The Return of Jeevaka Chintamani

Jeevaka Chintamani 1 was a lost 10th century Tamil classic —- an epic poem in 13 volumes — that was rediscovered and published by Dr. U.Ve.Swaminatha Iyer (fondly called Uvesa) 2 in 1887. Here’s how it happened.



Kumbakonam Town, circa 1880
Uvesa’s pride was hurt! Judge Ramaswamy 3 had taunted him with “Professor, what do you know about the ancient classics: can you even annotate the Jeevaka Chintamani?”
Those were hard times. Macaulay-inspired English Universities had sprung up in India, but vernacular studies languished. Tamil Pundits (like Uvesa) taught literature that was, at the most, 250 years old.  Classic Tamil— rich with literature over 2000 years old, shaped by highly sophisticated grammar and subtle poetry— was completely ignored. Printing Technology had come to India by the 16th century, but few Tamil classics were in print. The only source of ancient literature was Palm-leaf manuscripts, held in private collections all over Tamilnadu. Usually their custodians were ignorant of their value.

Two challenges


Judge Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy knew all this, when he had deliberately provoked Uvesa into taking up the challenging research. Uvesa accepted, despite two patently lethal obstacles. (1) Jeevaka Chintamani was a masterpiece in Jain philosophy, full of allegories and metaphors.  How would Uvesa, who studied in an orthodox Hindu monastery 4, interpret these correctly? (2) Uvesa was a wizard in deciphering faded palm-leaf manuscripts, certainly. But even if the complete manuscripts were located, they were only copies of copies, made by several transcribers over several centuries.  No transcription was free of manual errors: even one wrong stroke would completely alter the meaning of a verse; the original author’s master-copy was, obviously non-existent. How do you reconstruct the authentic version?

Uvesa decided that the solution was to study Jainism with religious fervour and collect every (known or knowable) manuscript of Jeevaka Chintamani.

The “fake” manuscript
Ramaswamy had given Uvesa, one manuscript version of the epic, with a commentary by a 14th century scholar Nachinaarkiniyar5. Uvesa understood the literal meaning of most archaic words, but interpreting the allegory was a different ball game. Uvesa tried to corroborate this with another manuscript from the Hindu monastery where he had studied: in this manuscript, Nachinaarkiniyar’s commentary was entirely different. Surely, one of them was a fake? It was time to ask a Jain scholar!


Jain friends
When Uvesa reached the house of Jain merchant Chandranatha Chettiar, there was a pleasant surprise. Appasamy Nainaar, a Jain scholar was just winding up a religious discourse on Jeevaka Chintamani. When Uvesa explained his mission, they treated him with much warmth and gave great insights.

Chandranatha was proficient in the Jain oral tradition, especially in a dialect called Manipravalam. This gave Uvesa access to information that he had never expected. For example, it solved the mystery of why Nachinaarkiniyar wrote 2 commentaries: Nachinaarkiniyar was dissatisfied with his first commentary and decided to live in a Jain monastery as an acolyte, before writing a scholarly second commentary!

After several months of training, Chandranatha had exhausted all that he could offer to Uvesa; so he introduced Gunabala Chettiar, another master of Jain tradition.  It turned out that Mrs. Gunabala knew more about Jain tradition than Mr. Gunabala himself. So Uvesa got even the most complex questions resolved by her. During an intense discussion, Mrs. Gunabala turned to her husband and commented, “surely, Uvesa is a Bhavya Jeevan?”. In Jain tradition, a Bhavya Jeevan is a religiously evolved person. She was convinced that only a highly knowledgeable seeker would even think of asking such deep questions! Coming from Mrs. Gunabala, that was high compliment —Uvesa was walking on Nachinaarkiniyar’s footsteps!

The “authentic” version?
Now began the onerous task of compiling the most “authentic” version of the epic. The only way was to round up all the known versions and compare each line in every version — for all 3147 stanzas! Uvesa began this journey, travelling to even the smallest villages in interior Tamilnadu, hoping to find clean manuscripts.

Sometimes the owner would refuse to cooperate. In Thanjavur there was a rich Jain called Vrishabadas Mudaliar who refused to show the manuscripts: “how could a Jain text be shown to Hindu?” The refusal became more aggressive, when he learnt that Uvesa had studied in a Hindu monastery! Finally, he relented upon the intervention of a Mahratta nobleman called Tukkaram Holkar.

