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Home > International Conferences > First International Tamil Conference Seminar > Presidential Address - Tamil Studies: Research in South East Asia and in the Far East - Jean Filliozat > Tamil Heritage - Tamils are an Ancient People
|First International Tamil Conference - Seminar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18 - 23 April 1966
The cultural and commercial intercourse between India and South-east Asia across the ocean, as well as the propagation of the Buddhist religion and of Indian sciences along the ways of central Asia towards the Far East, have been prominent for nearly twenty centuries. Many archaeological remains, records of travellers, and texts and inscriptions in Indian languages existing in all Eastern Asia are direct testimonies of this fact. Borrowings of Indian words in the languages of this part of the world, and Indian features in the original arts of many countries are also indirect evidence of the same fact.
In the first part of the last century the view was generally accepted among scholars that the main current of Indian culture towards the East had been Buddhistic. It seemed sure Hindu religion, as deriving from the Vedic or Brahmanical one, was not a missionary religion and was not exported from India. It was easy in order to support this opinion to quote from Manu or from the other later sources in the literature of the Dharmasastras prohibiting sea voyage for brahmans. But in fact, this opinion was wrong. Since the second part of the last century a lot of brahmanical remains and Sanskrit Hindu inscriptions were recorded in South-east Asia and Indonesia. Even literal Vedic quotations appear in Indo-Chinese and Indonesian documents. The only problem which remained till recently was how to reconcile the prohibition of exportation of Vedic lore beyond the seas with the fact of this very exportation, and by whom the Vedic, Brahmanical and Hindu religions were brought and established in South-east Asia.
This last problem is now going to be solved, thanks to Tamil research and to Sanskrit research in Tamil Nadu, as well as in the S.E. Asia itself. At first Tamil research had not been considered as very important in this matter because, in South-east Asia, Sanskrit inscriptions referring only to Sanskrit literature are much more numerous than the Tamil ones which also are ordinarily of later dates. So, it seemed the main influence from India towards the East was from Northern India. Tamilians themselves called Sanskrit vadamoli (`Northern Language'). But that does not mean they have not used it. On the contrary, if we draw a complete enquiry into the culture of Tamil Nad as it was all along the centuries, we observe Tamil pulavars not only have produced Tamil masterpieces of poetry and learning, but also have contributed much in Sanskrit to Literature and Philosophy. We have just to refer to the names of such great philosophers of world fame as Sankaracarya or Ramanuja, or to authors like Dandin who were ubhayakavi.
Moreover we must observe when Tamilians wrote in Sanskrit they were not always nearly following a Northern tradition. Very often they simply used Sanskrit as a language of general communication in order to more widely propagate ideas from their own tradition. Rămănuja, for example, gave a scholastical Sanskrit garment to the theology of Nammalvar who inspired him and who before him had sung in his love for God:
Let us now consider the most ancient of the Sanskrit inscriptions of Indo-China which was found at Vocanh near the eastern coast of the Indo-Chinese peninsula in Vietnam. According to palaeographical evidence it belongs to the second or third century A.D. The shape of the characters does not clearly indicate if the writing was introduced from South India or from any other part of India. But the contents of the inscription are significant. In spite of the fact the lines are not all well preserved we have the name of the king who ordered to carve out the text. This name is Sri Mara. At the beginning of the study of this inscription, it was thought the king was a Buddhist because he was praising 'compassion', karuna. The name 'Mara' also seemed to evolve Buddhism. But it would have been very strange if the king had designated himself as Mara, that is, as an enemy of Buddhism. We know karuna, corresponding to the Tamil arul, is Brahmanical or Hindu as well as Buddhistic, and the name Mara in Sanskrit must now be recognised as merely being a transliteration of the famous Tamil title of Pandyan kings MaRaN. Because the letter R. of Tamil MaRaN is lacking in Sanskrit it was replaced by the other one and so the Tamil word became similar to the name of the Buddha's antagonist who was surely there out of consideration.
The use of the Sanskrit language by Tamilians and the introduction of a famous Tamil royal title under a Sanskrit garment was quite natural at the time, that is, in the first centuries of the Saka era. In this period not only the Dravidian languages were by their very origin different from the Indo-Aryan ones but also they most probably were already highly differentiated from each other. Above all, the Indoaryan Prakrits of the North, also in use in the South with the Jain Ardhamagadhi and with the Buddhistic Pali, were much different from each other. Only Sanskrit was known at least by educated peoples everywhere and regularly taught in special schools as the same throughout India. It was the only means of general communication as Latin has been during centuries in Europe and as English is today in the greatest part of the world; Sanskrit was used for secular and practical purposes, owing to this character of common language medium. In most of the official inscriptions it replaced the Prakrits and, at the same time, the compromise between the old Buddhist Prakrit text and the widespread usage of the classical Sanskrit gave birth to the so called Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit which was gradually replaced by classical Sanskrit itself.
