Saivasiddhanta manuscripts conserved at the IFP
Saivasiddhanta manuscripts conserved at the IFP

Indology can be defined as the study of any old or recent aspect of Indian civilization that is supported by an analysis of textual sources written in an Indian language, of iconographic sources or of any other document. Historically, since its beginnings in the XIX century, the core of Indology has consisted in the study, on strong philological bases, of the very rich existing corpus of texts written in Sanskrit, the scholarly language of India for more than two thousand years.

The Department of Indology of the French Institute of Pondicherry started at the time of the foundation of this Institute with the Treaty of Cession of Pondicherry by France in 1955. The only establishment of this type setup in India, and having always worked in close co-operation with the Pondicherry centre of "Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient", it allows Western indologists, primarily Sanskritists, to come and work for long periods with traditional Indian scholars (pandits) employed by the Institute, who are repositories of the knowledge and of the ways of working and reasoning, elaborated during centuries by Indian civilization. IFP has a unique character of being a meeting and exchange place between Western and Indian intellectual traditions, at a time when Indian traditional teaching based on transmission from master to disciple is beginning to fade.

Another important originality of the department lies in the richness of its collection of manuscripts and photographs : the manuscript collection is the largest in the world of texts of the Saiva Siddhanta, a Hindu religious tradition which has been flourishing in South India for more than ten centuries (8400 bundles, recently classified as “Memory of the World” by UNESCO), and the most important available collection of photographs (150000) on the religious art and architecture of South India.

The richness of the collection of texts and images and the presence of traditional Indian scholars contribute to make IFP a preferential place for preserving, transmitting and studying Indian cultural heritage in its material and intellectual forms.

The research projects of the department may be grouped into four major axes:

Axis 1. Indian analyses of Sanskrit language and literature

This axis aims to understand from inside the conceptions of Sanskrit language and literature developed by Indian thinkers during centuries. In this field, the collaboration between Indian scholars and Western researchers, particular to the IFP, is necessary since only the former know all the subtleties of Indian analyses and the latter must endeavour to understand them so that they can make it intelligible to the Western public trained in other conceptions.

A major specificity of the Indian intellectual tradition lies in the importance attached to commentaries: in India, all great religious, philosophical or literary texts are subject to commentaries which are intended to clarify it and to supplement it; far from constituting a minor genre, the commentaries form an essential part of the history of ideas in India, giving place in turn to other commentaries. It is thus logical that the department of Indology devotes great attention to these type of texts.

Axis 2. History of religions

This second research orientation uses fully the unique patrimonial resources of IFP on Saivism, one of the schools of Hinduism thriving in South India, which grants preeminence to god Siva.

Most of the personnel employed in this orientation are interested in the sources of the History of Saivism in South India. Work is undertaken in two complementary directions: the cataloguing and digitizating of the manuscripts, on one hand, the edition and close study of texts, on the other. Preservation and analysis of the manuscript collection are thus carried out in parallel.

After having published four volumes of Descriptive Catalogue of its manuscripts, IFP began a few years ago to scan its fragile collection (difficult to preserve in the South Indian climate), and to undertake the electronic cataloguing of manuscripts. This descriptive cataloguing, which represents a first analysis of the contents of the texts, requires specific skills (good knowledge of Saivasiddhanta in all its aspects, familiarity with the handwritten forms of the Grantha script), that nowadays only rare Indian scholars like those employed by the IFP possess; the texts selected in priority for the cataloguing and the scanning, are the Saiva Agama-s, i.e. the canonical texts forming the basis of Saivasiddhanta, both for its ritual and for doctrines, which are the most original in the IFP collection.

Parallel to this work of long-term cataloguing, the department of Indology critically edits and publishes, presents and translates some of the most important Saiva Agama-s: this activity of study and publication of the agamas, which has established the celebrity of the Institute in the world of indology for fifty years, by making available hitherto unpublished fundamental Saiva texts, goes on today with several critical editions in progress (Sukshmagama, in collaboration with University Paris-III,…). Descriptive cataloguing and editing of texts are the sources which will enable to reconstruct the history of Saivism in Tamil Nadu.

Axis 3. Tamil studies

Given the favourable geographical location of the IFP in the heart of the Tamil country, the Department of Indology endeavours to study Tamil history and culture in all its diversity : historical geography of South India from the origins upto 1600 AD, classical Tamil Saiva hymns, as part of the oldest and most prestigious literature in India alongside Sanskrit and contemporary Tamil culture.

Since only a broad historical perspective enables to understand in-depth Tamil culture, IFP has taken up work on a historical atlas of south India from the origins to the XVIth century, carried out in collaboration with several Indian institutions, primarily Tamil University of Thanjavur; it deals with developing a Geographical Information System to chart and visualize various archaeological, epigraphic or architectural data, relating to the historical Tamil country (corresponding to the current States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala), presented on a multi-media product. This project, original in the world of Indian universities, where historical geography is rather less developed, should help to better position, and perhaps solve, some of the historiographical problems which have occupied historians of South India for about thirty years (segmentary or feudal state, role of commercial networks,…).

Another direction of research within the "Tamil Studies" programme relates to contemporary Tamil Nadu. The interest taken in contemporary Tamil Nadu attests the broad conception of indology defended at IFP, which does not want to restrict itself to the studies of Sanskrit philology. As Tamil possesses, besides Sanskrit, the oldest and most prestigious literature of India, to study its contemporary forms and transformations also provides a particularly instructive example of the way in which an old traditional culture enters in conflict or agreement with modernity (Tamil, for example, is a very present language on the Internet by the number of sites).

The Contemporary Tamil Culture programme focuses on the transition to modernity and internal evolution of Tamil society as reflected by original Tamil literary (or otherwise) sources.

Axis 4. Architectural and Religious Heritage of South India

The IFP has an extremely rare collection of photographs dating back to 1956 and subsequently enhanced over the years. This assorted collection (the only one of its kind), consists of about 1,60,000 photographs, mainly black and white with an addition of colour digital ones in the recent years. The collection focuses on South Indian religious art and iconography, and South Indian architecture (mostly religious). The photographs of the collection are classified in two ways, site-wise and subject-wise. This precious collection is in the process of getting digitized in collaboration the General Council of the Reunion Island. In order to highlight some remarkable features of its photo collection , the IFP has been engaged in recent years in the preparation of thematic CD-ROMs on the architectural and religious heritage of south India.


Contact: Prof. Y. Subbarayalu, Head of Department