Know the Etymology: 143
Place Name of the Day: Saturday, 23 January 2010


Malabar, Maabar

மலபார், மாபார்
Malabār, Mābār

Malai+vaaram

The hillside,
The crossing place


Malabaar From Malai-vaaram: The hillside, the hill plains, the foothills, the land adjacent to hills; In medieval Western and later in colonial records the identity stood for extreme peninsular India, since the landscape first encountered by the Westerners arriving to this part of India was the Western Ghats of Kerala; Malai / Mala: Hill, mountain (Tamil / Malayalam, Dravidian Etymological Dictionary 4742); Vaaram: Mountain slope, side (Tamil, Thivaakaram Lexicon, 5:23, DED 5360); Side, declivity (Malayalam, DED 5360); Vaara, Vaare: Sloping (Kannada, DED 5360); Malabars, Malabaarees: Denoted both Tamils as well as Malayalis in Portuguese and other colonial records; Malabar language, Malavar, Malabarian, Malabaricum, Malabarick: Both Tamil as well as Malayalam in early colonial records (Hobson-Jobson); Malbaa: A term of identity used for teasing all people of Indian origin in Seychelles. Almost all the people of Indian origin in Seychelles are of either Tamil or Malayali descent.
Mabar Also Maabar: The land opposite to the island Serendib, today's island of Sri Lanka (Arabic references and Marco Polo, 13th century CE); 1. From Arabic, Ma'bar meaning the ferry or crossing place; Barr, Baar: country, continent in Arabic, as in Zanzibar (the country of the Blacks); 2. From Malabar, explained earlier (Hobson-Jobson)


Many Eezham Tamils may wonder today why had they been identified as Malabars in some early colonial records of Ceylon.

Even as late as in the 19th century, in some official records and in other writings of the British, the Eezham Tamils along with Tamils of the subcontinent were referred to as Malabars.

For instance, the British gazette ordinance No. 5 of 1869 of the Regulation No 18 of 1806 on the implementation of Theasa-vazhamai, the traditional law of the Eezham Tamils of Jaffna was titled as follows: A regulation for giving full force to the “Tesawalamai” or the customs of the Malabar inhabitants of the province of Jaffna, as collected by order of Governor Simons in 1706.

The ordinance continues to refer to the Tamils of Jaffna as Malabars.

The colonial terminology has led many who were unaware of the background of the usage to think whether Eezham Tamils were Malayali migrants.

Of course there was a small number of people of Malayali identity living in Jaffna in the Dutch times but in Eezham Tamil records they were referred to as Malaiyakaththaar, meaning people of the hill country (Dutch census of 1790, as given by A. Mootootamby Pillay, 1915). Note the shift in the Eezham Tamil usage, as today Malaiyakaththaar means the up-country Tamils of Indian origin.

On many instances identity is not something a people adopt on their own, but is imposed on by others.

A revealing example in this context is the identity 'Konga,' now derogatorily used by the Kannadigas of the Old Mysore region to refer to all Tamils. As the ancient Kongku country of Tamils (Erode, Coimbatore and Tharmapuri districts of Tamil Nadu) was immediately adjacent to Karnataka, all Tamils became Kongkas to Kannadigas.

The Malabar identity was never donned by the natives but was given by the foreigners.

The first landscape of India frequented by the maritime traders and voyagers from the West was the coastal stretch of the Western Ghats. The native term for this hilly geography taken up by the visitors was later misused for identities of peoples and languages even beyond that geographical context.

Western references dating from c. 6th century CE indicate that the Dravidian geographical terms Malai and Vaaram for a mountain and its slope (DED 4742, 5360) were taken by the foreigners to identify the pepper growing coast of the Chera (Chaaral) country in the slopes of the Western Ghats.

“Vaaramum thadamum chaaralum malaippakkam:” (வாரமும் தடமும் சாரலும் மலைப்பக்கம்) Cheanthan Thivaakaram lexicon 5:23

Hobson-Jobson, 'A glossary of Anglo-Indian words or phrases and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive,' first published in 1886 by Col. Henry Jule and A.C. Burnell, gives a long list of the variants and usages of the word Malabar in foreign writings from the times of the Greek work Cosmus of c. 545 CE onwards: Male (545 CE), Molaye (645 CE), Kaulam-Malai (851 CE), Mali (890 CE), Maliah (1030 CE), Maneebaar (1150 CE), Malibar (1270 CE), Minibar (1293 CE), Melibar (1298 CE), Maleebaar (1300 CE), Manibaar (1320 CE), Mulaibaar (1343 CE), Minubar (1348 CE), Melibaria (1420-30 CE) and Malabar (1516 CE).

