The Father of Malayalam Language

Thunchath Ezhutthachan.

The name is a hallowed one. Very few languages have recorded ancestry – and very few people can claim to have created languages. The gentleman mentioned above is widely recognised by us Malayalis (the people of Kerala) as the father of our language, Malayalam.

I had studied about Ezhutthachan (which itself means “Father of Writing”) in school. It is generally agreed that he created the modern Malayalam script; adapted letters from Sanskrit and Tamil to provide for all the spoken sounds in Malayalam, thus removing the discrepancy between the spoken and the written language. He also composed Malayalam versions of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. His Hari Nama Keerthanam (“Prayers in praise of the Lord’s Name”) is one of the most popular prayer songs even today.

According to popular legend, Ezhutthachan was a man of one of the low castes; a man who drank and ate fish (possibly also tapped toddy from coconut palms). In present day Kerala, the Ezhutthachans are ranked as OBC (Other Backward Caste). However, this caste name was adopted relatively recently (only in 1921). Before that anyone who taught children were known as “Ezhutthachan” (it may also have been “Ezhutthaasaan” – “Master of Letters”).

As it happens with most things in Kerala, the exact caste of Ezhutthachan has led to a caste dispute; both the Nair community (who belong to forward castes) and the Ezhutthachan community claiming him. With the status of historical records of Kerala being what they are, it is not likely that this issue will be resolved anytime soon, if ever. The problem is also compounded by the fact that all castes in Kerala from Nair downwards are officially Sudras according to the ancient system of the four Varnas (castes) of Vedic Brahmanism. The Brahmins who came to Kerala relatively late in history seem to have elevated some of the local ruling families to a higher caste and dumped the rest under the umbrella of Sudras – so Ezhutthachan may have been any non-Brahmin who taught children.

So much for official history. The renowned Malayalam novelist C. Radhakrishnan has a different story to tell – one which he has dug up from family legends.

A Personal Story

As a very young boy, as the author was reading a lesson on Ezhutthachan in his schoolbook, his grandmother astonished him by saying that it is about his ancestor, who preceded him by fourteen generations. That night and the nights afterward, she told Radhakrishnan the family story – how Ezhutthachan was persecuted by the Samoothiri (the Zamorin Raja of Calicut) for belonging to a family who traditionally opposed him: how his school was destroyed, his uncle and elder brother murdered: and how he himself was demoted to the condition of a “Temple Slave”, forbidden to teach and write, forced to manually operate a “Chakku” (a mill used to extract oil from copra and gingelly, usually pulled by bullocks or buffaloes) to earn a living for himself and his family: and finally when even these measures failed to kill the poet and philosopher within him, he was deported never to return on pain of death. The story cleared up the mysteries behind a family ritual, where the karanavar (eldest male member of a matrilineal family) annually buried and later unearthed a bunch of ancient texts – to recreate an event which actually happened when the soldiers of the Zamorin invaded Ezhutthachan’s home. It also gave the background of the family admonishment to naughty children, “I will make you push the chakku!”

Armed with this knowledge, Radhakrishnan went forward to write the story of his long-dead ancestor. The author confesses it was no easy task. He had to expend Herculean efforts to dig up facts from a past mired in myth and legend; running from pillar to post, consulting many authorities and resolving contradictions. He also had to face the ire of people who saw behind this a nefarious plot by the Nair community to “appropriate” the great man of letters. But Radhakrishnan persevered, and the result is the extraordinarily brilliant and poetic novel, Theekkadal Kadanju Thirumadhuram (“Divine Sweetness from the Churning of the Ocean of Fire”).

The Historical Background

The time period in which Ezhutthachan lived was a turbulent one. The Samoothiri, having seized power in the kingdom of Calicut, was in the phase of bringing the smaller kingdoms to heel. In this, he is abetted by certain Brahmin families who had their own agenda to carry out – make learning, which has become democratic in the wake of the Buddhist reforms, once again the monopoly of Brahmins and put all the uppity “lower” castes in their place.

There was a strange custom in place at this time. The Valluvakkonathiri who originally ruled the place called Valluvanad to the south of Calicut, was the patron of a festival called Mamankam at Thirunavaya, conducted on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river once every 12 years. The Samoothiri captured this town and usurped the patronage, which was not accepted by the Valluvakkonathiri. So the families loyal to him used to form a squad of 18 soldiers called a Chaver Pada (“Suicide Squad”), and attempt to kill the Samoothiri as he stood on a stage called the “Nilapadu Thara”. Of course, death was certain, but the custom was enacted without fail on every occasion: such was the depth of hatred.

The Story

Ezhutthachan had the misfortune to be born into double jeopardy in these turbulent times. His mother’s family (and according to matrilineal system of the Nairs, his family) were traditionally teachers, and therefore distrusted and hated by the hidebound Brahmins who feared that they will take away the knowledge of the Vedas and distribute it to all and sundry. His father belonged to a family of traditional Chaver soldiers, who had deep-rooted enmity with the Samoothiri.

Krishnan (as Ezhutthachan is named in the novel) never saw his father – he was treacherously killed days before he was born. However, the family lives on in relative peace at Thanniyur, patronised by the king of Vettathunad, one of the vassal states of Calicut. There is the elderly uncle, blind from cataract; his mother, slowly moving towards madness after the death of her husband; his eldest brother, Kuttan, who is charge of the teaching; and two older sisters – Seetha, mature and motherly and Cheeru, flighty and cheerful.

