The Gonds of Central India are very closely related to the Telugus of the South. Both speak languages that belong to the South Central branch of the Dravidian language family. I have already discussed the example of the Sun to point out the similarity between the two (despite the pervasive influence of Indo-Aryan speech on the latter). The word ‘Pordu’ (meaning Sun) in Gondi has the same roots as the word ‘Poddu’ (meaning Morning, Dawn, and Daybreak) in Telugu. Both originate from the Proto-Dravidian ‘Poẓd’ meaning Sun. Though Telugu speakers have replaced the Dravidian name for the Sun with a borrowing from Indo-Aryan (‘Suryudu’, from the Sanskrit ‘Surya’), they use terms of Dravidian provenance for phenomena related to the solar cycle (sunrise, day, hour, time). Today, I will explore another example – the Moon.

The Moon: It is known as Jango, Chandarmal and Nelenj in Gondi languages. I am interested in the last word. Both Gondi ‘Chandarmal’ and Telugu ‘Chandrudu’ can be traced back to Sanskrit ‘Chandra’. But the word ‘Nelenj’ is of Dravidian origin, going back to the Proto-Dravidian ‘Nel’. And though the Telugu counterpart for ‘Nelenj’ does not enjoy the same popularity, it has survived, just as ‘Poddu’ did (in the form of words related to solar activity). In this case, as ‘Nela’ (meaning Month) and ‘Vennela’ (or ‘Ven Nela’, meaning Moonlight). This should come as no surprise given the fact that the Moon’s cycle determines not only the way in which light is reflected by it (leading to alternating phases of waxing and waning) but also the calculation of time (on the basis of a lunar cycle between one New Moon and the next). The Proto-Dravidian ‘Nel’ gave rise to the following words used in Dravidian languages.

  • Pengo language: Lenj (meaning Moon/Month)
  • Konda language: Nela (meaning Moon/Month)
  • Gondi languages: Nelenj/Lenj (meaning Moon/New Moon/Month)
  • Telugu language: Nela (meaning Moon/Month/Full Moon Day)
  • Kolami language: Nela (meaning Moon/Month)
  • Tamil language: Nila/Nilavu (meaning Moon/Moonlight)
  • Malayalam language: Nila/Nilavu/Lavu (meaning Moon/Moonlight)
  • Kodava language: Nelachi (meaning Moon)

The word ‘Vennela’ or ‘Ven Nela’, meaning Moonlight, is a favorite of Telugu lyricists who have used it frequently in their compositions (as a reference to the leading lady). One particularly famous example was the song ‘Vennilavae, Vennilavae’ (from the award-winning 1997 Tamil movie ‘Minsara Kanavu’) and its Telugu version – ‘Vennelave, Vennelave’ (in the Telugu remake, ‘Merupu Kalalu’). The music was composed by one of the most famous Tamilians in the world – A. R. Rahman (also known as the ‘Mozart of Madras’, a title bestowed on him by the likes of USA’s Time magazine).

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is a reproduction of the painting ‘Ladies in the Moonlight’ by a famous South Indian painter, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) from the state of Kerala. He was associated with the royal family of Travancore (or Thiruvankode, covering central and southern Kerala). Ravi Varma became famous for his depictions of Hindu deities and legends. His works were displayed abroad in cities such as Vienna and Chicago, and marked an important phase in the evolution of South Asian art.

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