Except Abdurrazzak (1442 CE), who includes Kaayal in the Gulf of Mannaar also as a part of Malabar, all the others roughly confine the identity to the coast of Kerala.

On the other hand, Maabar is a term largely found used in Muslim writings between c.1203- 1498 CE and in the accounts of Marco Polo (c.1292 CE) to indicate the Pandyan country or the coast of the Gulf of Mannaar on the side of Tamil Nadu. Some of the writings differentiate it from Malabar, some refer to it as a passage and some note the produce of pearls there (Hobson-Jobson).

Whether Maabar has come from the Arabic word Ma'bar, meaning the crossing place, to denote the sea-passage through Cheathu (Adams Bridge) or passage between the mainland and the island, or whether it has any etymological relationship to Malabar are not clear.

What so ever, it was the Portuguese who first used or misused the geographical identity Malabar for peoples and languages of the region, stretching it beyond its limits.

In the opinion of early Dravidian linguist Bishop Caldwell, the Portuguese, finding the spoken language of the fisher folk on the eastern coast sounding similar to that of the west in the extreme peninsular India, thought to call it by a common name Malabar.

But one should also bear in mind that a separate linguistic identity for Malayalam language was just emerging at that time and in earlier times there was no differentiation in the identity between Tamil and Malayalam languages. Thus the confusion was natural in the times of the Portuguese.

The advent of colonialism turned the table so that the ancient Tamil identity and heritage were now viewed through the prism of Malabar identity.

An early evidence for the Portuguese misnomer is a letter of St Francis Xavier, dated 1549 CE, in which he refers to the language of Kanyakumari as Malabar tongue. (Hobson-Jobson)

The Portuguese nomenclature went into subsequent colonial usages without any scrutiny, for we find even official documents of the English, issued from Fort St George, Madras, in the 1690s, referred to the language of Chennai as Mallabar. (Ibid)

Writings of 18th century on the Danish missionaries of Tranquebar (Tharangkampaadi) identify the natives as Malabarian heathens and further note that their language, Damulian was commonly called Malabarick. The Ziegenbalg dictionary of Tamil was also called a Malabarian dictionary. (Ibid)

According to an 1810 English writing the language of Madras was Talinga but was locally called Malabars. (Ibid)

A survival of the colonial legacy of Malabar identity could still be seen in Seychelles where almost all people of Indian origin who went in colonial times were either Tamils or Malayalis. Malbaa is a term used today to tease them by the people of African origin and they in turn tease the Africans as Mozaambees (from Mozambic).

Some recent publications, Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras, 2006, by Thomas R. Trautmann and The Madras School of Orientalism, edited by Trautmann (Oxford University Press 2009), enlighten us particularly on the role of the Englishman F W Ellis, who in early 19th century made colonialism to get awakened to the Tamil identity and to come out of misconceptions and misnomers.

However, English colonial Orientalism came out with another picture in Ceylon for the nation of Eezham Tamils and it made a lingering impact on the British colonial attitude and susequent political history of the national question in the island.

Influenced by Mahavamsa Orientalism, note what Sir Emerson Tennent writes in his monograph on Ceylon in 1860, on the nation of Eezham Tamils in the island and on his usage of the term Malabars:

“The term Malabar is used throughout the following pages in the comprehensive sense in which it is applied in the Singhalese chronicles to the continental invaders of Ceylon; but it must be observed that the adventurers in these expeditions, who are styled in the Mahawanso 'damilos,' or Tamils came not only from…Malabar, but also from all parts of the Peninsula as far north as Cuttack and Orissa.”

Tennent, who extensively uses the terms Malabar, Malabar invaders, Malabar mercenaries etc., says on the people of Jaffna: “ The successive bands of marauders arriving from the coast had thus on every occasion a base for operations, and a strong force of sympathisers to cover their landing; and from the inability of the Singhalese to offer an effectual resistance, those portions of the island were from a very early period practically abandoned to the Malabars, whose descendants at the present day form the great bulk of its population.”

First published: Saturday, 23 January 2010, 02:35

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