As at many other European universities, the study of South Asia also at the University of Helsinki began in the 19th century, with the study of Sanskrit in connection with comparative linguistics. Here, Sanskrit was first taught as early as 1836. The first professor in the subject was then appointed in 1875. This was Otto Donner, the founder of the Finno-Ugrian Society (for the comparative study of the Finno-Ugric languages). His successors include Julio Natanael Reuter, Pentti Aalto and Asko Parpola. Reuter, a student of Donner, was the first Indologist of international standard at Helsinki. Aalto, again a comparativist (classics and Altaic languages in addition to Sanskrit), as a professor taught Sanskrit and linguistics. In his time the teaching of Hindi and Tamil as additional subjects was introduced.
In 1981–2004, the chair was held by Asko Parpola, a classical Indologist widely interested in different aspects of the field. In his time the name of the discipline was changed (1987) into “South Asian and Indoeuropean Studies”, and Hindi and Tamil were teaching subjects on regular basis. Now it became possible for students to concentrate on modern South Asia. Also his successor, Klaus Karttunen (professor 2006–12) came from classical Indology, but gave much of his attention to modern studies as well. In this he was much supported by Bertil Tikkanen, lecturer and a talented linguist, who until his retirement in 2014 was in charge of Hindi teaching.
With the ever growing importance of South Asia in global culture, economy and politics, South Asian Studies at the University of Helsinki today focuses on contemporary India. While in our understanding, India’s present cannot be entirely understood without context knowledge of the past, and while consequentially the historical developments as well are part of the teaching and research, nowadays the majority of students concentrate on modern India. Since 2014, the discipline is in charge of Xenia Zeiler (tenure track professor), who has a research and teaching focus on contemporary, digital India and the Indian diaspora, combined with her background in Indology. In 2015, Mikko Vitamäki joined the discipline as university lecturer, teaching primarily Hindi and Islamic traditions in South Asia.