The Eminent Gundert Sayip

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Hermann Gundert (1814-1893) - His life in Malabar

I am getting back to this topic after 13 years, and without doubt, the persona of Hermann Gundert deserves that and more. My previous article covering Gundert & Logan only served to provide a brief introduction to these two great men and though there are a couple of books that provide Gundert’s life history in some detail, they are not easy to get a hold of, so I thought that I could cover Gundert’s profile here. Gundert for those who do not know, was a German national, a tutor and a missionary who came to Madras in 1836, moved to North Malabar, and left back home in 1859. In those 23 years, he achieved a lot, most notably in the field of Malayalam literature. His pioneering works helped develop and formalize the language and his transcriptions of the Keralolpathi and Keralapazhama have withstood the passage of time providing a fascinating look into the history of the land.

Most interestingly, he teamed up with two other stalwarts of that time, Thomas Harvey Baber and Henry Valentine Conolly, and hobnobbed with a number of interesting characters of that era such as Murdoch Brown's progeny and fleetingly, Travancore’s – Swathi Tirunal Maharaja. His studies of the St Thomas Christians, the Jews of Malabar, his creation of the first Malayalam dictionary, a collection of Malayalam proverbs, the first histories of Malabar, and many other works, offer a delightful peep at the social milieu in Malabar. When you are done, you will realize that he did far more than just compiling the first Malayalam dictionary and the Keralolpathi, which is what most people believe.

Born to Christiane Ensslin and Ludwig Gundert in 1814 at Stuttgart, Hermann and his brother Ludwig were naturally influenced by his deeply religious parents, his father being the secretary of the Bible society. Ludwig, his father, was impressed with the mission at Basel which he had visited in 1822.  Herman joined the seminary at Maulbronn in 1827 where he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, English & French amongst other disciplines such as science, geography, and math. Music and the piano interested him and perhaps stood him in proper stead, especially as tragedy struck the family with the deaths of his younger brothers and sister. By 1831 Hermann was on his way to Tübingen to study theology under Dr Strauss, whom he thought a great deal of, and by 1834, we see him teaching younger children.

As fate would have it, he was asked in 1835 by a Swiss friend if he could travel to India to become a private tutor for the children of a missionary named Anton Groves. Intrigued, Hermann decided to do a health checkup in Switzerland and meet Groves at Basel, but Groves had left already. With thoughts of the exotic and prancing gypsy girls, he saw a new purpose to his life and decided to follow Groves, after hearing glad tidings that he had drawn lots to be absolved of military duties. Gundert (We shall call him that from now on) then sailed to London to get a better acquaintance with the CMS and during the wait for a sailing ship to India, learned Bengali and Sanskrit. Eventually, the Groves family and Gundert boarded the ship Perfect in April 1836, bound for Madras with some other Europeans headed for various duties in India. During the long voyage, Gundert managed to get a good understanding of Hindustani and Telugu as well! Strange it is, when I think of it, for after his forays into the world of all these languages, he ended becoming a master of something else, the tongue-twisting Malayalam! Anyway, the ship docked at Madras on 7th July 1836, after an uneventful voyage.

Gundert wrote to his parents about his first thoughts of the strange land across the seas- "One lands in Madras, in the boats of the natives, bounced across over the high surfy seas... In front of us lay the long stretch of Fort St. George. We proceeded to the house of van Someren (on the northern side, near Black Town in Rayapuram) for dinner. There are plants, trees, animals, etc. rather new to me, but not so exuberant as I had imagined. Madras is very infertile. We lie partly on mattresses on the ground. I found myself unmolested by mosquitoes.

The two sons of Groves proved to be thoroughly uninterested in being tutored and thus we see Gundert now destined to Tinnevelly to figure out what the CMS did there, but before that, used the time to wander around Madras, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Tanjavur, Trichy – collecting songs & literary works. He arrived shortly at Sinduponturai and met the impressive Rev Rhenius and obtained access to Rhenius’s vast collection of Tamil prose and poetry, while immersing himself in missionary work.

A year later, he was on the move again, this time headed to Chittoor in Andhra to start missionary work and a school. Mrs. Groves opened a girl’s school there and this is how and where Gundert met his wife to be, Julie Dubois. Interestingly, his success with the locals due to his fluency in Tamil and Telugu led to a strained relationship with the Groves who kept a distance from the locals. In July, Julie and Hermann got married and the couple split off from the Groves team, headed back to Palayamkottai, but his mentor Rheinus was dead and the situation not what it was. Interestingly the marriages between missionaries of the BEM were one of convenience. Julie Dubois was already settled in India and married Herr Gundert only after he agreed to a pre-condition that she will always stay and work as a missionary in India.

