Gundert, Hermann

1814 - 1893
Missionary - Basel Mission

Early life

Hermann Gundert was born in Stuttgart, the capital of Baden-Württemberg on February 4, 1814, the third child of Ludwig Gundert and Christiana Enslin. Ludwig was the Secretary of the Bible Society.

In 1823, the senior Gundert launched a magazine named Stuttgart Mission Magazine, which also became young Gundert’s initiation into the world of printing and publishing. Hermann studied in the famous Latin school at Maulbronn. Hebrew, Latin, English, and French were part of his course. He was also proficient in music and could play the organ, piano, and violin.

Following his studies at Maulbronn, Gundert joined the University of Tuebingen in 1831. Gundert learnt Sanskrit here, as part of the course leading to a doctoral degree in Philology, which he earned in 1835. [1]

Journey to India

Hired to be a private tutor to the children of a missionary, Anton Groves, in the spring of 1836, 22-year old Hermann Gundert, boarded a ship, Perfect, that was to set sail from Bristol in Britain to India. On the ship Gundert began to learn Bengali and Hindi. The retinue of his employer, landed in Madras. Gundert was not particularly impressed by the city and wrote in a letter to his parents, “Madras is very infertile…”[2]  

The children of Groves were thoroughly disinterested in being tutored. Gundert in search of an occupation, visited Tirunelveli, about 700 kms. south of Madras to learn about the Church Missionary Society (CMS) activities. At Tirunelveli, Gundert stayed with Charles Theophilus Ewald Rhenius, a German scholar-missionary, from August 1836 to March 1837. Rhenius was the founder of the German Evangelical Mission of Tirunelveli and Gundert learnt the linguistic, philosophical and philological aspects of the Tamil language from him. This helped him to learn Malayalam with academic proficiency as both Tamil and Malayalam have similarities and a common root in Sanskrit.

Another significant influence on Gundert was the Scottish missionary, John Anderson, whom Gundert met at Chennai. Anderson founded a school in Madras and practiced radical inclusiveness in educating lower caste boys. 277 pupils from the upper castes left his school in protest, but Anderson stood his ground. [3] 

When Mrs.Groves moved to Chittoor(in present day Andhra Pradesh) to found a girl’s school, Gundert visited to explore possibilities for a mission. At the school he met Julie Dubois, whom he was earlier acquainted with on the voyage from Britain, and they married. Julie was from French-speaking Switzerland. Soon the couple parted ways with the Groves. This was partly on account of Gundert’s proficiency in Tamil and Telugu which helped him to connect with the locals while the Groves maintained a `colonial’ distance.


The newly married couple joined the Basel mission and was invited to Mangalore. On this north-bound trip Gundert encountered the lush natural beauty of what is today the peninsular west coastal state of Kerala, then called Cheranadu and was introduced to the language `Malayalam’ for the first time.

On April 12, 1839, Gundert and Julie arrived at Thalassery. On a preaching trip to the East India Company’s cinnamon estates then under the charge of Lord Brown, Gundert was fully convinced that the Malabar region was the place of his `call’.[4]

While he made plans to find an opportunity with the London Missionary Society (LMS), in case the Basel mission would not agree, T. L. Strange, a British judge, bequeathed his bungalow at Illikkunnu (3 kms from the centre of Thalassery town) to the Basel Mission on condition that a mission station would be established there. The Gunderts moved in and this stately mansion became their home, housed a printing press, and hosted the first of the many schools the Gunderts set up, in its broad verandahs. Today it is a popular stopover for heritage seeking tourists, named ‘Gundert Bungalow'. The next 19 years were spent in missionary activity, pastoring, education, translation and exploring the history, and culture of the state and contributing richly to the study of the Malayalam language.


When his initial attempts to preach in the Thalassery market was drowned out under the din of commerce, Gundert changed tracks and decided to establish schools.

On May 14, 1839, Gundert started a school that taught in Malayalam with twelve students. He had pupils belonging to all religions. He also succeeded in establishing a second school in Dharmadam, 6 kms. away. The mission also had a modest success when the first convert was baptized, a young woman from the lower Tiya caste, who was Christened, Hannah.

The present-day Church of South India (CSI) Gundert Memorial Church, Nettoor, also known as Illikkunnu Church built in 1839, was the first church established by the Basel Mission in Kerala. Hermann Gundert its first officiating priest, served for seven years from 1839 to 1846. [5]

By August 1839, Gundert had mastered the language spoken in Thalassery, Malayalam.

Julie established the first day-school for girls, in 1840, with the support of the wealthy Thalassery port master Brennen. [6]The Basel mission also pitched in and soon many girls from different faiths were on the roster.

At the same time Gundert received a batch of orphan boys from Cochin, and schooled them.

