Information from Prof. K. P. Narayana Pisharodi's work titled "Thunjath Acharyan".
Acharyan's time period and place of birth
According to most scholars Thunjathe Acharyan's time period is Kollavarsham 8th Century. (Approx. 1475 to 1550 A.D., Ulloor.) Information from the documents at Chittur shows that the land was gifted to Tamil Brahmins by Suryanarayananezhuthachan on Kollavarsham 725 (nagasyanunasaukhyam - kali era.) (1550 A.D.)
The place where Ezhuthachan was born was known as Vettathunad. Vettam means 'light'. Kerala was divided into many such kingdoms at that time.
There was a Sudra house named Thunjath, a little west from the Thrikkandiyoor Shiva temple in Tirur, where Thunjathe Ezhuthachan was born. An Ezhuthu kalari (school) was present in Thunjath house, where children from nearby houses came to study. Teachers of the house were called 'Ezhuthachans'. Asan means teacher. The person who taught ezhuthu or writing was called Ezhuthassan, or Ezhuthachan.
In most places during that time there were houses where coconut oil was produced by a press or machine (chakku) by grinding or squeezing coconuts or copra. Chakkala means the shed of an oil press. There was one in Thunjath house also.
Ezhuthachans of the land also used to copy important grandhas (works) apart from teaching. It was regarded as an art to copy original works neatly in the thaliyola (leaf of the large palmyra used for writing) For every thousand such grandhas, a fixed amount of money was given. One grandham comprised 32 letters.
Most places had Ezhuthachans and Ezhuthu kalaries during that time.
Malayalam alphabets and Thunjath Ezhuthachan
Thunjath Ezhuthachan stands supreme in his efforts at teaching Malayalam to the masses.
There were two types of alphabets in Kerala in olden days - One which was used to write the local language or Malayalam, and the other to write Sanskrit. Both were very different. In Tamil Nadu even now there are two sets of alphabets to write Tamil and Sanskrit. Grandhakshara was used to write Sanskrit. The situation was also the same in Kerala till Ezhuthachan's time. To write Malayalam there was Kolezhuthu or Vattezhuthu which had thirty alphabets. For Sanskrit there was another set of alphabets. Some alphabets must have been present here to write Sanskrit when this language was used in Kerala in ancient times. Our Malayalam alphabets and the Tamil alphabets are derived from alphabets similar to Braahmi, which was the one from which even today's Devanagiri had evolved. Thus it is unquestionable that some of the alphabets used now in Malayalam are quite ancient.
Till about a hundred years ago most people who were learned knew Vattezhuthu also. Vattezhuthu disappeared because of British rule and the law which made registration of deeds and testimony a must. Now only a few language researchers know Vattezhuthu.
Vattezhuthu was commonly used even to write Sanskrit words, though distorted. The names of parts of Vedas like samhita, ashtakam, varggam, anuvakom were written as changatha, attam, vakkom, anam respectively, in Vattezhuthu. The Brahmins at that time were not against Sudras learning Sanskrit. Not only Sudras, but Kaniyans, Velans and Thachans were also permitted to learn Sanskrit. This was the situation in which the poet Kannassa Ramappanicker learned Sanskrit books like Valmiki Ramayanam, Bhagavatham, Bharatham etc. and wrote various works.
The Malayalam alphabets which we use now are said to be made by Thunjathe Ezhuthachan according to the Malabar gazzetteer. However, Kodungallur Kunjikkuttan Thampuran, writes: "What Ezhuthachan did was to take the best system of writing in his great works. The style of writing used in Chakyarkuthu even during the time of Perumals of Kerala is extensively followed by Ezhuthachan in his poems. There are grandhas using some of the Malayalam alphabets which are even 800 years old... So Ezhuthachan cannot be considered to have created all these himself."
It was from Thunjathe Ezhuthachan's time that the set of alphabets which had 51 characters began to be widely used to write Malayalam, instead of Vattezhuthu. The letters ra, zha, la and na that we use today were directly imported from Vattezhuthu by Thunjathe Ezhuthachan. Similar features were also preserved in the alphabet from Vattezhuthu by the Acharyan. The new set of alphabets were adequate for both Malayalam and Sanskrit languages. Thunjathe Acharyan would have considered these alphabets adequate for teaching purposes, and improving the Malayalam language. He himself was in the forefront for these objectives.
It was to popularize his new set of alphabets that Thunjathe Ezhuthachan wrote the Harinamakeerthanam. The Harinamakeerthanam is written in such a way that every starting letter of the stanzas begins with a letter of the alphabet, in its order. The first four stanzas are the opening part, which remembers his teachers. The next stanzas start with Hari, Sree and Ganapathaye Nama. Next comes the verses starting with the new set of alphabets, up to the last stanza which starts with the alphabet ksha. There are two concluding stanzas also.
