Star Wars in colonial Tamil region: contours of a discourse between European missionary and a ‘native’ pañcāngkam computer on ‘modern’ astronomy

Venkateswaran, T V

Abstract

A showdown between an overbearing American missionary wielding Copernican astronomy and a proud ‘native’ Tamil pañcāngkam computer clinging to absurd purāṇic myths may appear as an obvious fertile field to narrate the story of the spread of western science. Errors in native pañcāngkam were publicly demonstrated during the lunar eclipse on March 20, 1829, shocking the audacious natives to the core. This incident left the complacent native literati were dismayed to see the European missionaries could predict the eclipses without using to native ‘secret mnemonics’ Vākya. While the missionaries were perplexed at the predictions, even if inexact, made by the Tamil pañcāngkam paying obeisance to kantapurāṇam, which was steeped in flat earth theory, with legendary Mount Meru at the centre surrounded by concentric alternating seven continents and seven seas with luminaries like Sun, Moon and Grahas going around the axle passing through the centre of Meru. In ensuing interactions, conviviality, circulation and cosmopolitanism of ideas, the native literati encountering novel instruments like globe, telescope, clock, orrery, eclipse diagram, and the missionaries gleaning hitherto mysterious Vākya method and the heritage of native astronomy, cannot be fully captured the in the dichotomies of western/non-western (Hindu, Arabic and so on), metropole and periphery, traditional and modern, and secular and religious. The reconfiguration of ideas, both by natives and missionaries, were not by coercion, but by compulsion ofocular evidence and the protagonists behaved as if they were members of one community of rational beings, despite power hierarchies.


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