India is a country of rich cultural diversity where 22 officially recognised languages and over 1650 dialects are spoken across 29 states and 7 union territories, as in 2019. The 2011 Census of India last listed 1369 ‘mother tongues’, however, our country has been a witness to a great number of tongues over the centuries. One such distinctive and culturally rich language is Malayalam.

“God’s own country”, “the land of coconuts”, “the spice garden of the world”, Aitareya Aranyaka, are all different names for Kerala – the green strip at the southwestern tip of India, sandwiched between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Known for its high literacy rate, centuries-old foreign trade links, and an even longer tradition in art and literature, it is known by tourists for its reputed backwaters and beautiful houseboats floating in a labyrinthine web of canals, lagoons and lakes, along with popular attractions such as Onam, Kathakali and its exquisite sculptures and temples. So let’s explore a little more of Malayalam: the language of this beautiful south-Indian state.


Malayalam – what and where?

Malayalam, one of India’s classical languages, is a Dravidian language from the South Dravidian family subgroup. It is spoken mainly in India, where it is the official language of the state of Kerala, and is also spoken in union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry by the Malayali people there. It is also spoken by bilingual communities in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and has a significant number of speakers across the Nilgiris, Kanyakumari and districts of Coimbatore, in addition to being widely spoken in the Gulf owing to the Malayali expatriates based there. In 2006, Malayalam was recorded to have about 40 million native speakers.


Tracing back the links

Malayalam is known to have three significant regional dialects and a number of smaller ones. The origin of Malayalam continues to remain a matter of dispute among many scholars. One view holds that Malayalam and modern Tamil branched out from Middle Tamil, and this separation took place sometime after the 7th century AD. A second view suggests that it is a branch of ‘Proto-Dravidian’ or ‘Proto-Tamil-Malayalam’ instead, from which modern Tamil also evolved. Either way, there’s no denying that Malayalam is heavily influenced by Sanskrit, and has several linguistic characteristics of Indo-Aryan languages.

Interestingly, the oldest documents written purely in Malayalam (and still around!) are the Vazhappalli Copper plates from 832 AD and Tharisapalli Copper plates from 849 AD. Since then, an extensive influx of Sanskrit words influenced the then Malayalam script, which was known as Koleluttu (“Rod Script”), which came from the Grantha script, which was, in turn, derived from Brahmi. Furthermore, Koleluttu is known to have letters to represent the entire corpus of sounds from both Dravidian as well as Sanskrit.


The Malayali culture

The culture of this Dravida Bhasha has evolved through the Sanskritization of Dravidian ethos, the revivalism of various religious movements and reform movements against caste discrimination. That said, the state of Kerala is also known to have several tribal and folk art forms. For instance, Kummattikali is a popular colourful mask-dance of South Malabar, performed during the festival of Onam, while the Kannyar Kali (or Desathukali) dances are fast moving, militant dances attuned to rhythmic devotional folk songs and asuravadyasKathakali continues to be an example of a highly developed art form developed from its folk origins. It is a combination of performing art forms namely the opera, ballet, masque, and pantomime. In case of music, the ragas and talas of lyrical and devotional Carnatic music, another prevalent feature of South India, dominate the Keralite classical musical genres.

As regards festivals, Onam is their well-known harvest festival celebrated extravagantly by the people of Kerala. It is also the state festival with State holidays on 4 days starting from the Onam Eve (Uthradom). Another distinct feature of the festival is ‘Ona Sadhya’ (Onam Feast) and consists of numerous dishes served on a banana leaf. Usually the Ona Sadhya would consist of numerous side dishes along with rice.


The way forward

As a new wave of Indic Localisation is sweeping across the internet in India at the moment, governments and companies alike are making a painstaking effort to bridge linguistic barriers and reach out to the 90% population of India that does not communicate in English.

Interestingly, Malayalam has an adoption propensity of 44% and is one of the top 8 Indian languages, along with Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and Kannada, for which internet adoption has been ascertained in the near future, as was brought to light by the Google-KPMG report in 2017. The Malayali user base was estimated to grow from 1 million in 2016 to 6 million in 2021. With an already flourishing Malayalam cinema, it is now the need of the hour in our motherland, to be able to consume web content in our own mother tongues.


Content curated & SmartRead by: Team Vernac
Author: Alifya Thingna