempt at historical and social-theoretical synthesis. Instead, as we can see throughout these essays, the degree to which historical reality exceeds the ideal-typical limits of any theorisation is not something that should preclude such attempts: it is only through empirical testing that any theory can be refined and improved.


7The workshop from which these essays derive was made possible thanks to a Conference Support Grant of the British Academy - a scheme that sadly has since been discontinued. We met over a beautiful spring weekend in May 2009 in Wolfson College, Cambridge, which provided a superb venue for our discussions: our thanks are due to the College staff for their assistance and support. In addition to the contributors, a number of other scholars participated in the workshop as presenters, discussants, and chairs: we would especially like to mention K. Nachimuthu, V.S. Rajam, David Shulman, B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Daud Ali, Dominic Goodall, Eivind Kahrs, Rosalind O’Hanlon, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, David Washbrook, Sudeshna Guha, and Jennifer Clare for their contributions. The conference would not have been nearly so great a success without the help of Giovanni Ciotti and Mishka Sinha. We are very grateful to Valérie Gillet for initially encouraging us to submit the volume to the Collection Indologie series, and for all of her help in seeing it through to publication. Also in Pondicherry, we would like to thank Prerana Patel and Anurupa Naik for their quick and efficient assistance in the volume’s production. An additional special note of thanks is due to Isaac Murchie (Berkeley) who kindly solved some troubling technical problems on very short notice. Finally, we would like to record our gratitude to all of our co-contributors, not only for their superb essays, but also for their patience in awaiting this volume’s appearance.

8WC and VV
Magnetawan, Ontario and Rome
21 August 2012


Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit at SOAS, University of London. His primary research interests are in the fields of literary, cultural, and intellectual history of the medieval Indian subcontinent, with a special concentration on the Tamil country. Proficient in both Sanskrit and Tamil, his work charts the multiple transformations of society, polity, and textual culture during the course of the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. He co-edited the volume South Asian Texts in History: Critical Engagements with Sheldon Pollock (AAS, 2011), his forthcoming work includes a study of philological scholarship in late-medieval times and a reinterpretation of the accession of the Cōḻa emperor Kulottuṅga I.

Lecturer in Sanskrit at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. His main areas of research are the Sanskrit grammatical tradition and the history of linguistic ideas in ancient South Asia. He is the director of the project “The intellectual and religious traditions of South Asia as seen through the Sanskrit manuscript collections of the University Library, Cambridge” (, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. He has co-edited Studies in the Kāśikāvṛtti. The section on pratyāhāras. Critical edition, translation and other contributions (2009).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2013

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