Kerala: Word Lore

The name Malayalam is a palindrome and the place name Kerala is a portmanteau – a word that combines the sound and meaning of two words, a metaphor for containing two words. Kerala combines kera (coconut palm tree) and alam(land/ location/ abode) to form the word Keralam, which means ‘Coconut land’. Even a school child will appreciate this naming. Since the word Kerala came from Cheralam, the relation of Kerala with coconut tree is accidental and can be considered as a feat of folk etymology. This made the etymology of Kerala, a matter of conjecture. 

When Chera alam is taken to mean the land of theCheras, one will feel that the land owes its name to Cheran, the ruling King. But, in fact, the ruler acquired his name from the land which he ruled. The name 'Kerala' is said to have its origin from'Cheram', derived from 'Chera,' the name of a dynasty that ruled Kerala in ancient times. The name of Kerala was then Cheram/ Cheranadu.  Cheralam is Keralam.Cheralan is Keralan. The King of Chera country is Cherakon, Cheran. The title used to denote the Chera King was Cheraman. Cheramannad is Kerala nad. The land on the western coast stretching from Gokarnam to Kanyakumari is referred to as Kerala from ancient times. The Canarese pronunciation of keram is cheram. The similar sounding word for Keralam suggested by Rev. Dr. Hermann Gundert is Cheram.[1]  

According to Gundert, Cheraman Perumal, one of the former emperors of Malabar, traditionally the last, is said to have become a Buddhist about A.D 350, or a Muhammadan (moplah tradition), after distributing the country among his 18 feudatories.   N. Subramaniam thinks that Cheraman Perumal, a Saivite, was a contemporary of Sundaramurthy Nayanar, and he does not believe the legend of his conversion to Islam.[2] 

In this predicament, historians will find out the first reference made in the existing historical documents. The 2nd and 13th rock edicts of Asoka Maurya (269-232 BC), provide the first such scripted history of Kerala, wherein Chola, Pandya, Satyaput(r)a and Keralaput(r)a or Chera are distinctly stated as the four independent territories in the south of his empire[3].  The unknown author of the Periplus of the Erithrean Sea (1st century A.D) mentions Kerala as Cerobothra, while the first century Roman historian Pliny states Ca(e)lobothras (Keralaputra) as the King of Muziris, in his treatise on Natural History. The ‘Cerobothra' of the Periplus, Asoka's ‘Keralaputra,’ Caelobothras of Pliny, all refer to Chera. 

Reference to Perum Chorru Udiyan Cheral Adan, in the second verse of thePurananuru, an earliest text of Sangam literature, is about his feeding the two armies of the Mahabharata battle. This gives an impression that Chera country had the reputation as a granary even in the days of the Mahabharata war. 

“Everywhere in the dominions of King Piyadasi Beloved-of-the-gods and likewise among his borders such as the Codas, the Pandyas, the Satiyaputa, the Keralaputa, even Tamraparni, the Yona king Antiyaka, and also the kings who are neighbours of this Anti-yaka…and trees were caused to be planted for the use of cattle and men."[4]  K. A. Neelakanta Sastry and D.D. Kosambi have mentioned Keralaputa and not Keralaputra. On examining this place name meticulously, one will arrive at a different derivation of the place name Keralam.   

Original Dravidian ‘k’ is palatalised to ‘c’ in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, when followed by the front vowels i.e. according to Caldwell. Chitaruka (Tamil) means to scatter in different places. This word became ketar in Karnataka.[5]  The Tamil, Malayalam word ceru (cheru) is kesar in Tulu and Canarese. 

The transformation from Cheralam to Keralam is explained by the same rule of consonant changes, from ‘ch’ sound to ‘k’ sound, occurring in many languages and vice versa. For example, Malayalam word cheera (amaranthus/ cerucira) becomeskeera, Scottish ‘kirk’ is for English ‘church’ and Sanskrit satam becomes Greekcentum, which would explain why ‘Cheralam’ became ‘Keralam.'[6]

The change of name from Chera to Kera which occurred by the time of Asoka itself is worth noting. Chera putra became Kerala putra, and its given meaning is the land of the sons of Chera, the Chera king. But this interpretation of the word chera is wrong. The word 'Chera,' the name of a dynasty that ruled Kerala in ancient times, must have come from the geographical features of the land. It must be cheru which means mire, dirt. The pronunciations of this word cheru as well as chera are different. Ra in chera (cheru) is like the ra in ceramic, in chera the ra should be pronounced like the ra in parasite.  To work the surface of a field into slush preparatory to transplanting rice is cher aakka. A miry soil is chettu paadu. Wet cultivation ischettuvitha. Slough is chettu kuzhi. Field for wet cultivation is chettukkandam. All these word formations make it clear that cheru is a place where rice cultivation can thrive. Cheralam now means a wet land on the sea coast. The ra in Cheralam is like the ra in ceramic.

Now we will turn to the second part of the word CheralamAlam means salt marsh, salt pan, coastal area and wet land. Two other words for wet land in Malayalam areputhayan and iran nilam. The Rann of Kutch is also a wet land. The name Rann, means ‘salt marsh.’ This marshy region of the Gujarat state that appears a cracked mud of a salt flat in March, turns to be a land of knee-deep water during August. The rainy season hosted a rich array of wildlife. No wonder, this seasonal salt marsh is called a wetland. 

