History of Malayalam

History of Malayalam language

On a recent visit to Hyderabad for a seminar one of the participitant’s surprised me by speaking in Malayalam. When I asked him the reason for doing so he said that the shape of my beard ands nose resembled the Nairs of Kerala. Unknowingly he had made my day. When I went to Calcutta they thought I had Bengali looks, in Punjab my surname made them realize that I am Punjabi, in Maharashtra i.e. where I live my friends tell me that I have the simplicity of a Maharashtrian and now being called a Keralite. A Nadi astrologers told me that in my previous birth I had lived in Andhra Pradesh. I belong to ‘Bharat, the Land of Knowledge, my religion is Sanatan Dharam and caste is Intellectual Kshatriya’.

This article is virtually verbatim from the History and Culture of Indian People published by the Bharitya Vidya Bhavan. After that compared notes with the Cultural Heritage of India by the Ramakrishna Mission and made additions thereafter.

Language - Coming back to Malayalam (M) it is spoken mostly of the state of Kerala and adjoining areas. As Malai means mountain the word M obviously refers to either people or the language of the mountainous region. Till about a thousand years ago Tamil was the spoken language there with a number of local variations. It is said that M as a spoken language was not referred to in Tamil literature before the 15th century.

On the other hand Rama-charitam which was composed in the 14th century may be said to have inaugurated M literature just as Naniah’s Mahabharatam did for Telegu. The fact is that dialectical and local peculiarities had already developed and stamped themselves in local songs and ballads. But these linguistic variations were at last gathered together and made to give a coloring to a sustained literary work, Rama-charitam, thereby giving the new language, a justification and lease of life. This is roughly the story of M.

Originally M was no more than a local dialect of pure Tamil. Political isolation and local conflicts, the impact of Christianity and Islam, the arrival of the Nambudiri Brahmans a little over a thousand years ago, all created conditions favorable to an independent of the local dialect M. The Nambudri grafted a good deal of Sanskrit on the local dialect and influenced its physiognomy. Popular and religious songs were composed first. Presently, the phenomenal popularity of Kamban’s Tamil Ramayana led in course of time to a similar version in the local dialect.

By the 15th century the existence of M as a separate language got accepted.

1526 to 1707
The M language, with the introduction of a new type of devotional literature, underwent a metamorphosis, both in form and content, and it is generally held that modernity in M, language and literature commenced at this period. This change was brought about by Thunchathu Ezhuthachan TE (16th century) who is known to be the father of modern M. Till this time M indicated two different courses of development depending on its relationship with either Sanskrit or Tamil.

The earliest literary work in M now available is a prose commentary on Chanakya’s Arthasastra, ascribed to the 13th century. A poetical work Vaisikatantram are also believed to belong to the early 14th century. These works come under a special category known as Manipravalam, literally the combination of two languages, the language of Kerala and Sanskrit. A grammar and rhetoric on this hybrid style was written some time in the 14th century in Sanskrit and the work called Lilatikalam, is the main source of information for a student of literary and linguistic history.

According to this book, the Manipravala and Pattu styles of literary compositions were in vogue during this period. Pattu means song and more or less represents the pure M school of poetry. From the definition of the Pattu style given in Lilatikalam, it can be surmised that the language of Kerala during this period was more or less in line with Tamil but this has misled many people to believe incorrectly that M was itself Tamil during this period and before.

The latest research shows that M as a separate spoken language in Kerala began showing independent lines of development from its parental tongue Tamil, preserving the idiosyncrasies of the earliest Dravidian tongue, which only in due course, gave birth to the literary form of Tamil, namely Sen Tamil and M, the spoken form of it is prevalent in Kerala. However, till the 13th century there is no hard evidence to show that the language of Kerala had a literary tradition except folk songs.

Pre-Ezhuthachan period – The literary tradition consisted of three early manipravalam Champus, a few Sandesa Kavyas and innumerable amorous compositions on courtesans of Kerala, which throb with literary beauty and poetical fancies, combined with a relishing touch of realism about them with regard to the then social conditions. Many prose works in the form of commentaries of Puranik episodes form the bulk of the classical works in M.

The Pattu (a sutra is devoted to define this pattern termed there as pattu) school also has major works like Ramacharitam (12th century), Bhagavad Gita (14th century) by a set of poets belonging to one family called Kannassas. Some of them like Ramacharitam have a close resemblance to Tamil language during this period. This is to be attributed to the influence of Tamil works on native poets belonging to areas that lie close to the Tamil country.

Contribution of Ezhuthachan or TE – It is against this background that TE’s contribution needs to be assessed. M was by this time developed to be a vehicle of ideas, of even thoughts like metaphysics, economics and politics. But as the language had been developing in two different lines it became the need to bring a degree of uniformity of style. The credit goes to TE whose writings became a confluence of the two channels of linguistic currents. He borrowed from S its rich lexicography but with a difference that the mainstay of his style in writing verses rested on the indigenous school.

