Malayalam is the Indian national language of Kerala state. Over thirty five million people speak Malayalam. It is one of the Dravidian languages in India. It has its own grammar and alphabet. It developed from Tamil and uses many Tamil words. Besides Tamil, it has also adapted several words from Sanskrit, other regional languages in India and English. The word `Malayalam’ originally meant `Mountainous Country’.

Malayalam is the official language of the State of Kerala. It is also the principal language of the Lakshadweep Islands on the western coast of India. It is now a recorded fact that Malayalis, both men and women, are totally literate. There is almost hundred per cent literacy in Kerala. Malayalam ranks eighth among the fifteen major languages of India in terms of the number of speakers. It belongs to the southern group of Dravidian languages like Tamil, Kota, Kannada and Kodagu.


The history of the Malayalam language dates to the ninth century. Folk songs and ballads are traced back to these times. Literature was first influenced by Sanskrit as that was the language of scholarship. Later, the influence of Tamil also seeped in.

Malayalam has been heavily sanskritised through the ages and today more than eighty per cent of the modern Malayalam words are taken from Sanskrit.

Dravidian Tamil was the ruling language of the Chera Dynasty and the Pandyan Kingdoms. The modern Malayalam script comes from the Tulu script which is a derivative of the Grantha script. When the Portuguese were in Kerala from 1500-1675, the language used to be Tamil or Lingua Malabar Tamul. The British missionaries promoted the Tulu script in the nineteenth century. In 1821, Benjamin Bailey, a Jesuit priest, designed the first Malayalam metal types for the printing machine.


Malayalam has a syllabic alphabet in which all the consonants have an inherent vowel. The diacritics that appear above or below the consonants are used to change this inherent vowel. Vowels are written as independent letters when they appear at the beginning of a syllable. Special conjunct symbols are used when some consonants occur together. These symbols combine the essential parts of each letter.

Malayalam has many retroflex consonants like the general Dravidian languages. These consonants will have sounds that are pronounced with the tongue tip curled back against the roof of the mouth.

Malayalam has grammatical categories like personal, tense and cases with suffixes.


The Malayalam script began to develop from a script known as Vattezhuthu or the `round writing’ which is an offshoot of the Brahmi script.

Malayalam has a written tradition that goes as far back as the late ninth century. It uses a script known as the `rod script’ which is taken from the Tamil writing system. Sometimes, the Tamil Grantha script is also used.

There were many difficulties while printing the Malayalam script. A reformed version of the script has been introduced during the nineteen eighties. The major change has involved the writing of diacritics and consonants separately rather than as complex characters.


Earlier, Malayalam was just a local dialect of pure Tamil. The arrival of the Nambudiri Brahmins, the political climate of the times and the spread of Islam and Christianity combined to create conditions that favoured the emergence of the Malayalam dialect. The Nambudiri 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. Vazhappalli inscription from around 830 A.D. may be the oldest written record of Malayalam.

Malayalam has three important dialects regionally and a number of smaller ones too.  There is a difference in dialects along lines of castes and a diglossia distinction between the formal literary language and the colloquial tongue. Both the colloquial and the literary languages use several words taken from Sanskrit. Though Malayalam has its roots in the Tamil language, it differs from it particularly in aspects like the absence of personal endings on verbs.


Ramacharitam which was composed in the fourteenth century is one of the earliest landmarks in Malayalam literature. The fact is that dialectical and local flavours had already developed and presented themselves in local songs and ballads. But these linguistic variations were at last made to give a new look to a literary work, Ramacharitam, giving the new language, a fresh lease of life.

Malayalam literature took a gradual route till the end of the fourteenth century. The modern period begins after this.  The Ramacharitam written around 1300 AD is the oldest Malayalam text known to us. The writings of the first few centuries were mostly in Manipravalam or the ‘high style’. This continued, until Cherusseri Namboodiri turned his attention to pure Malayalam and wrote ‘Krishna Katha’ in the early fifteenth century. During this phase, the themes chosen were mostly from the great Sanskrit epics and Puranas. It was only in the seventeenth century that the first big Malayali poet, Tunchattu Ramanuja Ezhuttachchan adopted the Sanskrit alphabet in place of Malayalam’s incomplete one.

