German missionaries have been known for the interest they showed in the study of Indian languages, culture, customs, and religion and for their meticulous documentation and methodology. Though they were looked at with caution and skepticism for their religious bias, their works later on proved to be treasure troves for the study and understanding of Indian society. Some of them were well known during their times and their contributions inspired later missionaries to thoroughly study the regional languages and the religious and cultural heritage of the regions where they were living in India.
Some of them like Heinrich Roth, Johannes Ernestus Hanxleden( popular as Arnos Padiri) and Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg studied Sanskrit, Malayalam and Tamil languages respectively but wrote the grammar books of these languages in Latin, hence it took some time for their works to be known. However later missionaries wrote in Indian languages and contributed to the development of grammar and dictionary as well as translation of famous literary/ religious works.
Recently, Tubingen University in Germany, one of Europe’s oldest Universities, decided to introduce Malayalam as a language starting from October 9, 2015 and to dedicate a chair to teach and introduce research in Malayalam. Tubingen University is alma mater to the German missionary scholar Rev.Dr.Hermann Gundert, whose trailblazing work in the 19th century while on his missionary stint in Southern India, gave Malayalam its first codified grammar and dictionary.
Rev.Dr.Hermann Gundert was born in a Protestant family in Stuttgart, Germany on 4th February 1814 and had a devout religious upbringing. After doing his schooling from the Latin School in Stuttgart, Lower Seminary at Maulbronn in 1827 and Higher Seminary – the Protestant Stift, he finally joined the University of Tubingen. In 1835, he obtained a doctoral degree in Philology from Tubingen and successfully completed his theological studies.
After completing his theological studies and during his brief stint in England thereafter, he was offered appointment as a private tutor in Calcutta. In April 1836, he set out for Calcutta from Bristol but landed up in Madras instead, in July of the same year. It is said that even while traveling on the ship to India, he concentrated on learning languages like Bengali, Hindustani etc and even taught these languages to his fellow passengers.
At that time, Basel Mission, a German Christian Missionary Society established in 1815, whose members were drawn from various Protestant denominations, were sent to India to establish their stations there as India was relatively untouched by Protestant missions. The Basel Mission which arrived in Calicut, Kerala in 1834 proceeded to Mangalore and set up their station there. The Mission was originally commissioned to establish schools and institutions for training future catechists however they later on felt the need for creating remunerative jobs rather just educating the people, so they started getting into coffee plantations and other agrarian pursuits.
In the meanwhile Gundert who was in Madras started learning Tamil and was soon given a duty in Tirunelveli (in Southern Madras), and after some time in Chittoor. It was while in Chittoor, in July 1838, that he married Julie Dubois, a Frenchwoman who had also come to India in the same party as Gundert. After marriage, the two returned to Tirunelveli and on the way they were invited to join the Basel Mission in Mangalore where they reached in November 1838. On their way from Tirunelveli to Mangalore, Gundert had an audience with Sree Swathi Thirunal Maharaja, the ruler of Travancore from whom he had probably heard Malayalam for the first time.
The Gunderts visited various places nearby Mangalore like Kannur and Thalassery and Anjarakandy where Asia’s largest cinnamon estate was established by the East India Company as early as 1767. A bungalow on Illikkunnu near Thalassery had been offered to the Basel Mission for establishing a mission station there and the Gunderts moved there and took up work in April 1839.
While he lived in the bungalow in Thalassery, he made efforts to study Malayalam language spoken by the local people in Malabar (i.e. present day Kannur and Kozhikode districts). At his numerous visits to the villages around Thalassery, Gundert got in close contact with the people, collected as many words, phrases and proverbs as possible and spread the Gospel.
In August 1839 Gundert had established the first Malayalam School in the veranda of the bungalow in May. At the same time, his wife started the first girls’ institute with boarding. In the following months, Gundert opened Malayalam schools in Kadirur, Thalassery Fort, Mahe, and Dharmadam. He regularly visited all these schools and invited the teachers to Illikkunnu for further education. Among various schools established by Basel Mission was the prominent Basel (Evangelical) Mission Parsi (BEMP) School, Thalasseri which was established in 1856, where Gundert was a teacher. The school in the 20th century became alma mater to many political luminaries, prominent amongst them being A.K.Gopalan. His interest in education was so much that in 1857 the British Government appointed Gundert as the first Inspector of Schools in Malabar and Canara. He appointed teachers, wrote grammatical textbooks for schools, colleges and the newly established Madras University and also compiled examination papers. It is said that his book Pathamala is the first school textbook in Malayalam.