What Tulsidasa did to Hindi TE did for M. His first work was a translation of the Ramayanam from Sanskrit. His work was hailed by one and all. The devotional element blended with Vedantic thoughts most artistically linked with the story of Lord Ram opened a new chapter in M literature. Ultimately it became so popular that a copy of the Adhyatma Ramayanam was there in every Hindu house, made it a point to read it. The diversified characteristics of the language of Kerala slowly disappeared and merged into this newborn style, which continues to this day.

The Ramayanam was followed by Mahabharatam a work of superb literary excellence. The good thing about this work is that the description, figures of speech and portrayal of characters have something peculiar about the life of Kerala in them. The Holy Gita was another important work.

Post Ezhuthachan period – many Puranas were written during this period closely imitating his style. The period immediately following that of TE is therefore called the Bhakti Yuga, the age of devotional literature in M. Narayana Bhattatiri, the author of the immortal Sanskrit Bhakti-kavya ‘ Narayamyam’ was a contemporary of TE. The most prominent writers who followed TE’s footsteps was Poonam Nambudiri, the author of Jnanappana, a philosophical work in simple M.

It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that later Champu kavyas were written. Their specialty was that they contained both Sanskritic and indigenous elements of poetry in equal degree, to that extent were unique.

Attakkatha (‘A’) Age – ‘A’ literature, closely following the Champu style in the use of Sanskrit and Malayalam with a definite purpose and motive is the first type. Attam in M means the ‘dance or drama’ and Katha, a Sanskrit term means ‘story’. ‘A’ are therefore stories written for a type of dance drama known as Kathakali. Bharata’s Natyasastra had become by the time, a handbook of the Chakyars, and the traditional actors of Sanskrit dramas in temples. Most of these dramas were confined to temple premises.

The Raja of Kottarakkara, a princely poet, 16th century wrote in M the story of Ramayana, styled as Ramanattam as against the story of Lord Krishna called Krishnattam. The entire Ramayana story was divided into eight parts, they formed the basis of Ramanattam, which later paved the way for the art of Kathakali. When another prince, the Raja of Kottayam, composed stories of the Mahabharata for the same purpose, he preferred to call it Kathakali and the literary composition was thereafter known as Attakkatha. A number of Kathakali plays were written during this period.

Unnayi Varyar, whose Nalacharitan Attakkatha is popular even today, was the most prominent poet 18th century among not only the Kathakali writes, but also among the classical poets of Kerala. He is often referred to as the Kalidasa of Kerala. Although Kathakali is a dance drama and its literary form should more or less be on the model of drama, there is nothing common between a ‘A’ and Sanskrit drama.

On the other hand, the principles of dramaturgy to be observed in writing a particular type of Sanskrit drama are completely ignored by an author of ‘A’. Delineation of a particular Rasa is an inevitable feature with Sanskrit drama whereas in an ‘A’ all the predominant Rasas are given full treatment and consequently the theme of an ‘A’ often loses its integrity and artistic unity when viewed as a literary work.

Any ‘A’ fulfills its objective if it affords a variety of scenes depicting different types of characters, and each scene would have its own hero with the Rasa associated with that character. When that hero is portrayed he is given utmost importance to the utter neglect of the main sentiment (rasa) of the theme in general. However, the purpose of ‘A’ is not to present a theme with a well knit emotional plot as its central point, but to present all approved types of characters already set to suit the technique of the art of Kathakali.

1707 to 1818
By the dawn of the 18th century M literature was in its full bloom thanks to the contribution of Ezhuthachan who is looked upon as the father of modern M. His translation of Adhyatma Ramayanam and Bharatam brought about a revolution in M language in so far as it underwent a thorough change in vocabulary and style, freeing itself from the bondage of archaic forms almost akin to Tamil, with a bias for Sanskrit. It was his works that standardized the language of Kerala. Modern M has not changed thereafter.

The major literary output of the century was in the form of local plays composed for the art of kathakali, the dance dramas of Kerala also known as Attakkatha. It seems the Gitagovinda of Jayadeva gave a model to this type of literary composition. The verses in Sanskrit narrate the story and the dialogue is composed in imitation of songs in Gitagovinda, set to music in appropriate ragas of classical Karnatak style.

Besides the Raja of Kottarakkara and Unnayi Varyar referred to above nearly hundred plays were composed during the century by poets belonging to all categories and standards. Irayimman Tampi, Ashvati Raja to name a few.

Devotional literature in M found its heyday during the early phase of this period. Ezhuthachan referred to above gave emphasis to the Bhakti cult. Jnanappana by Puntanam Nambudiri is a unique work in the branch of philosophical poetry. Written in simple language, it is a sincere approach to the advaita philosophy.

