Robert Caldwell

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Robert Caldwell
Robert Caldwell.jpg
Born Robert Caldwell
7 May 1814
Clady, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died 28 August 1891
Kodaikanal, Palani Hills, Tamil Nadu
Nationality British
Occupation Missionary, Linguist
Known for Bishop in South India

Bishop Robert Caldwell (7 May 1814 – 28 August 1891) was a missionary and linguist, who academically established the Dravidian family of languages. He served as Assistant Bishop of Tirunelveli from 1877.[citation needed] He was described in The Hindu as a 'pioneering champion of the downtrodden' and an 'avant-garde social reformer'.[1] The Government of Tamil Nadu has created a memorial in his honor and a postage stamp has been issued in his name.[2][3] On the Madras Marina, a statue of Caldwell was erected as a gift of the Church of South India in 1967.

Early life[edit]

Robert Caldwell was born at Clady, then in County Antrim, Ireland, on 7 May 1814 to poor Scottish Presbyterian parents. The family moved to Glasgow and there he began work at the age of nine. Mostly self-taught, he returned to Ireland aged 15, living with an older brother in Dublin while studying art between 1829 and 1833. He then returned to Glasgow, probably as a consequence of a crisis of faith, and he became active in the Congregational church.[4]

Caldwell won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford only to find it rescinded when the authorities discovered that he had been born in Ireland. He responded by joining the London Missionary Society, who sent him to the University of Glasgow for training. There Caldwell came under the influence of Daniel Keyte Sandford, a professor of Greek and promoter of Anglicanism whose innovative research encouraged Caldwell's liking for comparative philology and also theology. Caldwell left university with a distinction and was ordained as a Congregationalist minister.[4]

At 24, Caldwell arrived in Madras on 8 January 1838 as a missionary of the London Missionary Society and later joined the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Mission (SPG). To further his missionary objectives, Caldwell realised that he had to be proficient in Tamil to proselytise the masses and he began a systematic study of the language. He was consecrated Bishop of Tirunelveli in 1877. In 1844, Caldwell married Eliza Mault (1822–99); the couple was to have seven children together. She was the younger daughter of the veteran Travancore missionary, Reverend Charles Mault (1791–1858) of the London Missionary Society. For more than forty years, Eliza worked in (iidaiyankoodi) and Tirunelveli proselytising the people, especially Tamil-speaking women.

Infograph placed near the Trinity Church Idayankudi, Built by London Missionary Robert Caldwell

Caldwell's Comparative Grammar[edit]

Robert Caldwell used the term Dravidian to separate the languages spoken in South India from other, more Sanskrit-affiliated languages of India. Apart from the main South Indian languages of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, the Brahui language spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan also belongs to the Tamil language family. A few more languages have been identified as such. Scholars in the 19th century prior to Caldwell considered Tamil and other South Indian languages to be rooted in Sanskrit and affiliated to the Indo-European language family. Linguistics has accepted and confirmed Caldwell's work, even though some early critics such as Charles E. Gover, author of The Folk Songs of South India disagreed with his findings.

While Caldwell's A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South-Indian family of languages was prescient in recognizing that Dravidian languages constitute a distinct language family, "Caldwell's primary concern was to convert the south Indians to Christianity"[5] and at times the work deliberately ventures beyond the scope of linguistics to advance that goal.

The caste system was an exploitative, violent and dehumanizing ideology that served the interests of high-caste Hindus. In keeping with his Christian beliefs and very much to his credit, Caldwell was absolutely opposed to the caste system and sincerely committed to the welfare of the Shanar people whom he believed could be liberated from casteist oppression through evangelism. His efforts to evangelize were directed specifically towards members of the Tamil-speaking Shanar caste, who self-identified as Hindu. Caldwell would take the conclusions he had arrived at with respect to the Dravidian language family's distinctive features in a radically new direction by claiming that Tamils, particularly those from the lower-castes like the Shanars, constituted a community distinct from "other Hindus".

He asserted that the Shanar were not merely Tamil speakers but an "indigenous Dravidian" people, distinct ethnically and, most critically for Caldwell, religiously from their high-caste oppressors, whom he referred to as "Brahmanical Aryans" (another invention of Caldwell's- in this case "Aryan" as an ethnic signifier for foreign and "Brahmanical" to signify the "Hinduism" of the high-caste).[6] These wildly speculative claims, well outside the scope of linguistics, were intended "to develop a history which asserted that the indigenous Dravidians had been subdued and colonized by the Brahmanical Aryans". However, the first edition of Caldwell's grammar was "met with firm resistance" by the Shanars precisely because they "did not like the idea of being divorced from Brahmanical civilization", the very division Caldwell was hoping to exploit.[7] As a result, Caldwell portrayed Shanar culture as "superior" but nonetheless "distinct" to Hindu culture in subsequent editions to further his objective of alienating them from high-caste Hindus and converting them to Christianity.

The book has been described as being on occasion "... pejorative, outrageous, and somewhat paternalistic. But on the whole his studies represent a pioneering effort to understand religions completely foreign to the British mind". In the domain of Dravidian linguistics though, it remains a respected work today.[8]

Archaeological research[edit]

While serving as Bishop of Tirunelveli (alongside Edward Sargent), Caldwell (who was not a trained archeologist) 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.[9] This work resulted in his book A Political and General History of the District of Tinnevely (1881), published by the Government of the Madras Presidency.