The Acharyan humbly asks his teacher to read his Keerthanam and correct any mistakes in the set of alphabets and Keerthanam in the last stanza:
'Hari Narayana nama' has been repeated at the end of every stanza of Harinamakeerthanam. It is a combination of two statements 'Hari' and 'Naryanaya nama', indication a combination of the two alphabetical systems in the present set of alphabets also.
About 'Harishree Ganapathaye nama': The Acharyan had taken 'Hari' and 'Nama' from the two alphabet systems and added 'Sree Ganapathaye' in between. The custom of offering a prayer to Lord Ganapathi before starting a new venture is ancient.
Thus the great teacher first joined two different alphabetical systems and developed a unique set of Malayalam alphabets. This served as the basis from which Malayalam literature flourished.
(More details in the book 'Thunjath Acharyan')
Ezhuthachan's parents, relatives
Thunjath Ezhuthachan had a very learned elder brother whom he remembers in the Adhyathmaramayanam.
"Agrajan mama sadam vidushamagresaran
ulkkurunninkal vazhka, ramanamacharyanum
mukhyanmaraya gurubhuthanmar mattullorum"
Here the first prayer is: 'my elder brother who is my teacher and supreme among the learned men, with many disciples, should always dwell in my mind'.
The second prayer is: 'the Acharyan named Raman should also dwell in my mind'.
The name of his elder brother is not known. The statement that it was 'Raman' by Ulloor and other experts is likely to be wrong, because they considered that both his elder brother and the Acharyan named Raman were the same. When Ezhuthachan wrote "my elder brother who is my teacher should always dwell in my mind, and Acharyan also", how could they be the same person? They are two different individuals.
It is also unknown who his other teachers were. Ezhuthachan must have been taught writing, reading, mathematics, Amarakosam, Geernasreyadivakyangal, Sidharoopam, Sreeramodantham and other Sanskrit verses by his elder brother. Ezhuthachan knew Amarakosam well by heart, which is in evidence in both Adhyatmaramayanam and Mahabharatam kilippattu. What is learned in childhood lasts longest in memory.
Ezhuthachan remembers his Acharyan named Raman and he shows his great respect for the teacher in Adhyatmaramayanam, Devimahatmyam kilippattu, and Brahmandapuranam.
In the Brahmandapuranam, 'Netranarayanan' is mentioned, which is another name of Azhvanchery Thambrakkal.
Another teacher mentioned in Harinamakeerthanam is Sree Neelakantaguru.
How did Thunjathe Ezhuthachan learn Vedas and Upanishads which Sudras were not allowed to learn at that time? Ezhuthachan is said to have gone outside Kerala and learned Vedantha. He is said to know both Tamil and Telugu, and that this helped him to translate Kaivalyanavaneetham from Tamil and used the Adhyatmaramayanam moolam in Telugu to write the Adhyatmaramayanam. In Mahabharatam kilippattu there is mention of a Sasthri. The Sanskrit scholars of Tamil Nadu were called Sasthris. Some of them are called so even now.
Ezhuthachan's father is said to be a Brahmin. It may be true. It was a custom at that time for Nair families to have Brahmins as the father of their children. The story is as follows:
A very famous Brahmin astrologer once went to his native place and had to return via Thrikkandiyur. He knew that the night he stayed at Thrikkandiyur was special in that a child conceived then was destined become a very special person. While thinking disconsolately about not reaching his house in time, a dasi (maid) of the house that he was staying asked him what the matter was, and he told her his predicament. The maid requested him to grant her that special child. Thus Ezhuthachan was conceived.
Ezhuthachan's mother may have sung and taught him many stothrams and keerthanams (hymns in praise of the Lord) at an early age. She may have been a maid in any of the Namboothiri houses in the area. It is quite possible that Ezhuthachan used to go with his mother to this house by 2 to 3 years of age. He must have been a child with such intelligence that he could memorize what the Namboothiri children were studying by just hearing them once. This ability could have been one of the reasons behind his vast knowledge. And when his mother took him to the Thrikkandiyur temple, he may have heard the Namboothiri children reciting othu wrongly, and may have said kadu, kadu (wrong, wrong) to himself. The Namboothiri women with him may have been surprised to hear this. There are other stories also relating his intelligence and creativity even at a very early age.
About the Acharyan's life
There are doubts about what Thunjathe Ezhuthachan's real name was. The four names thought most likely are Sankaran, Suryanarayanan, Ramanujan, Raman. The name Ramanujan was obtained from a book called Keralolpathi printed in 1018 of the Kollavarsham calendar. There may be a reason behind the name Ramanujan. Thunjathe Acharyan had a very learned elder brother according to his own verse in the Adhyathmaramayana. So he could have been called anujanezhuthachan by the people there. If Ezhuthachan's name was Raman, then he might have been called as Ramanujanezhuthachan also by some. So the name Raman as Ulloor has thought, and the name Ramanujanezhuthachan, and Ramanandan, the name during Sanyasa, all correlates.
