Classical Tamil can lay claim to being the oldest poetic tradition on the Indian sub-continent after Sanskrit. Its literature may have been committed to writing for the first time around the 6th century, with oral predecessors that reach back at least to the beginning of the Common Era. For a good thousand years, poetic anthologies of love and war and the theoretical treatises describing the poetic conventions they follow have been accompanied by a huge variety of exegetical materials, culminating in a number of great medieval commentaries. However, the palm-leaf manuscripts at our disposal are at best some three-hundred years old, the paper manuscripts for the most part younger still. While printed editions as a rule come with a unified commentary, manuscripts exhibit an often bewildering variety of additions, ranging from occasional glosses and supplementary information in prose and verse to amplified commentaries.
This wealth of primary material is yielding inexorably to the ravages of a sub-tropical climate, for the most part not even properly catalogued. With each crumbling leaf, our chance diminishes of arriving at an understanding that goes beyond the thin but strident official version of how the Tamil intellectual universe was construed, how it interacted with other parts of the Indian world, how it participated in the trans-regional dialogues, but also how it filtered down locally to reach smaller communities and private libraries. Ten years of digitisation on the part of the EFEO Pondicherry have brought together the most important testimonies. The areas on which the international team will work include codicology, digitisation, collation, text-critical analysis and cultural history. The goal is to reconstruct the processes of interaction and transmission that took place prior to the putative ‘Tamil renaissance’ of the 19th century – nothing less than a wholesale revision of the pre-print history of one of the great ancient literatures of mankind.
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