New and fresh is puthhan. It is putu, in Canarese puttuka. Putu means to be born, to spring up and leads to the word putran. As putu means putranchera putra has thus attained the meaning ‘the one to spring up/ born from the mire/ wetland’. Puthayal is a bog. Puthayuka is to sink deep into mud, sand etc. ‘Prepared the field for seed’ isputhukki. Newly cultivated land or field is puthuval. A new pot especially earthen isputhan kalam. Soft sand in which the feet may sink is puthamanal.  We see here the springhead of a region, a rice cultivating farmland springing up from mire, perhaps suitable for cultivation before the invention of the plough. 

It is apt to recall here the legend of Sage Parasurama who, standing higher on a cliff, commanded the sea to recede, hurling his battle axe into the sea. The Arabian Sea obeyed. The emergence of the land, thus coming out of the sea waters came to be known as Kerala. It is a myth, but it underlines the claim that the land of Kerala was a domesticated one.  

 means the earth, the direction. It also means the world. In this sense, Cheraputameans chera land. Apart from that, puta means a hole in the earth, a burrow, jungle, hill tract, seat and den. Kerala was known as Ala teyam during the reign of Sthanu Gupta Perumal. In this, ala means holes in the trees as well as in the ground. In the opening chapters of history, Kerala presented a wetland with wild rice, holes (alam) for the rats, and serpents. In fact, the southern part of Kerala was once known asMooshika Kaandam, a region of rats.

Put(h)a is slime in tanks, dry leaves etc put around the base of a tree for manure.Putha vaikkuka is to manure and irrigate the roots of pepper-vines etc. Put(h)a idukameans to sow,  broadcast and cover the seed with leaves, as well as the slime which covers tanks.[7] Slime means soft moist earth, mud, slurry containing very fine particulate matter. The meaning of mire includes a usually low-lying area of soft waterlogged ground and standing water: bog, fen, marsh, marshland, morass, muskeg, quagmire, swamp land, wet land. Miry is a marshy coastline; wet mucky lowland; muddy barnyard; quaggy terrain; the sloughy edge of the pond; swampy bayous. A bog is defined as an area ‘having a wet, spongy, acidic substrate composed chiefly of sphagnum moss and peat in which characteristic shrubs and herbs and sometimes trees usually grow.’ It also means any ‘of certain other wetland areas, such as a fen, having a peat substrate.’ An area of soft naturally waterlogged ground is a bog. In Malayalam it is put(h)a or  chatupp. Marshy ground is chatupp. ‘A protective covering, usually of organic matter such as leaves, straw, or peat, placed around plants to prevent the evaporation of moisture, the freezing of roots, and the growth of weeds is mulching.’ In Malayalam it is puthayideel. Sink deep in to mud, sand etc isputhayuka.  Amizhuka is to sink.  

In sum, the word puta combines all characteristics of a wetland. ‘The term ‘wetland’ is generally used to describe an area of low-lying land submerged or inundated periodically by fresh or saline water. It is applied to land areas that are seasonally or permanently waterlogged, including lakes, rivers, estuaries, and freshwater marshes. Wetlands support a range of unique vegetation, provide critical habitat for wildlife, and afford numerous benefits for human health and property.'[8]

Against this background, Cheralaputa means a chera land. Cheralaputra means the land born of mire, sprung from mire. The word keramic came from ceramic. Kerala in Asoka’s Keralaputra is from Chera. Both chera and ceramic are related to clay. The place name China came from China clay. Like that cherala owes its name to cheru/ mire. Mire has two sides like a coin-agriculture and industry, the former is related tocheru and the latter to ceramic.[9]

This article is an excerpt from a book under publication entitled ‘Kerala Coast a by-way in History


[1] Rev. Dr. Hermann Gundert, A Malayalam – English Dictionary, Mangalore, Basel Mission, 1872.
[2] N. Subramanian, ‘Perum Chorru Udiyan Cheral Adan’, Journal of Indian History, vol. XLI, Part II, 1963.
[3] K. A. N. Sastri, History of South India, Oxford Univerity Press, 1966, p.85.
[4] D.D. Kosambi, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Popular Book Depot, Bombay, p.199.
[5] T. Burrow, ‘Dravidian Studies III’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 11, No. 1 (1943), pp. 122-139.
[6] P. Thundy Zacharias, ‘Kerala: The Land and Its People' in K. P. Andrews (ed.), Keralites in America, New Hyde Park,2001, p.17.
[7] Rev. Dr. Hermann Gundert, op.cit.
[8] The Hindu Business Line, 19 Mar. 2007.
[9] What has been written here on the relationship of cheru and pottery is only complementary to what has already been written on the relationship of cheru with agriculture in the book under publication by the Bhasha Institute, Kerala. The manuscript of the book, entitled Nellum Samskrithiyum, (Rice and Culture) sent nearly a year ago, is expected to be released any time now.


More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair

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