It was during this period that Christian missionaries made their contribution to M by compiling dictionaries in the language, translating the Bible into simple pros and verse on Biblical themes. Due to these foreigners, a revolution in prose writing was affected, freeing it completely from the bondage of pedantic Sanskrit style. Books on astronomy, astrology, maths and medicine were written by scholars in Sanskrit.

It took nearly two centuries to evolve a happy blending of the scholarly Sanskrit and popular styles to bring M prose to its present form, rich in vocabulary with Sanskrit language but at the same time flexible, pliable and effective with popular parlance.

Kunjan Nambiar, the people’s poet of Kerala, lived in this century. He brought about a revolution in the cultural and religious outlook of the people by bringing art and literature from its high and pedantic sphere down to the popular standard.

Dance, drama, literature was closely associated with the people living in the temples mostly Nambudiri Brahmans. Caste Hindus like Nairs who formed the majority of the population were subdivided into many clans, were not directly involved in cultural and religious activities. At this time came K Nambiar who belonged to the intermediary community of temple servants expounded a new solo dance art called Tullal for which he himself wrote more than fifty works, all in simple, but elegant verse. He chose Puranic themes for his dance recitals but he retold the stories in a different manner. He narrated the stories in the social background of his times, converting all Puranic characters into ordinary human beings.

The dominant note of his works was humor and satire. His works enlightened and educated people, created a social awareness among them. Ramapurattu Varyar, a contemporary of Nambiar who wrote only one original poetic work, Kuchelavrittam, the story of Kuchela or Sudama, is considered to be the morning star of modern M lyrics. Many missionaries wrote works on grammar.

The period saw the best of classical poets like Unnayi Varyar, Nambiar flourished in the first half of the century. The literary output of this period maintained a high quality. The prose writing made its appearance during this period, inaugurating a new branch of literature. The close of this century witnessed a decline in the quality of literary production.

1818 to 1905
The Age of Swathi Thirunal
– The literary and cultural history of Kerala during this period has to be viewed against political conditions during this period. Though divided into three distinct political units i.e. Travancore, Cochin & Malabar, Kerala remained a single cultural unit. Travancore and Cochin had come under British power due to treaty obligations while Malabar was part of the Madras Presidency. All these political units were influenced by the new system of administration that the Brits introduced in India.

An era favorable to the growth of literary and cultural activity dawned on Kerala like elsewhere with the difference that owing to the widespread interest taken by the rulers of Travancore and Cochin in the spread of education on Western lines and in adoption of British methods of administration, the new orientation of culture got a greater impetus in these states.

The period that followed may rightly be called the age of Swathi Thirunal (Maharaja of Travancore 1829-1847). A great scholar in several Indian languages he tried his hand at poetic and musical compositions in M, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, Hindi and Marathi. Learned men from all over the country flocked to his court to display their talents. It was the age of Thyagaraja, Muthuswami D and Syama Sastri in South Indian Music.

As regards literature, the leading figures were Irayimman Thampi and Vidwan Koithampuran both poets of the king. Their works abound in a beautiful and happy blending of music and poetry. The former is surely the most musical poet of Kerala and his beautiful lullaby commencing with the line Omana Ttinkalkitavo has earned him an everlasting name. But the reason why he is held in such high esteem in M is the contribution he has made to Kathakali literature by his three works namely Dakshayagam, Kichakavadham and Uttara-svayamvaram. The latter’s Kathakali work Ravana Vijayam has made him immortal in literature.

Impact of English Education – The progress of literature in the Cochin and Malabar areas during this period was influenced by the advancement of English education in these regions. The educational activities of the missionaries belonging to the Basel Mission (conversion efforts notwithstanding) deserve special mention. It was under their auspices that Dr Gundert, a German missionary of exceptional linguistic talents, produced by his own personal effort the M-English Dictionary, which even today remains an authoritative work. Thanks to the efforts of kings like Swathi Thirunal and the assistance given by him to the Church Mission and London Mission Societies a number of schools were started.

Prose Literature – The establishment of the Madras University in 1857 marks an important event in the cultural history of Kerala. It is from here that a generation of scholars well versed in Western literature and with the capacity to enrich their own language by adopting Western literary trends, came into being. Prose was the first branch to receive an impetus by the contact with English. Though there was no shortage of prose in M it was not on western lines. It was left to the farsighted policy of the Maharaja of Travancore, 1861 to 1880 to start a scheme for the preparation of textbooks for use by schools in the state. Kerala Varma V, a scholar in Sanskrit, M and English was appointed Chairman of the Committee formed to prepare textbooks. He wrote several books suited for various standards.

The growth of journalism too helped in the development of prose. Initiated by Missionaries for the purpose of religious propaganda, journalism was taken up by local scholars who started newspapers and journals for literary and political activities.

