Prof. Dr. Kamil Vaclav Zvelebil

(17-11-1927 to 17-01-2009)


Prof. Zvelebil was born in Prague (Czechoslovakia) on 17-11-1927.
He studied at the Charles University in Prague from 1946 to 1952.
He read Indology, English language, literature and philosophy.
He was awarded his Ph.D in 1952 in Sanskrit, English and Philosophy.
In 1959 he obtained a second Ph.D in Dravidian philology.

Prof. Zvelebil died in France on 17-01-2009.


From 1952 to 1970 he was a research fellow and senior research fellow in Tamil and Dravidian linguistics and literature at the Oriental Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.
His many field trips included those to South India and in 1965-66 he was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, USA, and 1967-68 at the University of Heidelberg.
He held the position of associate professor of Tamil and Dravidian at Charles University in Prague until 1968 when he and his family had to leave their native Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Soviet-led invasion of the country.
He subsequently obtained the chair in Dravidian studies at the University of Chicago, USA.
In 1970 he left the USA and was a visiting professor at the College de France, Paris, then visiting professor of the Sudasien Institute, University of Heidelberg, senior research fellow, Unversity of Leiden and settled as a professor of Dravidian liguistics and South Indian literature/culture at the University of Utrecht till his retirement in 1992.

During his career he had the oppurtunity not only to travel on his field trips but also to teach in various cities including, Delhi, Madras, Tokyo, Philadelphia, Rochester, Moscow, Leningrad, Uppsala and Lund.

He is the author of more that 500 bibliographic items including books, articles, revies and translations.

Translations include those of ancient and modern poetry and prose from Sanskrit, Tamil, Malayam, Kannada and Telugu into Czech, Slovak, English and German. (see books).
Works cover the fields of descriptive and historical Tamil linguistics and dialectology, Tamil literature, Tamil Prosody, Dravidian comparative linguistics, Tribal languages and cultures of the Nilgiries (South India: in partucular Irula - described for the first time by Zvelebil), South Indian cultural and religious history, Hinduism, Sanskrit ritual texts, comparative Sanskrit and Tamil literature, Tamil Folklore Tamil Siddha movement.

Prof. Zvelebil was a memeber of many sociaties including associations of the Czech Union of Writes, Hon. Fellow Sahitya akademy (National Academy of Letters, India).

Kamil V. Zvelebil married in 1951 and had three children:
Dr. Marek Zvelebil (1952-2011)
Katerina Zvelebilova (1953)
Dr. Marketa J. Zvelebil (1960)

Prof. Zvelebil retired (although he continued to work on many texts and books) and lived in France with his wife Dr. Nina Zvelebil. He died after a long battle with Cancer on 17th of January 2009. He will be greatly missed by family, friends, colleagues, students and people he touched through his writing. Below are some comments written after his death.


Vele herinneringen. De discussies over de meest uiteenlopende onderwerpen aan de eettafel in Cabrespine zijn me het meest bijgebleven. Kamil aan het hoofd van de tafel. Veel sterkte met het verlies en heb vertrouwen in elkaar en in de toekomst.


   Ellis Hensen (Amsterdam)


20 January 2009


The good memories of his enthusiastic conversations and joie de vivre will remain. He was quite literally a gentleman and a scholar. Our sympathy to his family at this time,


Jerry & Hilary (East Barnet, Hertfordshire)

*       Professor Kamil  Zvelebil, one of the greatest modern Western scholars of Tamil literature, passed away on 17 January 2009.

It is impossible to overstate Professor Zvelebil's contribution to the understanding of Tamil literature, particularly in the west, but also amongst ourselves. It's difficult to describe just how differently Tamil literature was viewed by mainstream academics before Professor Zvelebil began writing on the topic. In 1955, when Nilakantha Sastry, in his History of South India, said that Sanskrit was "the magic wand whose touch alone raised each of the Dravidian languages from the level of a patois to that of a literary idiom", most of his readers agreed with him. Today, almost every serious researcher accepts that Nilakantha Sastry was totally wrong - Tamil was an exception and had its own tradition. And that is very largely thanks to Professor Zvelebil's work.

Professor Zvelebil demonstrated much of what we today take for granted, that Tamil literature was, genuinely, a national literature, in the same way that French or German literature was, with its own special characteristics, forms and approaches. He, too, was responsible for winning mainstream acceptance in the West for the early dating of Sangam literature - which, until then, was most commonly dated to the 8th or 9th centuries AD, following Robert Caldwell and Burnell.

Professor Zvelebil also demonstrated the unity that ran through Tamil literature. Until his time, it was common to divide Tamil literature into discrete periods - the Sangam period, the post-Sangam period, the didactic period, the epic period and so on. Professor Zvelebil showed how, instead, common threads ran through genres of Tamil literature - whether single stanzas, "short poetical works" (ciRRilakkiyam), epics or devotional poetry - across the entire history of Tamil literature.

And, in terms of sheer breadth of scholarship, his Lexicon of Tamil Literature will remain the standard reference work for concepts, work a nd authors in Tamil literature for the foreseeable future.

An epoch has come to an end with his passing.


*       It is very sad information. I had a chance to meet him only after the fall of Iron curtain in my country. Once it was in Prague at Charles University, second in Wassenaar where he lived till his retirement at the Utrecht University and transfer for Languedoc.

He was an excellent scholar and great man, one of the best specialists in Dravidian linguistics at all.

I am very sad.


*       A pioneer in Dravidian studies, prof. Kamil V. Zvelebil is no more. He died on 17th of January 2009, according to the mail I received from Dr. Mu. Elangovan, prof. of Tamil, Pondichery and Dr. Robert Zydenbos, KVZ's former student, now in Munich.

 Dravidology is a term coined by Zvelebil, and he will sadly be missed  by academics specializing in Dravidian linguistics, South Indian  history and so on. Here is my note announcing KVZ's passing away.

 N. Ganesan


*       The sad news included below has appeared today on the MinTamil list.

 Professor Zvelebil was certainly the greatest non-Tamil specialist of Tamil literature in the 20th century

We are extremely sorry to hear the passing away of Prof. Kamil Zvelebil. As you have rightly said, he was "the greatest non-Tamil Specialist of Tamil Literature of the 20th Century".

 His "Lexicon of Tamil Literature" is a monumental piece of reference work in cataloging the rich literary contributions of Tamil over many centuries. I refer to it often to know who wrote what and when.  In all monographs on the history of Tamil literature often mention made in vague terms of "so and so wrote x number of works" without any specifics.
It was his pure love for Tamil Language and Literature that drove Prof. Kamil to spend years and years of  careful search and cataloguing earlier contributions.

 For us with interests in digital preservation of Tamil Heritage Materials, Prof.Kamil's monograph is the best gift we can get. Please convey our sincere condolences to his family.


 Dr. K. Kalyanasundaram,
 Project Leader, Project Madurai