The Kerala School and Lord of Guruvayoor

All Malayalees know Melpathur Narayana Bhattithiri (1559-1632 ) and his famous composition — Narayaneeyam — still sung in Guruvayoor temple. The immediate story that comes to mind is his tiff with his contemporary Poonthanam, whose judge turned out to be Guruvayoorappan
While Melpathur was composing Narayaneeyam in Sanskrit, Poonthanam was writing Jnanapana in Malayalam. This was a time when Malayalam was considered inferior to Sanskrit. When Poonthanam went to show his poem to Melpathur, he refused to see it; treating him like a groundling, Melpathur asked Poonthanam to learn Sanskrit.
The next day, Melpathur came to sing ten slokas of Narayaneeyam before Guruvayoorappan and he met a boy who found many mistakes in his composition. The boy vanished and a celestial voice announced, “Poonthanam’s bhakthi (devotion) is more pleasing to me than Melpathur’s vibhakthi (learning or knowledge in Sanskrit grammar)”.
So goes the legend.
Is there any truth to this story or is it something which which was written to show that Malayalam was as good as Sanskrit? Would a Sanskrit scholar like Melpathur make mistakes in his composition.? What we know is two pieces of information about Melpathur from which we will have to deduce information.
While Narayaneeyam is Melpathur’s most famous composition, he also wrote sreepaada saptati in praise of Bhagavathi, Manameyodayam on Mimamsa, and Kriyakramam on nambudiri rituals. Less known is the fact that Melpathur was connected to the Kerala school of mathematics. Melpathur was the student of Achyuta Pisharati (c. 1550-1621) who was the student of Jyestadeva, the author of yuktibhasha. Melpathur is not know for astronomical models or mathematical proofs but, according to Wikipedia, for Prkriya-sarvawom, which sets forth an axiomatic system elaborating on the classical system of Panini. This is believed to be written in sixty days[1].

Kerala School of Mathematics(teachers and students)

So would a person, who understood Panini, be sloppy with his work? Maybe. Sreedhara Menon, in his Survey of Kerala History, writes about Revathi Pattathanam, an annual assembly of scholars held in Calicut. Those who displayed exceptional knowledge in debates were awarded the title Bhatta. Melpathur was denied the Bhatta title six times before he won it eventually[1].
There is little information about Poonthanam’s later life, but much more about Melpathur and his royal patrons. But we don’t know anything Melpathur’s first drafts of Narayaneeyam and so it is hard to pin down the narrative historically.
Though Poonthanam’s Jnanappana too is still sung in houses in Kerala, the title of father of Malayalam goes to Thunchatthu Ezhutachan — a contemporary of Poonthanam and Melpathur — who translated Ramayana, and Mahabharata and standardized the Malayalam alphabet [2].
[1] A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History
[2] S. Ramanath Aiyar, A Brief Sketch of Travancore, the Model State of India

8 thoughts on “The Kerala School and Lord of Guruvayoor

  1. JK, the equivalent of Thunchatthu Ezhutachan in Telugu is Nannayya Bhattraka – Telugu Aadi Kavi, because he too translated Mahabharata into Telugu and vastly enhanced grammar and introduced Sanskritized Telugu. He didn’t complete the translation – Thikkanna Somayaji and Yerrapragada completed it few generations later. The three are called Kavitrayam.

    1. chandra, the trimvirate poets of kerala are kumaran asan, vallathol narayana menon and ulloor s. parameswara iyer. they came at a much later date than the period mentioned in this post.

  2. Chandra:
    Nannayya Bhattaraka’s part of Andhra-Mahabharatam is Telugu only for namesake. He is well-known for his use of difficult Sanskrit words. Some accounts depict him as being arrogant and proud of using Sanskrit words in Telugu.
    In comparison, Tikkana Somayaji and Errapragada have used far more number of Telugu words. Tikkana is especially known for the simplicity of his language.
    I guess we can say that Nannayya Bhattaraka represented the era of transition from Sanskrit-based to Telugu-based literature.

  3. BTW I did not know Ezhuttacchan translated mahAbhAratam. Why is, then, Kodungalloor Kunjikkuttan Tampuran known as Kerala-Vyasan? Is it because he translated a version other than vyAsa-mahAbhArata ( just like the version of rAmAyaNa he translated was the adhyAtma-rAmAyaNa rather than vAlmIki-rAmAyaNa )?

  4. JK,
    A question. Are you aware of any books dealing with the following two issues:
    1. Land reforms and its impact on Kerala’s society
    2. Planning of a Gurukul (in ancient times)
    Needless to say, any book(s) dealing with them in a (relatively) unbiased manner with authenticity.
    Appreciate your reply.

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