In Tamilnad, both Tamil and Sanskrit were classical. Intercourse between the Tamil kingdom and the Magadha kingdom are evidenced since the end of the fourth century B.C. The famous Greek ambassador to the court of Candragupta heard at Pataliputra the story of Tadadakai, i.e. Minatci of the Pandyan kingdom, without having ever visited this country. In the middle of the third century B.C. Asoka's inscriptions refer to the three Tamil kingdoms. Brahmanical lore was then well known in the South, at least in Kalinga, since Asoka has expressed his sorrow for the death of many brahmans during his war to conquer Kalinga.
In any case, many poems in the Sangam Literature show us how wide and deep was the knowledge some Tamil pulavars had of the Vedic and Sanskrit culture. They often refer to Vedic rites, rising in these references either Tamil or Sanskrit words, saying velvi or yagam, kelvi or Suruti, maRai or Veda etc., indifferently. The sixth poem of Pura nanuru, by Karikilar, in honour of Pandiyan Palyakacalai Mutukutumi Peruvaluti, shows us that this king followed Siva's cult and also patronised, at the same time, Vedic ritual.
According to the tradition, the Vedic ritual is intended for
general welfare of the kingdom, i.e. for Bhakti the Siva's cult
rests upon the Agamas and leads to reach both Bhakti and Mukti, the
Supreme Goal. In Tamilnad, both Vedic and Agamic rituals were
prescribed in Sanskrit books, but the religious feelings, the
utterances of devotion of BHAKTI to God have been sung in Tamil by
devotees like the
and the Alvar.
Tamil has been the language of the heart, Sanskrit the medium of
technical teaching and official proclamations. Both were mastered by
Tamilians everywhere they went. Abroad, they naturally
That is the case for example in Ancient Cambodia or Kambujadesa. In this country, at the very beginning of the ninth century, in A.D. 802 according to several Sanskrit or old Cambodian inscriptions, the king Jayavarman 11 ordered for the performances of a ritual for the establishment of the devaraja on a mountain called Mahendraparvata. This devaraja is subsequently referred to in other inscriptions as established in various places in the shape of a linga by different kings. Dévaraja, 'King of Gods' is a usual designation of Indra, but in spite of the fact the mountain was called after Mahendra, it was not possible to accept an identification of this devaraja with Indra. On another side, the parallel designation of the devaraja in old Cambodian inscriptions was kamaratan jagat to raja which means 'the Lord of Universe who is king.' So, it was supposed and generally admitted till recently that raja was applying to the human Cambodian king and a new proposed translation of devaraja was 'the king who is God', 'the divine king.' It was taken for granted that the corresponding linga established in the name of the king was a material symbol embodying the personal essence of the king or the essence of the kingship.
But we find in Tamil literature a much easier solution. Manikkavacakar, in his Tiruvacakam refers several times to Siva as seating on the Mayentiram mountain, i.e. the Mahendraparvata, as the king of Gods, these Gods being enumerated as Brahma, Vishnu and Indra. Also at the same time, Siva is the real king of the country as well as of the whole universe. So, Jayavarman II has simply performed a Sivalingasthapanam following a conception which is revealed to us by Manikkavacakar and not the classical Sanskrit sources, so far as we know. This does not mean that this representation of Siva was only Tamil and proper to Manikkavacakar. Tamilians were not coming alone from India to Cambodia. We have also clear references in the inscriptions of Indians originating from other parts of India, and the Saivite religion belongs to all India. But we know by this example that researches in Tamil literature are necessary to improve our knowledge of the intercourse between India and South-east Asia. Tamil too is a repository of universal Indian culture.
