Thalassery. A small town in Kerala with a rich legacy. A land that boasts of great warriors, romantics and pundits in its history. A land that breathes communism today. At the heart of the town is the statue of one German man.
Not just Thalassery, the whole of Kerala owes much to this man; the man who presented Malayalam to the rest of the world. His name - Herman Gundert.
Herman was born in 1814, in the German city of Stuttgart, as the third child of Ludwig and Christiana. Right from his early years, there were marks of greatness in him. At 5, he joined the famed Latin school at Maulbronn and at 13, he joined the upper seminary at Tuebingen University. He fell in love with literature and very soon mastered Hebrew, Latin, English and French. Influenced by his father, the secretary of the Bible Society at the time, young Gundert learned the first steps of publishing and printing. At 21, he graduated from the university with a doctoral degree.
But at the peak of his academic life, Herman obeyed God’s call to leave his country behind and set sail for India in 1835.
As soon as he arrived in Madras, Herman decided to learn Tamil. He was first posted at Tirunelveli and later shifted to Chittoor where he married his co-traveller from England, Julie Dubois. Together, they headed south and joined the Basel Mission in Mangalore. The Mission firmly believed that in order to change the people, educational reform was vital.
The Gunderts readily agreed. They travelled further south and finally set up a mission station at Illikkunnu, near Kannur in North Kerala in 1839.
Within a month, Gundert founded the first mission school on the verandah of their home with 12 students. Soon as more children came in, he opened schools in Kadirur, Thalassery Fort, Mahe and Dharmadam. He spent one hour each day teaching at all these schools. The students were taught Malayalam, English, Science and Geography. His wife too was busy. Despite her poor health, Julie devoted most of her time looking after the girls’ institute she had set up.
Even as the schools flourished, Gundert wanted to focus more on his first love, literature. At a time when British Raj was advocating for the substitution of indigenous cultures with the ‘higher’ class of languages, Gundert was discussing history, philosophy and religion with pundits.
He would take walks around villages and make close friendships with the locals. It was from them he picked up Malayalam words, phrases, and proverbs.
In 1847, Gundert opened a press at Nettur. They published the first Malayalam monthly, Rajyasamacharam, and used it a tool to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. A few months later, another monthly magazine - Paschimodayam - was released to speak out against cultural superstitious beliefs. His works covered astronomy, geography, Kerala history and folklore. Gundert also completed the translation of the Bible in 1851. Eight years later, he compiled the first ever grammar book called Malayala Bhasha Vyakaranam.
Herman finally returned to Germany in 1859, and it was in his hometown that he completed what he had begun in Kerala - the first Malayalam-English dictionary. It was a monumental achievement for a man who dedicated 25 years of his life for the language.
Herman played a significant role in developing the Malayalam language and thereby propelling Kerala to scale new heights in literacy and social progress. His improved translation of the Bible helped the Kerala church to present the gospel in a language they loved. Herman Gundert will always be remembered as a friend of India and the Malayalis. He is proof of what God can do through someone who is completely surrendered to his will.