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When Malayalam met Sanskrit, many centuries ago

Manipravalam, a beautiful fusion of Malayalam and Sanskrit, was crafted by Kerala elites Namboodiri Brahmins as a distinct literary tongue

Kapila Venu performing ‘koodiyattam’, which also used Manipravalam. Photo: Getty Images
Kapila Venu performing ‘koodiyattam’, which also used Manipravalam. Photo: Getty Images

Many centuries ago, a Dravidian language and an Indo-Aryan language were fused together to fashion a distinctly new literary idiom. It was an interesting exercise, this marriage of languages from two separate language families. It produced several fascinating literary works and also had something of a lasting effect on the poetics and script of the Dravidian language.

In medieval Kerala, around the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the elite, especially the Namboodiri Brahmins, crafted a language that blended early Malayalam with Sanskrit to fashion a distinct literary tongue referred to as Manipravalam. The possible reason as to why such a tongue was fashioned probably has something to do with Namboodiri ascendancy in Kerala and their view of Sanskrit as “high" culture, as opposed to the vernacular that was used by the ordinary folk. The word mani meant “ruby" in Malayalam; pravalam meant “coral" in Sanskrit. Effectively, the word could be said to mean a necklace of gems and coral and is perhaps a way of pointing to the beauty of this wonderful new literary tongue.

To delve into Manipravalam is to delve into the origins of Malayalam itself. When Malayalam actually evolved out of Tamil is a matter of opinion. One school of thought holds that Malayalam and modern Tamil both evolved out of Middle Tamil after the eighth century, whereas another school opines that Malayalam and Tamil evolved out of Proto-Tamil (Proto-Dravidian in some texts) in the prehistoric era. In his work Tamil: A Biography, Prof. David Shulman dates Malayalam to around 500 AD. Be that as it may, by the 12th century, Malayalam was a distinct tongue and had also produced a literary work, Ramacharitham, written by a poet with the pen name Cheeramakavi, who, according to the modern-day Malayalam poet Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, was Sree Veerarama Varman, the king of Travancore from 1195-1208 AD.

Ramacharitham was a work in the pattu (songs) tradition, an earthy oral style that produced a wide variety of songs: about the exploits of warriors, in praise of goddesses, sung during agricultural activities, and so on. Drawing from the Yuddha Kandam of the Ramayan, Ramacharitham is probably the best-known pattu and was ostensibly written to instill courage in the minds of soldiers preparing for combat. And then emerged Manipravalam.

The the 12th or 13th century Vaiśikatantram was probably the first work in Manipravalam. A manual composed in the didactic mode on the art and tradition of the courtesan, this work discusses the profession of vaiśikavritti (the courtesan’s work). In this work, a mother instructs the daughter in the finer details of the courtesan (Devadasi) tradition. It might strike one as a tad odd that the first work in a language created to embody “high" culture addressed such matters. But scholars don’t see this as unusual.

Eroticism in Sanskrit literature, as embodied in the Kama Sutra most of all, was not unusual to begin with. Manipravalam clearly partook of that tradition. In addition, some scholars have associated the creation of Manipravalam with the system of Namboodiri landlordism and the social structure that it spawned. By the time the language was fashioned, the extensive landholdings of the Namboodiris allowed them considerable leisure. This was said to be accompanied by more than their fair share of decadent habits and interests. Also, there was the Namboodiri practice of only the eldest male member marrying within the caste while the younger male members went in for loose liaisons with women of lower matrilineal castes—this supposedly made their morals less rigid. This claim has, however, been questioned in recent times.

While the pattu style was fashioned by the Tamil poetic tradition, Manipravalam was marked by a distinct Sanskritic influence. Lilatilakam, itself an important work in Manipravalam, a 14th century treatise of uncertain authorship that discussed the finer points of grammar and poetics, attempted to clearly separate the two traditions. It says that in pattu, Dramida Sanghatakashara Nibaddham (only Dravidian letters are to be used), as distinct from Manipravalam, about which it says, Bhasha Samskrita Yogo Manipravalam (Manipravalam is the combination of bhasha i.e., Malayalam and Sanskrit). Clearly, the harmonious blending of words was a priority for Manipravalam.

The Lilatilakam also interestingly points out that while using Sanskritic words is de rigueur in Manipravalam, the final effect sought to be created in the mind of the reader-listener is that of a Malayala Kavya (Malayalam poem) and not a Sanskrit one, thereby clearly creating a boundary of sorts for poets seeking to compose works in Manipravalam.

Many other kinds of poems were also composed in the Manipravalam style. The tradition of koodiyattam, the Sanskrit drama form, predated the development of Manipravalam by at least a thousand years. These were elaborate productions, sometimes taking as long as two months to complete. With the advent of Manipravalam, these dramatic presentations now began to use Sanskrit shlokas (epic metres), for the parts of the hero and heroine, the Manipravalam idiom for the clown, and Malayalam for explanations intended for the common folk.

Then there were the champus of the 13th and 14th centuries, narratives combining prose and verse. Unniyati Charitam by Damodara Chakyar on the moon-god’s attraction to an apsara is a well-known work in this genre. Many Manipravalam poems (like its first work, Vaiśikatantram) were also composed in the erotic tradition. The Chandrotsavam (Moon Festival, written around 1500 AD) is a satire on this aspect of the tradition. Besides poetry, Manipravalam was also used to write scientific treatises on subjects like astronomy and medicine.

Among Manipravalam’s more lasting legacies has been its impact on the Malayalam script. The Vattezhuthu script (literally, “rounded script") originally used to write Malayalam could not accommodate the many Sanskrit sounds of Manipravalam, necessitating the use of letters from the Grantha script for those sounds. Eventually, the present-day Malayalam script was created by amalgamating and altering both these scripts. It is interesting to note that both the Grantha and the Vattezhuthu script evolved independently from the Tamil Brahmi script.

This blend of Sanskrit and the regional language for literary expression was not unique to Kerala. There are examples of such blending from many regions, both in India and in South-East Asia, where Sanskrit had once been popular. Bharatamuni, considered by many to be the father of Indian theatre, calls such a blending Mishrabhasha (mixed language) and Ardhasamskritam (half-Sanskrit) in his treatise on performing arts, the Natyasastra. Besides the Manipravalam of the Malayalam-speaking region, there were other Manipravalams, in the Tamil- and Telugu-speaking regions. The Kashmiri polymath Abhinavagupta (950-1016 AD) explains in Abhinavabharati, a commentary on Bharata’s Natyasastra, that the Mishrabhasha and Ardhasamskritam that Bharata speaks about were used in different parts of the country, and that what was extant in Dakshinapatha (the southern country) was known as Manipravalam. But while Manipravalam did not go beyond being a vehicle for religious literature in Tamil and Telugu regions, in Kerala, the tongue carved out a distinct space for itself. Besides the subcontinent, where this kind of mixed language was popular, inscriptions from South-East Asia, which used a mixture of Javanese and Sanskrit, too have been found.

Manipravalam was a unique synthesis of two cultural traditions—the Aryan and the Dravidian—as embodied in the two languages used to create this harmonious blend. To quote the Lilatilakam: “Manipravalam is so designated on account of a harmonious synthesis of these two. When ruby and coral are strung together by means of the same thread, the two will go well as if they were one on account of the similarity of colour—not so ruby and pearl, nor coral and sapphire."

This is the first in a series on hybrid languages. Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm based in Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal.

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