South Asia

Organized Panel Session

4 - Legendary Nonsense: The Keralolpathi and Notions of Time in 17th C. Kerala

Saturday, July 7
10:20 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Marigold, New Building

The Keralolpathi is believed to have been composed by Thunjath Ezhuthachan, the father of modern Malayalam literature. This attribution could well be to grant legitimacy to a document whose status between myth and history has always been in doubt. It stated in this chronicle (carita) that Parasurama, the sage of legend, slew 24 generations of Kshatriya warriors and then threw the bloodstained ax into the sea, thus recovering the land of Kerala from the sea. The text also traces the evolution of kingly rule and social order in this coastal region over the centuries 


This paper looks at the first English translation of the Keralolpathi by Alexander Walker (18th century) who came to the western coast of India as a young cadet of the East India Company. Influenced by the comparative historical method of the Scottish Enlightenment, Walker read the Keralolpathi sympathetically, putting its notions of temporality within a comparative framework of ancient civilizations. This represents one of the earliest attempts to engage with a local sense of time and history in colonial South Asia. This paper explores a distinct texture of time in this Malayalam text where eternity sits alongside the time of the political present; swathes of time are neither exaggeration nor metaphorical but represent an engagement with the “unreckonable” nature of the past; and the idea of civilization trumps that of “history” i.e. time reckoned with the span of mortal lives.

Dilip Menon

University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Dilip M Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand. He was educated at the Universities of Delhi, Oxford and Cambridge and got his PhD degree from Cambridge. He is a translator from the Malayalam and writes on film, theatre and literature. His research for the past decade has engaged with issues of caste, socialism and equality in modern India.

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4 - Legendary Nonsense: The Keralolpathi and Notions of Time in 17th C. Kerala



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