Tamil Original of Ellis’ Legend of the Cowpox Found

[This post is a free translation of an earlier post originally published in French]

A few months ago, one of my excellent colleagues—Grégoire Schlemmer, not to mention his name—reported me the existence of a small collection on Indian manuscripts in the Bibliothèque interuniversitaire des langues orientales (BIULO), that one can access in the Réserve of the Bibliothèque universitaire des langues et civilisations (BULAC).

I was at the same time reading the remarkable Languages & Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras by Thomas R. Trautmann (2006). The author pays homage to Francis Whyte Ellis (1777–1819) for having established the existence of the family of Dravidian languages. In this book, one learns (pp. 114–115) that Ellis composed in Tamil a legend about the cowpox, in order to lift the reluctance of local population against the smallpox vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner at the end of the 18th century. Trautmann gives in Appendix (pp. 231–241) the English translation of this legend, collated from two archives’ versions, and explains that he was not able to find the original Tamil text.1

At the beginning of March this year, I was able to devote time to these Indian manuscripts of the BIULO. Records are available on the online catalogue the BULAC. These derive from the work done on this somewhat forgotten collection by Jérôme Petit, who also wrote an article in order to “make [these manuscripts] visible to everyone” (2007, p. 191).2  Petit gives a list of the manuscripts (p. 195–199) so as to “provide an overview of the entire collection, allowing researchers interested in a particular manuscript to refer to the catalogue record or to the manuscript itself” (p. 195).3

Examining this list, my attention was immediately drawn to the item MS.IND.4. Petit (2007, p. 196) described it as follows:4

Ārāmāvaravilakkam. Tamil and English. Undated (end of 18th century). European paper, watermark fleur-de-lis “Curteis and Sons” dated 1799. 19 x 24 cm. 56 pages. “Treatise on smallpox vaccination in the form of an Indian treatise,” according to Jean Filliozat’s note. Tamil text p. 5-24 and English translation pp. 25–48.5

What else could this manuscript be except Ellis’ legend of the smallpox—with its Tamil original version! —since, according to the archives consulted by Trautmann (2006: 232), its original title is Aramavara Vilaccam? Therefore, I proceeded to the BULAC on March 11th 2013 to examine the manuscript and get to the bottom of the matter. I could then observe that the English translation corresponds with that given in Trautmann’s appendix and that the Tamil text was its version in the original language.

The manuscript is in the form of a western book bound in leather (?). The pages are numbered in pencil (maybe a later addition). The Tamil text is in scriptio continua, without puḷḷi to mark the pure consonants, but with double kompu (although not regularly used) to distinguish medial ō and ē from medial o and e. A macron is also (occasionally) used to indicate that a consonant must be read with the vocalization a.

The book was part of the collection “The Honble Frederick North” as shown by the bookplate stuck to the back of the front cover (fig. 1).

Ill. 1. Photo : Emmanuel Francis. Avec l'aimable autorisation de la BULAC

Fig. 1. Bookplate of Frederick North. Photo: Emmanuel Francis. Courtesy of BULAC.

The bookplate bears in addition the motto of the Earls of Guilford (“La vertu est la seule noblesse”).6 It thus appears that our bibliophile is Frederic or Frederick North (1766-1827), first Governor of Ceylon (1798–1805) and great collector of manuscripts. After his death, his collection was sold and a good part of it is presently preserved at the British Library.7 I could not determine if North personally knew Ellis, but it is possible. Another possibility is that North acquired the manuscript after Ellis’ death in 1819.8

The paper, with its watermark “1799,” gives us the terminus a quo for the date of the manuscript. The terminus ad quem might be supplied by the bookplate. In 1817, Frederic(k) North became the fifth Earl of Guilford, after the successive deaths of his two older brothers, and theoretically ceased then to use the title “The Honble”.9 However, it is possible that North continued to use this title or had to exhaust, even though he had become Earl, a stock of bookplates bearing his former title.

