This is a continuation of the ‘Dravidian Words in Foreign Languages’ series. I have already discussed Telugu (which supplied the words ‘bandicoot’, ‘mongoose’ and ‘pitta’). For some reason, all of them are related to wildlife. Telugu (along with Kui and Gondi) belongs to the South Central branch of the Dravidian language family. Malayalam, spoken by the people of Kerala, belongs to the Southern branch (along with Tamil, Kannada, Tulu and Kodava). In a manner that curiously parallels Telugu’s faunal bent, it has supplied foreign languages with terms related to agricultural produce. Why?

I am speculating when I trace this phenomenon back to Kerala’s unique maritime history. But this speculation is based on certain facts. Located on the southwestern tip of the peninsula that forms South India, it has a geography and climate that set it apart from the Deccan. This is lush green hill country, drenched by heavy monsoon rains and enveloped by tropical forests. The coast is a mosaic of lagoons, lakes, rivers, canals, paddy fields and coconut plantations. Kerala’s coast attracted merchants and sailors in search of riches sustained by its weather and soil –  spices. No wonder then that the words which made their way from Malayalam to other languages are of botanical provenance.

Over the centuries, South India’s Malabar Coast (a strip of land that closely corresponds with the state of Kerala) has drawn visitors from across the Old World – Rome, Greece, Phoenicia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Persia. They came in search of Black Pepper, the dried and ground fruits of the Black Pepper Vine (Piper nigrum). These were worth their weight in gold, the most prized and widely used among the many spices imported to Europe from South and South East Asia. The entire coastline was dotted with ports supplying Black Pepper to ships arriving from the Red Sea, East Africa and the Persian Gulf.

The names of these ports became part and parcel of European and Middle Eastern lore – Naura (probably Kannur), Tyndis (identified with Kadalundi), Muziris (speculated to be Kodungallur) and Nelcynda (somewhere in the vicinity of Kollam). They are mentioned in ‘Naturalis Historia’ (an encyclopaedia in Latin by the Roman naval commander Pliny the Elder) and the ‘Periplus Maris Erythraei’ (a naval tract in Greek, of unknown authorship). But spices were not the only agricultural produce to be found in Kerala. Rice (Oryza sativa), coconut (Cocos nucifera) and jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) are lesser known but equally important crops of the state’s farming sector. The last one is also an example of a Dravidian word spreading across the globe.

Let’s have a look at the definition and etymology to begin with. This is what Merriam-Webster has to say:

Definition of jackfruit: a large tropical Asian tree (Artocarpus heterophyllus) related to the breadfruit that yields a fine-grained yellow wood and immense fruits which contain an edible pulp and nutritious seeds; also : its fruit

Origin and Etymology of jackfruit: Portuguese jaca jackfruit, from Malayalam cakka

The Portuguese were neither the first nor the last to arrive on the Malabar Coast. They were just one among the many crossing the Indian Ocean to Kerala’s ports, searching for spices. But the arrival of Vasco Da Gama on the shores of Kappad (or Kappadakadavu in Kozhikode District) on May 20, 1498 was no ordinary event. It marked the rise of West European maritime powers in the Indian Ocean and their colonization of South Asia. New commodities, technologies and ways of conducting war and trade began transforming the world. The Dutch and the English would follow in the wake of the Portuguese.

Among the many things that went West after the arrival of Da Gama was the mighty jackfruit. Cultivated for as long as 6,000 years in South Asia, it is believed to be a native of South India’s Western Ghats (which form the hilly interior of Kerala). A member of the mulberry family Moraceae, they were already well established in Southeast Asia and Africa. Locals held their fruits and seeds in high regard. Rich in starch and fibre, they could be consumed raw or ripe, cooked into curries, turned into juice, pickled, candied, boiled, salted, sun-dried, ground or roasted. The Portuguese did not take long to realize its virtues, calling it ‘jaca’ (yaca) after the Malayalam ‘cakka’ (chakka).

The Portuguese physician and naturalist Garcia De Orta (1501-1568) mentioned it in his 1563 magnum opus on the medicinal plants and substances of India – ‘Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India’. The word also appears in Hendrik Van Rheede’s ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ (meaning ‘Garden of Malabar’), a Latin treatise describing the plants of the Malabar Coast and the Western Ghats. Van Rheede (1636-1691) was the then Dutch administrator of Cochin (from 1669 to 1676). With 12 volumes of 200 pages each, and 794 engravings, it is a reflection of the botanical wealth of the state. That is how it made its way into the languages of Western Europe and the New World – the English ‘jackfruit’ of Britain, Canada and the US, the French ‘jacquier’, the German ‘jackfrucht’, the Spanish and Portuguese ‘jaca’ of Spain, Portugal and Brazil.

Image Attribution: This is an image sourced from Wikimedia Commons, depicting Ernesto Casanova‘s 1880 painting of Vasco da Gama landing in Kerala. Da Gama landed near Kappad, at a spot marked by an engraved column. The painting, an illustration for Luis De Camoens’ ‘Os Luisadas’, is preserved by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division in Washington DC, USA.

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