Among the Dravidian languages, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu received classical language status before Malayalam, though Malayalam happens to be the oldest. For being conferred with a classical status, the Government of India stipulates certain conditions/criteria. The language has to be more than 1500 years old. Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam have satisfied all these conditions. In terms of literary output, achievement and glory, Malayalam stands third among Indian languages. And, coming to modern literature, the most coveted and rich languages in India are Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali.
On the basis of population it is found that Malayalam ranks fourth. As per the UNESCO’s language schedule, the position of Malayalam is 26th in terms of independent script and literature. Malayalam is the mother-tongue of over three and half crores of people. Among Keralites, 96.56 per cent have Malayalam as their mother-tongue. The break-up for Tamil, Telugu and Kannada are as follows: Tamil – 89 per cent; Telugu 85 per cent; and Kannada 63 per cent.
The oldest records mentioning the word ‘Keralam’ is King Asoka’s edicts. Written between 300 and 270 BC, one of the edicts has the word ‘Kethalaputha’ referring to Kerala. In the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, Kerala finds mention in the works of Pleni, Ptolemy, Periplus as ‘Keralabathros’. ‘Kethalaputha’ to foreigners was ‘Keralabathros’. Even before ‘Kakara’ became ‘Chakara’, the word ‘Keralam’ existed. It was after ‘Kakara-chakara-vikaram’ that ‘cheram, cheraman, cheralathan’ came into existence. The meaning of ‘Kethalaputha’ and ‘Cheraman’ are one and the same. ‘Cheramaban’ is Cheraman and Kethalaputha is ‘Keralaputhran’.
The ‘Pulimankombu Virakal’ inscription obtained from Theni in Tamilnadu, Edakkal Cave inscriptions, Pattanam inscriptions and Nedumkayam inscriptions of Nilambur prove that Malayalam has a history of more than 1500 years. The ‘Kesadipadham Stuthi’ in ‘Bhadrakali pattu’ and four ‘padams’ in ‘Yatrakali’ dates back to CE 6th century. Kerala can also claim a right to the Sanghom literature. Among the Sanghom poets, about forty- five of them are Keralites. ‘Chilapathikaram’, ‘Aikurunuruu’, Pathittupaathum’ are Kerala’s unique contribution. The Sanghom literature contains many ‘Malanadu’ words. The language used in Sanghom literature shows that Malayalam and Tamil has a common root. It is from this ancient root that Tamil and Malayalam branched out independently. While some of the rules in ‘Tholkapiyam’ are insignificant in modern-day Tamil, Malayalam retains them. This only further corroborates the evidence that Malayalam evolved from an ancient root.
The Sanghom literature throws light on our past history and language. That is to say, Malayalam originated from a pre-Dravidian language. A fully written form was absent in the past. The literary works were initially introduced orally. It was much later that the written word was formed. The most famous work of the period “Chilapathikaram” contains reference to Chakyars and Chera kings.
‘Chilapathikaram tells the story about the Chera king Cheran Chenkutuvan. It describes an incident that took place in the Chera capital, Vanchi. In the introduction of the work it states that, the book was written in a place named “Kunavayil Kottam’. Non-brahmanical temples were referred to as ‘Kottams’ in different languages. Kunavayil Kottam is Trikanamathilakom. Subsequently it shortened to become Mathilakom, near today’s Kodungallur and relics have been obtained from here. But excavations have not been carried out hitherto. On the basis of investigations, it could be proved that Malayalam evolved from an Adi Dravidian language.
No different is the case with the evolution of Tamil. There have not been any significant changes in Tamil either. The South Indian languages are distinct. Leaving aside Tamil, we find that the Malayalam language underwent many changes. With the coming of the brahmins, namboothiris and royal authorities and based on their scholarship Malayalam language transformed. Sanskrit, as discussed earlier, made intrusions into Malayalam to such an extent that it is difficult, today, to even trace the roots of Malayalam to Adi Dravidian language. However, it needs to be emphasized that on closer observation, it will be seen that the language being spoken and written in Kerala has its roots in Sanghom literature.
Kutiyattam, a visual art form of Kerala, embraces all the tenets of Natyasatra. It has not been possible to ascertain the exact age to the compositions (‘Aattam’ and ‘Karmadeepika’) used in Kutiyattam. The works may be as old as Chilapathikaram because “Koothu” has been referred to in this work.
Malayalam prose and poetry are rich with extraordinary creations. The first interpretations and translation of Kautilya’s Arthasastra was in Malayalam. So also, the first transliteration of Bhagavad Gita as per Sankara Bhashyam was in Malayalam. Paattu (songs), Manipravalam, Kilipaattu, Aattakatha and Thullal have enriched Malayalam literature. Songs and Manipravalam are mere namesake in Tamil and Telugu; they are very prominent in Malayalam.
Different phases mark out Malayalam as a classical language. Up to CE 8th century Proto-Tamil belonged to Malayalam. As mentioned earlier, Sanghom works, Bhadrakali pattu, Pulimankombu, Edakkal, Pattanam, Nilambur inscriptions all-belong to this period. Between 800 and 1300 CE, ancient Malayalam enjoyed the status of a classical language. More than two hundred rock inscriptions, copper plates, Bhashakautilyam, Attaprakarangal, Kramadeepikakal, Ramacharitham, Champus, Manipravalam works and essays belong to this period. The period from 1300 to 1600 CE is described as the medieval period of Malayalam classical phase. Belonging to this period were the authors of Leelatilakam, Kannassa poets, Poonam Namboothiri, Cherussery, etc. The period from 1600 CE marks the modern period. With Ezhuthachan’s works, literature attained the form of a humane language status. Ezhuthachan’s literary style proved that Malayalam language could handle any literary form. These were the evidences the Government of Kerala submitted to the Union government in a report for obtaining the classical language status.
An expert committee constituted in this regard recommended classical language status to Malayalam language on 19th December 2012. The Department of Culture of the Union Government accepting the recommendations forwarded it to the Prime Minister’s Office for necessary action. The Union Cabinet that met on 23rd May decided to accord classical language status to Malayalam. Receiving classical status means that under the Union Government a centre would start functioning looking into the literature and culture of Malayalam language. There would be steps to start Malayalam language departments in Central Universities. Awards would be instituted for the study of language and literature on par with international standards. The fund will be disbursed by the Union Government. The recognition received from the Union Government will definitely enhance and boost Malayalam language and literature manifold.