His name is engraved in the history of Malayalam journalism as the one who started the first Malayalam newspaper, Rajyasamacharam( News of the Kingdom) in 1847 from Thalassery. Besides Rajyasamacharam he launched another magazine Pashchimodayam(Rise of the West) as an easy way to spread Gospel and for missionary works along with his helper Frederick Muller who was the editor of the newspaper. It is also said that during his stay in Illikkunnu he also contributed to fields of history, philosophy, geography and economy. His book Keralolpathi( Origin of Kerala) gives a detailed description of Kerala history. He also wrote a book called Pazhanchol mala about Malayalam proverbs based on his interactions with the local people.
Gundert compiled a systematic Malayalam grammar book, Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam (1859) which was one of the prominent non-Sanskrit-based approaches to real Indian grammar. Gundert considered Malayalam to have diverged from Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, or Proto-Dravidian. Apart from the early inscriptions found on copper and stone, Gundert traced Malayalam to the Rama Charitam, a poem predating the Sanskrit alphabet .He was the one who introduced the punctuation marks, full stop (.) comma (,) semi colon (;) colon (:) and question mark (?) into Malayalam language.
He published around thirteen books in Malayalam including a translation of the Bible, Old Testament from Hebrew and New Testament from Greek. The unique feature of Herman Gundert’s Bible translation is that they are a rich storehouse containing the Malabar dialect of Malayalam. Gundert learned Malayalam by listening to the oral communication of the toiling masses of the Malabar in the markets and fields and not through books. In contrast to many Malayalam poetic works during that period which were highly influenced by Sanskrit, Gundert’s works played a significant role in preserving the language of the village folk and its unique flavour.
Due to health reasons Gundert had to return to Germany in 1859. There he took ten more years to complete the Malayalam-English dictionary and continued with his studies. He joined the Calw Publishing House in Calw and published many books and articles as well as several magazines, including a children’s magazines until his death on 25th April 1893.After reaching back Germany, he wrote a book called Kerala pazhama which is a historical account of Kerala for over 3 decades since the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 and ´Malayalarajyam” on the geography of Kerala. The lots of material, old Malayalam documents and scriptures from Thalassery and other places in Malabar which Gundert had collected, he later gave to Tubingen University. They were later on compiled by the scholar Dr Skaria Zacharia as Thalassery Rekhakal.
Gundert’s India connection survived generations. His grandson was Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse, whose book Siddhartha was easily among the most influential book of the 1960s. Gundert (1814-1893) was contemporary of Max Mueller (1823-1900), the German Orientalist whose translations of the Upanishads and the Vedas not only led to the introduction of Indian culture to the West but also far-reaching exchanges between Indian and British intellectual life.
In Kerala, Gundert is venerated for his deep interest in the local culture as well as the development of Malayalam language, for compiling grammatical books for school starters as well as for University level and is held in high regard to this day among linguistic experts for the high scholastic aptitude exhibited in his work. In the city of Thalasseri, he has been honored with a statue. The Malayalam University which was established in Kerala has 5 chairs of which one is named after Hermann Gundert.
Tubingen is already a known learning hub for Malayalam enthusiasts in Europe. Scholars at the University’s Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies are already focused on Southern India. From October 9th, 2015, a guest lecturer from Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University in Kerala will be appointed to the Gundert chair to offer Malayalam courses at Tübingen and the same has been ratified by the University Grants Commission (UGC). During the project, scholars from Kerala will have the opportunity to research and translate Gundert’s works, and draw up teaching modules for other foreign students. Scholars from the Malayalam Varsity will also have access to the priceless monographs, books and palm leaf manuscripts that Gundert bequeathed the library at Tubingen University.