Malayalam is the native language of the South Indian state of Kerala and the Lakshadweep Islands in the west coast of India. Malayalam is spoken by 4% of India's population. Eastern Kerala region consists of high mountains, gorges and deep valleys mostly in the west of the Western Ghats. Malayalam belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages and is considered as the baby in the Dravidian family. Its resemblance to Tamil is so striking, that it almost sounds like a variation of Tamil language. Some believe that Proto-Tamil, the common stock of ancient Tamil and Malayalam, apparently diverged over a period of four or five centuries from the 9th century onwards, resulting in the emergence of Malayalam as a language distinct from Proto-Tamil.
Tamil therefore, had a huge influence in the early development of Malayalam, till Indo-Aryan influences became evident at later stages. Interestingly malai, in Tamil, means mountain. Therefore the word Malayalam obviously refers to the language of the mountainous region. Till about a thousand years ago Tamil was the spoken language there with a number of local variations. It is said that Malayalam as a spoken language was not referred to in Tamil literature before the 15th century.
Malayalam is the official and administrative language of the State of Kerala. Malayalam is a language with vocabulary borrowed from other languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, etc. The arrival of the other European languages made inroads into Malayalam and added to its enrichment. Malayalam absorbed several words and idioms from English, Portuguese and Dutch. It is one of the languages that can boast of having contributed words to other European languages. Kole Ezhuthu is one of the oldest writing systems in south India, derived from the ancient Grandha script. It was the script mainly used to write Malayalam language. Malayalam originally consisted of 37 consonants and 16 vowels. But to alleviate the difficulty in typewriting, a new script was introduced in 1981 by radically eliminating the number of characters in the alphabet.
Originally Malayalam was just a local dialect of pure Tamil.Political climate, the spread of Christianity and Islam, the arrival of the Nambudiri Brahmans, all created conditions favorable for the emergence of the local dialect, Malayalam. The Nambudri Brahmans played a key role in using a good deal of Sanskrit language on the local dialect. Religious songs came to be composed in the first place. In course of time the Tamil epic Kamba Ramayanam had its flavor to lead to creation of a similar version in Malayalam.Vazhappalli inscription from around 830 A.D. may be the oldest written record of Malayalam. Rama-charitam which was composed in the 14th century may be said to have inaugurated Malayalam literature. The fact is that dialectical and local peculiarities had already developed and stamped themselves in local songs and ballads. But these linguistic variations were at last gathered together and made to give a new look to an already sustained literary work, Rama-charitam, thereby giving the new language, a justification and lease of life. This is roughly the story of Malayalam.
Till early 17th century the development of Malayalam language took two different courses depending on either Sanskrit or Tamil, according to which language it had lineage to. Thunchathu Ezhuthachan also popularly known as TE (16th century) brought in a modern type of devotional literature by virtue of which Malayalam language underwent a metamorphosis, both in form and content.Ezhuthachanis considered as the father of modern Malayalam. The earliest extant literary work in Malayalam is a prose commentary on Chanakya's Arthasastra, ascribed to the 13th century.
Another poetical work, Vaisikatantram is believed to belong to the early 14th century. These works come under a special category known as Manipravalam, According to this book, the Manipravala and Pattu (meaning song in Tamil) styles of literary compositions were in vogue till 16th century AD. Major works like Ramacharitam (12th century), Bhagavad Gita (14th century) by a set of poets belonging to one family called Kannassas belong to this period.Tulsidasa, a renowned Hindi poet translated the Ramayana from Sanskrit named the Adhyatma Ramayanam. It depicted the story of Lord Rama and created a new chapter in Malayalam literature. He had skillfully manipulated Vedantic thoughts combined with devotional elements.
The Ramayanam was followed by Mahabharatam a work of superb literary excellence. The adaption of the life style of Kerala is good thing about this work in as far as the description, figures of speech and portrayal of characters. The Holy Gita was another important work. Many Puranas were written during the post Ezhuthachan period, closely imitating his style. The period immediately following that of EZHUTHACHAN is therefore called the Bhakti Yuga, the age of devotional literature in Malayalam. Poonam Nambudiri, the author of Jnanappana, a philosophical work in simple Malayalam is a most prominent writer who followed TE's style.It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that later Champu kavyas were written. Their specialty was that they contained both Sanskritic and indigenous elements of poetry in equal degree, to that extent were unique.
Attakkatha are stories written for a type of dance drama known as Kathakali. Bharata's Natyasastra had become by the time, a handbook of the Chakyars, and the traditional actors of Sanskrit dramas in temples. The Raja of Kottarakkara, a princely poet, in the 16th century wrote in Malayalam the story of Ramayana, styled as Ramanattam, which later paved the way for the art of Kathakali. When another prince, the Raja of Kottayam, composed stories of the Mahabharata for the same purpose, he called it Kathakali and such composition thereafter came to be known as Attakkatha. A number of Kathakali plays were written during this period.Unnayi Varyar, whose Nalacharitan Attakkatha is popular even today, was the most prominent poet of the 18th century among not only the Kathakali writes, but also among the classical poets of Kerala. He is often referred to as the Kalidasa of Kerala.The Raja of Kottarakkara and Unnayi Varyar, poets like Irayimman Tampi, Ashvati Raja composed nearly hundred plays during the century. Jnanappana by Puntanam Nambudiri is a sincere approach to the advaita philosophy written in simple language. It is a unique work in the branch of philosophical poetry.
Kunjan Nambiar developed a new solo dance art called Tullal based on Puranic themes for which he himself wrote more than fifty works, all in simple, but elegant verse.He followed a new style, converting all Puranic characters into ordinary human beings and narrating the stories in the social background of Kerala of his times. Ramapurattu Varyar, a contemporary of Nambiar who wrote only one original poetic work, Kuchelavrittam, the story of Kuchela or Sudama, is considered to be the morning star of modern Malayalam lyrics. The period that followed can be called the golden age of malayalam. Swathe Tirunal was a great scholar and the Maharaja of Travancore (1829-1847). He made a commendable contribution to Malayalam literature. Apart from having composed a number of poetic and musical compositions himself, he nurtured several great men in the field of literature like Irayimman Thampi and Vidwan Koithampuran.
Works like Dakshayagam, Kichakavadham and Uttara-svayamvaram all stand to tell about Irayimman, while Koithampuran's Ravana Vijayam is still celebrated for its perpetual literary values. The efforts of the English Christian missionaries to propagate Christianity through educational activities also have its share in the development of literature like it did with other languages also. The kings like Swathi Thirunal assisted these missionaries to start a number of schools. Prose was the first branch to receive an impetus by the contact with English.
The following are the famous works in prose:Kundalata in 1887 by Appu Nedungadi (a prose fiction),Indulekha and Sarada by Chandu Menon (social novel), and Marttandavarma in 1890 and works like Dharmaraja and Ramaraja Bahadur by C V Raman Pillai (historical novel).In the fields of Drama and Poetry: Kerala Varma has translated Kalidasa's Sakuntalam in 1882 and is considered as a milestone in the history of Malayalam drama and poetry.His Mayura-sandesam has been written in footsteps of Kalidasa's Meghadutam. The Junior Venmani's Puraprabandham and other works were known for their simplicity and style.