Gundert also played a role in healthcare- the other favourite missionary enterprise, by promoting Halle’s (a school of medicine developed at the University of Halle, Germany) medicines. He earned a good reputation for curing many ailments.

As a step towards formalizing the Malayalam language, Gundert was the first to collect literary texts in Malayalam and edited them for use as school text books. Malayalam had a low status in the eyes of the Brahmins who were the custodians of knowledge. It is suggested that the name `Malayalam’ for the language (now the official language of the Kerala state) was Gundert’s brainchild. [7]

The Basel mission planned to extend it’s reach to Cannanore, Calicut, and Palghat and Gundert often made visits to Calicut. As an innovation, Gundert published tracts from the book of Genesis and described the Creation story using the religious and cultural expressions of Indian thought. This was resisted by his fellow missionaries in Europe. So he abandoned this improvisation. [8]

The first of Gundert’s twelve significant publications was Keralolpathi, (literal meaning: origins of Kerala), in 1843.

This was followed by Pazhancholmala (a collection of pithy native sayings), in 1845, used as metaphors for teaching Christian theological values. In the course of his research for this eclectic collection, Gundert travelled to the villages around Thalassery and had many discussions with the residents. These interactions were often a means to spread the gospel message.

The first Malayalam bible was available in 1811, but it was translated from Syriac and Tamil and had many Syriac words making it esoteric and consequentially ignored by the people for whom it was intended. The second translation completed in 1841, was in a dialect not popular in the Northern parts of the state. Gundert with his knowledge of Hebrew, Greek and Malayalam worked meticulously to produce an accurate, scholarly translation. It took him 40 years to bring out 49 books. [9]This is acknowledged as a literary masterpiece and forms the foundation for today’s Protestant Malayalam bible in circulation. His rendering of Hebrew poetry with consideration for the rhythm of ideas in parallel Malayalam poetic language, has earned him an undisputed place in the literary and ecclesiastical heritage of Kerala.

As an accompaniment to the Bible, Gundert also translated John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – titled Sanchariyude prayanam in Malayalam. [10]

Gundert is highly regarded among linguists for pioneering a non-Sanskrit approach to Malayalam grammar and compiled a systematic text, Malayala bhasha vyakaranam, (Malayalam grammar) in 1851. Gundert introduced the addition of a pronunciation symbol, the crescent moon and punctuation marks- the period, comma, semicolon, and colon to the written script.

As a means to promote literacy and the language, Gundert established the first newspaper, Rajyasamacharam (news of the kingdom) and a magazine, Paschimodayam (Dawn of the West). The magazine carried a series on the history of Malabar from 1498-1631, called Kerala Pazhama. [11][12]

A closer look at the two publications Keralolpathi and Kerala Pazhama, indicate access to vast sources of primary documents, a good part of which are preserved at the University of Tuebingen archives. These along with a major collection of Gundert’s works are also digitally archived. [13]

Gundert did not shy away from preaching. He often visited Chirakkal, 26 kms to the north on preaching assignments and subsequently established a boy’s school, which came to be overseen by his compatriot Samuel Hebich. Another missionary Hermann Moegling completed Gundert’s circle of close associates. The warmer weather at Chirakkal proved a health hazard and Gundert suffered from bronchitis, and also lost his voice temporarily.  

The local cheftian of Chirakkal , Kolathiri raja became a friend and Gundert is said to have borrowed a copy of the Rig-veda  from him. Another royal associate, Jacob Rajavarma, the son of the king of Kochi (Cochin), Veera Kerala Varma is recorded as the first convert from a royal family. [14] Rajavarma was anointed as a priest in the presence of Gundert and the Chirakkal king. Gundert taught him German and he proved to be a resourceful translation associate.

In 1855, Gundert was transferred to the Basel mission headquarters in Mangalore. Though leaving Malabar was not an easy choice, Gundert accepted for two reasons, Gottfried Weigle, the missionary and Bible translator (to Kannada), at Dharwad had passed away, and the mission needed Gundert’s services. Also he had found a Dr.Toullis who managed to treat his recurring hemorrhoid inflammations. [15]

Meanwhile, Robinson the collector suggested Gundert to take up the post of a school inspector for Malabar and Kanara (west coast of Karnataka including Mangalore). In April of 1857, Gundert accepted this position but had to move to Calicut (present day Kozhikode) to take over a school with over 50 pupils run by a Mrs.Fritz, who died.

The school inspector’s role involved considerable travel as schools peppered the entire Malabar coast from Kochi (Cochin) to Thallashery and up to Mangalore and Honavar in the Kanara coast.

