Bishop Robert Caldwell (7 May 1814 – 28 August 1891) was an Evangelist, missionary and linguist, who academically established the Dravidian family of languages. Robert Caldwell was born at Clady, then in County Antrim, Ireland, on 7 May 1814 to poor Scottish Presbyterian parents. At 24, Caldwell arrived in Madras on 8 January 1838 as a missionary of the London Missionary Society and later joined the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Mission (SPG). He served as Assistant Bishop of Tirunelveli from 1877. In 1844, Caldwell married Eliza Mault (1822–99); the couple was to have seven children together. She was the younger daughter of the veteran Travancore missionary, Reverend Charles Mault (1791–1858) of the London Missionary Society. For more than forty years, Eliza worked in Nagercoil and Tirunelveli proselytising the vulnerable, especially Tamil-speaking women. While serving as Bishop of Tirunelveli (alongside Edward Sargent), Caldwell did much original research on the history of Tirunelveli. He studied palm leaf manuscripts and Sangam literature in his search, and made several excavations, finding the foundations of ancient buildings, sepulchral urns and coins with the fish emblem of the Pandyan Kingdom.This work resulted in his book A Political and General History of the District of Tinnevely (1881), published by the Government of the Madras Presidency.
As the missionary zeal of the Europeans made them unmindful of the harsh climatic conditions in India, it seemed Caldwell had special reasons to select Idayankudi. He first coined the term ‘Dravidian’ and his groundbreaking work, A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages, paved the way for assertion of the superiority and richness of Tamil, independent of Sanskrit, which inspired the Non-Brahmin Movement in the early decades of the 1900s.
As a missionary, Caldwell’s primary objective was conversion. But in the process, the changes he brought in the lives of the people he worked with were expressed in his lecture.
The Government of TamilNadu has created a memorial in his honour and a postage stamp has been issued in his name. On the Madras Marina, a statue of Caldwell was erected as a gift of the Church of South India in 1967.
It is good to hear that the bicentenary of this great man is to be celebrated by the government of TamilNadu. The Tamil Nadu government’s plan to celebrate the completion of the bicentenary of Bishop Robert Caldwell on May 7 includes garlanding his statue at Idaiyankudi, the village from which he did his missionary work and where he was laid to rest. His statue on the Marina will also be garlanded by State Ministers.Some pictures from Idaiyangudi