A new literary type arose in the eighteenth century, the Tullal or dance drama, which again gave way for the themes based on the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. Kotungallur (in North Kerala) and Trivandrum (in South Kerala) became the hubs of literary activity in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Volumes of translations were being written – Kunnikkuttan Tampuran’s Hamlet and Mahabharata came out in 1878. Valiya Koyil Tampuran’s Shakuntala came out in 1881.

Contribution of Muslims in the Development of Literature

Malayalam has been the mother tongue of the Muslims of the Kerala region. The Muslims developed the Arabic Malayalam literature. There were more than five hundred books that have been written in prose and verse on various subjects. The books in prose include the translations and interpretations of the Holy Quran, the Hadises of Prophet Mohammad, stories and fables, lexicon and etiquette. There were many magazines and journals that were also published in Arabic Malayalam.

Critics have pointed out the literary merit of the poems in Arabic Malayalam. They have been impressed by the originality and clarity of expression and imagination. The earliest work that has been traced in Arabic Malayalam poetry is `Mohiudeen Mala’, an ode that was written by Khazi Mohammad of Calicut. He was a contemporary of Ezutthachchan who is recognised as the father of Malayalam language.

Moin Kutty Vaidyar also raised the level of Arabic Malayalam poetry with his `Badr Pada Pattu’ (War song on Badr) and Badrul Muneer Husunal Jamal (a romantic song). War and love have always been hot topics for poems in all periods. Vaidyar’s poems were regarded as masterpieces in Malayalam literature because of his unique way of combining content and form into an artistic union. He created a language inside a language which is a rare achievement in Malayalam poetry. He is the most popular among the Arabic Malayalam poets. His poems have provided the Muslims of Kerala with distinct culture uniformity and have enhanced their prestige.

Kundil Kunhamina and Haleema are some poetesses whose poems have also left a mark on Arabic Malayalam poetry. Today, the old script of Arabic Malayalam is not used in the literary works. The modern writings are all in Malayalam today. Efforts are being made, though, to preserve the identity of this language through Madrasa education in isolated circles.

Impact of Literary Sanskrit Tradition

The Sanskrit literary tradition was carried on through Maha Kavyams that were written by Malayalam poets. Ponkunnam Saidu Mohammad a Muslim Sanskrit scholar, wrote the famous Maha Kavyam,’Mohammadam’ in the Sanskrit metre and he has attempted to describe the story of mankind since the creation of time with an Islamic point of view. It also had the description of the Quran in detail.

Azakath Padmanabha wrote `Rama Chandra Vilasam’. Viakkom Mohammad Basheer, a novelist in Malayalam, brought his experiences out and made them speak in the Malayalam literature. His attitude towards life, which was full of compassion, gave the Malayalam readers a new aesthetic sense. His short stories have been translated into other Indian and world languages. ‘My Grand Dad had an Elephant’ and `Pathumma’s Goats’ are his masterpieces. His forte was satire and he mercilessly attacked the growing degeneration in the Muslim social life. He wanted to create harmony in life through God consciousness in his works.

N.P. Mohammad, another eminent novelist, has traced the influence of Aryan and Dravidian culture on the life of Kerala Muslims. His two famous novels, `The Oilfield’ and `The Eye of God’, cover this socio cultural life. His short stories had a Quranic style of expression.

Malayalam is rich in each genre of literature. Many publications and books are taken out in Malayalam each year. There are one hundred and seventy dailies, two hundred and thirty five weeklies and five hundred and sixty periodicals that are published in Malayalam. The most circulated daily paper in India is in the Malayalam language. This language is currently taught in many universities in and outside of Kerala. It is even included in the curriculum of some universities in the United States of America.

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Tahseen Nakavi Juror

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