Chapter 6 Reading as an Eighteenth-Century Catechist

In: Writing Tamil Catholicism
Margherita Trento
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In his annotated translation of the Tirukkuṟāḷ or “Sacred Kural” (kuṟāl being the kind of verse used in the text) into English, the colonial officer and Tamil scholar Francis Whyte Ellis (1777–1819) often referred to Beschi’s Latin translation of this classical Tamil text.1 He also cited several passages from the Tēmpāvaṇi where Beschi elaborated upon ideas and images originally found in the Tirukkuṟaḷ. For instance, when discussing kuṟaḷ 9 on the eight attributes of God, Ellis refers to stanza XXVII, 157 of the Tēmpāvaṇi. We analyzed this stanza in the previous chapter, and saw how it contains a list of six attributes of the Christian God enumerated by Joseph for Civācivaṉ. Ellis starts off by commenting upon the language of this verse. He writes that the terms employed by Beschi “are not in common use in the service of the Catholic church, though they are known to all Christian natives conversant with the writings of Víra-màmuni […].” He then goes on to note how the vocabulary used by Beschi is partially borrowed from Hindu vocabulary, but had already been Christianized by Roberto Nobili: “the explanation of them is taken from the Mantra-málei, containing the principal part of the liturgy of the Catholic church composed by Tatwa-bodhaca-swámi, the R. Robertus Nobili. This writer has also given an elaborate disquisition on the attributes in his work entitled Jnyéana-upadésam.” Ellis further comments on the style of Nobili’s works, which despite being a clever attempt at translating Christian theology into Tamil, “does not entitle it to rank among compositions in the superior dialect of the Tamil.”2

So, Ellis read the Tēmpāvaṇi as well as other Catholic texts by Nobili, and recognized the literary quality of Beschi’s poem. In a way, his commentary is an exercise in reading the Tirukkuṟaḷ through the lens of Tamil Catholic poetry, and in reading the Tēmpāvaṇi against the background of Tamil classical literature. By the early nineteenth century, similar exercises were likely standard practice among élite Catholic converts, who had inherited and appropriated the reading strategies Beschi had devised for his catechists at Elākkuṟicci. Ellis’s Tamil teacher Vittuvāṉ Cāmināta Piḷḷai, to whom we will return later in this chapter, was one such man: a high caste Catholic intellectual and poet from Pondicherry, who read and imitated Beschi in his own works. It is thanks to Cāmināta Piḷḷai, often evoked by Ellis, that the Englishman learned the strategies of reading we see at work in his commentary on Tirukkuṟaḷ. Ellis’s reading of the Tēmpāvaṇi thus leads us to times and spaces well beyond and outside those imagined by the text itself, in this case colonial Madras. But how exactly did Beschi’s poem travel all the way there? How was it circulated, read and interpreted earlier in the eighteenth century? While clues as to the intended readership of the Tēmpāvaṇi are scattered within the poem, as we saw, we have little solid information on its circulation and readership after its composition. It must have contributed to Beschi’s newly established pulavar fame in the 1730s, but who exactly read the poem after him, when, and how?

In order to answer such questions, this chapter focuses on the many different practices, strategies and chronologies that contributed to making the Tēmpāvaṇi the quintessential Tamil Catholic poem. This implies a multiplication of the actors involved, beyond Beschi as its author, and the catechists as its intended readers.3 So, in the following pages we will explore a world of copyists, editors, scholars, singers, and composers who all interacted with, and contributed to the life of the poem in the eighteenth century and beyond. In order for all these processes and voices to emerge, and to cross the divide between the Tēmpāvaṇi as a text and as an object, the chapter adopts an eclectic methodology, drawing from manuscript studies, the history of the book, and the history of reading. Our attention will linger especially on three aspects. First, we will explore the history of the paratexts of the Tēmpāvaṇi, of its manuscripts and printed editions. Then, relying on some rare diaries and family history, the chapter will move to the social history of some of the people who copied and read the poem in the eighteenth century, and show how their practices of copying, reading, and engaging with the text continued well into the nineteenth century, even in some unexpected, non-Catholic milieux. Finally, we will peek at the Śaiva religious and cultural world that surrounded Catholic communities and cultural practices at the time of the poem’s composition, and the responses and controversies that the Tēmpāvaṇi engendered—and those it did not. In tracing the history of the Tēmpāvaṇi in the Tamil country on the eve of modernity, this chapter reconstructs the tactics and strategies connected to reading that the catechists could deploy to incorporate Catholicism into their lives.

1 Paper and Palm-Leaf Trails

This manuscript tradition of the Tēmpāvaṇi has received little attention, likely because the text was printed early and because the first edition, which is also the editio princeps, was based on an extremely authoritative manuscript. Besides, the edition was brought out by the Mission Press in Pondicherry and supported by the Church establishment of the nineteenth century. And yet, an initial survey in the archives, in Tamil Nadu as well as in France and in the United Kingdom, shows that the Tēmpāvaṇi circulated extensively as a manuscript at least until the first half of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even later.4 The origins and current distribution of existing manuscripts point to Thanjavur, Pondicherry, and Chennai as the cultural and political centers for Catholics in the region from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. Noteworthy for us, such a manuscript tradition shows considerable variations. The copy of the Tēmpāvaṇi in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, for instance, contains a text rather different from the one standardized in the printed edition, a fact that points to the existence of several independent chains of transmission. So, the Tēmpāvaṇi circulated extensively after its composition, especially between the end of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century when there were no Jesuits in South India. How were these manuscripts read and used? What can they tell us about the readership of the poem?

Such questions are particularly important to understand the history of the most famous, and most authoritative manuscript copy of the Tēmpāvaṇi, written down in 1729 while Beschi was still alive. This is a thick paper volume today preserved at the British Library, and the main source for the editio princeps published by the Mission Press in Pondicherry in 1851–1853 (Figure 15).5 The editor, Father Louis Savinien Dupuis MEP (1806–1874), reckoned this manuscript to be the autograph copy of the poem, as he explains in the French introduction to his edition.6 This conviction was shared by many scholars in the mid-nineteenth century, and largely based on the account of the origins of this manuscript contained in Muttucāmi Piḷḷai’s biography of Beschi.7 Muttucāmi claimed that, while traveling south to collect information about the Jesuit on the request of Francis Whyte Ellis, he met at Āvūr a man called Luz Naig (Pirakāca Nāyakkar), the son of Beschi’s disciple Bungaroo Naig (Pāṅkāṭu Nāyakkar).8 Luz Naig claimed to have in his possession a copy of the Tēmpāvaṇi in Beschi’s own handwriting, and Muttucāmi was able to convince him to sell that copy to Ellis for 300 rupees—a rather large amount in the early nineteenth century. This is the manuscript that, after passing through the hands of a few colonial administrators, entered into the Library of the British Museum (now the British Library). It includes the poem and its first commentary. Muttucāmi’s biography of Beschi was also the origin, or perhaps an early record of the belief that Beschi wrote the Tēmpāvaṇi in 1726, and added a self-commentary in 1729 because his fellow poets found the poem too difficult to understand.


Figure 15

Title-page of the 1851 editio princeps of the Tēmpāvaṇi by the Mission Press

book in the public domain

Some of the traits of the London manuscript, especially the liberal use of thick paper, suggest a missionary connection. Besides, it was obviously important for the catechists who sold it to Muttucāmi, and for Muttucāmi too, who ended up keeping it after Ellis’s death.9 The civil servant and naturalist Sir Walter Elliot (1803–1887), the subsequent owner, obtained it from Muttucāmi. In the handwritten note he attached at the beginning of the volume, Elliot further tells that when he first received the manuscript, the initial pages were missing, and the text had been supplied by Muttucāmi (perhaps from memory). This addition is still visible today. In the end, though, Elliot managed to retrieve those missing pages, thanks to a certain Thambisami, a śūdra from Tanjavur whom he assisted in finding a job in the lower ranks of the British administration.10 In a letter from Caveripatam (Kāvērippaṭṭaṇam), dated 21 August 1844, Thambisami said he had found those pages among the papers left by Muttucāmi Piḷḷai, who had obtained them towards the end of his life from Vētanāyakam Cāstiriyār (1774–1864), the court poet of the Maratha king Serfoji II, and a Protestant. We will return to this trajectory of circulation of the Tēmpāvaṇi. For now, the fact that Muttucāmi had searched for the missing pages, and that Vētanāyakam Cāstiriyār had them among his personal possessions, further shows the importance of this manuscript of the text for local Christians.