Holy Trinity Church built by London missionary Robert Caldwell, Situated in IdayanKudi, Caldwell was a Bishop of Tirunelveli

Life's work[edit]

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 radicalisation of the Non-Brahmin movement.[10]

Meanwhile, on difficult ground for evangelism, Caldwell 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.[11]

In summary, Caldwell the Tamil language scholar, Christian evangelist and champion of the native church,[12] remains today an important figure in the modern history of South India. He is still remembered there, and his statue, erected eighty years after his death, stands near the Marina Beach at Chennai.[13] 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".[14]

A commemorative postage stamp on him was issued on 7 May 2010.[15]


  • Lectures on the Tinnevelly missions, descriptive of the field, the work, and the results: with an introductory lecture on the progress of Christianity in India. Bell and Daldy, 1857
  • The best means of promoting an interest in missions among our congregations : being a speech delivered by ... Bishop Caldwell at the Diocesan Church Conference on Thursday 20 March 1879. 1880 (Madras : S.P.C.K. Press)
  • Christianity and Hinduism. A lecture addressed to educated Hindus, etc. : S.P.C.K.: London, [1879.]
  • A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages. Harrison: London, 1856.
  • Evangelistic Work amongst the Higher Classes and Castes in Tinnevelly. Rev. Dr. Caldwell’s Third Journal. [1876.]
  • The Inner Citadel of Religion. S.P.C.K.: London, [1879.]
  • The March of the Unsaved. [A religious tract.] G. Stoneman: London, [1896.]
  • Narkaruṇait tiyānamālai = A companion to the holy communion. Madras Diocesan Committee of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1871.
  • The Prince of Wales in Tinnevelly, and "From Delahay Street to Edeyengoody.". London : S.P.C.K., 1876.
  • Observations on the Kudumi. J. J. Craen: [Madras?] 1867.
  • Report of the Edeyenkoody District for the year ending 30 June 1845. London : Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1847.
  • On reserve in communicating religious instruction to non- Christians in mission schools in India : a letter to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of Madras. Madras : S.P.C.K. Press, 1879.
  • The Relation of Christianity to Hinduism. R. Clay, Sons, & Taylor: London, [1885.]
  • Records of the Early History of the Tinnevelly Mission, etc. Higginbotham & Co.: Madras, 1881.
  • The Tinnevelly Shanars : a sketch of their religion and their moral condition and characteristics : with special reference to the facilities and hindrances to the progress of Christianity amongst them. London : Clay for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1850.
  • The Three Way-marks. Christian Vernacular Education Society: Madras, 1860.
  • A Political and General History of the District of Tinnevelly, in the Presidency of Madras, from the earliest period to its cession to the English Government in A.D. 1801. Madras : E. Keys, 1881.



  1. ^ "Pioneering champion of the downtrodden". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 6 November 2007. 
  2. ^ "Minister visits Bishop Caldwell's house". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 24 February 2010. 
  3. ^ Robert Caldwell Stamps of India Retrieved 8 November 2010
  4. ^ a b Frykenberg (2004)
  5. ^ Daughrity, Dyron B. (2005). "Hinduisms, Christian Missions, and the Tinnevelly Shanars: A Study of Colonial Missions in 19th Century India" (PDF). Alberta: University of Calgary. pp. 4, 7. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  6. ^ Daughrity, Dyron B. (2005). "Hinduisms, Christian Missions, and the Tinnevelly Shanars: A Study of Colonial Missions in 19th Century India" (PDF). Alberta: University of Calgary. pp. 4, 7. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  7. ^ Daughrity, Dyron B. (2005). "Hinduisms, Christian Missions, and the Tinnevelly Shanars: A Study of Colonial Missions in 19th Century India" (PDF). Alberta: University of Calgary. pp. 4, 7. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  8. ^ Daughrity, Dyron B. (2005). "Hinduisms, Christian Missions, and the Tinnevelly Shanars: A Study of Colonial Missions in 19th Century India" (PDF). Alberta: University of Calgary. pp. 4, 7. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  9. ^ Kumaradoss (2007), p. 157
  10. ^ Kumaradoss (2007), p. 280
  11. ^ Kumaradoss (2007), p. 23
  12. ^ Kumaradoss, Robert Caldwell, pp. 277-278.
  13. ^ Kumaradoss (2007), p. 281
  14. ^ Dr M.S.S. Pandian, cited on back cover of Kumaradoss, Robert Caldwell.
  15. ^ "Stamps - 2010". Department of Posts, Government of India. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 


Further reading[edit]

  • Christudoss, DA, Caldwell Athiatcher (Tamil), Danishpet: Bethel Publications, 1980.
  • Dirks, Nicholas B, 'Recasting Tamil Society: The Politics of Caste and Race in Contemporary Southern India', in C J Fuller (ed.), Caste Today, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • O'Connor, Daniel (ed.), Three Centuries of Mission – The USPG, London and New York: Continuum, 2000.
  • Ravindran, Vaitheespara, 'The Unanticipated Legacy of Robert Caldwell and the Dravidian Movement', South Indian Studies, 1, January–June 1996.
  • Schröder, Ulrike (2011). "No religion, but ritual? Robert Caldwell and the Tinnevelly Shanars". In Bergunder, Michael; Frese, Heiko; Schröder, Ulrike. Ritual, Caste and Religion in Colonial South India. Primus Books. ISBN 9789380607214. 
  • Sivaram D.P On Tamil Militarism: Chapter 6, Bishop Caldwell & the Tamil Dravidians,, 1992
  • Sivathamby, K, 'The Politics of a Literary Style', Social Scientist, 6.8, March 1978.
  • Trautmann, Thomas R, 'Inventing the History of South India', in David Ali (ed.), Invoking the Past: The Uses of History in South Asia, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.