Until well after the Caŋkam or Sangam era (up to about 400 CE), what is now Kerala was a part of Tamizhakam – the Tamil country – culturally even when not politically. Many literary works which are part of classical Tamil literature were composed by writers from this western region. The Tamil masterpiece Silappatikāram is said to have been written by a Kerala prince, Iḷaŋko-Aṭikaḷ, but its date as a Sangam work is disputed. The Tamil spoken in Kerala slowly evolved into a distinct form. After all, much of the boundary between the two territories is marked by high hills with few passes, and once an independent political power established itself in Kerala the cultural differences became more pronounced.

Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, a curious new literary language developed in Kerala.

Called Maṇipravāḷam, it was, very roughly, half Tamil and half Sanskrit. The earliest Kerala literature which was not Tamil was composed in Manipravalam, and it continued to evolve. Perhaps this was for political reasons. Through most of the eleventh century, the Cōḷa empire which was the dominant force in the Tamil country was at war with the Céras or Kulaśékharas in the west. The war ravaged Kerala; the whole economy and society were geared for armed conflict. At the end of the century, by processes which are not quite clear, the Nampūtiris held the balance of cultural power in Kerala.

The Namputiris (pronounced and usually spelled, as a surname, Namboodiri) are generally supposed to be the Aryan brahmins who settled in Kerala, probably well before the Christian era began. According to legend, St Thomas’s earliest converts were the members of one hundred (or four hundred) Namputiri families. That was in the first century, and the descendants of that congregation are what came to be called the Syrian Christians.

At the beginning of the twelfth century, the Chera empire was fragmented; but the kingdoms of Kerala were also free forever of Tamil suzerainty. However, the society and economy were drastically altered. The janmi system of landowning was in force, and the Namputiris were the biggest landowners in the country. (They remained so in Travancore until a strong king, Mārtāṇḍa Varma, centralised power in the second half of the eighteenth century, and in the rest of Kerala until the redistribution of land in the late 1950s by a communist government headed by a Namputiri, EMS. Namboodiripad.) The Namputiris were the arbiters of all moral and religious – and often political – issues. Among non-brahmins, marumakkattāyam, or the system of inheritance by the sister’s son, was the dominant social dynamic.

The Namputiris remained patrilineal, that is, the eldest son inherited from the father. To avoid the partition of their extensive estates, the younger sons were not encouraged to marry in their own caste. Instead, they formed the custom of sambandham, or non-matrimonial conjugal alliances, with the matrilineal high castes, especially the Nāyars (usually nowadays spelled Nair). Their children were brought up in the Nayar households.

There was no stigma attached to this practice, which continued until the uniform Hindu Civil Code was enacted fifty years ago. In principle, the Nayar woman had perfect freedom to agree to a sambandham, and to dissolve it when she chose. The father of her child had visiting rights, often spending every night with her. Thus the Namputiris were connected to and had influence over the ruling clans.

The varṇa or caste system, of which Tamizhakam had as a whole been relatively free (see below), was enforced by the Namputiris’ dominance. The coexistence of patrilineal and matrilineal systems, and the alliances which continued to be formed across the varna divide, led to a bewildering proliferation of castes and sub-castes in late medieval Kerala. It was with good reason that Vivekananda referred to the province as a veritable madhouse of castes.

Ancient Tamil scripture | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Tamil scripture | Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The brahmins of Tamizhakam – the Iyengars and Iyers – have had a profound influence on Tamil culture, but relatively little upon the language.

Perhaps this is because Tamil was a fully formed literary and popular language even before the brahmins came so far south. In Kerala, however, the rise of brahmin power coincided with the development of an indigenous language. Hence, perhaps, the high proportion of Sanskrit words in Malayalam.

Its Tamil antecedents are very clear from its structure, its inflections and from many thousands of roots. Some appear to have disappeared, in popular usage, from the mother language. (Some, bewilderingly, which are in current use in Tamil are archaisms in Malayalam.) The script too – the old vaṭṭezhuttu or round-letter script was early discarded in favour of the Grantha used in south India for writing Sanskrit – has distinct similarities with the Tamil. But the vocabulary is highly Sanskritised, so much so that, even today, practically any Sanskrit word may be used in the literary language.