However, this is likely not Beschi’s autograph. Between the end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, both Julien Vinson and Léon Besse rejected the assumption that Beschi was the copyist of the manuscript, as well as the author of the commentary it contains.11 Their revisionism was based on the recognition that, according to the paratexts, the scribe of the manuscript speaks in the voice of the author of the commentary, and so the 1729 manuscript is a coherent scribal project. Yet, this is not Beschi’s voice. The paratexts indicate that it was a student of Beschi who wrote the commentary (urai).12 In the introduction to said commentary (pāvurai patikam), Vīramāmuṉi is mentioned in the third person, and the authorial voice mentions having first understood the poem, and only then composed his commentary (arumpayaṉ uṇarnt’ urai aṟaikutu nāṉē).13 The verse at the end of the commentary contains a similar expression, in which the authorial voice claims that he set out to explain the poem after understanding it (kaṟṟ’ uṇarnt’ uṇartta nāṉ).14 This commentator speaks in the same voice as the author of the colophon of the London manuscript, where he mentions that he finished writing in 1729, on the day of the Nativity of Mary (i.e., on 8 September).15 Unfortunately, we have no additional information about this commentator, and the manuscript does not mention his name, nor the place where he was writing. Still, by considering that in 1729 Beschi was still alive and on the verge of founding the Ēlākkuṟicci school of rhetoric, we can imagine the scribe and commentator as one of Beschi’s disciples, likely a catechist. He likely composed the commentary, perhaps in collaboration with Beschi, to make the poem accessible to the prospective students of the Ēlākkuṟicci school.

This impression is corroborated by the discussion of the purposes of the commentary in the initial passage of its introduction:

tēmpā vaṇiy eṉa ceyiraṟa avatari
kāmpāv aruḷuḷa kaṭavuḷai vaḷartta
vuyar kaittātaiy eṉṟu uṭaivaḷatt’ urivaḷaṉ
peyar peṟuñ cūcai perum payaṉ caritai
ceyyuḷum uraitta ceyyuḷōṭ’ icaippaṭac
ceyyuṇirai piṟaḻāt teḷiv’ urai vaḻaṅka
oru peyarāṟ paṟporuḷum oruporuḷāṟ paṟpayaṉuṅ
karutik kaviñar taṅ kaviy iyalp’ eṉiṉum
īṇṭu viriyum ituv eṉav añci
vēṇṭ’ oru poruḷāl viḷamputum uraiyē
maṟṟavai makiḻv’uṟak
kaṟṟavar uṇarka
mīṇṭu kallārum viḷaipayaṉ uṟav urai
īṇṭuveḷip poruḷāy iyampuva karuttu.16

As for the Tēmpāvaṇi, this is a poem on the greatly edifying life-story of Joseph, who deserves the name of Vaḷan because he had the role to attend as a foster father to the cherished life of the Lord, who is filled with protecting grace, and incarnated without any defect. In order to match this poem with a text of explanation (uraitta ceyyuḷ) and to give a clear summary (teḷivurai) not deviating from the line of the poem, and yet afraid that it will become too long—considering that, if you ask learned men about their poems, they will tell you how one word has many meanings, and one meaning can be expressed in many words—this explanation (urai) will only mention the one meaning that is necessary. While learned men (kaṟṟavar) understand and enjoy such things fully, for simple people (kallār) to also experience a fully formed result, my intention is to explain it in an accessible way (veḷiporuḷāy) here in the commentary.

This passage states that the main concerns of the commentator are to remain faithful to the original text, not to write an exceedingly long text, and to make the poem clear and accessible to simple, even if still literate, people. In other words, this is not an explanation for fellow poets, and the word teḷivurai acquires a quasi-technical meaning in this context. It excludes other types of commentary, like the word-by-word patavurai or the elaborate virivurai, in favor of a short summary of the verses. Indeed, while the commentary of the Tēmpāvaṇi included in this manuscript is by no means in an easy register, it does offer short and straightforward prose retellings of the original verses. Words are glossed only when necessary, and often the multiple meanings of a stanza are not explored. The purpose of such a commentary does not seem to present professional scholars with a learned discussion on each stanza, but to give its literate yet common readers the gist of the stanza. These imagined readers could well be the catechists who received a generic Tamil education in the Ēlākkuṟicci school, and had a certain amount of literary and cultural capital, but were not professional poets or intellectuals. Their purpose would be to understand the stanzas, and use them for teaching the poem in public.

There are no sources on how this was done in the eighteenth century, but some clues can be gathered from nineteenth-century practices. In the 1860s, Catholic poet and Pondicherry resident Cavarāyalu Nāyakar toured various cities and villages in Tamil Nadu to recite and explain the Tēmpāvaṇi in front of relatively large audiences. In 1861, the Christian population of Pondicherry offered him a gold medal precisely because “of the rare talent and the skillfulness he displayed in explaining and paraphrasing viva voce the wonderful Tamil poem by Fr. Beschi, the Tēmpāvaṇi.” An article on the journal Moniteur Officiel of Pondicherry on 14 June 1861 further describes Cavarāyalu Nāyakar’s performance on the day of the ceremony during which he received the medal: “He recited some stanzas of the Tēmpāvaṇi, then commented upon them with an elegant and approachable style, and then changed the subject to show how Father Beschi came to these faraway lands […].”17 The 1729 commentary is coherent with this practice of public explanation in an approachable style that would bring the Tēmpāvaṇi to normal Catholics, rather than to a public of expert pulavars with the means of accessing the poem on their own—precisely as stated by the commentator himself in the patikam. Moreover, the marked variations in the text of the poem and the commentary, found in the manuscript copies of the text mentioned at the beginning of this section, point to its use in public performances as well as teaching. Catechists and school masters probably adapted the Tēmpāvaṇi to the needs of their audiences and their students, especially by twisting or updating its commentary, a process that little by little came to an end after the text was crystallized in the authoritative printed edition of 1851–1853. Yet these earlier practices show how accessing Beschi’s poem, and Tamil Catholic literature more generally, often implied the mediation of a catechist-like figure. Similar to Cavarāyalu Nāyakar, and other forgotten performers, preachers, and teachers, the commentator of the 1729 manuscript self-positioned as such a mediator between the poem and a devoted popular audience, and as the link between the institutional mission, represented by Beschi and his literary practices, and the people.

2 Catechist Dynasties

Some of the early practices of copying, performing, and teaching the poem, implicit in its manuscript history, emerge forcefully in two exceptional documents recording the history of a family of catechists of the village of Kuriviṉattam, a tiny hamlet just one kilometer away from the old Jesuit residence of Kāmanāyakkaṉpaṭṭi, where Beschi began his career in South India. The first document is the genealogical record of the members of the Vellala family of the village of Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam, who called themselves by the title of piḷḷaimār, and who provided catechists to the local Catholic community for more than a century. This document was compiled in 1915 from local palm-leaf records and oral histories by Father Marianus Arpudam SJ (= Aṟputam, 1867–1923), who himself belonged to this group, and titled A Genealogical Study of the Catholic Vellala Families at Vadakankulam.18 It was produced in the context of violent litigations between different castes competing for control over Catholic places and rites in the village, and has the agenda of proving the ancient history and deep ties of the community with the location of Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam, as well as with a translocal network of Vellala catechists throughout the Tamil country.19 In other words, this document shows how a well-established Vellala community reflected on its past, and produced a document whose hybrid mode, between dynastic history (vaṃśāvali) and family genealogy, is similar to that of contemporary caste purāṇas, which mixed the old puranic forms with new communal and historical preoccupations.20 Notwithstanding, or maybe because of this later agenda, the document contains a wealth of exceptional information on the eighteenth century.

In the beginning of A Genealogical Study, we learn how the founder of this dynasty, Gnanaprakasam (Ñāṉappirakācam), came to Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam, converted to Catholicism, and became a catechist. He later was the teacher of Tēvacakāyam Piḷḷai, the first Indian convert of the Madurai mission to be martyred in 1752. Tēvacakāyam’s martyrdom and saintly fame greatly contributed to increasing the prestige of Ñāṉappirakācam’s family, and the connection between Ñāṉappirakācam and Tēvacakāyam was also recorded in Jesuit sources of the period. In addition to such origin stories, the manuscript by Arpudam also offers an unprecedented amount of data on the names, family affiliations, and professions of each member of the Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam family lineage, kuṭumpam in Tamil, and their affiliated lineages. Sometimes, the text also includes short but precious biographical sketches. Among these affiliated lineages, one that emerges in the document as being both ancient and important is precisely the catechist family of Kuriviṉattam.