Seetha marries Unni, her father’s nephew, in time-honoured tradition. However, the tranquillity of the family is shattered when Unni decides to become a Chaver soldier. After his futile battle and death, one of the renegade armies of the Samoothiri destroys the Kalari (school) of the Ezhutthachan family. His uncle gives his life to save the ancient texts by dumping them in the well. The family has to move on: find a new place to put up a Kalari at Thiruvur, in a place called Thunchan Parambu (“Thunchan’s Compound”) which is rumoured to be inhabited by the ghost of an unfortunate toddy tapper and family who were murdered by an employee of one of the local Nampoothiri families.

This Kalari also progresses well. Cheeru marries Unni’s younger brother Gopi and Kuttan marries their sister Ammini. Krishnan Ezhutthachan in the meantime travels to Tamil Nadu, to an “Adheenam” – a centre of learning which makes no caste distinctions in teaching. When he returns after almost a decade as a young man, his nephews and nieces are grown up. Krishnan also marries and has a daughter in due course; but almost as a forerunner of the great tragedies about shadow his life, his wife dies in childbirth. During this time, his literary genius takes wings, however; he composes a devotional poem Hari Nama Keerthanam, and more importantly, modernises the Malayalam alphabet.

Meanwhile things have gone from bad to worse politically. The malice of a local Nampoothiri family, the Munayoor Illam, is unrelenting. The Portuguese have arrived, and having fallen out with the Samoothiri have joined forces with the Raja of Cochin. In the subsequent internecine war, the king of Vettathunad and the Samoothiri have a falling out, as the former refuses treat Cochin as an enemy. Samoothiri’s marauding army attack the Vettathu Palace where the Ezhuttachan family has taken refuge, and kill the young king of Vettath and Kuttan, Krishnan’s elder brother, in treachery. They also condemn Ezhutthachan to death for teaching Vedas to non-Brahmins and for arguing that enlightenment was possible for anybody, regardless of caste, in the Hari Nama Keerthanam (actually a basic tenet of Hindu philosophy).

However, there is a last-minute reprieve: the Mooppil Nair (local leader of the upper-caste Nairs) decrees that the low-caste infidel who blasphemed the Brahmins should be condemned to a fate “worse than death” – namely, making a living for himself and his family from the pittance earned by manually operating a chakku. Actually, the Mooppil Nair is covertly saving Krishnan from certain death, in return for education he received. However, it is indeed a cruel fate – the Ezhutthachan family (including all the widowed women and orphaned children) is transported to Sabara Kottam, designated as slaves of the temple to stay in a hovel in the virtual wilderness and earn their livelihood through the backbreaking labour of one member of the family.

However, you can’t silence the voice of poetry for long. Along with the song of the chakku as it rotates along the axis, the poet also sings – translating the Adhyatma Ramayana into Malayalam, giving the language it first epic poem. He soon does the same for the Mahabharata and Bhagavata. Obviously he cannot teach anybody or write these poems down – but they spread like wildfire, travelling from mouth to mouth, actively assisted by lovers of learning, both Brahmin and non-Brahmin, who care a hoot for caste distinctions.

The conservatives are incensed. They want to enforce the death sentence. However, deliverance comes in the form of Azhvanchery Thamprakkal, the spiritual head of all Nampoothiri families in Kerala, and a patron of literature and arts. He commutes Ezhutthachan’s death sentence to deportation. He is forced to leave his loved ones; and after once again travelling to his old Adheenam and a long stint as teacher there, he comes back and sets up a scholastic centre at Chittur in Palakkad, in the kingdom of Cochin.

The novel ends with Ezhuttachan in his last phase of life, still sorrowing for his estranged family – but looking forward to a peaceful death, and hoping for a peaceful future for mankind.

One feels that his soul is now smiling down from above, seeing his homeland attaining 100 per cent literacy and removing all barriers to learning imposed by caste.

Memorial to Ezhutthachan at his birthplace


Churning the Ocean of Fire

“Churning the ocean” is a concept closely related to the Indian psyche. According to Hindu myth, the Devas (celestials) and Asuras (demons or anti-gods), churned the celestial Ocean of Milk using the mount Manthara as the churn and the snake Vasuki as the rope, to get Amrutha, the divine nectar of immortality. This is interpreted psychologically as the refinement of the psyche, using both the positive emotions (symbolised by the Devas) and the negative ones (represented by the Asuras) so that immortality (oneness with God or the Brahman) is ultimately realised. Radhakrishnan uses this concept, as Ezhutthachan goes round and round the chakku. While doing this
backbreaking labour, the mind of the great man is busy composing the Adhyatma Ramanayanam. As he churns the sea of fire his life has become, his poetic psyche gets even more refined, and able to produce the divine sweetness of the song of Lord Rama.

The novel is written in first person; which is usually a limitation, but in this case once you finish reading it, you feel this is the only way it could be. The great man’s viewpoint is presented throughout – which is one of pacifism and peaceful acceptance of life and all that it brings. This is not fatalism, because the flame of optimism is never extinguished. This is the thought at the pinnacle of Indian philosophy – as Joseph Campbell put it, the “joyful acceptance of life’s sorrows”. As we are ground up mercilessly by fate like copra and gingelly seeds by the chakku, we get refined, and the essence of souls pours out like the oil.

Radhakrishnan’s language is poetic and his grasp of Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy exemplary. Also an enormous amounts of historical research has gone into the book. The author writes with passion – as his ancestor, it is obvious that he feels Ezhutthachan’s pain. However, this is not an easy novel to read. One should take one’s time to understand the history and savour the philosophy.

I am not going into the controversies here: obviously, when one tries to recreate history from so little documentation, there are bound to be many conflicting viewpoints. However, as a work of art, this novel stands alone. Radhakrishnan’s fictionalised history deserves to be the truth, we feel.

Like the fellow said, if it ain’t true, it oughtta be!



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