My grandmother’s brother, Father Xavier Thaninayagam (BA, DD, MA, MLitt, PhD)

This is a biographical note I wrote about my grandmother’s brother, a priest and academic who was prominent in the study of Tamil literature, history and philosophy. The article was written as part of a publication commemorating the 140th anniversary of the school he attended as a boy growing up on the island of Kayts, off the northern coast of Sri Lanka.

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Rev. Father Xavier Stanislaus Thaninayagam believed that his mother tongue deserved a place in the front row of the world’s great languages. In a Master’s thesis he presented at Annamalai University in 1947, he wrote:

“With Greek and Latin, Tamil shares the misfortune of having lost the vast portion of its ancient literature… Yet what has escaped the ravages of time, though not even a hundredth of the actual output, reveals elements so original and fresh in the history of literature and throws such new light on the history of the world, that to study the literary features of ancient literatures or to describe the world as it was at the age of Asoka or Alexander or Augustus, it would not be sufficient to take count only of Greek, and Latin, and Sanskrit and Chinese. It would be equally necessary to consider Tamil.”

Thirty-two years after his death, we remember him for his efforts as a “roving ambassador for Tamil.”

Fr Thaninayagam as a young priest

Fr. Thaninayagam was born in Kayts on August 2nd, 1913. He attended St. Anthony’s College, Kayts (1920-22) and St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna (1923-30) before accepting a vocation as a Catholic priest. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Colombo (1931-34) and then spent five years in Rome studying theology, finishing in 1939 with a Doctorate of Divinity from the University de Propaganda Fide. He later acquired two Master’s degrees in the study of Tamil literature at Annamalai University and a Ph.D. in education in London.

Fr. Thaninayagam lectured in the Department of Education at the University of Ceylon from 1952 to 1961. He moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1962 to become head of the Department of Indian Studies and eventually dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Malaya. As a strong proponent of the academic study of Tamil language, literature and philosophy, he played a major role in forming the International Association for Tamil Research and in organizing the first World Tamil Conference, which took place in Malaysia in 1966.

My grandfather, now 92, still passes along precious bits of advice collected from the brother-in-law he considered an intellectual and moral guide. My father’s siblings remember frantic preparations for visits from their refined and elegant uncle. But Fr. Thaninayagam died in 1980, before anyone from my generation was born. With no direct experience of the man, my cousins and I have had to rely on photographs and anecdotes.

However, we now find that the priest is not as far away as we thought he was. It turns out he left published works on the shelves of libraries at our own universities. Robarts Library at the University of Toronto lists seven titles under his name. And a few months ago, my father found a bookseller in the U.S. with a copy of the dissertation his uncle wrote to complete his theological studies in Rome. Presented to his supervisors in 1939, The Carthaginian Clergy is a historical study of the fledgling Christian community in North Africa in the third century AD — a hundred years before that same community produced St. Augustine. The young Fr. Thaninayagam, possibly wondering how to reconcile his Roman Catholic education with centuries of Dravidian religion and philosophy, wrote that he wanted to see how the early North African clergy chose to approach their own ancient Carthaginian and Egyptian heritage.

The Carthaginian Clergy is peppered with passages in Latin, French, Italian and the other European languages Fr. Thaninayagam learned before he mastered his mother tongue. As a young alien in one of the centres of European learning, how and when did he realize that the language of his parents in Kayts had as much wisdom to offer as the languages of Rome and Paris? The question is as relevant for young people in today’s Tamil diaspora as it was for a 26-year-old seminary student in the Tamil diaspora of 1939.

Whatever the immediate cause, it is clear that in his thirties Fr. Thaninayagam flung himself into the study of his own heritage. He had a special interest in how the ancient Tamil poets described and fed off the natural world. Years later, when delivering the Second Thirumathi Sornammal Endowment Lecture, he argued that ancient Tamil civilizations had evolved sophisticated ideals of humanism and universal kinship. In an article in the Hong Kong periodical Eastern Horizon in 1966, he wrote that Tamil deserved special notice as the only Indian language whose literary life spanned both the ancient and modern periods. He wanted to pull Tamil out from under the shadow of Sanskrit.

It was important to Fr. Thaninayagam that Tamil language and literature be studied at a high level by people who were not themselves Tamil. In 1968, he wrote in the editor’s introduction to Tamil Studies Abroad: A Symposium,

“Though Tamil is a Dravidian language with an ancient and uninterrupted literary and artistic tradition, it is studied in most foreign universities mostly because of its peculiar linguistic characteristics or because it is a tool for field work in Tamil districts.”

He felt that literature, philosophy and religion – the soul of the culture – were not getting sufficient attention abroad. The book, published for presentation at the Second International Conference of Tamil Studies in Madras, was a survey of the state of Tamil Studies around the world. He compiled and edited entries about pioneer scholars and ongoing work in France, Germany, Britain, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, the USA, India beyond Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and elsewhere. The collection functioned both as a history of the field and as a directory to further future association.

My cousins and I are members of a generation which is wary of stature and suspicious of traditional institutions. We experience two conflicting impulses when it comes to this prominent relative. First we feel the urge to emphasize the blood we share with him. But then we feel the obligation to assess him as objectively as we would any other prominent person. It is wonderful to be able to engage with his published works. It would have been more wonderful still to engage directly with the man himself.

“If Latin is the Language of Law and of Medicine
French the Language of the Diplomacy
German the Language of Science
And English the Language of Commerce
Then Tamil is the Language of Bhakti
The devotion to the sacred and the holy.”

–Father Xavier S. Thaninayagam

Back cover of “The Carthaginian Clergy,” presented as a doctoral thesis in 1939 and published after WWII

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The author is the grandson of Mrs. Theresa Philipupillai (sister of Rev. Fr. Xavier S. Thaninayagam) and Mr. V.A. Philipupillai (who taught at St. Anthony’s College, Kayts).

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2 thoughts on “My grandmother’s brother, Father Xavier Thaninayagam (BA, DD, MA, MLitt, PhD)

  1. we are going to celebrate the birth centenary of Rev. Fr. Thaninayagam in Tamil Nadu very soon by conducting seminar for college students, speech and essay writing for School students. we would also like to produce a Documentary film on Rev. Fr. Thaninayagam. So kindly share the details like photos, video clippings, audio cassettes etc. of him. It will be of very great help to us. my mail id is dr.morrisjoy@gmail.com

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