Additional sources on this family are the journal (Cavarirāyappiḷḷai carittiram) and the family history (Cavarirāyappiḷḷai vamca varalāṟu) written by nineteenth-century Lutheran catechist Upatēciyār Cavarirāya Piḷḷai (1801–1874). These literary genres, especially the journal, were typical instruments of self-knowledge and education among Protestant catechists, who from early on were encouraged to write about their work among local communities, and their families. Most of these documents have been lost, or survive only as manuscripts, but fortunately for us Cavarirāya Piḷḷai’s texts were published in 1900 by his son, Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyam Cavarirāyaṉ, who recognized their importance. Note immediately the middle name of the son: Tēvacakāyam, the name of the martyr of Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam, and one of the most common Catholic names in the south of the Tamil country. Indeed, Cavarirāya Piḷḷai baptized his son following an old family tradition, since we discover from his works that he originally belonged to the Catholic Vellalla family of Kuriviṉattam also mentioned in the manuscript by Arpudam, and was connected with the Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam lineage by marriage. He only converted to Lutheranism in his early twenties. So, when Cavarirāya Piḷḷai wrote about his ancestors in the history of his family, the people he mentioned were mostly the Catholic élites of Kuriviṉattam also listed in A Genealogical Study. Thanks to this peculiar history, we have two parallel and exceptional sources on the very same family of catechists.21

Let us turn to the description of this family. Narasinghamurthia Pillai (Naraciṅka Piḷḷai in Tamil) was the first Catholic convert and founder of the Catholic Vellala lineage in Kuruviṉatām.22 The only son of Naraciṅkam Piḷḷai, Nallatampiyā Piḷḷai, died very young, but he still managed to produce a son with his wife Cuvāmiyaṭiyāḷ. The boy, Cavarimuttu Piḷḷai, survived to become an important, if somewhat restless figure in the history of the family. We learn from Cavarirāya Piḷḷai that Cavarimuttu’s mother Cuvāmiyaṭiyāḷ took good care of him, and was invested in his education, even after the death of her husband Nallatampiyā and her second marriage to a certain Viyākappiḷḷai. Cuvāmiyaṭiyāḷ sent Cavarimuttu to school from early on, and hired learned pulavars to deepen his education. These men would read and explain to Cavarimuttu the Tēmpāvaṇi, along with other difficult poems.23 This detail reveals how Beschi’s poem had become important for the education of young Catholic boys almost immediately after its composition, considering that the life of Cavarimuttu unfolded in the middle of the eighteenth century. Thanks to this education, Cavarimuttu went on to become a disciple of the priest at Vaṭakkuṉkuḷam, while his younger brother became record-keeper, kaṇakkuppiḷḷai, in another village. Even after running away from Vaṭakkuṉkuḷam to the Maravar country, for reasons that remain unknown, he ended up working as a catechist and a teacher, often following some missionary, until his early death at Kāmanāyakkaṉpatti.24

The main events of Cavarimuttu’s life, recounted at length in the family history by Cavarirāya Piḷḷai, are well summarized in one of the short but precious biographical notes of the Arpudam manuscript:

Saverimuthu P. was a disciple of the priest at Vadakankulam. Enraged as her [sic] young widowed mother remarried to Yagappa P of Visayanarayanam, went in exile to the Maravan country, and after pitiable wanderings came and settled at Kamanayakanpatti as Vasal ubedesi [“resident catechist”]. Here he refused the hand of Kanakan’s daughter for she was immodest as வேட்டுக்கிடாய் [vēṭṭukkiṭāy], but married the d[aughter] of Thamma Chettiar of Sekkarakudi at Vadak. He was afterwards ubedesi of Srivaikuntam where he planted the three of the present puliantopu [“tamarind grove”]. He resigned and became a teacher (near Esalapuram) of Tharmathupuram. Finally he came to Vadakankulam where he became the accountant of Mr. Bilderbeck. Caught by fever at Puliangudi (Vasudevanallur) he was brought to his father-in-law’s house at Kamanayakanpatti where he died in 1767 at the age of 35. Saverimuthu P. was a learned man, tall in stature, fair in appearance, of great faith—writer & author of “Thembavani”, “Sathuragarathi”, “Kitteriammal ammanei” & others. His wife Madavadial, the third of the children of Thammu Chettiar, died at Thuttampatti.25

This account shows that the geographical contours of Cavarimuttu’s life overlapped in many ways with Beschi’s missionary trajectory. He traveled to the Maravar country soon after Beschi was there to collect witnesses for Brito’s inquiry, and he worked as resident catechist (vācal upatēci) at Kāmanāyakkaṉpatti, where Beschi began his missionary career. Finally, towards the end of his life, Cavarimuttu worked as secretary of a certain Mr. Bilderbeck. While the chronology given by Arpudam is coherent with that found in Caverirāya Piḷḷai’s family history, it does not map exactly onto the admittedly little information available on Mr. Bilderbeck. This merchant, Christopher Bilderbeck (d. 1817), father of the better-known Anglican missionary John Bilderbeck (1809–1880), likely settled in Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam only late in the eighteenth century, considering that he was born around 1758.26 Exact dating aside, though, it is not surprising that in this context Cavarimuttu would come into contact with Beschi’s literary works. But what does the last sentence of the passage mean? How could Cavarimuttu be “writer & author” of most of Beschi’s poems?

The answer becomes obvious when reading another short note in the Arpudam manuscript, clearly referring to the relationship between a manuscript and its owner, rather than a text and its author:

Thembavani of Saverimuthu P. though stolen by the robbers (தளவாய்பிள்ளை கொள்ளை) was purchased by his son Mariasinga Chettiyar, from whom it passed to Nadukadai Michael. P. & from him to his son Ignacimuthu P., from whom it passed to Devasagaiam Savaraya P in whose custody is also the Thembavani of his grandfather.27

This short passage refers the chain of transmission of a material object, which could be and was at a point stolen—that is, it refers to a manuscript of the Tēmpāvaṇi originally copied by Cavarimuttu. The passage, and the chain of manuscript transmission it quickly records, is clarified and explained in detail by Cavarirāya Piḷḷai’s family history. Indeed, Cavarirāya Piḷḷai tells us, Cavarimuttu owned a copy of the Tēmpāvaṇi, which he himself had copied onto palm-leaves. A thief, called Taḷavāy Piḷḷai, stole that copy around the time of Cavarimuttu’s death, and soon after he sold the manuscript to a merchant. The new owner was a clever man. He immediately realized that the object must have been a prized family possession, and guessed the family to which he must have belonged. So, he brought the palm-leaf manuscript to Cavarimuttu’s son Mariyaciṅkam Piḷḷai, and offered to return it to him, of course upon payment of its market price. Mariyaciṅkam, “seeing that the palm leaf (ēṭu) was in the handwriting (kaiyeḻuttu) of his father, was astonished, and bought it for the price asked.”28 The Tēmpāvaṇi thus came back to the family.

As stated by Arpudam too, Mariyaciṅkam later gave the manuscript to his second wife’s son, who passed it down to his son Iṉṉācimuttu. The latter in turn gave it to Upatēciyār Cavarirāya Piḷḷai’s son, Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyaṉ Cavarirāyaṉ, the editor of his father’s diary and family history. His name is found in the passage by Arpudam above in its anglicized form, Devasagaiam Savaraya, without any mention that this member of the family had become in the meantime a Lutheran. Still, we know that in his journey from hand to hand, the manuscript finally went from Catholic to Protestant hands, while staying within the same family. Yōvāṉ Tevacakāyaṉ Cavarirāyaṉ had it in his custody for a while, before deciding to give it back to his ancestral church in Kuruviṉatām with a pompous ceremony. This exceptional story shows the circulation of a single manuscript of the Tēmpāvaṇi in the same family over five generations, spanning more than a century, and crossing confessional divides. It also shows how Beschi’s Tēmpāvaṇi accompanied Cavarimuttu’s life from his early childhood education to his afterlife, shaping his and his family’s cultural identity both as a text and as an object throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The lives of the other members of the same family, especially Nanasanjivi Pillai (Ñāṉacañcīvi Piḷḷai) and Cavarimuttu’s son Mariyaciṅkam Piḷḷai, highlight other important aspects of the Catholic cultural world in the second half of the eighteenth century.29 Ñāṉacañcīvi Piḷḷai lived most of his life in the small village of Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam, and yet he knew Latin, thanks to the schooling efforts of the missionaries. Moreover, his Catholic zeal led him to once beat a Protestant minister, an event that resonates well with the bitter rivalry that characterized Beschi’s missionary career, and throws further light on the difficult choice of Upatēciyār Cavarirāya Piḷḷai and his son to convert, as well as on their attachment to their Catholic roots. By contrast, Mariyaciṅkam was not a particularly learned man, but fortunately the text tells us what he did not know—that is, what his more cultured relatives likely knew. As it turns out, writing on palm leaf and a certain knowledge of arithmetic were considered basic skills for the men of this family, and for the small-town Catholic intelligentsia of their time.

It will be clear by now that the analogies between the cultural milieu mapped by these local histories and what Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have defined as “karaṇam culture” run deep. These authors described the small-scale literati that made up karaṇam culture as polyglot authors of texts meant to be recited in public as well as read privately, often privileging prose over verse. They were “a service gentry […] able to accommodate new members over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, groups that emerged into this sphere of discussion by processes of social mobility.”30 The early nineteenth-century records we just read look back at the time in the eighteenth century when Catholic, and later Lutheran, Vellalas emerged into this type of literate and literary sphere by processes of social mobility facilitated, and partially generated, by Catholicism and the mission. Catechists at this time combined the cultural tools offered to them by family and caste, that is the karaṇam toolbox, with the spiritual, cultural, and institutional investiture given to them by the mission. The Tēmpāvaṇi, a poem which was their own, the highest poetic expression of Catholic Tamil literature of their time, further gave them an entry point into the world of poetry and learning, and the social and political networks that made that world. It is not surprise, then, that the Tēmpāvaṇi was a crucial part of their education, a text that they copied and whose manuscripts were passed down within their families in the villages of the Tamil country.

