Robert Caldwell

Rt.Rev.Dr.Robert Caldwell, DD., LLD was born on 7th May 1814 at Clady, Northern Ireland, to Scottish parents. Initially self-taught and religious, young Caldwell graduated from the University of Glasgow and was fascinated by the comparative study of languages. He arrived in Madras, now at Chennai of South India on 8th January 1838 at his twenty fourth years, as a missionary of the London Missionary Society and later joined the Society for the Propagation of Gospel Mission (SPG). Caldwell married Eliza Mault (1822–1899) in 1844 and they had seven children. Mrs.Eliza Mault was the elder daughter of the veteran Travancore missionary, Rev.Charles Mault (1791–1858), the Missionary of London Missionary Society. Mrs.Eliza Mault worked for more than forty years in Travancore and Tirunelveli proselytizing the vulnerable, especially the Tamil women. Caldwell realised that he had to be proficient in Tamil to proselyte the masses and he began a systematic study of the language.

Idayankudi Church

Caldwell controversially coined the term 'Dravidian languages' and proposed that the South Indian languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tulu formed a separate language family, affirming their antiquity and literary history and their independence from Sanskrit and the Indo-Aryan languages. There is no definite philological and linguistic basis for asserting unilaterally that the name Dravida also forms the origin of the word Tamil. His work was influenced and congruous with the defunct Aryan-Dravidian race theories proposed by Max Muller, the German linguist. He speculated that speakers of the proto-Dravidian language entered India from the Northwest. However, his language group theory has came under several criticisms and that the fundamental tenets of the nascent phase of the Dravidian ideology proposed by Caldwell were essentially linked to the political and cultural legacies of the British attempt to demilitarise, despiritualise and fragment Tamil society.

Idaiyangudi Old Church

Caldwell became a Bishop and served as the Bishop at Tirunelveli and did much original research on the history of Tirunelveli. He studied palm leaf manuscripts and Sangam literature in his search and made several excavations, finding the foundations of ancient buildings, sepulchral urns and coins with the fish emblem of the Pandyan Kingdom. This work resulted in his book “A Political and General History of the District of Tinnevely”, published in 1881 by the Government of the Madras Presidency.

Caldwell’s mission lasted more than fifty years. The publication of his research into both the languages and the history of the region, coupled with his position in both Indian and English society, gave stimulus to the radicalization of the Non-Brahmin movement. Meanwhile, on difficult ground for evangelism, he achieved Christian conversion among the lower castes. He had adopted some of the methods of the Lutheran missionaries of earlier times, having learned German purely in order to study their practices.

Palm Tree
Caldwell built a church in 1880 at Idaiyangudi in Tirunelveli District. The ringing bells were brought from London for that church. Caldwell died at Ooty and the deceased of his body was brought to Idaiyangudi and was buried inside the Idaiyangudi church. Caldwell, the Tamil language scholar, Christian evangelist, champion of the native church and remains an important figure in the modern history of South India.

Caldwell is still remembered and his statue erected Marina Beach at Chennai in Tamilnadu of South India, eighty years after his death. The Indian historian, Dr.M.S.S.Pandian visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, recently commented that Caldwell’s contribution to both Christianity in South India and the cultural awakening of the region is unmatched during the last two hundred years. The Government of India paid a signal honour to Caldwell on 7th May 2010 by issuing a stamp in his name. The background to his head on the five Rupees stamp consists of examples of four of the Dravidian languages -Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu of South India.


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