The roving Ambassador of Tamil

Xavier Thaninayagam

Xavier Thaninayagam  

Today, Tamil is one of the few Indian languages taught in many universities of the world. Scholars, who are not of Tamil origin, have undertaken Tamil research.

International conferences on Tamil studies are conducted frequently in many countries. Tamil festivals are celebrated in many parts. All this was possible, thanks to the strenuous efforts by one individual: Xavier S. Thaninayagam, a catholic priest from Jaffna, who was professor and head of Indian Studies, University of Malaysia, from 1961 to 1969.

When Oriental scholars met in Delhi in January 1964, Fr. Thaninayagam, Prof. Kamil Zvelebil, a Czechoslovakian scholar of Tamil studies, and Prof. V.I. Subramaniam, former Vice-Chancellor, Tamil University, and the present Pro-Chancellor, Dravidian University, convened a meeting of the Tamil scholars (Indian, Sri Lankan and from other countries). The International Association for Tamil Research was born then and there. The IATR organised the first International Tamil conference-cum-seminar in 1966 in Kuala Lumpur. Successive conferences were conducted in Chennai, Paris, Jaffna, Mauritius, Madurai, and Thanjavur.

Fr. Thaninayagam, hailed as the `Roving Ambassador par excellence of Tamil' even during his lifetime, started learning Tamil only when he was 32.

Though a Tamil by birth, he was more interested in learning

European languages and became fluent in English, Latin, Italian, French, German, Spanish and Portuguese.

Thaninayagam, born on August 12, 913, became a student of Tamil at the Annamalai University in 1945.

His M. Litt. thesis on `Nature in ancient Tamil Poetry' was praised as an excellent introduction to Sangam literature. Immediately after his studies, he undertook a world tour to give lectures on Tamil language and culture.

He visited Japan, the U.S., Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile and Italy. In U.S. alone, he gave 200 lectures in one year.

Fr. Thaninayagam founded `Tamil Culture' in 1952, a quarterly journal. Tamil culture reached American and European universities and attracted scholars, who started contributing well-researched .

Zvelebil, Filliozat, Andronov, Emeneau, Kuipper, Knowlton, Marr, Boxer and Burrow are some of the scholars worth mentioning.

When the publication was stopped in 1966, he started `Journal of Tamil Studies'.

During his world tours, Fr. Thaninayagam spent time in libraries where he identified some rare manuscripts as well as some first printed books in Tamil: Cartilha (1556), Tambiran Vanakkam (1578), Kirisitiani Vanakkam (1579) and the first printed Tami-Portuguese Dictionary, compiled by Antam de Procenca.

Fr. Thaninayagam reprinted Proenca's dictionary during the first International Tamil Conference in Kuala Lumpur, with an erudite introduction by him.

His research topics included architecture, education in ancient Tamil Nadu, Tamil trade with foreign countries, Tamils' emigration to Martinque and Gaudalupe and landscape in ancient Tamil poetry.

His worldwide contacts were instrumental in getting generous funds from the UNESCO for IITS.

Today, both the IATR and the IITTS are living monuments to this great Tamil scholar.

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