3 Śaiva Neighbors and Rivals

The sources we just analyzed, besides offering us glimpses into the role of the Tēmpāvaṇi in the life of a Catholic catechist family, also offer an image of the catechist community in the larger religious and cultural context of the eighteenth century. Most strikingly, this is the moment when Lutheran and Anglican forms of Christianity became very important, especially in the southernmost region of the Tamil country. Cavarirāya Piḷḷai’s conversion to Lutheranism points to this process, and to its complex nature, since he continued to have a keen interest in the Tēmpāvaṇi, and the traditions of his Catholic ancestors. The same documents also show how most of the families that at the turn of the eighteenth century converted to become Catholic catechists were originally Śaiva, and continued to have relatives who professed that faith. We have almost no information on the reactions of those who remained Śaiva to the conversion and new allegiances of their friends and family members. Yet, if we look closely enough at Jesuit sources of the time, and compare them with oral histories and legends that still circulate in Tamil Nadu regarding the foundations of churches and villages, the contours of the catechists’ local activities emerge as integrated into a social, literary, and religious fabric that unfolded on the local scale, where the boundaries between Catholic and Śaiva were not so firm.

This emerges with particular force in the oral sources and village accounts from the deep south of the Tamil country, probably because this region still has strong Catholic communities and folk traditions. Besides, even though Beschi’s life and work are tightly connected with the Kaveri delta region, he began his missionary career in Southern Tamil Nadu, in the village of Kāmanāyakkaṉpaṭṭi, and spent his last years at Maṇappāṭu on the Fishery coast, before dying in Kerala. So, the oral traditions of both these areas, the Fishery coast and the Tenkasi region where Kāmanāyakkaṉpaṭṭi is located, remember Beschi in a number of colorful stories. For example, he appears in the foundation myth of the church of Cērntamaram, often spelled Sendamaram in English, an account filled with details that might help us understand the social and cultural milieu in which the catechists operated:

Apart from them, in the beginning of the eighteenth century (in the year 1714) Giuseppe Beschi aka Vīramāmuṉivar, who was working at Kāmanāyakkaṉpaṭṭi, came to preach in the Tirunelveli (Nellai) district. At that time, a man of the kaṇiyāṉ caste listened to his teachings, converted, and became his catechist (upatēciyar), and came to teach with the name of Ñāṉēntiraṉ. Due to his efforts, two brothers who lived in the village of Veḷḷāṅkuḷi nearby Kalliṭaikkuṟicci in this district—called Iruḷappa Mūppaṉar and Caṅkaraliṅka Mūppaṉar, belonging to the cēṉaiyar or ilaivaṇikar caste—were converted by his teachings and zeal. Virāmāmuṉivar baptized both of them with his own holy hands in 1715, and Iruḷappa Mūppaṉar took the name of Ñāṉēntiraṉ, while Caṅkaraliṅka Mūppaṉar took the name of Cavarimuttu. After this, both of them were mistreated by their relations, so Ñāṉēntiraṉ Mūppaṉar moved to Citamparāpuram next to Caṅkaraṉkōyil, and Caṅkaraliṅka Mūppaṉar moved to a place called Vairavaṉ kuṭiyiruppu (i.e., Tavaṇai) next to Ceṅkōṭṭai. Caṅkaraliṅka Mūppaṉar who had gone to Tavaṇai, because of his ability in Tamil due to being born in the group of the cēṉaiyar, began to work in that village (ūr) in the house of a man called Muttuvīrappa Pulavar. Seeing his rectitude, Muttuvīrappa Pulavar gave to him his own daughter, Vīracaṅkili Māṭatti, in marriage, and they all lived in the same house. At that time, because of his learning (pulamai) Muttuvīrappa Pulavar was appointed by the Zamindar of Vaṭakarai, called Tiru Ciṉṉa Ānanta Paṇṭiyaṉ, as one of the ritual singers (ōtuvar) in the temple of Pirakalātīcuvarar in Cērntamaram, and so he came to live in Cērntamaram.31

I stop here, but the story continues. Caṅkaraliṅka Mūppaṉar, together with his wife, sets out to join his father-in-law, but on their way to Cērntamaram the couple walks in front of a chapel dedicated to the archangel Michael. Caṅkaraliṅka, who has not yet confessed his conversion to his wife, cannot however repress the irresistible urge to worship in the chapel. He has to tell her the whole story, and so he does. Then he prays, and finally—to make the proverbially long story short—she converts too. When husband and wife, now both openly Catholic, arrive in Cērntamaram, they begin preaching, converting, and tending after the local community, practically working as catechists.

One reason why I decided to recount this particular origin narrative is its surprising connection with events narrated in Jesuit reports of the period, where we find multiple references to a certain Gnaniendira (Ñāṉēntiraṉ), who worked as Beschi’s catechist in Kurukkaḷpaṭṭi in 1714–1715. He was one of the two catechists who accompanied Beschi when the Pariah we encountered in Chapter Two set in motion the events leading to the persecution of the Christians of Kurukkaḷpaṭṭi, Kāmanāyakkaṉpaṭṭi and Kayattāṟu in 1714.32 The Cērntamaram village history claims that it was this Ñāṉēntiraṉ who converted the two mūppaṉar brothers. Beschi baptized them, of course, conferring the new religious identity by imposition of his holy hands (tirukkai), but he didn’t play any active role in the evangelization of the village. And yet, notwithstanding the marginalization of the role of Beschi, Caṅkaraliṅka Mūppaṉar’s story is completely different from that of the Pariah we analyzed earlier. The events of his life, conversion, and evangelizing efforts show a network of independent circulation of Catholicism that was sanctioned and approved by the missionaries.

Among the striking elements in the story is the precise caste identification of the main characters, likely a function of the moment in which the story was written in the early twentieth century rather than an exact reference to eighteenth-century realities. Still, this account shows the catechists as belonging to Southern groups—Ñāṉēntiraṉ is kaṇiyāṉ, the two brothers are ceṉaiyar—that shared a certain amount of cultural capital, and the strive towards upward mobility.33 Especially Caṅkaraliṅka, the brother who will end up becoming the first catechist of Cērntamaram, is portrayed as a provincial Tamil savant, married into the family of a local pulavar turned ōtuvar of the village temple. This points to the peripheral intellectual class that constituted, I argue, the cultural milieu in which most catechists were immersed before as well as after joining the mission, and the milieu in which the Catholic texts we read so far circulated. Finally, the name of the second brother, Caṅkaraliṅka, as well as his father-in-law’s occupation as ōtuvar, a professional singer of Śaiva hymns, speaks to the original religious affiliation of the two convert brothers as some form of Tamil Śaivism. This in turn points to a general tendency that we mentioned. Converts to Catholicism in the eighteenth century, and especially those literate men who would become catechists, often belonged originally to Śaiva (mostly, self-proclaimed Vellala) families. Śaivism always remained in the not-so-remote past of the mission, and missionaries and their catechists were in direct competition with Śaiva ritual, spiritual and intellectual practices.

This competing milieu appears clearly in the Tamil version of Muttucāmi Piḷḷai’s biography of Beschi, which—unlike the English version—includes a number of colorful vignettes showing how Beschi answered various tricky questions posed to him by his Śaiva opponents. Once, for instance, he engaged with two Śaiva itinerant preachers, called paṇṭāram, in a debate that took place entirely through hand gestures. He won without pronouncing a single word.34 Another time, nine conceited paṇṭāram, sure of their superior education, came to Beschi at Ēlākkuṟicci, and asked him to engage in a philosophical debate (tarkkam). After only one month of intense discussion (and this gives a sense of the length of such public debates) they all declared defeat. Six of them converted, while three of them cut their dreadlocks (caṭai) out of shame, and moved to another region—but the hair they cut off was tied, like straw, to the roof of the mandapa at Tirukkāvalūr.35 Notice how in all these episodes, Beschi’s opponents are Śaiva paṇṭāram, while he himself was dressed and behaved at this time as a Christian paṇṭāram, a strategy we encountered in the previous chapters. So, in more than one way, Beschi, his catechists, and their Śaiva counterparts were colleagues.

