Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Dr .Hermann Gundert (1814-1893). a missionary, scholar and Malayalam expert

For several foreign Christian missionaries in India, during the British rule, with a view to spreading Christianity in the subcontinent, learning the Indian languages became a necessity. They realized communication with the natives was very important to make them understand the Christian faith and the gospel of love as preached  by Christ himself. Many missionaries learned the language fair enough to integrate with the native Indians. Some went to the extent of slowly adopting their way of dressing, local culture, etc. But the natives, on their part, were neither convinced by their flowery religious preaching nor did they evince interest in the new faith. For the new converts, it was a strange experience to follow altogether a different faith and a great preponderance of them felt like fish out of water. With some exceptions most of the missionaries made only futile attempt in this respect. As a matter of fact, it made only a small dent as the religious faith of the natives was deep-rooted. Further, they were not materialistic and had been leading a peaceful and contended life and the enticements offered by the missionaries never changed their mind.

Dr. Hermann Gundert German missionary, authority on Malayalam language.www.calw.de/ceasy/

Statue of Dr.Hermann Gundert at Tellicherry.www.panoramio.com

Though their mission of converting the natives to Christianity did not give them expected results, one thing that took them by surprise was the beauty of the  ancient Indian languages and their advanced grammar, structure, syntax, verb declension, etc.,  which, in no way, were inferior to Western languages. Some of the Indian language like Tamil and Sanskrit are very old. Tamil is one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world. 2,200 - year-old. Sanskrit is yet another well-known Indo-European classical language. Ultimately the missionaries  took more interest in the Indian languages and each became an expert in his chosen field of interest. Further, to their astonishment, they found high quality, valuable and very rich works on various fields including medicine, Hindu religion, Philosophy, Astronomy, Maths, Literature, etc. There was a change in their prospective of Indian people and their intellectual achievement in the land that was the cradle of one of the oldest civilizations in the world.

A young man by the name of Gundert, aged 22  left Germany for missionary work in Calcutta (Kolkata) India. While traveling by sea, on the ship he gained a working knowledge in Bengali, Hindustani and Telugu. He landed in Madras (Chennai) in 1836 instead of Calcutta. There he learned Tamil, widely spoken in that region. While working in Chitoor, Andhra and Tirunelveli,Tamil Nadu, he gained a good knowledge of Tamil. As part of his missionary work in Mangalore, a chance trip to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) got him to have an audience with the local Maharajah His Highness Sree Swathi Thirunal, a scholar and  the ruler of Travancore. He heard for the first time a new language spoken there. The native language of Kerala is Malayalam. This musical language that uses a lot of Sanskrit and Tamil words attracted Gundert very much and, not only did he learn  this language but also became an authority in a short span of time.

Dr. Hermann Gundert (4 February 1814 – 25 April 1893), a German missionary, scholar, and linguist, from Calw, Germany, worked primarily at Tellicherry, a small town on the Malabar coast in Kerala, India   and compiled a Malayalam grammar book, Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam (1859), a Malayalam-English dictionary (1872).  Gundert also contributed to the fields of history, geography and astronomy. Incidentally. he was the grandfather of German novelist and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse.

By April, 1839 he moved over to Illikunnu near Thalassery, where he lived for 20 years, and seriously engaged  in spreading the Gospel among natives and his long stay here saw him producing voluminous works in Malayalam that included thirteen books and a translation of the Bible, Old Testament from Hebrew and New Testament from Greek. His historical works are kept in the Tübingen University, Germany. He attempted a systematic grammar of the language on the basis of his non-Sanskrit-based approaches to Indic grammar. Gundert considered Malayalam a branch of Proto-Tamil–Malayalam, or Proto-Dravidian. 

For the first time he introduced the use of punctuation marks - full stop, comma, colon, semicolon, etc in Malayalam. His monumental work was on Malayalam-English Dictionary undertaken by him after his return to his native place Calw, Germany(1859) during the last phase of his active life dedicated to Oriental Linguistics. He completed the dictionary work in 1872 after ten years of hard work. 

His literary works, even to day, are frequently referred to by Malayalam research scholars. Besides, he also did a voluminous work on Dravidian languages widely spoken in Southern India. Dr.Gundert spent his last days in Calw and he died on 25 April  1893.There is a statue erected in his honor at Tellacherry, Kerala for his vast contribution for the advancement of Malayalam language.He was truly a great human being, an erudite scholar whose name will be associated with rich Malayalam literature till the end of this world.

Frenz, Albrecht and Scaria Zacharia (1993). Dr. Hermann Gundert and Malayalam Language. Kottayam: Centre for Kerala Studies.

Malayalam-English Dictionary, by Dr. Herman Gundert, 1872. Ed. 3, Published by Sahythia Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, Kerala, 2000. Biography.