ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

New Cities and Old Poetry: Malayan Urbanity in Tamil Poetry, 1872-1914


Tschacher Torsten - South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany


08 – Imagining the city: Literary and religious practices of urbanity in early modern and modern South Asia


 The description of cities has a long tradition in Tamil poetry. Whether as royal centers, pilgrimage sites, or nodes of trade, cities figure prominently in poems dating back more than a millennium. By the thirteenth century, it had become standard practice to include a chapter celebrating the hero’s home town in any longer narrative poem. As has been noted, the depiction of cities in such poetry was highly standardized and conventionalized, allowing poets to imagine even distant sacred centers such as Ayodhya or Mecca in ways recalling the urban spaces of South India.

As new literary practices took hold in the course of the nineteenth century, however, earlier formulaic conventions were increasingly questioned. While conventional depictions of cities continued to be employed in poems praising the importance of particular temples, new styles of writing developed that offered a more ‘realistic’ manner of describing urbanity. However, imagining cities in Tamil literature was never simply a clear-cut decision between ‘classical’ conventionality and ‘modern’ realism. In fact, ‘traditional’ ways of imagining the city were adapted to engage with the novelties and wonders encountered in the colonial urban worlds of the Bay of Bengal. In this presentation, I will discuss the novel ways of describing cities in rather ‘traditional’ poetry composed in Tamil in the urban centers of British Malaya and the Straits Settlements in the period prior to the First World War.