The history of Śaiva responses to Catholicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before the well-known nineteenth-century debates between Tamil Śaiva Siddhānta champions and Protestant missionaries, is little known.36 In fact, there are almost no sources showing that such early responses existed, apart from fragments of an anti-Catholic treatise called Ēcumata nirākaraṇam, “The refutation of the religion of Jesus,” attributed to the Vīraśaiva poet-saint Tuṟaimaṅkalam Civappirakācar. If this text is really by Civappirakācar, and if the usual dating of this author to the seventeenth century is correct, then the Ēcumata nirākaraṇam was not a polemic against Beschi, but against one of the earlier missionaries, possibly Roberto Nobili.37 Whatever the case, only three verses survived, because they were incorporated within Perūr Citampara Cuvāmikaḷ’s commentary to Pērūr Cāntaliṅka Aṭikaḷār’s Kolai maṟuttal, “Against killing.” These stanzas give us a sense of those early controversies:38

aṟikilai nararkkāy vēṇṭi yaḷittaṉaṉ miruka māti
yiṟaiyava ṉeṉṟāyōrī yīṉṟiṭa malamī tūruñ
ciṟupuḻu viraiyu ṟāteṉ ceykuvai yataṉai nōkka
aṟivaru nuṇiya tēkiyaṉantanī yavai yeṉ ceyvāy.
aṟikilai. nararkkā vēṇṭi aḷittaṉaṉ mirukam āti
iṟai avaṉ eṉṟāy. ōr ī īṉṟu iṭa malamītu ūrum
ciṟu puḻuvu iraiy uṟātu—eṉ ceykuvaiy? ataṉai nōkka
aṟivarum nuṇiya tēki aṉantam nīy avai eṉ ceyvāy.

You are ignorant. You say that the Lord has created the animals and so on for the use of men. Yet the small worms crawling in the dirty feces, born from a single fly, do not turn into food. What do you do [about them]? Similar to this, tiny creatures deprived of intelligence are limitless. What do you do about them?

vāytiṟan talaṟum vēṅkai valviṭa mumiḻpām pāti
nēyamaṟ ṟevarkūṟṟāy nikaḻvate ṉulakat tannāḷ
tūyavaṉātik kōtuñ coṉṉeṟi yaṭaṅkā teṉṉiṉ
āyakō vāti māntark kaṭaṅkiya vitameṉ kollō.
vāy tiṟantu alaṟum vēṅkai, valviṭa mumiḻpāmpu āti
nēyam aṟṟu evarku ūṟṟāy nikaḻvatu eṉ ulakattu annāḷ
tūyavaṉ ātikku ōtum col ṉeṟi aṭaṅkātu eṉṉiṉ
āyakōv āti māntarkku aṭaṅkiya vitam eṉ kollō.

The tiger that roars with open mouth, the snake with strong poison, and the like, who have no love for anyone, behave harmfully—how so? If they do not obey the words said by the Purest one in the beginning, on that [first] day on earth, tell me, in what way would have the animals submitted to the first men?

colliṉa ṉavarkkac cāti yaṭaṅkavun tuyarañ ceytē
kolla maṟṟaiyavu mīcaṉ eṉṟiṭiṟ koṭunā kāti
nallavā vōrōr kālat taṭaṅkalā ṉavilac cāti
allal cey tiṭalāṟ ṟīyōy aṟainta coṟ paḻutēy ākum.
colliṉaṉ avarkku accāti aṭaṅkavun tuyaram ceytē
kolla maṟṟaiyavum īcaṉ eṉṟiṭiṉ, koṭu nāku āti
nallavā ōrōr kālatt’ aṭaṅkalāl, navilaccāti
allal ceytiṭalāl tīyō? aṟainta col paḻutē ākum.39

If you claim that the Lord ordered those falling into that [animal] birth to submit to them [i.e., to men], and that they are to be violently killed, then, since the treacherous animals such as the cobra sometimes are also obedient, and behave nicely, is killing them a bad thing? The word spoken by God must be false.

These complex verses survived within the commentary on a text arguing for vegetarianism, and coherently they analyze the relation between men and animals. They show a surprisingly deep knowledge of Christian stories, and challenge the commonly held belief that Christian ideas had very little circulation at this time. The three stanzas address the basic belief among Catholics that God wished men to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). The first verse claims that Catholic doctrine cannot explain the function of tiny, useless animals, such as worms and mosquitoes; the second one asks how was is it possible that animals are meant to obey and serve men, if God allows dangerous beasts to continue living on this earth and harm human beings; and the third verse wonders, what about dangerous beasts that are domesticated only occasionally? Even when they stop doing any harm, still they are not used for food. Can we say that they submitted to men? As the commentary by Perūr Citampara Cuvāmikaḷ makes clear, the Christian doctrine challenged in these verses posits human beings and animals as qualitatively different, since the latter were created to serve and feed the former—and indeed animals will not resurrect, according to Christian doctrine. Śaivism, with its belief in rebirth, opposed this view, and reckoned all living beings to be part of the same cycle of karma and ultimate liberation.

It is difficult to gain a deeper understanding of the theological and social implications of these verses outside the context of the whole Ēcumata nirākaraṇam, and the text has not resurfaced yet. Still, the themes of hierarchy and of the relationship between men and nature resonate with our discussion thus far, especially with Civācivaṉ’s questions, which we encountered in Chapter Five. These stanzas show how Christianity aimed at fundamentally reshaping that relationship. The new Christian doctrine of original sin, the fall, and the final judgment implied a new way of looking at the animals and the trees of the Tamil land, and explaining their relationship with men, as the Śaiva author of these verses well understood.

4 Towards the Colonial Archive

Within the contours of the social and cultural world we just sketched, a poem like the Tēmpāvaṇi seems at the same time appropriate and necessary. How else could catechists compete with their Śaiva neighbors and relatives? What Catholic hymns could they sing in response to the mellifluous verses of temple ōtuvar? Of course, the Tēmpāvaṇi was not the only text available to them. During the eighteenth century, there was a proliferation of Catholic poems and plays in the popular genres of the period. The relationship between this body of literature, missionary literature, and the refined texts composed by local Catholic poets from the turn of the nineteenth century onwards, both in the ciṟṟilakkiyam genres and in the longer narrative genres, is yet to be explored. Certainly, Beschi’s poems remained at the center of this literary constellation, and represent a successful attempt of the mission to harness this cultural milieu. In this context, the circulation of Tēmpāvaṇi manuscripts mapped by Arpudam and Cavarirāya Piḷḷai offers an example of practices common among eighteenth-century Catholic élites. Recovering this relatively widespread circulation of Beschi’s poem also offers a new perspective on the colonial “discovery” of Beschi in the early nineteenth century, in the context of what has been called the Madras School of Orientalism. Great attention has been paid recently to the role of Francis Whyte Ellis, who was an admirer and a reader of Beschi. Elllis’ desire to procure Beschi’s manuscript for the College prompted Muttucāmi Piḷḷai to travel south, and eventually recover, among other texts, the 1729 manuscript of the Tēmpāvaṇi we analyzed earlier. And yet, this clichéd tale of rediscovery has obscured something that appears quite clearly in the pages, and sometimes in the footnotes, of Muttucāmi’s biography of Beschi. As soon as he stepped outside of Madras, Muttucāmi encountered a dense network of Catholic catechists and intellectuals who had preserved old manuscripts of poems by Beschi, and of texts by other missionaries too. Besides Luz Naig in Avūr, for instance, he mentions “Dayiriyam Pillei and Arairda Pillai, who were the sons of Chowrimootoo Pillei, Beschi’s catechist, and who gave me much information respecting the life of Beschi as well as his valuable works, and whom I met at Cariyam Putti, a village which is about midway between Tanjore and Trichinopoly.”40

In other words, in order to “discover” Beschi’s manuscript Muttucāmi simply had to ask those men who had been reading and using them throughout the eighteenth century, and were still doing so in the early colonial period.41 Indeed, one such man was a close collaborator of Ellis, and most likely the source of his interest in Beschi. As we saw at the beginning of the chapter, before launching the quest for Beschi’s manuscripts, Ellis had studied the Tēmpāvaṇi and the Tirukkāvalūr kalampakam, as demonstrated by the many quotations from the two texts in his translation and commentary of the Tirukkuṟaḷ. He could probably access those texts because his Tamil teacher, Vittuvāṉ Cāmināta Piḷḷai, was a Catholic Vellala who had likely studied Beschi’s poems while growing up in Pondicherry, as Cavarimuttu had done in Kuriviṉattam. Cāmināta Piḷḷai was furthermore the author of numerous Catholic poems, including the Nacaraikkalampakam and the Ñāṉātikkarāyar kāppiyam. Both these texts use two Tamil literary genres, the peruṅkāppiyam and the kalampakam, first adapted to Christian poetics by Beschi.42 The Nacaraikkalampakam further follows the innovations introduced by Beschi, and includes verses on themes that were not part of the kalampakam genre before the Tirukkāvalūr kalampakam. So, while his poems still await proper analysis, Cāmināta Piḷḷai clearly stands at the juncture between the pre-colonial and the colonial order. It was likely him who brought to early nineteenth century Madras a set of Catholic texts and literary preoccupations that were important for him, for his family, and for his community.