The researches in the technical books in Sanskrit which are preserved chiefly in Tamilnad, e.g. Sivagamas and Pancaratragamas, are also fruitful in order to understand many features of the old remains of Hindu religion in South-east Asia and Indonesia. For example there are in Cambodia huge temples in the shape of pyramids representing the Meru, according to an all Indian conception. But some among them which seemed, according to some inscriptions, or traditions, as being tombs as well as temples, are just built in the way prescribed in the Agamas for the Samadhis of Yatis or of men having obtained Sivadiksa. According to the Agamas as summarised in the Kriyadipika composed by Sivagrayogi of the Tamil Kailayaparamparai these samadhis may become temples. In Tamilnad there are numerous samadhis like that, but they are ordinarily small and do not become centres of temples because there are many ancient holy places and temples. In Cambodia, on the contrary, where there were no holy traditional places for Hindu cults before the coming of Hindu people, the possibility to bury men having been turned into Siva himself by Agamic rites and to build temples on their Samadhis was a good way to consecrate the holy as required for the cult.
This cult was finally abandoned when the countries of South-east Asia were converted to Theravada Buddhism or to Islam. But Thailand and Cambodia have continued to appoint groups of brahmans for Royal and State Ceremonies. It is a well known fact these brahmans have preserved ritual books in Sanskrit in the Grantha characters which belong exclusively to Tamilnad. According to the traditions, the ancestors of most of them came from places like Ramesvaram or Ramanathapuram. Some of them claimed to come from Kailasa; that means their ancestors belonged to the Kailasa or Kailayaparampara of Dharmapuram and TiruvatutuRai. They cannot be considered as brahmans in the strict sense of the Dharmasastra, but brahman has become since centuries an ordinary designation of Hindu religionists in South-east Asia. So Brahmana is very often in Chinese and Arabic sources a reference to Indian peoples of Hindu religion. In Cambodia these brahmans are also called baku according to the modern pronounciation, and pakuva according to the orthography. It is easy to recognise in this last designation Tamil pakkuvar, fit to term in the Saivasiddhantic use those who are 'ripe' (Sanskrit, pakva) and entitled to perform rites involving Vedic and Agamic mantras.
The books of these people are actually full of Vedic and Agamic quotations. Prof. T. P. Meenakshisundaram has already published a book in Tamil on the festival called in Thailand Tiruppavai-Tiruvempavai and brought further information on the subject in this Conference.
In Bali, Indonesia, the religion of Hindu origin which is still practised in called Agamatirtha. The word tirtha is also used to designate holy water received from the temple. Such a use is not general in India for the word tirtha, but it exists in Tamil. There are other evidences in South-east Asia and Indonesia of the coming of Sanskrit words through Tamilians with the specialisations or changes of meaning they have undergone.
So, the role played by the Tamilians in the relations between India and South-east Asia, though by no means exclusive, has been very great even when they have used Sanskrit to present their culture in these countries .
This role has also been extended till the Far East. Little known archeological and epigraphical discoveries enable us now to trade the evidence of this role in China. Marco Polo, the famous Venitian traveller of the end of the thirteenth century had described in the narration of his travel a town, Zayton, in South China which was at the time a very important international market where merchants came from every part of Asia and where a strong group of Indian merchants were established. Marco Polo did not indicate the regions of India they came from.
Fortunately we may now be sure at least many of them were Tamilians. One surrounding wall was built around the town in the fifteenth century with stone material taken from ancient buildings. During the last Sino-Japanese war a part of this wall was demolished and many old architectural and epigraphical remains were discovered. A few years ago a Chinese archeologist published many pictures and notices of these findings. Among them we find a lot of pillars of temples, divine images and elements of the basis of a very large temple of South Indian style, slightly modified by Chinese artists who were employed in the building or sculpturing.
There is an ancient image of Mahavisnu, and more recent representations of lingas or of scenes like gajendramoksnam or robbing by Kona of the clothes of the the Gopis, etc. Also two plates with Tamil inscriptions were discovered. Photographs of these inscriptions are not complete and no full phrase is readable, but one inscription mentions Perumal, the other gives a part of a date (cittirai masam). Thanks to these discoveries which give the hope of further studies we know the Indian merchants seen by Marco Polo had established both the Vaishnavite and Saivite cult, and were mostly Tamilians though it is by no means excluded that peoples of other parts of India have also been there, along with merchants from Central Asia, Persia and even Arabia.
These few examples may be enough to give us evidence of the need for a larger and international investigation to try to cover the immense field of human activity in which Tamil speakers have co-operated with nations during so many centuries.
That is why we are happy to be now for the first time at Kuala Lumpur in a position to hold this International Conference-Seminar of Tamil Studies and to obtain the precious co-operation of so many scholars of various horizons.