Malayalam, the mother tongue of nearly thirty million Malayalis, ninety per cent of whom live in Kerala State in the south-west corner of India, belongs to the Dravidian family of languages. Like the speakers, the languages also has been receptive to influences from abroad and tolerant of elements added from outside. Malayalam literature too reflects this spirit of accommodation and has over the centuries developed a tradition which, even while rooted in the locality, is truly universal in taste. It is remarkably free from the provincialisms and parochial prejudices that have bedevilled the literature of certain other areas. To its basic Dravidian stock have been added elements borrowed or adopted from non-Dravidian literatures such as Sanskrit , Arabic, French, Portuguese and English . The earliest of these associations was inevitably with Tamil. Sanskrit, however, accounts for the largest of the “foreign” influences, followed closely in recent times by English. This broad based cosmopolitanism has indeed become a distinctive features of Malayalam literature.
According to the most dependable evidence now available to us, Malayalam literature is at least a thousand years old. The language must certainly be older, but linguistic research has yet to discover unmistakable evidence to prove its antiquity. Historical accuracy has often been a problem since the records in most cases show no reference to the exact date of their composition. Legends and folklore have often taken the place of historical facts and chronology has been consciously or unconsciously tampered with. Modern research on scientific lines, however, has gone a long way to explain the origin and early development of the language.
A comprehensive literary history of Kerala shoud take into account the works produced in the region not only in Malayalam language, but also in Tamil, beginning with the fourth century B.C. and continuing to the end of the first millennium A.D. It should also trace the evolution of the works in Sanskrit produced by writers in Kerala. The contribution of Kerala to Tamil literature which includes Chilappadikaram produced in the 2nd century B.C., should be perhaps find its proper place in the history of Tamil literature just as Kerala’s contribution to Sanskrit, which includes the works of Sankaracharya and Kulasekhara Alwar of the early 9th century A.D., should come within a history of Sanskrit literature. The contribution of Kerala writers to English and Hindi in recent years, in the same way is part of the literatures in those languages. Since this article is primarily devoted to the evolution of literature in Malayalam the political history and the history of the language as well as the literature written in other languages are not discussed here in detail.