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…
And 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.
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.
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.
*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.