Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan

(1495 - 1575 AD / India)

Biography of Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan

Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan poet

Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan was an Indian poet from around the 16th century (according to historian Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer). He is known as "the father of the Malayalam language" — the principal language of the Indian state of Kerala. He was born at Trikkantiyur, at the town of Tirur, in Vettathunadu. His personal name is Ramanujan. Thunchaththu is his “family name”, and Ezhuthachan (schoolmaster) is an honorific title or the last name indicating his caste. His name is transliterated in several ways, including Thunchath Ezhuthachan, Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan, and Thunjath Ezhuthachan.

Until his period, the Malayalam language had been developing in two different lines without a degree of uniformity of style. The writings of Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan became a confluence of the two channels of linguistic currents. He borrowed from Indo-Aryan Sanskrit its rich lexicography but with a difference that the mainstay of his style in writing verses rested on the indigenous Dravidian Tamil school.

In his period, Vattezhuttu, the abugida writing system originally used to write Tamil, was generally used to write Malayalam. However, Ezhuthachan wrote his Malayalam poems in Arya-ezhuttu (Malayalam script), a Grantha-based script originally used to write Sanskrit, so that he could accurately transliterate Sanskrit words into Malayalam. His works became unprecedentedly popular in Kerala, which in turn popularized the Malayalam script adopted by him.

Circumstances of Birth and Caste

Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan lived in c. 16th century. He was born at Trikkantiyur in what is now Tirur, Malappuram district, Kerala state, India. His exact birthplace is now known as Thunjan Parambu.

According to Arthur Coke Burnell, he was "a low-caste man who goes under the name Tunjatta Eluttacchan, a native of Trikkaṇḍiyur in the present [1874] district of Malabar. He lived in the seventeenth century, but his real name is forgotten; Tunjatta being his ‘house’ or family-name, and Eluttacchan indicating his caste”. In 1865, Burnell saw the manuscript of the Bhagavata translated and adapted by Thunchaththu, allegedly copied by his sister, preserved at Puzhakkal in the Chittur taluk, and wrote that “The author’s stool, clogs, and staff are preserved in the same place; it thus looks as if Tunjatta Eḻuttaččhan was a sannyâsi of some order.”

Other sources have considered him to be of the Kaniyar caste. This community of traditional Hindu astrologers were well versed in Sanskrit and Malayalam their members in the Malabar region were traditionally known as Ezhuthu Asans or Ezhuthachans, by virtue of their function as village school masters to non-Brahmin pupils. Their unusual flair in Malayalam and Sanskrit language has been noted by many historians during this period.

There are also legends that Ezhuthachan's father was a Nambudiri Brahmin, although there is no evidence for this. Ellis has noted that

A Brahman without a father must be born of an unmarried female of that tribe, whose celibacy ought to have been inviolate: he is considered, therefore, illegitimate, and has scarcely an assignable place in society. Elutt' Achan, or the 'Father of Letters', was a Brahman without a father, and on that account has no patronymic ... The Brahmans envied his genius and are said to have seduced him by the arts of sorcery into the habit of ebriety ... he enriched the Malayalam with the translations, all of which, it is said, he composed under the immediate influence of intoxication.

Burnell agreed with Ellis, saying that "Eluttachchan [sic] lived in the 17th century; there is no reason for supposing that he was a Brahman father's illegitimate son; he was certainly an Eluttachchan (or schoolmaster) by caste."

The Malayalam poet and historian Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer concludes Ezhuthachan as either Chakkala Nair or Vattekattu Nair. K. Balakrishna Kurup said in his book, Viswathinte Kanappurangal, that Ezhuthachan belongs to the Ezhuthachan caste,and this opinion is supported by T. B. Vijayakumar, the historian. Mahakavi Kodungallore Kunhikuttan Thampuran, another poet, agreed.

Father of Malayalam Language

There is no doubt about Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan's contribution to the literary level of the common man of medieval Kerala. Ezhuthachan taught his pupils to respect and worship the Malayalam language and the Arya-ezhuttu alphabet. He refined the Malayalam language style and wrote his works for ordinary people, incorporating whatever is good with a strong sense of righteousness and worship. His contribution to the Malayalam language through the Adhyathmaramayanam (a translation of the Ramayana and Mahabharatham (a translation of the Mahabharata) is unparalleled, and his contribution in the cultural level is immense. His chief original works are said to include the:

Keralolpathi
Hari Nama Keerthanam (the song of the holy vame "Hari")
Ganapatistavam
Kilippatu Prasthanam
Devi Mahathmayam
Kerala Natakam
Harihara Sudham

"...The phrase ‘father of language’ is a symbolic reference. Language represents culture. So Ezhuthachan is in fact denoting culture. He shone as a brilliant star above our culture. He renovated the alphabets of heart. We see the light of conscience and moderation in Ezhuthachan. We call him ‘the father of Malayalam language’ because he led the language to a new dimension." — Chattanath Achuthanunni, chair, Thunjan Festival meeting (1998).

However, K. N. Ezhuthachan considers that only Adhyalma Ramayanam and Mahabharatham were written by him.

Malayalam Alphabet

Until Ezhuthachan’s time, there were various alphabet systems in use in Kerala:

Vatteluttu (Vattezhuthu): A 30-letter alphabet which was taught as the Malayalam alphabet by kalaries or schools to the common people.

Grantha-based alphabet used to write Sanskrit.

Combinations of the above two, as per Manipravalam.

As the influence of the Sanskrit language upon the Malayalam language increased, the Vattezhuthu alphabet was used commonly to write Sanskrit words and other derivations, though distorted. The names of parts of Vedas like Samhita, Ashtakam, Varggam, Anuvakom were written as changatha, attam, vakkom, anam respectively, in Vattezhuthu. What was written, was not exactly what was read. Works were also written in this way. Vattezhuthu was used with interposition of letters of the Grandhakshara to denote essential Sanskrit phonetics (e.g., in important decrees or shasanas).

It would not have been sufficient to just create a new alphabet set, as it would not be accepted in all places easily. Most probably there were different views at that time. The most practical way out was to write a popular Keerthanam (a poetic song) in a standardized alphabet, so that it will be widely used. Ezhuthachan thus composed the Hari Nama Keerthanam in his new 51-character alphabet. Since the song was wildly popular, the alphabet grew in use and popularity along with it. The 31-character Vattezhuthu alphabet continued to be taught as the Malayalam alphabet until the British regulations relating to registration of bonds and deeds eventually led to its disappearance.

It is also believed that Ezhuthachan contributed to the peace and unity of Kerala during a period of political anarchy.

Thunjan Parambu

People from around Kerala come to take sand from the Thunjan Parambu to use in the initiation of their children to the alphabet. Every year, hundreds of people bring their children to Thunjan Parambu to write their first letters during the Vijayadashami festival which falls in October–November months. Children are initiated to the world of letters by masters, teachers or parents by holding their fingers and writing the letters in a plate filled with rice. The letters will also be written in their tongues with a golden ring.

They write:
"Anpathoraksharavum oronnithenmozhiyil
Anpodu cherkka Hari Narayanaya Nama" — Hari Nama Keerthanam 14th stanza

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