Julie had her hands full, managing the Fritz household and Fritz’s school. Marie, the Gundert’s daughter arrived to help. Gundert however was increasingly incapacitated with bronchitis and inflammations. In April 1859, Gundert decided to leave the Malabar coast, his home for twenty years and head back to Germany, while Julie and Marie remained in Calicut. [16]

Gundert joined the Calw publishers in Switzerland, on deputation from Basel mission. When Dr. Barth the head of Calw, passed away Gundert took over from him and formally left the Basel mission. During his tenure, Gundert revised the Malayalam dictionary based on inputs from the Portuguese Malayalam works, and also expanded his collection of Malayalam proverbs. A translation of the Psalms was also completed. [17]

Julie and Marie joined him in 1860. The Gundert’s five sons were already in Switzerland with their families.

Julie Gundert passed away in 1885. Gundert’s health continued to suffer and he was often bed-ridden. Gundert died on April 25, 1893.

The translation of the entire Bible was completed in 1880, and posthumously published at Mangalore in 1886. [18]

Gundert’s second son Samuel Gundert who was born in Thalassery in 1840, followed his father’s footsteps as a Basel mission missionary in 1864. Marie Gundert married Johannes Hesse and their son Hermann Hesse, the Nobel prize winner for literature in 1946, remembers his grandfather, “He understood all the languages of man, more than thirty, and perhaps even those of gods…he could read and write Pali and Sanskrit, he could sing songs in Kanarese, Bengali, Hindustani, Singhalese, he knew the prayers of the Mohammeddans and the Buddhist, although he himself was a Christian and believed in the triune God”. [19]


  1. ^ “University library: Herman Gundert portal”, Universitat Tubingen, accessed November 3, 2023,
  2. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert Sayip”,  posted January 9, 2021 at Historical alleys, Malabar’s history, accessed November 1, 2023.
  3. ^ Jojan Job, “On Hermann Gundert’s life in India from 1836 to 1859 and his contribution to education and to Malayalam”, Frontline, July 22, 2021, accessed November 1, 2023,  
  4. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert.”
  5. ^ “CSI Gundert Memorial Church, Nettoor”, Thalassery Heritage Project, accessed November 4, 2023,
  6. ^ Job, “On Hermann Gundert”.
  7. ^ “Hermann Gundert -German Who Touched The Soul of Malayalam,” ARPO, accessed November 3, 2023,
  8. ^ Skaria Sakkariya, Dr Hermann Gundert and Malayalam language,ed. Albrecht Frenz,(Changanassery:1994), 34, accessed on, November 3, 2023,
  9. ^ Skaria Sakkariya, Dr Hermann Gundert and Malayalam language, 38.
  10. ^ John Bunyan,Pilgrims Progress,trans.Hermann Gundert (Basel Mission, Mangalore:1869,accessed on November 2,
  11. ^ Ajay Kamalakaran, “The Malayalam scholarship of Hermann Hesse’s ‘Indian’ grandfather,” Onmanorama, September 06, 2020, accessed November 1, 2023,
  12. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert”.
  13. ^ “University library: Herman Gundert portal”.
  14. ^ Ramachandran, “Baptism Record of Jacob Ramavarma Found,” posted May 25, 2022 at Hamlet in Monsoon, accessed November 1,2023,
  15. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert”.
  16. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert”.
  17. ^ “Herman Gundert”, Wikipedia.
  18. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert”.
  19. ^ Maddy, “The Eminent Gundert”.

Philip Malayil

The writer is the coordinator for the South Asia region for


Bunyan, John.Pilgrims Progress.Translated by Hermann Gundert. Mangalore:Basel Mission,1869. Accessed on November 2,2023.

Job, Jojan. “On Hermann Gundert’s life in India from 1836 to 1859 and his contribution to education and to Malayalam”. Frontline, July 22, 2021. Accessed November 1, 2023.….  

Kamalakaran, Ajay. “The Malayalam scholarship of Hermann Hesse’s ‘Indian’ grandfather”. Onmanorama, September 06, 2020. Accessed, November 1, 2023.….

Maddy. “The Eminent Gundert Sayip”. Historical alleys, Malabar’s history, January 9, 2021. Accessed November 1, 2023.….

Ramachandran. “Baptism Record of Jacob Ramavarma Found”. Hamlet in Monsoon, May 25, 2022. Accessed November 1,2023,

Sakkariya, Skaria. Dr Hermann Gundert and Malayalam language,edited by Albrecht Frenz,34.Changanassery:Centre for Kerala studies, 1994. Accessed, November 3, 2023.

Thalassery Heritage Project.“CSI Gundert Memorial Church, Nettoor”. Accessed, November 4, 2023.….

Universitat Tubingen. “University library: Herman Gundert portal”. Accessed, November 3, 2023.