It is not surprising, then, that when Muttucāmi Piḷḷai set out to write a biography of Beschi, he could work with papers that had already been prepared for that purpose by Cāmināta Piḷḷai. It is not clear whether Muttucāmi himself was a relative of Cāmināta, but probably not, since the sources are silent about it. Still, it is possible that his career with Ellis in Madras was at least partially facilitated by this fellow Pondicherry Catholic. Besides, even though Muttucāmi worked at Fort St. George as a Tamil pundit and editor of Tamil classical texts, his interest in Beschi and Tamil Catholic literature was not only connected to the influence of Ellis. Muttucāmi himself came from a Catholic family, and it was likely his father who edited the first poems by Beschi to appear in print in 1843.43 So, even though his biography of Beschi was written upon Ellis’s request, Muttucāmi also had a personal engagement with and close knowledge of Beschi’s œuvre. Indeed, in the 1820s Muttucāmi entered into a polemic against a Śaiva teacher in Chidambaram who had written a poem against Catholicism, the “Refutation of the religion of the Pope” or Pāppuvētavikaṟpam. In the treatise he wrote to refute this poem, Muttucāmi often cited Beschi’s stanzas from the Tēmpāvaṇi and the Tirukkāvalūr kalampakam. In sum, the endorsement of Beschi’s persona and poems among Vellala from Pondicherry such as Muttucāmi and Cāmināta, was imbricated with British Orientalism, but also connected with Catholic practices and traditions dating back to the eighteenth century.44

One additional thread, woven into Ellis’s interest in the Tēmpāvaṇi, shows the connection with such eighteenth-century trajectories of circulation. As we already saw, when Ellis bought the 1729 manuscript from Luiz (or Luís) Naik via Muttucāmi, the first pages were missing. Some time later those pages appeared in the hands of Vētanāyakam Cāstiriyār, the Lutheran poet of Thanjavur, who eventually gave them to Muttucāmi.45 While it seems reasonable that a Christian poet, albeit of a different denomination, could find inspiration in one of his predecessors, the fact that Vētanāyakam preserved a page of that specific manuscript, while also owning a newer manuscript of the first cantos of the poem, points to a devotional, symbolic significance of that material artifact. This attachment is particularly meaningful in light of the history of Vētanāyakam’s family. His father Aruṇācalam Piḷḷai was a Śaiva Vellala from the Tirunelveli region who converted to Catholicism in the middle of the eighteenth century, and took the name of Tēvacakāyam. This is a common Catholic name, but the geographical location of the family in the South of the Tamil country, and the historical moment of this conversion, make for strong clues that Vētanāyakam’s father took it in honor of the then recently killed Tēvacakāyam Piḷḷai, the disciple of Ñāṉappirakācam Piḷḷai who founded the Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam Vellala lineage.46 Vētanāyakam himself was raised and educated as a Catholic for the first ten years of his life, in the southern context we briefly sketched in the previous pages. Did he know, recite or maybe sing stanzas from the Tēmpāvaṇi as a young boy? Did his family retain an attachment to Beschi even after their conversion to Lutheranism in 1785, similarly to Upatēciyār Cavarirāyaṉ Piḷḷai and his son Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyaṉ Cavarirāyaṉ? I believe so, but have no proof of it yet. There is still a possibility that Vētanāyakam learned about Beschi only after moving to Thanjavur, and becoming a disciple of the Lutheran Missionary Christian Friederich Schwartz (1726–1798).47 He might have received that page of the Tēmpāvaṇi during a trip to the villages to Ēlākkuṟicci or Vaṭukarpēṭṭai, where Beschi spent a large part of his life and left a number of trained catechists. Still, what matters for this story is that, at the end of his life, Vētanāyakam still kept among his possessions that one page of the Tēmpāvaṇi manuscript.

In the nineteenth century, the Tēmpāvaṇi also circulated beyond Catholic and Protestant circles. When discussing possible modes of fruition of the poem and its paratexts, we encountered the figure of Cavarāyalu Nāyakar, a poet from Pondicherry who toured the Kaveri delta region reciting and explaining the Tēmpāvaṇi to a large public. Cavarāyalu Nāyakar himself was a Catholic, but his name shows that he belonged to a different group than Cāmināta and Muttucāmi Piḷḷai. Still, his education was also centered around the Tēmpāvaṇi. His teacher, though, had not been a Catholic intellectual himself, but rather the famous pulavar and Śaiva devotee Mīṉāṭcicuntaram Piḷḷai. Cavarāyalu Nāyakar was able to study with him thanks to the intercession of Ci. Tiyākarācar (1826–1888), another student of Mīṉāṭcicuntaram Piḷḷai. The latter began by teaching Cavarāyalu some works of the Tamil canon, and then “took him through the Tembavani and other Christian religious works which he had specially come to study.”48 This means that even the most important Tamil pulavar of the nineteenth century, the celebrated Mīṉāṭcicuntaram Piḷḷai, read and knew the Tēmpāvaṇi. Even more striking, he found the poem worthwhile enough to teach it to his Catholic student. When Cavarāyalu Nāyakar recited and explained the Tēmpāvaṇi to his audience, he was mediating the text for them in the light of Mīṉāṭcicuntaram Piḷḷai’s understanding of Beschi’s poem. At the same time, through his teacher Cavarāyalu became part of the wider world of Tamil literature, as shown by the many pulavars who sent him verses of praise for his anthology of poems published in 1869.49

This short list of intellectuals who engaged with the Tēmpāvaṇi throughout the nineteenth century is partial. Each of the stories I just sketched is more complex than I made it out to be, and deserves to be the subject of a thorough investigation. My purpose in the previous pages has been simply to show that Beschi’s poem succeeded in making Catholicism part of the world of Tamil literary culture. His poem inspired later poets, was read and analyzed by later pulavars, and gave Catholics a classical kāppiyam of their own, a foundation on which to articulate their own place inside that world.

5 Conclusions: Catholic Lay Identities in the longue durée

In conclusion, taking the Tempāvaṇi as a prism has allowed us to follow the accommodation of Catholic mobile and literate groups to the new colonial order, and to ideas of Tamil culture and literature that were developing in the early nineteenth century. In a world that was changing and rapidly modernizing, Catholics remained part of the world of traditional literary practices. Throughout this book I have argued that it was Beschi, and the invention of Tamil Catholic literature that happened at his time largely thanks to his own literary efforts, who positioned Catholicism within that world. Indeed, even the nineteenth-century rediscovery of Beschi as the “first orientalist” by Ellis and his peers in Madras was part of new colonial strategies as much as it was the continuation of eighteenth-century patterns. Yet the ruptures and continuities of the new order are not my concern here. Focusing on these processes was helpful only insofar as it offered a glimpse into the longue durée history of the reception and readership of the Tēmpāvaṇi. The importance of this beautiful, musical poem for the identity of Catholic catechists in the eighteenth century, and its continuous relevance at the turn of the nineteenth century, shines through this fragmented archive.

This chapter has shown first of all how the life of this text in the world is coherent with the clues contained within the poem itself as to its catechist readership, such as the use of the word vētiyar in the introduction, and the concerns expressed throughout its many cantos. As we explored in previous chapters, the Tēmpāvaṇi revealed itself as an attempt to represent the layered reality of the mission in a cohesive way, with its multiple local and global referents, for these men. The logic of the poem is one of figuration, in which the history of salvation and the history of the mission speak to and about each other. It is at the same time a logic of presence, insofar as the Tēmpāvaṇi portrays divine beings—the holy family, angels, demons—as really present in the Tamil land, as present as the flowers that Beschi planted in his garden in Ēlākkuṟicci. Throughout this chapter, I have tried to put the poem in conversation with different types of sources to convey that the Tēmpāvaṇi mattered, and that its original synthesis circulated, contributing to shaping a Tamil and Catholic social and cultural world. This world perhaps becomes more visible to us after it intersected with the colonial order, and entered the colonial archives. Yet that world is at the same time entirely present in the poem, if only we can look at it with the eyes of Beschi and his catechists in the eighteenth century.

Throughout this chapter, we also came to realize that catechists and élite laymen were not only the intended audience of the missionaries. As shown in the history of the manuscripts and paratexts of the Tēmpāvaṇi, and in the diaries and family history of the catechists, these men independently cultivated the means to read and appreciate the poem. Within Catholic élite families, the poem played a crucial role in the education of young boys, and when these boys went on to become catechists and preachers, they used verses from the Tēmpāvaṇi to teach, preach and convert in the villages of the Tamil country. Moreover, any Tamil Catholic with literary ambition would engage with the Tēmpāvaṇi and the other texts written by Beschi in the early eighteenth century, thus confirming that this was perceived as the beginning of Catholic presence in the world of Tamil literature. As a result, these Christian pulavars brought the Tēmpāvaṇi all the way to the Śaiva temples and maṭam of the Tamil country. These institutions were at that time religious as well as literary centers, and it is in one such monastery that Mīṉāṭcicuntaram Piḷḷai explained Beschi’s poem to his student Cavarāyalu Nāyakar.

In the process of reading the Tēmpāvaṇi in their family houses and villages, in public performance, in cities, and in private lessons in temples and monasteries, these catechists and Catholic pulavars performed a double mediation. On the one hand, they read and mobilized the world of Tamil poetry in order to explain the role of Catholic literature within it. They built Catholic poetry on the foundations of earlier Tamil poetry as much as on the rhetorical tools that by the eighteenth century were available to missionaries and their collaborators worldwide. They introduced new ideas concerning persuasion and the subject matter of poetry into their local literary worlds. In doing so, these men transformed the world of early modern Catholic literature in ways that are still to be explored, mostly due to the barrier of a language such as Tamil, until now marginal to the study of Christianity in this period.

