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Meenakshi musing on her ancient language

Tamil ranks amongst the oldest languages of the world. Tamil literature goes back to centuries before the Christian era and historians have concluded that Tamil is as old as Sanskrit.

Philosophical language

"Tamil is essentially a philosophical language," muses Tamil poetess Meenakshi. "Every classical text starts with worshipping the whole of humanity. A peculiarity is that the 'I' is never strongly expressed; every prayer starts with 'we', referring to the collective, to humanity at large. This is always the concern of the Tamil people, there is no ego-centred selfishness. When a force and inspiration to put something in writing comes down, the author always says that it was received from the gods and is utilised it for the sake of humanity. Take for example the sentence 'All are our cities, all are our kith and kin' from a poem of Puranaanuru. Tamil has the quality to express philosophical and metaphysical concepts. The mood is always bliss, happiness. Not just physical happiness, but the psychological state of happiness, enjoyment of nature as it is; a balanced state of mind and spirit which realises bliss."

Written and spoken Tamil

"Nowadays classical Tamil is still used for poetry and writing - though in my own poetry I mix it with modern Tamil. Spoken Tamil is very different, in particular the Tamil which is spoken around Auroville, which is very simple. An example is the way in which respect is expressed. In Tamil there are many degrees of respect, but around Auroville usually only the first degree is known. I came to Auroville 23 years ago, from the ancient city of Madurai, where one of the earliest Tamil academies, the so-called Sanga, was established thousands of years ago. The Tamil spoken in Madurai is very rich. I was amazed to hear the people around Auroville speaking a very colloquial Tamil. This local language and the diction used sounded so very different. People used a limited vocabulary consisting of only a few hundred core words.
But to my surprise, when I studied it in depth, I found that many pure Tamil words of high literary order were still in use.

Situation around and in Auroville

"The language around here has since improved a lot, mainly due to formal schooling and literacy programmes, and the influence of radio, television and newspapers. A more sophisticated language is developing. In particular, the children from the surrounding villages are developing very well. But the same cannot be said of the Auroville Tamil children. The Tamil children born in Auroville speak Tanglish, a mixture of Tamil and English, using a mixed word order and word choice."

Absence of established culture

"Language is an expression of the culture of a people. But the culture of the villages around Auroville could never be expressed in depth due to many socio-economic factors. For example, you don't see agricultural arts and crafts, which is normally one of the first products of a culture in India. The absence of an established ancient culture has, in fact, been an advantage for Auroville, because due to the lack of it, Auroville could more easily be established. It would have been far more problematic in Thanjavur or Madurai or any other of the agrarian or temple cities of Tamil Nadu.

As a negative consequence, perhaps, Aurovilians have not taken much trouble to learn Tamil. Instead, the villagers take great pains to learn English as it will secure a better economic life. They even give secondary importance to their own mother tongue, and it appears that his is also the case elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. This is an unwelcome development and I hope it will change soon."


Meenakshi is Poet Laureate of Tamil Nadu. Her poems have appeared in many magazines and she has several works of poetry to her name.

Auroville Today, January '99

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