The Basel Mission in Mangalore invited him and it was this Northbound trip to Kanara which introduced him to the beauty of Cheranadu or Malayalam. Traversing Nagercoil, Travancore, Neyttinkara, Chettuwa, Kollam, Anjengo, they boarded a ship at Alappuzha bound for Mangalore. It was at Travancore that he met the Swati Tirunal and heard Malayalam for the first time.

Proceeding North, his first impressions of Cochin are interesting - Arrived on the morning of 18th Kochi, the capital of the second kingdom. Here the backwaters open themselves to the sea. It is a fine port, and pretty deep. A lot of shipbuilding activities here. One perceives almost a sense of European energy and effort among the Jews, Portuguese and Dutch half-castes working here. On one of the ramparts of the Dutch fort (even now there are rows of Dutch houses, Dutch and Portuguese languages spoken) is a house built in Gothic style by missionary Ridsdale.,.I felt myself at home there and spent two hours of the day playing on the organ-Haendel and whatever choral compositions that appealed to me. He has a house and a church organ built by himself with the help of local converts, and without other craftsmen. All his children are talented, and the youngest, a two-and-half year old, plays Handel’s Helleluja!

He also tells us that Kodungallur was termed Mahodevar Pattanam in those days and he felt that Manigramam was a Syrian Christian village while Anjuvanam was connected with perhaps an old Jewish or Syrian Christian settlement.

And thus, arrived Gundert Sayip at Tellicherry on April 12th 1839, but only to move on to Mangalore. He returned in February to Anjarakkandi to sermonize the slaves at Brown’s estate, in Tamil. That single trip helped make up his mind that he wanted to live among the people of Malabar and so he wrote to the Basel Mission. He also planned an alternative to join the LMS in case the Basel Mission was not keen on doing something in Malabar. Fortuitously, Tellicherry’s Judge Mr Strange passed away, bequeathing his house to a Malayalam Christian mission which could be started there. That was how Gundert ended up at the Nettur Illikunnu Bungalow and 4-acre grounds in 1839 and that was how Malabar became his home.

Initial attempts to preach at the marketplace were drowned by the din created by the trader Moplahs and so Gundert concentrated on opening schools and continuing the work of the missionary Mr. Spring who had started to do some Malayalam translations as well as a Grammar book. His acquaintance with TH Baber who was the judge there exposed him to the culture, the literature, and the many skills of the local population. The original transcription manuscript of Keralolpatti mentions and acknowledges the support of Baber as well as a local person named Puthucheri.

Finding the bungalow at Illikkunu too lavish, they moved to the town center and opened up a day school as well for the many orphan girls. The mission was also started and the first protestant covert, a Tiya woman, an Englishman’s consort named Manni was baptized as Hannah. Life went on, but indifferent health made him move back and forth between Illikkunnu and Tellicherry. The Basel mission meanwhile planned to extend its reach to Cannanore, Calicut and Palghat. Herman Jr was born in Tellicherry and life was good, but the workload necessitated the employment of Fr Heibich who after training moved on to Cannanore. Gundert also took to visiting Calicut often as there was no mission there.

Soon work on the grammar (Malayalam-English) book was underway and in 1843, the Keralolpatti was published. In 1851, the Malayalam version of the grammar book Malayala bhasha vyakaranam was completed, and Gundert concentrated on even more translations and original works which formed the bedrock of Christian Malayalam literature.

Julie had started the first orphan girl’s school in 1839 as we saw previously and her school got a wealthy sponsor, the port master Brennen who admitted his daughter from a Tiyya mother named Flora, there. Sadly, Flora passed away in 1847, due to an unspecified illness at Ooty. The girl’s school was also supported by the Basel mission and soon added many more Christian, Parsi, and Konkani girls to the roster. Gundert likewise, took to schooling orphan boys and the first batch came from Cochin. What must be gathered from all this is that this couple from Germany built up their expertise on local customs and languages from their in-house sources, their students. As the children reached marriageable age, they were married off and settled. He also worked hard to instill the practice and use of Halle’s medicines (proprietary stuff developed by Richter), earning quite a good reputation in the treatment of many ailments. By the 1840’s about 15 staff supported the missionary in Nettur.

