Christian missionaries came to Kerala for proselytizing and to spread their religion, for which they studied the local dialects. And, in the process, they converted the local populace to Christianity. If the aim of the Portuguese was to hold sway over the land through trade, the missionaries were only interested in religious conversion. No different was the motive of the missionaries who came from Italy, Spain, Austria, Germany, and Holland. Looking back in history, we cannot, however, forget the contributions they made to our language and literature. These polyglots did a lot in enriching our cultural firmament. Dr. Hermann Gundert’s contribution in this field was outstanding.
Hermann Gundert was born in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg on 4 February 1814. His father was Ludwig Gundert and mother, Christiana Enslin. Hermann was the third child. Ludwig was secretary of the Bible Society. In 1823, he started a magazine named Stuttgart Mission Magazine and young Gundert began learning the first steps in printing and publishing. Hermann studied in the famous Latin school at Maulbronn. He studied Hebrew, Latin, English, and French. This was historic for he had mastered these languages at a very young age. He was proficient in music also. He could play the organ, piano, and violin.
Following his studies at Maulbronn, Gundert joined the University of Tuebingen in 1831. Interested much in literature, he began translating great works, which included Sophocles’ Antigone and King Oedipus. His first article was on the Thirty Year War in Europe.
Thanks to the influence of his father who was a votary of the religious movement and with a fascination for mysticism, Gundert secured a doctoral degree in philology.
On 2 October 1835, he embarked on his journey to India. In July 1836, he reached Madras. Staying at Tiruneveli, he learnt Tamil and Telugu, and wrote about Jesus’ birth. In July 1838 he married his co-traveller Julie Dubois at Chittoor.
In 1815, a protestant mission known as the Basel Mission was established with headquarters in Switzerland. India was an important centre of its activities. The Mission began functioning here at a time when caste discrimination was at its height. The Gundert couple had moved to Travancore in October 1838. They came to Illikunnu in Telicherry district in April 1839. The house where they stayed later came to be known as Gundert Bhavan. It was from here that he made great contributions to Malayalam language and literature. All his children including the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse’s mother were born here.
Though missionary work was his main aim, Gundert possessed a passion for language and literature. He spent much time for Malayalam. Some of his important works include Polukarp charitam, Smaranavidya, Manushya hrudayam, Christusabha charitam, and translation of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into Malayalam - Sanchariyude prayanam. He had more than fifty works to his credit; these included diverse disciplines such as religion, history, science, language, literature, etc. By the time he returned to Germany in April 1859, he had spent nearly two decades in Kerala. A Malayalam-English dictionary which he began compiling in Kerala was completed in Germany.
The great lover of language and literature, Hermann Gundert, passed away in 25 April 1893.