The Tamil world knows him as a poet and the honorific title, Kavimani, says it all. But Kavimani Desigavinayagam Pillai was also an epigraphist and essayist, who had published many research papers based on his studies in Tamil and English.
One of his famous essays was on the Chola period inscription, Kanthalur Salai Kalamarutharuli, which talks about Raja Raja’s battle against the Chera kingdom. Though his findings were proved wrong by subsequent discoveries, his article remains a reference point for the historians.
“In his last days, Kavimani did not like himself to be called a poet. He wanted to be identified as an epigraphist,” writes A.K. Perumal, editor of Kavimani Katturaikal (Kavimani’s Essays).
A teacher in Thiruvananthapuram
Mr. Perumal says Kavimani, who had authored Marumakkal Vazhi Manmiyam, translated Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (Asia Jothi) and the works of Omar Khayyam, and pursued epigraphy when he was a teacher in Thiruvananthapuram. Citing the experience of writers and Tamil scholars who witnessed Kavimani’s departure from poetry to epigraphy, Mr. Perumal gives a clear idea — in his preface to the book — about the life of Kavimani as an epigraphist.
Writer Pe. Na. Appusamy had once requested him to write a few poems for the souvenir of the Delhi Tamil Sangam and sent him Walt Whitman’s poetry collection and other works. But Kavimani failed to deliver what was expected of him. “He had delved deep into the study of epigraphy and archaeology. I took advantage of our friendship and wrote a strong letter that it was his duty to write poems for children. But he responded that he had developed headaches while writing poems,” recalled Appusamy.
Tamil scholar Ki.Va. Jagannathan also had the experience of meeting Kavimani the epigraphist. “When our conversation veered towards historical research from poetry, Kavimani became more enthusiastic. There was a brightness in his eyes,” Jagannathan wrote in the souvenir.
Kavimani describes sasangal (documents) as the light that explains the ancient history shrouded in darkness. Sasangal, according to him, are palm leaf manuscripts, inscriptions, and copper plates. “Knowing the ancient history and customs is not easy. One should have a good knowledge in vattezhuthu, kolezhuthu, granthalibi, malayamai and local dialects. Above all, a researcher should keep aside his personal opinion and should be driven by the desire to find the truth,” he writes about the study of inscriptions.
His articles were published in Kerala Society Papers, The Western Stark People’s Weekly, People’s Opinion, Travancore Times, Malabar Quarterly Review, The Journal of Oriental Research, and Malayalam Manorama.
In his article on Kanthalur Salai, he opines that Salai was an educational institution and it could be called the Nalanda of South India. It functioned as a model educational institution for others. Kalamaruthu Aruli, according to him, was the decision to feed the Brahmins at the institution. He rejects the suggestion that Kalam was ship and Salai could be a port, saying that when compared with the Chola kings, the Cheras had not made any great achievement in naval expedition. He then explains the etymology of the words, Aruthu and Aruli. The separate meaning of the words would not allow a compound word to be created. “It is like saying Kontru Aruli [Kill and bless],” he says. But the inscriptions found at Chengam has proved that Kanthalur Salai was a military training school.
An important contribution of Kavimani is the publication of Mudaliar Olaikal, the palm leaf manuscripts kept in the archives of Vanikarama Mudaliar. One of the manuscripts talks about the construction of a stone fort at Udayagiri and the tax paid by people of Nanjil Nadu. A separate article on Mudaliar Veetu Olaisuvadikal vividly describes the history of the Nanjil Nadu, various meanings attributed to the word, Nanjil, the rulers of the area known as Nanjil Kuravar, the assassination of the Kuravar family and the revolt of the people of the area against the repression of the king, their decision to leave Nanjil Nadu, and how the king persuaded them to return to his country.
A write-up on Nanjil Naatu Vellala
Mr. Perumal released a complete collection of these manuscripts that throw light on the socio-political life of the erstwhile Travancore. At a time when ancient customs are disappearing one by one, Kavimani’s detailed write-up on Nanjil Naatu Vellala proves to be a brilliant anthropological study. He had traced their roots, religion, language, marriage customs, and dress code. Written in 1909, the article laments how the community continues to live in the past. “On the whole, the present day Nanjilnadan has lost ground in the interracial struggle and if he does not wake up and work for the social uplift of his community, he is sure to doom his community at no distant date,” he warns.
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