Other than taking a one-year vacation in 1846 to go back to Germany (mainly to admit his four children in Germany and Switzerland), Gundert spent all his time in Malabar and during this trip, managed to procure two printing presses from for the Bible Society of Mangalore. More books were published and the first Malayalam magazines Rajya Samacharam and Paschimodayam were released. In fact, Kerala Pazhama and Malayala Rajyam were published in the above magazines. The book on the 1000 malayalam proverbs was completed due to an express request from the local collector (presumably Robinson). Sanmaranavidya (art of dying happily), Christa mahatmyam, the Buddhist Vajrasuchi, and later the Nala charitam were all translated and published and he also obtained the help of a local Munshi for his efforts (Note: many of them were completed later in Calw and published posthumously).

Even though Gundert preached often in neighboring Chirakkal, and established a boy’s school there, he lived at Illikkunnu in Tellicherry. But in 1849, he moved to Chirakkal to support Hebich who was already there. The hotter climate became a problem and Gundert was frequently ill and lost his voice for a while due to chest and bronchial issues. He stopped talking for 14 days (writing home as to how silly it looked – feeling that a dumb missionary was like a wooden poker). A doctor diagnosed that he also had an advanced liver issue.

So, he eased off missionary work and traveled, to Mangalore and Ooty where he became a good friend of Robert Caldwell, not to forget the local Kolathiri Raja of Chirakkal. Other visitors who came to say hello, included the Mavelikkara Raja and Udaya Varma. During this period, he completed many of the aforesaid Malayalam works and even borrowed the Rig Veda and other works from the Chirakkal Raja (it appears they had a stormy relationship as the Raja was not amused when conversions in his area increased!). Jacob Constantin Ramavarma the son of the Cochin Raja Veera Kerala Varma, was his associate (translator) during that period (Jacob was anointed a priest, in the presence of Chirakkal King and Herman Gundert in 1856) and also learned German from Gundert. Moegling the third of the three missionaries (Moegling, Gundert & Hebich) who worked on Kannada literature at Mangalore, was the third among the trio. Tragically, both the Raja and Jakob succumbed to Smallpox.

Sometimes disaster is the reason for changes and when fires gutted thatched roof missions at Cannanore, Gundert had all of them tiled. You may also recall that Basel missions were the first to establish tile factories in Mangalore and Malabar (Mangalore 1865, Calicut 1873).

In 1855, Gundert was transferred to the Basel mission headquarters in Mangalore when Weigle passed away. It was his collaboration with Wiegle that resulted in the first printing press of 1842 (The press at Illikunnu was established in 1845). Gundert had another reason to accept it, he had found a doctor, Dr Toulis who managed good progress treating his inflammations.  He also realized he could preach in English to the British folk in Mangalore and looked forward to the move though leaving Malabar was not appealing. Two years passed actively but further changes were underway. When Robinson suggested an administrative position, Gundert accepted and that was how he ended up as a school inspector of Malabar and Kanara. When a teacher in Calicut Mrs. Fritz passed away, leaving her school headless, Gundert and Julia moved to Calicut, in Oct 1857.

Gundert mentions the changed situation in Calicut and its southern parts those days (circa 1849) - "What has taken place here is mainly this: There is deadly enmity in Sheranadu between the Mappilas and the higher caste heathens. The land belonged to them earlier and was partly leased. Tippu wiped out many Brahmins and Nayers and gave the leases to Mohammedans, entitling them to ownership of the property. Ever since the English occupation in 1792, there are now regular fights over it."

At Calicut, he had previously met Collector Conolly and judge Thomas who were already working toward the upliftment of the lower castes, but they were all gone by the time he arrived in 1859. Conolly had been hacked to death in 1855 as we all know. The large Church had been completed in 1854.

Gundert writes - The Kozhikode brothers laid the foundation for a church that would cost Rs. 3500.The fine newly built church has been opened and celebrated by the mission and for which four Malabar stations have come together. It must have been a wonderful day and I would have gladly accepted an invitation if I had had the means. At last, there will now be a railway from Madras to Kozhikode. When it comes to pass, I think I will visit Madras once. It was in 1837 that I was there the last time. The construction of the railway is in progress in Malabar. Some of our Christians (from Kozhikode and Palakkad) are already engaged there. I have a lot of things to say about the school question but will postpone it for another time because Conolly has been murdered, just before Fritz could make inquiries in this connection. I am in correspondence with Mr. Arbuthnot, Director of Education, over the preparation of schoolbooks and I am now thinking of going to Kozhikode to gather some information from my old friend, judge Harris."