In many private collections, he had to wade through hundreds of un-indexed palm-leaves, only to return empty-handed. In some cases, he found that the owner had very recently burnt the palm-leaves or thrown them away into a river as a ritual cleaning! Uvesa plodded on—- every once in a while he would unearth a gem. After nearly 7 years of toil, 23 “clean” manuscripts had been tallied — finally, Uvesa felt he was ready.

Publishing Blues

CW Thamotharam Pillai

Thamotharam Pillai

Publishing had to be done from the provincial capital — Madras; it needed big money and patronage; academic brilliance alone was inconsequential. Was Uvesa, a rustic youth barely in his 30s, equal to the task? This was the poser of patron Thamotharam Pillai 6 who pressurised Uvesa to sell the copyright to him. For a moment, Uvesa was tempted; but he did not yield.
With promises of funding by Judge Ramaswamy and other patrons, Uvesa began his own printing venture. There were discouragements galore. The news that a Tamil scholar from Jaffna was already in an advanced stage of publishing a treatise on the same epic created a scare —such competition could ruin Uvesa financially; ( it  proved to be a baseless rumour). Another friend warned him never to take up Jeevaka Chintamani — many veterans had failed in this project, so why should a smart young man stake his reputation on this? Midway through the project, Uvesa exhausted his personal funds and had no money even to buy paper. In a divine twist of fate, Thamotharam Pillai (the man who had earlier pressurised him) intervened and got him supplies on credit; he was a true friend in need!

Bouquets and brickbats
In 1887, Uvesa released the first edition of few hundred copies. It was not merely a near-perfect translation; it was also a unique commentary on its historic-social-religious context. It received much acclaim from the cognoscenti.

Such acclaim also aroused jealousy. At his alma mater, one priest protested: “how could the student of our orthodox Hindu mission publish a patently Jain religious text?” The Head-monk silenced him by saying that Uvesa had brought great honour to the Mission by publishing an ancient work of art. Some others raised objection to the many erotic passages in the work. Uvesa calmly replied that the epic covered a range of human emotions; a true connoisseur would notice the artistic merit of the lines instead of harping on their sexuality! Remarkably, even in those “puritan” times, the overwhelming support of the Liberals protected Uvesa’s reputation.

Uvesa had beaten the odds  and achieved a unique feat — he was just 32!

If you can read Tamil, I would recommend Uvesa’s autobiography, “En Saritram”. This treasure-hunt story was narrated with such passion that I could hardly put down the book. Alas, I could capture only a fraction of that excitement in this post!

Explanatory notes
1.Jeevaka Chintamani, was epic poem written by a Jain Monk, Tiruttakka Devar. It is full of adventure and romance and acknowledged as one of the 5 greatest epics of Tamil literature. In drama and excitement, it is comparable to Homer’s Odyssey. In style it is said to be the forerunner of Kamba Ramayana.
2. Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer a.k.a. Uvesa, was the Tamil Pundit (Professor) of Kumbakonam Government College. For his path-breaking research in Ancient Tamil literature he was conferred the title Mahamahopadhyaya (Greatest of great scholars).
3. Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar was a Munsiff (judge of the civil court) in the British Raj. He was Tamil scholar and Indian Nationalist, and founder editor of the Law Journal.
4. Uvesa came from a poor family.  He studied in a Hindu Mission called the Tiruvaduthurai Matam, which also provided free food and shelter. In those days the Hindu Matams were the centres of indigenous learning.
5.Nachinaarkiniyar was a 14th century scholar who lived in Madurai. His works provide a bridge between ancient and contemporary Tamil; his commentaries on Tolkappiyam, Jeevaka Chintamani, Kuruntokai etc. have given great insights to modern research scholars.
6. Charles Winslow  (a.k.a.Chirupitty Wairawanatha)Thamotharam Pillai was a Jaffna Tamilian who showed great interest in resurrecting Sangam Literature. He served as a judge in the British Raj and spent his retirement in the study of palm-leaf manuscripts.
7.The pictures in this post are courtesy The Hindu and Wikepedia





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