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NETamil Report Summary

Project ID: 339470
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Germany

Mid-Term Report Summary - NETAMIL (Going from Hand to Hand – Networks of Intellectual Exchange in the Tamil Learned Traditions)

NETamil is a project situated in the domains of Tamil and Manuscript Studies. Its main goals are to safeguard the primary testimonies of a manuscript culture in accute danger of obliteration due to climate and human neglect, to reconstruct the complex transmission history of various text corpora belonging to that culture and thus to contribute to a general history of the constitution and transfer of human knowledge.
Tamil Nadu, in the very South of the Indian subcontinent, looks back on some 2000 years of literary history. The earliest anthologies of love and war poems, known under the name Caṅkam corpus, were soon explored by a grammatical tradition that tried to describe and regulate their production. These were followed by a tradition of gnomic poetry (Kīḻkkaṇakku), by a number of epics, as well as by several bodies of sectarian devotional poetry of Shaiva and Vaishnava persuasion. Preserving a vast quantity of texts from various domains must have been a daunting task from the very beginning since in the humid climate of South Indian the main medium of transmission, the palm-leaf manuscript, has a life expectancy of little more than a hundred years. Various methods for preservation and stabilisation were developed. A considerable role in this was played by an oral tradition with the corresponding mnemonic techniques. Vestiges of it have left traces in the transmission and are still perceptible in today’s attitude towards learning and education. There also is an extensive apparatus of exegetical and ancillary materials preserved in the extant manuscripts which have found only a limited and selective entry into modern editions.
NETamil has made a concerted effort to digitise and thus preserve manuscripts from all the literary traditions of the first millennium, and the international team of scholars is currently working on four of them, the Cankam and the Kizkkanakku corpus, the grammatical tradition and the Vaishnava canon. More of a hindrance than a help is the fact that the former three groups have become items in the Nationalist identity discourse that started in the late 19th century in the wake of the so-called Tamil renaissance when many of the early classics were rediscovered and subsequently disseminated in print for the first time. This discourse gained new virulence when 2004 Tamil was declared the second classical language of India alongside with Sanskrit. The political interest of the day is rather the preservation of a modern legend than the creation of accurate knowledge and the conservation of primary sources.
The work on the first group (Cankam) is well advanced since it could build on ten years of work done by the Cankam project conducted under the PI at the EFEO Pondicherry. This project could also provide a basis of some five hundred manuscripts already digitised; another 170 bundles could be photographed since the start of NETamil. The second group (Kizkkanakku) has made a modest beginning for six among eighteen texts, because even with European funding man power is in no way sufficient to tackle the whole of the material.
The third group is faced with special difficulties since the texts of the theoretical domain are particularly complicated and mastering them demands years of dedicated study. They are handed down with a rich and varied set of secondary sources: in a conservative intellectual milieu scholars would advance not by composing new treatises but by disguising new developments under the form of commentaries on the older tradition. Of particular interest is the multilingual background of this domain. Grammar being the Indian intellectual discipline par excellence, the trans-regional discourse here took place in Sanskrit, and while the Tamil scholars tried to develop their own models of description, many elements are taken over from the larger domain and filter down into more regional concerns. This double heritage has long been a blind spot, as in the wake of the anti-Brahmin movement in the early 20th century several generations of Tamil scholars have been debarred from even learning Sanskrit, while Sanskrit scholars as a rule have simply not been interested in Tamil. NETamil not only brings together Tamil and Sanskrit scholars but also started an initiative for teaching Sanskrit to young Indian Tamil scholars.
The fourth group, the Vaishnava devotional corpus, has been chosen for another variety of multilingual interaction. While the poetic canon is composed in Tamil, the theological framework is supplied from the Sanskrit tradition, and the medieval Śrīvaiṣṇava commentary tradition draws on both sets of sources and develops a new linguistic vehicle that is a language mixed of both Tamil and Sanskrit, called Maṇipravāḷam. Here again collaboration between the disciplines, including art history, is indispensable in order to understand the gradual amalgamation of the different strands of tradition.
The methodology employed by NETamil relies on three fundamental steps. The first is the diversification and extension of sources. While the (academically very small) discipline for the last eighty years mostly has relied on a limited set of print sources of questionable origin and quality, NETamil is going back to the still extant primary sources, that is, palm-leaf and paper manuscripts, as well as, on a more limited scale, inscriptions. This demands, secondly, a broadening of the disciplinary approach. The NETamil team comprises scholars from Tamil and Sanskrit philology, linguistics, history of linguistics, comparative literature, general history, history of religion and art history. The third step is resource pooling by setting up an international team of scholars currently consisting of twenty-seven members from eight different countries (Europe, India, America), fourteen of whom are fully or partially financed by the project.
The European host of the project is the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures at the University of Hamburg where currently some fifty scholars work in over twenty projects covering almost as many different manuscript cultures. The centre includes a state-of-the-art manuscript lab that does multi-spectral imaging and material analysis; the first successful mission of the manuscript lab to Pondycherry took place in January 2015. The Indian base of the project is the centre of the Ecole Fraçaise d’Extrême-Orient in Pondicherry, which has a manuscript collection (mostly Vaishnava) of its own and serves as base for the field trips for digitisation in various Indian libraries and as the venue for most meetings of the team. Collaboration with the Indian partner Central University of Tamil Nadu ensures a direct connection with the education of a young generation of scholars in Tamil Nadu itself.
With the help of one informatician, NETamil has built up a server containing the raw data, that is, manuscript images, scans of old editions, manuscript catalogues, transcripts, edited texts, annotated translations and dictionaries, which is currently accessible only to members, but hopefully one day can go online for the international community. Critical editions are being planned in digital format where it is easy to coordinate the various levels of evidence and to display multiple readings from various sources. Also book output is foreseen; for the Cankam corpus the third of nine critical editions has recently come out, containing the first critical edition of a major medieval commentary; the fourth is being formatted for publication. For the Vaishnava canon one study and two translations are ready for publication and several collective volumes on the development of commentaries and on multilingual interaction are under preparation.

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