Upon receiving the position at Calicut in April 1857 Gundert writes - "I received my instructions the same evening and they were so plentiful that I now have enough work for a long time ahead. First, I should go to Kochi to inspect schools over there and then to Kozhikode to meet the Collector (circle office) and the management of the high schools over there, set up taluk schools in Malabar and examine the Basel Mission school in Thalasseri. Then back to Mangalore and up to Honavar, quite enough for a poor mortal being, without all that writing and all that which India does not easily permit."

At Calicut they had a tough time, Julie had to manage hers as well as the Fritz household, they had a larger school to conduct with over 50 pupils, but Marie, Gundert’s daughter also arrived to help. It was not to last long though, Gundert’s bronchitis and hemorrhoids inflammations got worse and in April 1859, exactly 20 years after landing Tellicherry, Hermann Gundert decided to leave Malabar and head back home to Germany, via Bombay to reach Basel in May 1859 leaving behind his wife and daughter in Calicut. The Basel Mission publication hints a conflict in Gundert’s mind when the sepoy mutiny or the Indian revolt occurred in 1857. A previously pro-administration missionary, Gundert started to nurse doubts and he mentions in a letter that ‘the mutiny was god’s punishment to the haughty English’. Perhaps Gundert had planned it to be a short visit to recuperate in the Alpine climate, but he discovered that the Basel Mission had no plans to send him back as his illness showed no signs of improvement.

Gundert joined the Calw publisher’s group in Switzerland on behalf of the Basel mission, conditional to obtaining acceptance from his wife in Calicut (if you recall she had been clear that her missionary activity was not to be influenced by the marriage to Hermann). Calw certainly seemed to have helped him recuperate and the literary future excited him, and soon, Julie and Mary agreed and left Calicut in 1860. His five sons living in Switzerland were doing well and the families were finally close to each other. Many more Malayalam publications followed from his pen, and eventually, Gundert took over from Dr Barth upon the latter’s death, as the head of the Calw publishers, formally leaving the Basel mission.

He revised the dictionary based on inputs from the Portuguese Malayalam work, revised the book on proverbs, started on adapting the Ramayana and so much more, but the pressures of a businessman’s life took priority. In 1873 he got back to the Bible’s translation to Malayalam, completing it in 1880 – this was posthumously published at Mangalore in 1886.

Gundert, Baber & Conolly – We know that Gundert acquired much by way of sources and support from Thomas Baber and many of the school developments by Gundert were actually developments and enhancements on those enacted by the forward-thinking Baber. They must have met often or corresponded at Tellicherry. Gundert acknowledges Baber’s support in the draft of the Keralolpathi. We also know that HV Conolly helped Gundert gain access to the Zamorin’s records at Calicut, for important sources when he was writing Keralapazhama. Conolly also assisted the mission in their work at rehabilitating the Nayadis. They met first in November 1843, on his way to Kottayam, and Conolly apprised him of the incidents in Eranad.

Julie Gundert passed away in 1885, Gundert’s health continued to suffer as he was frequently ill and bedridden, finally passing away on 25th April 1893. Gundert's second son Samuel Gundert was born in Tellicherry in 1840, had been trained in Basel to be a missionary and had departed to Malabar in 1864, following his footsteps.

Hermann Gundert’s daughter Marie married a second time in 1874, this time to Johannes Hesse and their son Herman Hesse was born at Calw in 1877. Hesse was the author of many books, notably Siddhartha, and was a Nobel prize winner. He recalled his grandfather thus (loose English translation)…

He (the grandfather), the old, venerable, mighty man, with a white beard, omniscient, more powerful than father and mother, he was in possession of completely different things and powers, his was not just the Indian toy and gods (. ..), he was also a magician, a knower, a sage. He understood all the languages ​​of the people, more than thirty, maybe also those of the gods, maybe also the stars, (...), knew the prayer exercises of the Mohammedans and the Buddhists, although he was a Christian and believed in the triune God…Hesse adds - He understood all of the languages of man, more than thirty, and perhaps even those of the gods, perhaps of the stars as well, he could read and write Pali and Sanskrit, he could sing songs in Kanarese, Bengali, Hindustani, Singhalese, he knew the prayers of the Muhammadans and Buddhists, although he himself was a Christian and believed in the triune God, he had spent years and decades in eastern, hot, dangerous lands, had journeyed by boat and by ox cart, on horseback and mule, no one knew as well as he that our town and land were but a small part of the earth, that there were a thousand million people with different beliefs to our own, with different customs, languages, skin colours, gods, virtues and vices.

