Sacred Conversations in the Sanskrit Village of India

“All speech, written or spoken, is a dead language, until it finds a willing and prepared hearer.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Language evolves over time to allow effective communication and dialogue, giving expression to our ever changing lives and time. In this dynamic world where a social media tag can become a mainstream word, there still exist remnants of the bygone era, celebrating what has been around for centuries.

Tunga RiverIn a quaint, sleepy hamlet on the banks of the river Tunga in Karnataka, India, inhabitants go about their daily chores while conversing with each other in eloquent Sanskrit.

Mattur (or Mathoor) and the neighbouring Hosahalli, are two Indian villages that have held the Vedic language in high regard and made Sanskrit their official language. In these agrarian villages, arecanut and coconut plantations abound while Vedic chants reverberate in many a household. Children are taught Sanskrit from Montessori onwards in the village paathshaala (school) and many go on to study and teach the subject in the village and beyond. The spoken dialect is Sanketi, which is a mixture of Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada. This has no written script and the language is read in Devanagiri or Kannada.

It is said that nearly 500 years ago Brahmin scholars migrated from Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu and settled here along the river bed of Tunga. Krishnadevaraya, the reigning King, wished to donate land to these Brahmins but they refused him, believing that acceptance of the same would transfer his sins to them. The ruler being desirous of transferring land to them sent an emissary dressed as a Brahmin, knowing they would accept gifts from him, and thus donated vast tracts of land to the settlers. This is the land where arecanuts have been grown ever since.

Mattur and Hosahalli have also been the seat of development of Gamaka (or Kaavya Vaachana), a form of storytelling performed by singing. In this art form one person reads a stanza from a poem with great emphasis on meaning and by applying a suitable raga (melody) set to match the emotion of the poem. The songs usually have no established rhythm. A second performer goes on to explain the meaning of the stanza using examples and anecdotes. For a Gamaka performance ragas are drawn from traditional folk songs of Karnataka and classical Carnatic music. The emphasis in this form of storytelling is on literature and not on music and the poems are chosen primarily from old Kannada epics.

It is believed that Gamaka has existed from the time of the Ramayana, which when narrated by Valmiki was crafted into a song by Lord Ram’s twin sons Lava and Kusha. In olden times, those who recited Gamakas formed a part of the Maharaja’s court, though their art was not limited to the palace. They were often invited to sing at temples, weddings and village gatherings thus popularising it among the people. This form of storytelling slowly faded away until it was revived during the 1900’s by eminent Kannada-literature personalities.

Despite following an age old language tradition, Mattur and Hosahalli have not remained cloistered hermitages detached from the outside world. Many youngsters have moved on to cities in search of greener pastures.  In their new surroundings these young men and women may not find companions who understand Sanskrit, but they can certainly cherish memories of a unique childhood, spent reciting Sanskrit shlokas and welcoming each day with a ‘Suprabhatam’.

– by Manika Dhama