In the early part of the 19th century, an elaborate commentary on some of the maxims of the Sacred Kural was written by Francis Whyte Ellis of the Madras Civil Service. "Arriving in India as a Young Civilian in 1796" , says Sir Walter Elliot, "he early devoted himself to the study of the languages, history and antiquities of the land in which his lot was cast". His knowledge of the four main Dravidian languages was extensive and his scholarship in Sanskrit was profound.
A scientific study of the Dravidian languages convinced him that they were not "derivations from the Sanskrit; that the latter, however it may contribute to their polish, is not necessary for their existence; and that they form a distinct family of languages with which the Sanskrit has, in later times especially, intermixed, but with which it has no redical connection". This considered opinion of Ellis was confirmed nearly half a century later by Dr. Caldwell in his monumental work entitled "A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages"
Ellis wrote dissertations on the principal Dravidian languages for the use of the students of the College at fort St. George, which was established mainly through his efforts. He collected for the College a large number of manuscripts from different parts of the Madras Province. His dissertation on the Telugu language was printed by A. D. Campbell as a note to the Introduction to his Telugu Grammar. His essay on the Malayalam was published in the Indian Antiquary at the instance of Sir Walter Elliot. It appears that a treatise on Tamil prosody, abounding in extracts from Tamil poets, was also written by him; but it has not been preserved. "He had amassed a vast amount of material, the elaboration of which would have shed a flood of light on the still obscure history of South India and likewise anticipated much of the knowledge of its philology and literature which recent researches have brought to light". But his Premature demise deprived the country of the fruits of his laborious and luminous researches. It is said that "he undertook a journey to Madura, the Athens of the South, and during a short excursion to Ramnad he accidentally swallowed some poison and died on March 1819"
The commentary on the Kural is a re-print of a book published about year 1819, "filling 304 quarto pages without title or date". It is not a comprehensive commentary on the Kural. Only a few maxims taken at random from the first thirteen chapters are dealt with. "A free metrical version is given of each couplet, followed by a critical analysis of the text, and the subject-matter is then illustrated by numerous quotations from the best native writers, interspersed with valuable notes and disquisitions on the mythology, philosophical systems, and sectarial tenets of the people". Though fragmentary, this commentary bears testimony to the author's extensive knowledge of Tamil literature and his correct understanding of the religion and philosophy of the people of India. The Sangam classics, the epic poems and the religious hymns of Tamil literature are profusely pouted in the commentary, an if it is remembered that all these Tamil works were in manuscript during his time, his laborious and indefatigable industry will be better appreciated. Although he follows mainly the commentary of Parimelazhager, he does not refrain from pointing out the differences of opinion among the existing commentaries.
This commentary is perhaps the most striking monument of F. W. Ellis, who's extensive Knowledge, ancient and modern, oriental and European, was admired by the distinguished scholars of his generation.
Ellis' commentary, which was not available for many decades, is now brought out by the University of Madras for the benefit of the scholars and the general public who are evincing a great interest in the study of the Sacred Kural.
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