Tamil and Tamil Akam at the Crossroads

Long before Europe moved abroad to explore and conquer, both European and Indian goods and cultural artifacts, as well as ideas and rituals had traveled abroad in a tributary system of cultural and monetary exchange. Discovering first-century Roman coins and Italian pottery in South India provides material evidence of such international exchange reaching back at least 2000 years. Recent work on the exchange of ideas between India and Ancient Greece lends palpable force to a “globalism” of ideas long before the currency of such jargon. Evidence of world literary circulation certainly goes back to the same time. With easy access to the sea, for at least the last two thousand years South India has been the exporter and importer of cultural and material goods in an ongoing cross-cultural exchange, whether with the North of India, with China, from across the Indian Ocean to Africa, or with Persia, the Middle East, and Europe. The consequences of French occupation of Pondicherry in the nineteenth-century and until the 1950s (after Indian independence from Britain) also assured that French Enlightenment culture penetrated the region. The French Institute in Pondicherry became the center for collecting and archiving Tamil Nadu’s cultural artifacts and environmental history. Tamil Nadu, the home of the only still-living ancient culture and language in India, openly received the influences of Sanskrit and Vedic cultures, traded with Romans, Greeks, and Arabs, while noting the cultural practices they brought with them; after the Mughal conquest of India in the Middle Ages, Tamil Nadu absorbed Mughal styles and cultural forms; in the anti-British colonial struggles of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, Tamil Nadu offered an exilic home to North Indians like the poet Michael Madhusudan Datta and the philosopher Aurobindo Ghosh, as well as to Europeans like Romain Rolland. At the same time, Tamil retained its unique ancient and medieval artistic, literary, musical, and dance traditions standing against massive colonial pressures.

Northern India and Delhi, in particular as cultural crossroads, have long been the focus of academic interest and study, but it is only in recent years that scholars have turned their attention to the Indian peninsula. Some of this scholarship looks outward to the manner in which south Indian-Tamil cultural knowledge arrived on the shores of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. This new scholarship has examined the conversations that occurred between South and Southeast Asia, as the great temples of the Khmer empire were built, or the imperial project of the Chola dynasty that controlled much of the south from the ninth through thirteenth centuries. Still other scholarship looks inward to the manner in which the south absorbed, adapted and transformed outside influences from within. These influences range from the presence of the early Greeks (Yavanas, Ionians) attested to in the earliest strata of south Indian literature (1-3 CE), to the Muslim Sultanate established in the heart of the south in the thirteenth century whose presence is felt even to this day in the recovery of lost images of the gods. A still third influence exists, with the emergence of British and French colonialism in the early nineteenth century. Interest in British, French, and German literature rubbed shoulders in cosmopolitan polyglot kingdoms such as Tanjavur. Here, at the dawn of colonialism in south India, a polyglot king whose dynasty hailed from an area on the western coast of India, was tutored by a German missionaries, studied and collected the European classics, while expanding the Saraswathi Mahal Library, one of the great libraries of India, to archive his astounding collection of printed books on history and literature, illustrated botanical and medical books, and an extensive manuscript collection.

The objective of the conference is to examine Tamil Nadu as an example of a geographical space where multiple cultures met, exchanged, and absorbed from outside, while Tamil maintained until recent times its unique ancient traditions. To bring together an international cadre of scholars who work in diverse disciplines that focus on a single region is to create new knowledge as is the way of any innovative conference. The fourteen scholars participating in the event bring a range of disciplinary perspectives to the idea of Tamil and Tamil Akam as a crossroads of cultures and a locus of international exchange in both the arts and sciences.

Click here to download the Keynote and Abstracts for the conference.

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  • UC Davis, University of California, USA
  • IFP


Jawaharlal Nehru Conference Hall, French Institute of Pondicherry, 11, Saint Louis Street, Pondicherry - 605 001.