On page 5 of the manuscript is the Tamil title (fig. 2): āṟāmāvaraviḷakkam, “Light on the sixth great boon” (āṟām+mā+varam+viḷakkam).10

Ill. 2. Photo : Emmanuel Francis. Avec l'aimable autorisation de la BULAC

Fig. 2. Page 5 (detail). Photo: Emmanuel Francis. Courtesy of BULAC.

This sixth boon is the smallpox vaccination, which, as is well known, is prepared from the cowpox virus. This title reveals the trick used by Ellis to convince the Indians, particularly the Hindus: he added the cowpox virus—present in the pustules of an infected cow—to the traditional list of the five products of the cow (panca-gavya, namely milk, butter, yogurt, urine and dung) that the cow-worshipers consider as boons.

The Tamil text is given pages 7–24 (fig. 3).

Ill. 3. Photo : Emmanuel Francis. Avec l'aimable autorisation de la BULAC

Fig. 3. Page 7. Photo: Emmanuel Francis. Courtesy of BULAC.

The last page contains a stanza in the kalittuṟai metre (spelled kalitturai in the manuscript, fig. 4) that does not appear in any of the three known English translations. It is a kind of colophon stating that Ellis is the author of the text.

Ill. 4. Photo : Emmanuel Francis. Avec l'aimable autorisation de la BULAC

Fig. 4. Page 24 (detail). Photo: Emmanuel Francis. Courtesy of BULAC.

Page 25 gives the English title: A Translation of the ÁràmàvaraViˋlaccam.11

The English translation is given on pages 27–48.

The manuscript of the BIULO contains the only original Tamil version of Ellis’ legend of the cowpox known so far. It remains to determine whether the manuscript is from the hand of Ellis. In any case, it will help us to judge his talents as a writer in the Tamil language: how he handles language, how he translates terms and technical operations related to vaccination.

Ellis’ legend of the cowpox was part of a project of popularization of vaccination, that Dominik Wujastyk has called “pious fraud” (1987): to overcome the resistance of local populations, some well-intentioned people spread the idea that this medical technique was known to Indian traditional medicine.12 Wujastyk, writing before the publication of Trautmann’s book, discusses a newspaper article published in the Madras Courier of January 12th, 1819,13 in which a certain Calvi Virumpon (i.e. Tamil kalvi virumpōṉ) argues that the smallpox vaccination through inoculation of cowpox was known to Hindu physicians since a long time. He quotes in support of this claim a Sanskrit verse—said to come from the Sactéya Grantham of Dhanwantari—, which describes the procedure of vaccination.14 Wujastyk (p. 134) already linked Ellis to this “pious fraud,” because of a source stating that Ellis composed a short poem in Sanskrit on the subject of vaccination, to the same effect (overcome local reluctance, particularly that of Brahmins, towards vaccination) and by the same means (ascribe antiquity to the knowledge of vaccination in India). Wujastyk finally concluded that Calvi Virumpon’s claim could not be true for the simple reason that “[t]here is good evidence – albeit negative – that the cow-pox virus has never existed naturally in India” (p. 152).15

In his update (2011) to his 1987 article, Wujastyk, taking into account the additional information provided by Trautmann (2006), observes that Ellis’ legend of the cowpox consists in a dialogue between Śakti and Dhanvantari16 while the Sanskrit verse of the Madras Courier is presented as a quotation from the Sactéya Grantham (śākteya-grantha, “book related to Śakti”) of Dhanwantari, namely Dhanvantari. Wujastyk suggests that Calvi Virumpon was a pseudonym of Ellis himself. In this respect, one wonders also if in this name—which means “who likes/wishes (virumpōṉ) knowledge (kalvi)”—, Calvi (kalvi) is not an allusion to the College of Fort St. George, known in Tamil as kalvi-c-caṅkam, which Ellis helped to create and where he was active.