Ezhuthachan would have learned Vedantha from Tamil Nadu. Ayyankars who were Veerasaivars or Veeravaishnavites had written many Vedantha grandhas in Tamil and Sudras could study these. Thus Ezhuthachan, ever searching for knowledge, must have left for Tamil Nadu. The Vedantha grandhas in Sanskrit must have been taught to him there.
He must have traveled to many far off places. In Ezhuthachan's Mahabharatham kilippaattu there is mention about Godavari, Kaveri and Sreerangam, which are not referred to in the original Mahabharatham moolam. Also when describing Panchali swayamvara, there is mention about Pandya and Chola kings along with the Keralan king, which are also not written in the moolam. In Chintaratna, the Acharyan had enumerated many Holy places like Kashi, Rameswaram, Sreerangam, Kumbhakonam, Kamakshi, Gaya, Purushothamam, Gokarnnam, Kamalalayam, Chidambaram, Vyalendrapuram etc. In Kaivallya Navaneetham there is mention about Lord Thirupathi Sree Venketeswara Swamy.
Finally, as a Sanyasi, Ezhuthachan settled in Chittoor. He set up a gramam there and brought twelve Brahmin families from Tamil Nadu, and granted them the place. The reason why he must have felt such respect and obligation to these Brahmins from Tamil Nadu could be due to the fact that they had taught him Vedantha. Anyway, it is understood that Ezhuthachan was in Tamil Nadu for some time, and part of his learning took place there. The Acharyan had always shown utmost respect to his teachers.
Kaivalyanavaneetham: This work was written by Thunjathe Ezhuthachan as soon as he returned from Tamil Nadu. It is kilippaattu and and a translation of Kaivalyanavaneetham from Tamil. A Brahmin poet, Thandavaraya Swamikal of Thanjavur, is the Author. Adwaithavedantha is its subject. A desire to let the people know the greatness of Tamil language and literature is evident in the translation.
Ezhuthachan brought both Kilippaattu and Keka vritham from Tamil Nadu. Both of them were not present in Kerala, whereas they were in Tamil.
It is not known whether Ezhuthachan had previous family ties with the Ezhuthachans of Edappal house at Amakkavu. There is a special Devi temple there which is run by Sudras. The Thrikkandiyur temple was managed by Brahmins, so Ezhuthachan would not have had much freedom there. At least some of the Namboothiris there must have been envious of Ezhuthachan's calibre. It is certain that others like Azhvancheri Thambrakkal had given encouragement to Ezhuthachan. The Acharyan has written that he composed Brahmandapuranam under the directive of Azhvancheri Thambrakkal.
"Netra Narayanan thannajnayal virachitham".
- From Brahmandapuranam.
Anyway Ezhuthachan stayed at Edappal house and married from there. He must have written the Devimahatmyam while staying there. Ezhuthachan had a daughter whom, it is said, he named Sreedevi. Her mother might have died soon afterwards. Ezhuthachan assumed Sanyasa after returning to Tamil Nadu as Sudras were not permitted Sanyasa in Kerala. He returned assuming the name Ramanandan, and set up his Ashramam in Chittur.
Thunjathe Acharyan had two main disciples in the name of Karunakaran and Suryanarayanan. It is said that Karunakaranezhuthachan wrote Sivaratri Mahatmyam Kilippattu. Suryanarayananezhuthachan left home at an early age and became the Acharyan's disciple. A bachelor, great Sidhan and yogi, Suryanarayananezhuthachan with his Acharyan must have reached Chittur and taken alms from Gopalamenon of Ezhuvathu house. It is with the help of this Gopalamenon that Suryanarayanaezhuthachan set up the Ashramam there. Thunjathe Ezhuthachan stayed there his last days. His daughter must have lived with him for some time.
That such an Ashramam was set up there is evidenced by a small verse obtained from the documents of the place. According to the document the land was gifted to the Brahmins by Suryanarayananezhuthachan (nagasyanunasaukhyam - kali era.) Suryanarayananezhuthachan purchased the land from Champattil Mannadiyar. A thousand panam was given to Champattil Mannadiyar house, Ezhucath house and Vadasseri house, and the interest was used to obtain nine hundred paras of rice every year. Ezhuvath Gopalan later became a disciple of Thunjathe Ezhuthachan and assumed the name of Koppaswamikal.
About Sanskrit Acharyan Panditharatnam Prof. K. P. Narayana Pisharodi:
Born 1909, renowned Sanskrit scholar, studied Sanskrit for 10 years in his home in the old Gurukulam style in childhood, qualified in the Sahitya Siromani examination of Madras University in 1932, and obtained the Malayalam Vidwan degree from the same University. Taught in various colleges including the Thrittala Sanskrit school and Sreekeralavarma college. Sanskrit University conferred him D. Lit degree in 2001.