Until well into the eighteenth century, Sanskrit was the court language of the largest Kerala kingdoms, Travancore (Tiruvitānkūzh) and Cochin (Kocci). The late OV Vijayan has said that he only really became proficient in Malayalam in his twenties, in college. As a result his written Malayalam has a highly Sanskritic flavour, which lends to it that complexity, or that quirkiness, which makes it so highly acclaimed by those who read it in translation and such a whetstone for the wits of native speakers.

There is a small but appreciable fraction of Malayalam words that cannot be traced to either Tamil or Sanskrit. It is of course probable that some are indigenous, but modern research indicates that many derive from the Jain Prākṛts. Sravanabelagola in Hassan district of Karnataka is not very far from the Kerala border, and the emperor Chandragupta Maurya followed his preceptor, the Jain saint Bhadrabāhu, to ritually starve himself to death there in the late fourth century BCE. The Jains travelled all over south India searching for retreats, and incidentally making converts. It is well established that many currently Hindu temples in Kerala were once Jain or Buddhist shrines, and the same has been shown of the Tamil country.

Malayalam is one of the youngest Indian literatures.

Yet it is about twice as ancient as the earliest readily comprehensible form of English. Puntanam was born seventeen years before Shakespeare. His texts are easier of access to the lay Malayali than Shakespeare is to the lay Englishman.

To say this is not to beat the patriotic drum. I have had more vitriol flung in my face than any of my peers who writes in English, for my insistence that English is an Indian language. I am placing sixteenth-century Kerala literature in context, in so far as my limited scholarship allows. Puntanam’s scholarship was limited too. In his very simplicity, it can be argued, lies his enduring appeal. (Shakespeare was no scholar either: He had “little Latin, and less Greek”. There is a subaltern triumph here which I am too poor a scholar to crow over successfully.)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

What makes a language sacred?

What gives it that quality of holiness when to use it is to profane it? Age, usually, and otiosity.

The earliest Vedic hymns are living, breathing poems because they were composed in a living, breathing tongue. The Vedic people had, as far as we know, no other language. The speech of their magic and ritual was also that of daily use. There was really no distinction between the religious and the secular when all the world was new.

But the language fossilised as old customs must even when they are good. Younger, more muscular Prakrits – the various vernaculars which evolved all over India either from the degeneration of Sanskrit itself or from a fusion of older local languages with the more accessible reaches of Sanskrit, and over the centuries developed into our forty-odd modern north Indian languages – sprang up for the expression of living, breathing people, and Sanskrit became unspoken, even unnecessary. (It was also a storehouse of knowledge, but of knowledge that could not be changed or adapted.) It is more than two and a half millennia since Sanskrit ceased to be a popular language, and nothing was done for more than a thousand years to resurrect it.

That the Buddha spoke in simple language and in the common tongue helped spread his teachings. Surely, too, the simplicity of those teachings energised the common tongue. What was Sanskrit doing in the millennium when the Prakrits flowered? We have Panini’s grammar – elegant, unsurpassed in logic and science until the nineteenth century in Europe, but not for the many-headed; we have the Yōga Sūtras of Patañjali or others – important, but recondite; we have, possibly, Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra – essential knowledge, but esoteric, surely a world-beater had it been written in a Prakrit; and we have the Nāṭya-Śāstra and classical drama.

When our dance, drama and literary forms modernised rapidly in the last century or so, we found a framework ready to support them, through their changes, in the Natya-Sastra. But the scriptural status Bharata Muni’s work had been given was, previously, an immovable obstacle in the way of change for two millennia. After Natya-Sastra, no shades of grey were possible in Sanskrit literary composition. Nobody could operate outside it; nobody did, at least.

Heroes were all good, villains all bad, heroines always pure and hard done by. If the hero did something wrong it was because of a divine curse or loss of memory. Good always won in the end, evil always came away with hanging head or worse. That dramatists of the calibre of Kalidasa took this seriously shows perhaps the power of the formula that Sanskrit had become.

Modern audiences prefer Śūdraka’s play Mrcchakaṭika to the so-called classical dramas. Sudraka was a king, but his characters speak Sanskrit only in the formal court scenes. (Sanskrit had become a lingua indica, a language of diplomacy and communication across borders – no more.) Good does win in the end, but incidentally. The people are real, and speak as real people do. A language not rooted in the common speech cannot survive except as a curiosity.