To conclude, I would like to acknowledge the “scientific chain” which allowed me to find this Tamil original version of Ellis’ legend of the cowpox: Thomas Trautmann mentioned it in his Languages and Nations and published its English translation as an appendix; Jérôme Petit catalogued the Indian manuscripts of the BIULO collection and published its descriptive list; Grégoire Schlemmer reported me the existence of this collection. I would also like to draw attention to the facilities offered at the BULAC for examination and photography of the Indian manuscripts preserved there.

I hope, in the near future, to publish the edition of the Āṟāmāvaraviḷakkam of Ellis.



Bennett, Michael (2007). “Passage through India: Global Vaccination and British India, 1800–05”. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 35/2 (June 2007), pp. 201–220.

Brimnes, Niels (2004). “Variolation, Vaccination and Popular Resistance in Early Colonial South India”. Medical History 48, pp. 199–228.

Debrett, John (1820). The Peerage of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland. Volume 1. 13th ed. London: G. Woodfall.

Naraindas, Harish (1998). “Care, welfare, and treason: The advent of vaccination in the 19th century”. Contributions to Indian Sociology 32 (May 1998), pp. 67­–96.

Petit, Jérôme (2007). “État du fonds de manuscrits indiens à la Bibliothèque interuniversitaire des Langues Orientales”. Bulletin d’études indiennes 24–25 (2006–2007), pp. 191–206.

Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006). Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras. Berkeley [etc.]: University of California Press.

Wujastyk, Dominik (1987). “‘A Pious Fraud’: The Indian Claims for pre-Jennerian Smallpox Vaccination”. In G. Jan Meulenbeld & Dominik Wujastyk (eds.), Studies on Indian Medical History, pp. 121–154. Groningen: Egbert Forsten (Groningen Oriental Studies ; 2).

Wujastyk, Dominik (2011). ““A Pious Fraud”: 20 Year Update”. Annexed to the online version of Wujastyk (1987).

  1. In a letter, Ellis explains that he first composed the work in Tamil (Trautmann 2006: 232). []
  2. My translation of “rendre [ces manuscrits] visibles aux yeux de tous”. []
  3. My translation of “donner un aperçu de l’ensemble du fonds, laissant les chercheurs intéressés par un manuscrit en particulier se reporter à la notice du catalogue ou au manuscrit lui-même”. []
  4. See also the online catalogue record. []
  5. My translation of “Ārāmāvaravilakkam. Tamoul et Anglais. Non daté (fin XVIIIe siècle). Papier européen, filigrane à fleur de lys “Curteis and Sons” daté 1799. 19 x 24 cm. 56 pages. « Traité sur la vaccination antivariolique mis en forme de traité indien », selon la fiche de Jean Filliozat. Texte tamoul p. 5-24 et traduction anglaise p. 25-48.” []
  6. For the motto of the Earls of Guilford, see Debrett (1820: 270). []
  7. http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/manuscripts/guilford/ []
  8. On the fate of Ellis’ papers, see Trautmann (2006: 77). []
  9. This title is borne by an Earl’s male children, except the elder. I presume that if a younger son becomes Earl, he ceases to use this title. []
  10. The title Ārāmāvaravilakkam, given by Petit, should therefore be corrected into Āṟāmāvaraviḷakkam. []
  11. Note the use of accents for the diacritical marks of ā and . []
  12. On local reluctance towards vaccination in colonial India, particularly in the South, and the strategies developed to overcome it, see also Naraindas (1998), Brimnes (2004), and Bennett (2007). []
  13. See scan on Wujastyk’s blog. See also archive.org. []
  14. See Wujastyk (1987: 123–125). []
  15. On the other hand, the variolization, inoculation of an attenuated form of smallpox virus, seems to have been well known as early as the 18th century in North and Eastern India (Brimnes 2004: 200). []
  16. Catti and Taṉmantari in the original Tamil. []

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