A perusal of the Keralolpatti and the Keralapazhama reveal that Gundert had access to a vast number of sources, and some of it can still be found at Tubingen. In his works, Gundert did take some personal liberties with descriptions and conclusions, as Madhava Menon details in the translations. Menon adds that the Malayalam used by Gundert seems to be archaic and experimental, with the grammar following German principles and the writer narrating everything he has to say on a certain topic, in a single sentence. As these were completed in Calw, they were not checked or edited by his assistants, the Munshi or Jakob Ramavaram. M.G.S. Narayanan, the eminent historian, adds that Gundert “treated words with elaborate significance and made it a point to incorporate dialects, folk songs and language patterns making it a rich record.

The Malabar missionary as he was known, the linguistic genius of Basel Mission, passed on. But Malayali’s remember him as always, with monuments and regular mentions in literary pieces. Numerous schools, colleges and universities dedicate commemorative lectures to him and keep his memory alive through busts, pictures, and whatnot. 

Gundert was and still is held in such high regard for his works on Malayalam and it was oft mentioned that he was ‘actually a Malayali who was born in Germany by mistake’. That was Gundert Sayip for you.


Dr Hermann Gundert and the Malayalam language Editors Dr Albrecht Frenz, Dr Scaria Zacharia – Part 1 - Hermann Gundert - a biography Compiled from his letters and other sources - Albrecht Frenz

Life of Dr H Gundert (Gundert Panditharude jeevacharitram) – Basel Mission, Mangalore 1896

Dr Hermann Gundert (Jeevacharitram) – KP Varid

Herman Gundert Society 

Maddys Ramblings - Sahib & Collector, an old article


Basel or Basle – The German Missionary Society (subsequently the Basel Evangelical Missionary Society) was founded in 1815. Now known as the Basel Mission, it is based at the Swiss town of Basle. There are four different spellings in popular use - Basilea, Basel, Bâle and Basle. The original Latin name was Basilea. The German spelling is Basel, (pronounced as Baahsel) and the English form is Basle. Gundert seems to have used the spelling Basle in his diaries.

Most of Gundert’s works are available for download on the internet, for those interested.

With due acknowledgments and thanks to Dr Albrecht Frenz and Dr Scaria Zacharia

Pics – Courtesy - Dr Hermann Gundert and the Malayalam language Editors Dr Albrecht Frenz



    Very inmteresting Writeup!

  1. Lila

    Interesting read! Does the name Thataa Kanaran of Tellichery figure anywhere in Gundherts story in Malabar? Heard this name come up many times in the family. Looking forward to more Malabar stories!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Chacko,
    Glad you liked it.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Lila,
    I am not too sure about the connection to Tatta Kanaran, I think he came after Gundert left, for Kanaran matriculated from Madras University in 1878 and was from Brennen Zillah school.

  1. Maddy

    Some more date I could gather -Tatta Kanaran was the person who translated Samuel Johnsson's Rasselas into Malayalam Rasalesika in 1898. He also wrote A Comparative study of English and Malayalam a guide to reciprocal translation; ed . by Joseph Muliyil. – Mangalore: Basel Mission Book and Tract Depository, 1898 - 99 and translated Walter Scott' s Lady of the Lake into Malayalam as Sarobhami Vijayam. I believe he became a headmaster of the mission high school.

  1. Sam Jacob

    Very informational. Thanks for the article. Have been a reader of your blog for many years. Keep it up!

  1. Sam Jacob

    Very informational. Thanks for the article.Have been a reader of your blog for many years. Keep it up!


    Very fine Maddy, Where can one get books written by Gundert? I am a Malayali more or less settled in Gunderts Homeland Germany.

  1. Unknown

    This is fabulous Maddy! I had no idea Hesse was Gundert's grandson! There is no end to the jewels of knowledge on your blog. ~ Leah Lowthorp

  1. Maddy

    Thank you Sam,
    I hope you will stay interested for many more years!! I will continue posting, of course!

  1. Maddy

    You can get the Keralolpathi in Malayalam if you check Wiki or do a google search. Many others can be found on the Tubingen university portals. If you head over there, you can see those precious records!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Leah..
    Yeah, Hesse has many things to say about India of course and he mentioned his gramps often..