Monthly Archives: April 2014

A Long Way from Clady

Dotted along Marina Beach in Chennai is a collection of statues erected in 1968 to celebrate the greatest heroes of Tamil literature and culture. If you take a look behind the bus stop at the northernmost end of the beach (just behind the tea stand) you’ll find one such statue – that of a tall bearded European…

Robert CaldwellA plaque reads “Robert Caldwell – The Pioneer Dravidian Linguist of Great Britain (1814 – 1891)” – If the had a little more room on the plinth, they might have added “Born in Clady, County Antrim”.

IdaiyankudiPanoAnd so with Tamil-Irish connections thin on the ground, that’s how I found myself twenty meters up a church tower overlooking the small coastal town of Idaiyankudi boiling alive on probably the hottest, most humid day of the year.

Robert Caldwell was born to Scottish parents in Clady not too far outside Belfast (*1). Although moving to Glasgow as a child, it was while later spending three years training as an artist in Dublin that he decided on a path that would lead him to spending fifty years as a Anglican missionary in this far off corner of India.

Idaiyankudi Map

Courtesy Wikipedia maps

Even today, the pleasant coastal town of Idaiyankudi is well off the beaten track but when Caldwell walked 800 miles to get here at the end of 1841 (at a time when most European missionaries rarely left the larger cities) it was off the map. With famines and cholera epidemics always a threat, it certainly wasn’t the easiest posting he could have asked for.

Regarded by his contemporaries as a wildly successful missionary and social reformer in the south of present day Tamil Nadu, the tales of his missionary work alone make for a great read (*2). Ultimately though, as a trained linguist, it was through his study of local languages (needed for his missionary work) that he cemented his stature as a ‘Tamil Hero’ – especially though the publication of one book


As any student of South Indian languages (the ‘Dravidian‘ languages) will know, Tamil and its language cousins have their own branch of the language family tree separate from northern languages such as Hindi and Urdu. This wasn’t clearly understood though until Caldwell’s book was published (*3) in 1856 when he argued over some 600 pages on how closely related dozens of southern languages were, while also speculating on their origin.

caldwell stamp

Commemorative Stamp from Indian Post

The book’s impact went far beyond the world of comparative philology though – by demonstrating the distinctiveness of the languages (and by extension cultures) of the South, it gave a kick-start for south Indian nationalism. It might not have been his intention, but language nationalism remains a big feature of Indian politics right to this day.

And so, Robert Caldwell is buried his wife Eliza at the altar of the church he built in Idaiyankudi – a long way from Clady.


Grave of Robert Caldwell

*1 – There’s some confusion about Caldwell’s birthplace – his biography says it was only a couple of miles from Belfast and in County Antrim. Wikipedia says much the same but suggests it was in fact the town of Clady in County Derry near Maghera (albeit close to the current border with Antrim) but still nearly forty miles from Belfast. For good measure, it would seem there are at least another half dozen ‘Cladys’ listed as placenames within shouting distance of Belfast. So who knows? (Alas for readers near Claudy, County Derry he’s probably not one of yours.)
*2 – Several biographies are available both online and in-print
*3 – Out of copyright, Caldwell’s “Comparative Grammar” is nowadays available to read online.

The Great Paint Job

When I first arrived in Tamil Nadu back in November, it seemed as if every square inch that could be painted with a politician’s name, slogan, or logo, was painted. In other states it tends to be cement companies that vie for the best spots not so here – at least until the last couple of weeks that is…


You see, overnight a couple of weeks ago, thousands of acres of labouriously painted signs just disappeared – Gone! Zap! As soon as the upcoming general election was announced, advertising rules kicked in and they had to go – for the sign painters of Tamil Nadu these are boom times. Although, I did manage to snap some of them before they disappeared…

You’ll probably notice a certain similarity between the signs and that’s because the bulk of the signs were for the ruling AIADMK party. That’s the party headed by former Tamil movie star and now Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa – commonly known as ‘Amma’ (i.e. Mother or அம்மா in Tamil).


Stay in Tamil Nadu any length of time and its impossible not to bump into ‘Amma’ every corner you turn – whether its the round the clock coverage on TV, her personalised bottles of water, children’s schoolbooks, or government planted tree saplings on the side of the street. Or at least that was the case until election officials got the paint brushes out… Just as well then, that the Chief Minister’s 66th birthday fell back at the end of February.


As befits someone with a Guinness Book of Records record to her name, this was a quiet a party. With posters and street parties the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu you did get the feeling that it was partly genuine and not entirely part of the pre-election advertising wars.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that – the starter gun has gone on the election campaign now. With an electorate of 815 million I won’t even pretend to have half a clue of what’s going on. Someone remarked to me that its going to be like a festival every day till voting – guess I’ll just go with the flow…

Update: The New York Times today has an interesting writeup on J. Jayalalithaa (amongst others) and the role she’ll play in the upcoming government formation –

Unfinished Business

DCIM102GOPROSo this is as close to the southernmost tip of India that you can easily get to – an island just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari. I was here back in November – but with massive crowds, I couldn’t make it on to the island. Well, I made it this time.


(There is of course more to see – the island is home to the Vivekanada Memorial – a monument in honour of a re\nowned Hindu spiritual teacher who visited here one time – but the sign did me.)