On the other hand, these Catholic intellectuals mediated between the world of Catholic poetry—and perhaps, of learned poetry tout court—and the world of the more common devotees who would only be able to enjoy these poems thanks to their explanations. These people in turn produced their own poetry, in the form of ballads and theater plays often based on the same stories as the literature written by missionaries and Catholic pulavars. Through these types of texts, written in the genres of ammāṉai, vācakappā, nāṭakam, and almost always meant to be performed, they became readers and writers, insofar as they “read” missionary and learned poetry thanks to the mediation of the catechists. They became authors by reorganizing what they had heard into new musical and poetical forms that they could integrate in their everyday lives. In conclusion, the adaptation of Catholicism to Tamil literary culture was certainly a missionary strategy, one largely elaborated by Beschi in the early eighteenth century. Yet it also happened through impromptu tactics and strategies of reading and performing the Tēmpāvaṇi by local men, catechists and Catholic pulavars, who adapted the poem to their world with all the tools at their disposal, from changes in intonation during a performance, to modes of contextualization.


Ellis’s translation is often reckoned to be the first translation English of the Tirukkuṟaḷ into English. N. Govindarajan has brought our attention on an older English version by N.E. Kindersley (1763–1821), who relied on a different version of the text. See Na. Kōvintarājaṉ, Atikāramum tamiḻp pulamaiyum tamiḻiliruntu mutal āṅkila moḻipeyarppukaḷ (Ceṉṉai: Kriyā, 2016).


Francis Whyte Ellis, Translation of Tirukurral of Tiruvalluvar (Madras: College of Fort St. George, ca. 1819), 25.


Roger Chartier, Inscrivere e cancellare. Cultura scritta e letterature (Milano: Laterza, 2006), viii.


The manuscripts of the Tēmpāvaṇi I consulted are: 1. One incomplete palm-leaf manuscript at WL, Ms. Tam. b. 61(R); 2. Two incomplete palm-leaf manuscripts in the UVS library, ms. 38 and 486; 3. One incomplete paper manuscript in the archives of Madurai’s TTS, Vētanāyakam Cāstriyār collection, Box 2, VST-2; 4. An incomplete copy in two palm-leaf volumes at the BnF, mss Indien 474–475 (once part of Édouard Ariel’s collection). This is by no means an exhaustive list; for instance, the old catalog of the palm-leaf manuscripts in JAMP lists a copy of the Tēmpāvaṇi, but the collection is currently in disarray, and I could not locate it.


BL, Mss. Tam. B. 3. This manuscript is composite. It includes, after the cover and the cover-page, some letters to, and from Walter Eliot, the last private owner of the manuscript (ff. a-c); the title page, and fragments of the pāvurai pātikam and of the pāyiram belonging originally to the manuscript, but recovered and added at a later date (see below § 4.9) (ff. d–i); a copy of the pāvurai pātikam, the beginning of the pāyiram and its commentary in a different, clearly nineteenth-century hand (ff. j-m). At this point begins the manuscript originally found by Muttucāmi, which is numbered (ff. 2–470); the last folios are again missing, and the same hand as in ff. j-m has copied ff. 469–471 retaining the old numeration.


Louis Savinien Dupuis, Notice sur la poésie tamoule, le rév. P. Beschi et le Tembavani, par un membre de la congrégation des Missions-Étrangères (Pondichéry: Imprimerie des missionnaires apostoliques, 1851); coherently, the title-page of the editio princeps declares its text to be identical with that of Beschi’s autograph copy (avaratu kaiyeḻutta piratikk’ oppa). For further information on the Mission Press, see the Introduction.


Robert Caldwell, for instance, was certain that the manuscript was Beschi’s original: “A Valuable Manuscript,” Athæneum 2458, 5 (1874): 750–752.


The Tamil versions of their names is just a hypothesis. In the first case, Luz means “light” in Portuguese, and the name commonly used among Catholics, referring to divine light, is Pirakācam.


The manuscript today in the British Library (BL Mss. Tam. B. 3) is bound together with some of Walter Elliot’s letters concerning the way Elliot acquired the manuscript. These letters are the sources for the discussion to follow.


In the words of Elliot, “a Chrutran from Tanjore.” It is probable that Thambisami was a vēḷālar, a prestigious land-owning community of Tamil Nadu but still considered to belong to the śūdra caste.


Vinson did not believe the manuscript to be copied by Beschi’s because he did not think Beschi was the author of the commentary. He also denied the possibility that the manuscript was in Beschi’s handwriting (which he thought he could recognize): Julien Vinson, “Le Père Beschi et le manuscrit original du Têmpâvani,” Revue de linguistique et de philologie comparée 41, 4 (1908): 225–237. Besse mostly agreed with him, and discusses the issue at length in Father Beschi, 182–186.


As recognized in a recent edition by Vittuvāṉ N.M. Mariya Aruṭpirakācam, who clearly attributes the paratexts in the editio princeps of the Tēmpāvaṇi to a student of Beschi: Vīramāmuṉivar iyaṟṟiya Tēmpāvaṇi (Maturai: Nopili Puttaka nilaiyam māvikā accakam, 1982), vol. 1, 1.


BL, Mss. Tam. B. 3, f. g/v; copied in f. l/r.


This second paratext is more clearly in a distinguished voice, and even uses a slightly different language register, at the same time more formulaic and more modern (I thank E. Annamalai for sharing this insight on language register). This might be why even in the first Mission Press edition, the final āciriyam is said to be the work of a student, while the initial pāvurai patikam is implicitly attributed to Beschi.


The colophon is found in BL, Mss. Tam. B. 3, ff. 470v–471r; it has also been reproduced at the end of the 1851–1853 edition: anāti nāmattup periyanāyaki tuṇaiyāl avataritta nātaṉai vaḷartta kaittātai vaḷaṉ eṉṉuñ cūcai taṉ caritaiy ākiya tēmpāvaṇi naṉṟāka muṭintatu. taṉmaṇattuṇaiyāy niṉṟa cūcai māmuṉi caritai muṉṉuraitta vaḷāyp piṉṉ uraitan tīṅk’uraippitta vaḷāy ekkalaiy aṉaittum viḷaivitt’ uṇarttuṅ kiḻattiy ākiya mariyāyi eṉpāḷ vāṉulak’ uvappap pūlak’ uyirppat tīyulakuñ cittiṟamiḻan tēṅkav avataritta nātaṉaik kaṉṉi māṟāt’īnṉṟa 1729m āṇṭil avaṭāṉ oḷi niṟai piṟaiy eṉa vippūlak’ iruḷ oḻiyap piṟanta tirunāḷ mukirttat tavaṭaṉ ṟīru malar ppātatt’ aṇiy eṉat tēmpāvaṇi yurai muṭintatu. ākaiyāṟ puṟavurai kāṭṭutum.


BL, Mss. Tam. B. 3, f. g (the older copy); ff. k-l (the newer copy). I adopt line breaks as in the newer copy, which also correspond to line breaks in the 1851 edition.


[…] en récompense du rare talent et de l’ habileté qu’ il a déployés à expliquer et à paraphraser de vive-voix le magnifique poëme tamoul du R.P. Beschi, intitulé Tembavani […]; Lorsqu’ il eut pris place au fauteil, Savarayalounaïker récita quelques strophes du Tembavani; il les commenta dans un style élégant et facile, puis quttant ce sujet, il montra le père Beschi arrivant dans ces contrées lointanes … Ce. Cavarāyalu Nāyakar [= Z. Savarayalounaiker], Recueil de chants tamouls (Pondichéry: A. Saligny, Imprimeur du Gouvernement, 1869), 1 and 3.


Marianus Arpudam SJ, A Genealogical Study of the Catholic Vellala Families at Vadakankulam, JAMP 217/463. In the context of nineteenth century caste litigations at Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam, the story of the place was also mobilized by two other Jesuits, in Edouard Perroquin’s 1908 account, The History of Vadakkankulam Christianity, JAMP 217/459, and in Adrien Caussanel’s Historical Notes on the Tinnevelly District, JAMP 217/297. These last two accounts are not as focused on Vellala families, but agree in large part with the origin myths found in Arpudam’s work.


On these nineteenth century disputes among Catholics of different castes, often revolving around certain honors (mariyātai) attributed during processions and other rites, see Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings; Civacuppiramaṇiyaṉ, Kiṟittavamum cātiyum; and Kenneth Ballhatchet, Caste, Class and Catholicism in India 1789–1914 (Richmond: Curzon Press, 1998).


One example of Christian caste purāṇam in Tamil is the Paravar purāṇam by Aruḷappamutaliyār; on this type of writing, see Veena Das, “A Sociological Approach to the Caste Puranas: A Case Study,” Sociological Bulletin 17, 2 (1968): 141–164; and more recently Badri Narayan, Women Heroes and Dalit assertion in North India. Culture, Identity and Politics (New Delhi, Thousand Oaks and London: Sage publications, 2006), esp. 41–42.