It was Sankara and some of his peers and successors who restored vitality to Sanskrit, and they did that by giving it back the intellectual vigour which defines the Ṛg Vedic hymns and the Upaniṣads.

It is no coincidence that they at the same time restored the religion whose vehicle Sanskrit was. But that was after 800 CE, and the Prakrits had by then become distinct, vibrant languages all over the north, with literatures of their own or at least the beginnings of them. In the south the Dravidian languages were long established; even Malayalam, the youngest, was being born.

Technically, “Prakrit” applies only to the vernaculars born of Sanskrit, the oldest of which is Pāli. Malayalam is classed in the South Dravidian family, but it is really born of two languages which are both classical. (Kannada and Telugu are older and prouder languages which disdain the Prakrit tag.) What could the attitude of such a twice-born tongue be to its parents? (For Malayalam was twice-born, the first time as Manipravalam.) Why would one parent be revered more than the other?

What is today Kerala was part of Tamizhakam until at least the ninth century CE. Bitter wars were fought over the land. The political yoke of the Tamils was shaken off at last, but it took three hundred years. In the civil turmoil which accompanied the wars, the Namputiris somehow managed to get on top of the social heap and stay there. We have no records of this power struggle. The fact is, however, that Sanskrit wore the crown of Kerala culture. Tamil scholarship was not a cachet.

The influence of the Aryan varna system on the south is tremendously complicated.

Sangam literature makes it clear that there were classes, even hereditary classes, which made up the society of the day in Tamizhakam. Yet the concept of pollution did not exist. All this came – the conclusion is ineluctable – with the Namputiris. My father remembers when “untouchables” could not come within a certain distance of a savarṇa, and they had to call out warnings when walking along the road.

Sankara was a Namputiri and was brought up as a good brahmin boy. His Manīṣā Paŋcakam (Resolution-Quintet) begins with his telling a caṇḍāla (lowest of the low, born of a sudra father and savarna mother, commonly called a dog-eater) to get out of his way. My father still remembers that call: “Yāhi, yāhi”, which is Sanskrit for “Go hence, go hence.” In classical times the brahmins said “Gaccha, gaccha”, which means the same thing.

The chandala asked Sankara, “By saying ‘gaccha, gaccha’, are you trying to distinguish between matter and matter, or spirit and spirit?” Sankara had no answer. He was the prime advocate of Advaita, the doctrine that there cannot be any distinction between the individual soul and the Universal Soul. He was big enough to admit in the Panchakam, “Whoever shows the Way, be he a brahmin or be he a chandala, he is my guru – that is my Resolution.”

(The canny Namputiris later propagated the story, which is widely accepted, that the chandala was Siva in disguise. This effectively negated the influence of Sankara’s example. A Namputiri did not have to own as guru any chandala beneath the rank of Almighty.)

What Melpattur said to Puntanam was, in essence, this: “Gaccha, gaccha.”

As a writer in Malayalam, Puntanam was of low caste as a poet. He was beneath Melpattur’s consideration; the Sanskrit poet would not defile his ears with the sound of the bhasha. His was an elitist attitude, which called for punishment from the Lord.

An elitist attitude is not the property of a language, but of an individual or of a class made up of individuals. If Sanskrit has lost its pre-eminence, it is because its votaries said ‘Gaccha, gaccha’ too often and to too many people.

To answer the question which began this section – “What makes a language sacred? What gives it that quality of holiness when to use it is to profane it?” – a language becomes sacred, and loses its sanctity, when the fact of its use is more important than the manner of its use. So it happened with Sanskrit.

All sorts of people, not just writers, were judged and classified according as whether they knew Sanskrit, not how they used it. Sanskrit is not quite a dead language today, but it is being kept alive by artificial respiration. Old Latin and ancient Hebrew and hieratic Greek became too holy to be profaned by common use, so they died. We cannot let that happen to any language we prize; and the first step in that direction is to prize all languages, to sanctify them all by common and pious use.

Read poems by Vijay Nambisan here.

Excerpted with permission from “The Translator’s Apology”, by Vijay Nambisan, from Two Measures of Bhakti, by Puntanam Namputiri and Melpattur Narayana Bhattatirippad, with a linking poem by Vallathol Narayana Menon, translated by Vijay Nambisan.