Novels – With his work Kundalata in 1887 Appu Nedungadi marks the origin of prose fiction in M. Other talented writers were Chandu Menon, the author of Indulekha, a great social novel in 1889 and another called Sarada. Also there was C V Raman Pillai, who wrote a historical novel Marttandavarma in 1890 and works like Dharmaraja and Ramaraja Bahadur.

Drama and Poetry – On poetry there were two main trends – one represented by Venmani Nampoodiris and the other by Kerala Varma. The latter’s poetry was modeled on the old Manipravala style abounding in Sanskrit words and terms, but it had a charm of its own when adapted to express new ideas in a masterly way characteristic of himself. His translation of Kalidasa’s Sakuntalam in 1882 marks an important event in the history of M drama & poetry. Also Kerala Varma’s Mayura-sandesam is a Sandesakavya (messenger poem) written after Kalidasa’s Meghadutam. Though it cannot be compared with the original it was still one of the most popularly acclaimed poems in M.

Venmani Nampoodiris were upholders of the pure M style. The Junior Venmani’s Puraprabandham, a descriptive poem on the famous temple festival at Trichur and other works abound in wit and humor. They were much liked due to their appeal, simplicity of manner and melody of diction.

Closely following the above trend were scholars who came under the influence of English poetry.  A R Raja Raja Varma, Professor of M in the Maharaja’s College Trivandrum, gave lead to the new movement. He emphasized the importance of sentiments in poetry as compared to form, attacked the tendency of poets who gave undue importance to uniformity in sound and opposed the predominance of Sanskrit words in M verse.

One of the notable features of the early decades of the 20th century was the great interest taken by writers to translate works from Sanskrit and English into Malayalam Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Kumarasambhava by A R Raja Raja and Raghuvamsa by K N Menon must be mentioned. One of the most successful of the later translators was C S Subramaniam Potti who set a good model by his translation of Durgesanandini of Bankim Chandra from an English version of it.

1905 to 1947
Novels – The early decades of the 20th century saw the beginning of a period of rapid development of all branches of M literature. A good number of authors familiar with the latest trends in English literature came forward to contribute towards the enrichment of their mother tongue. Their efforts were directed more to the development of prose than poetry.

You would be interested to know that a number of Bengali novels were translated during this period. C S S Potti mentioned above also brought out the Lake of Palms of R C Dutt under the tile Thala Pushkarani, Kapalakundala by V K Thampi and Visha Vruksham by T C Kalyani Amma were also translations of novels by Bankim0chandra Chatterji.

Among the original novels written at that time only a few are worth mentioning such as Bhootha Rayar by Appan Thampuran, Keraleswaran by Raman Nambeesan and Cheraman Perumal by K K Menon. Although a large number of social novels were produced during this period, only a few are remembered such as Snehalatha by Kannan Menon, Hemalatha by T K Velu Pillai and Kambola-balika by N K Krishna Pillai. But by far the most inspiring work of that time was Aphante Makal by M B Namboodiri, who directed his literary talents towards abolition of old worn-out customs and manners which had for years been the bane of the community.

Short Stories came into being. With the advent of E V Krishna Pillai, certain marks of novelty became noticeable in the short story. His Keleesoudham prove his capacity to write with considerable emotional appeal.

Social Dramas – C V Raman Pillai was a pioneer in prose dramas. He had a particular knack to write dramas in a lighter vein. His Kurupillakalari in 1909 marks the appearance of the first original M prose drama. It is a satirical drama intended to ridicule the Malayali official classes who started imitating Western fashions and etiquettes. There were other authors too.

Poetry – the Romantic Impact – Kumaran Asan’s celebrated poem, Vina Puva (the fallen flower) depicts in a symbolic manner the tragedy of human life in a moving and thought provoking manner. Vallathol’s Bandhanasthanaya Aniruddhan that has exceptionally brilliant power of imagination and deep emotional faculties depicts a situation from the Puranic story of Usha and Aniruddha. Ulloor S P Iyer was another veteran to join the new school. He wrote a series of poems like Oru Mazhathulli in which he excelled as a romantic poet.

The three more or less contemporary poets Asan, Vallathol and Ulor considerably enriched M poetry. Some of their works reflect social and political movements of that time. Asan wrote about untouchability in Kerala, Ullor’s writings reflect his deep devotion and admiration for the great moral and spiritual values, which he believed were the real assets of ancient social life of India. They were known as the trio of M poetry. After them there were others like K K Nair and K M Panikkar who contributed to the growth of poetry.

Under the guidance of A Balakrishna Pillai a progressive school of authors appeared under in almost all branches of literature such as novel, short story, drama and criticism.

And so ends the article on M language and literature. I hope that you found it useful.

Receive Site Updates