To the best of my knowledge, the connection between the Arpudam manuscript and Cavarirāya Piḷḷai’s family history has not been noticed before. On this exceptional document, which is part of a set of works edited by Cavarirāya Piḷḷai’s son, including a diary and a biography, see Robert Eric Frykenberg and John J. Paul, “A Research Note on the Discovery of Writings by Savariraya Pillai, A Tamil Diarist of Mid-Nineteenth-Century Tinnevelly,” The Journal of Asian Studies 44, 3 (1985): 521–528. I use the 2006 reprint of the 1900 edition of the two works, Cavarirāyappiḷḷai vamca varalāṟu and Cavarirāyappiḷḷai carittiram, by Ā. Civaippiramaṇiyaṉ. This includes an introduction with useful information about the life and duties of Lutheran catechists in the early nineteenth century. The 1900 edition was by Cavarirāyappiḷḷai’s son, Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyam Piḷḷai, who appears as the “author” in the 2006 edition (and thus I cite him).


The genealogy of the “Guruvinatham kudumbam” is in Arpudam, A Genealogical Study, 124–133.


tēmpāvaṇi mutalia aruntamiḻkaḷaiyum vācikkavum arttam paṇṇavum tiṟamaiyuṭaiyavarkaḷāy iruntārkaḷ. Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyaṉ, Upatēciyar cavarirāyapiḷḷai, 77.


The life of Cavarimuttu is in Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyaṉ, Upatēciyar cavarirāyapiḷḷai, 76–85.


Arpudam, A Genealogical Study, 124.


Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyaṉ, Upatēciyar cavarirāyapiḷḷai, 77 contains a short notice on Mr. Bilderback saying that he had no children from his wife, only from his Indian mistress, but still raised them like Europeans. On his approximate date of birth, see the webpage: (consulted on 16/09/2021). His first son John Bilderbeck (1809–1880) became and Anglican pastor, and his obituary can be found in K. et al., Church missionary intelligencer record. A monthly journal of missionary information, vol. 5 (London: Church missionary house, 1880), 512–513.


Arpudam, A Genealogical Study, 124.


Yōvāṉ Tēvacakāyaṉ, Upatēciyar cavarirāyapiḷḷai, 81.


These biographical sketches are in Arpudam, A Genealogical Study, 124 and 126.


Narayana Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam, Textures of Time, 19–20.


I translated this passage into English from Cērntamaram tūya irāyappar ciṉṉappar ālaya nuṟṟaṇṭu viḻā—ūr varalāṟu (Cērntamaram, 1987), 4–5. The same episode is narrated more at length in another pamphlet, Cērntamaram puṉita irayappar, ciṉṉappar tiru stala māṉmiyam (Cērntamaram, 1953), which also deals with the issue that made the small village of Cērntamaram briefly famous in the early twentieth century, namely the discovery that the old church incorporates stones from a Hindu temple (ibidem, 35–38).


Il padre Beschi, il quale con un nobile catechista detto Gnaniendira stava attualmente preparando il Presepio […] “Father Beschi, who with the noble catechist Gnaniendira, was at that time preparing the Holy Crib …” Throughout the episode of the persecution by the prince of Caietharu (Kayattāṟu), Beschi is accompanied by two catechists, Xaveriraian (Cavērirāyaṉ) and Gnaniendira (Ñāṉēntiraṉ). The first is tortured, but Brandolini in his account is not sure about what happens to the second (Non saprei dire di certo, se all’altro catechista fossero dati i tormenti. Penso più tosto, che nò; […]) Antonio Broglia Brandolini, Lettera annua della Missione del Madurei dell’anno 1714 e 1715 (Lisbon, 20 March 1720), ARSI, Goa 54a, ff. 447–482, here 467r and 468v.


Thurston, Castes and Tribes, vol. 6, 360–361.


Muttucāmi, Vīramāmuṉivarcarittiram, 18.


Ibidem, 19.


A classical study on these later controversies is Young and Jebanesan, The Bible Trembled; recent works by Srilata Raman, Rick Weiss, and others further clarify the Śaiva milieu of the nineteenth century.


Cōmacuntara Tēcikar, Tamiḻp pulavarkaḷ varalāṟu. patiṉēḻām nūṟṟāṇṭu (Putukkōṭṭai: Kiṭaikkumiṭam s.s. tēcikar, 1976), 125 cites Irāmaliṅka Aṭikaḷ saying that the Ēcumata nirākaraṇam was written against Beschi, but reckons that the work might be later since Christianity (allegedly) did not have a big following at Beschi’s time.


On seventeenth-century Vīraśaiva poet and theologian Pērūr Cāntaliṅka Aṭikaḷār, see Steinschneider “Beyond the Warring Sects,” esp. 22 ff.


Cited in Cāntaliṅka Aṭikaḷār, Kolai maṟuttal (Perūr: Tavattiru cāntaliṅka aṭikaḷār tirumaṭam, 1971), 24–26. The last two verses are also found in Cōmacuntara Tēcikar, Tamiḻp pulavarkaḷ, 125; he took the verses from a magazine (called Tīkkiraiyāyiṟṟu), but it is likely that they originated in the commentary to Cāntaliṅka Aṭikalār’s work from where I took them.


Muttucāmi, Brief Sketch, 19.


Emmrich, “The Ins and the Outs,” analogously problematizes the rediscovery of ancient Jain literature.


See Chetty, The Tamil Plutarch, 114–115; Stuart Blackburn, Print, Folklore, and Nationalism in Colonial South India (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003), 99–100 also mentions Cāmināta, saying that Ellis was not satisfied by his biographical sketch of Beschi, but doesn’t cite the source (the detail is not in Chetty).


I infer this from A. Muttucāmi Piḷḷai’s name. The A. could be the initial of his father’s name, and the editor of the 1843 compendium of Beschi’s works also including the Tamil version of Muttucāmi’s bibliography is called Appāvu Piḷḷai.


On British orientalism and the role of Beschi within the development of Tamil studies in the context of the Madras school of Orientalism, see Ebeling and Trento, “From Jesuit Missionary to Tamil pulavar”; Thomas Trautmann, Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2006); Id., The Madras School of Orientalism: Producing Knowledge in Colonial South India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).


This information is in a letter by Thambisami to Walter Elliot (Caveripatam, 2 August 1844) bound together with the Tēmpāvaṇi manuscript in BL, Mss. Tam. B. 3.


Indeed, Aruṇācalam aka Tēvacakāyam was first introduced to Catholicism by a catechist called “Gnanenthira Kanian” who worked as a money lender while at the same time helping the poor. Notice how this catechist had the same name, and belonged to the same caste as Beschi’s catechist Ñāṉēntiraṉ whom we met before. Moreover, in their initial interaction, “Gnanenthira Kanian” answered to Aruṇācalam’s question with a kuṟaḷ veṇpā verse, thus pointing once again to the spiritual as well as cultural leadership of the catechists. Aruṇācalam converted and was baptized at Kāmanāyakkaṉpaṭṭi by a Jesuit missionary in 1760, became a catechist (upatēciyār), and married in 1770 a Catholic girl, Ñāṉappū (a typical name for Catholic women of the Vaṭakkaṉkuḷam vēḷāḷar lineages). See Tā. Vi. Tēvanēcaṉ, Tañcai vētanāyakam cāstiriyār (Madras: Kiṟistava ilakkiyac caṅkam, 1956), 1–2; Grace Parimala Appasamy, Vedanayaga Sastriar. Biography of the Suviseda Kavirayar of Thanjavur (Thiruninravur: Thanjai Vedanayaga Sastriar Peravai, 1995), 1–2.


Vētanāyakaṉ (whose baptismal name was actually Vētapōtakam, the same as that of the Catholic missionary who baptized him) began studying grammar and arithmetic when he was five, and he had at times Hindu tutors. His father converted when he was eleven, and when he was twelve, he joined Schwartz and began his education in Thanjavur. See Tēvanēcaṉ, Tañcai vētanāyakam, 2–7; Indira V. Peterson, “Bethlehem Kuṟavañci of Vedanayaka Sastri of Tanjore: The cultural discourses of a 19th century Tamil Christian Poem,” in Christians, Cultural Interactions, and the Religious Traditions of India, eds Judith Brown and Robert E. Frykenberg (Grand Rapids: W. Eerdmans, 2002), 9–36; Ead., “Between Print and Performance: The Tamil Christian Poems of Vedanayaka Sastri and the Literary cultures of 19th-century South India,” in India’s Literary History: Essays on the Nineteenth Century, eds Stuart Blackburn and Vasudha Dalmia (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), 25–59.


On Cavarāyalu Nāyakar, see Sridharam K. Guruswamy, A Poets’ Poet: Life of Maha Vidwan Sri Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Based on the Biography in Tamil by Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. U.V. Swaminathaiyer (Madras: Mahamahopadhyaya Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, 1976), 37–38.


Cavarāyalu Nāyakkar, Recueil de chants tamouls, 24–27.

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