Tale of the taalam: With rice, flowers and a severed head

The linguistic adventures of a simple plate help paint a vivid picture of trade and interaction in the medieval Indian Ocean

October 23, 2021 03:45 pm | Updated October 24, 2021 06:21 pm IST

Children take out a taalappoli procession

Children take out a taalappoli procession

Recently, I was listening to a rendition of Changampuzha Krishna Pillai’s poem ‘Kavyanartaki’, a tribute to the spirit of Malayalam poetry. Somehow, the line Ritushobhakal ninmunnil taalam pidichu snagged my attention. Taalam just means ‘plate’ or ‘dish’, ultimately from Sanskrit sthaala , ‘any vessel or receptacle, plate, cup, bowl, dish, caldron, pot’. The word is famously used for the vessels carried in the taalappoli processions, a ritual in which women and girls walk carrying plates packed with an assortment of auspicious goodies, including rice, flowers and a lighted lamp.

It’s been alleged that this seemingly innocuous custom had rather gruesome origins. A few years ago, a painter depicted women carrying the severed heads of Buddhist monks on the plates, explaining in a note that taalappoli was originally a ritual celebrating the violent victory of the Brahmins over Buddhists in Kerala, which led to the imposition of the caste system and the outcasting of former Buddhist followers. Indeed, he claimed that the term was originally tala-ppoli with a short ‘a’ as it came from tala , meaning ‘head’ in Malayalam, rather than taalam . It’s unclear what evidence there is for any of this but tall claims about Buddhism are par for the course in the popular history of Kerala.

Back to reality and the simple taalam . Going by the evidence, it has a story of its own that, while perhaps less lurid than the above, is no less interesting. In a chapter in Irreverent History: Essays for M.G.S. Narayanan , a book published in 2014 as a festschrift for the eminent historian, Elizabeth Lambourn traces the adventures of the taalam — both the word and the physical objects it denotes — around the medieval Indian Ocean world. She examines it alongside another Indian word, faatiya , meaning ‘box or chest’. Borrowed into Judaeo-Arabic and Yemeni Arabic, these words and objects “contribute to the broader history of medieval exchanges and hybrid identities between South and West Asia”.

The source for all this is a vast collection of manuscripts called the ‘Cairo Geniza’, formerly held at the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo and now scattered around the world in libraries and collections. It was a repository of documents of various kinds disposed of by the Jewish community, including religious texts, legal documents, business letters, memos, poems and medical prescriptions. Recognised as a very important resource for the study of medieval West Asia and the Jewish community in particular, it contains a lot of material relating to the ‘India trade’, in which a number of Jewish merchants were engaged.

Made to order

Specifically, Lambourn draws on the paperwork of Abraham Ben Yiju — a central character in Amitav Ghosh’s 1992 ethnographic narrative In an Antique Land — who spent 12 years on the Kanara coast in the 1100s and married his Indian slave girl, Ashu. In 1133 or 1134, Abraham’s friend Joseph b. Abraham wrote to him from Aden in Judaeo-Arabic with an order for a few tableware items to be made in his workshop, including “a small t’lm whose mouth should be no more than one and a half handbreadths, and whose ‘sb’dr should be of fine workmanship”. Judaeo-Arabic — Arabic dialects spoken by Jews — is written in a version of the Hebrew script, which is an abjad, a script that usually doesn’t mark vowels, so the reader is left to deduce the missing vowels in words like t’lm . (What exactly an ‘sb’dr is remains a mystery.) An Arabic-style plural, tawalim , is also found in Abraham’s documents, in an inventory of his baggage when he moved back to Yemen from India.

A taalam, which means ‘plate’ or ‘dish’.

A taalam, which means ‘plate’ or ‘dish’.

This caused some confusion for earlier scholars, but Lambourn finds a handy pronunciation guide in Ibn Battuta’s Rihla . Narrating a dinner with a Sultan at Honavar, 150 km north of Mangalore, in the 1340s, Ibn Battuta describes a t’lm as a copper platter on which rice is served and details the vowels, making it clear that it’s pronounced taalam . All this also hints at the rising popularity of rice in West Asia and among West Asians in India.

The next question is which Indian language this term was borrowed from. Lambourn considers the possibilities of Tulu and Kannada, but thinks that Malayalam is the more likely candidate as the word appears in the exact form taalam . It appears from the 13th century onwards in Malayalam literary sources to denote a bronze or clay vessel that had ritual uses but was primarily used for daily meals.

She quotes the Malayalam poet Cherusseri, who in his 15th-century Krishnagatha describes “white rice resembling the smile of children spread in a beautiful taalam ”. It’s also used in Tamil, and a 10th-century inscription of Parantaka Chola I describing the feeding of Brahmins at a temple uses taalam for the plates they ate from. It’s true that Tulu would have been the dominant language in the Mangalore region where Abraham stayed, while Honavar was a Kannada-speaking area. However, there would have been nothing strange in the mixing of peoples and languages on the Kanara coast, merchants constantly travelled up and down the coast, and Abraham does refer to his ‘brother-in-law Nair’.

So there you have it — the surprisingly cosmopolitan tale of the humble taalam , from Parantaka Chola to Abraham Ben Yiju to Ibn Battuta to Cherusseri to Changampuzha.

Back to Tulu

The other word, faatiya , that Lambourn looks at clearly meant ‘box’ or ‘chest’ — Abraham transported his luggage in 14 faatiyas. Lambourn traces it to the Tulu (and Kannada) word pettige or pettiye . Just as taalam was pluralised into tawalim , faatiya acquired its own Arabic plural, fawaati , suggesting familiarity and frequent use. Indeed, the word faatiya became quite popular and is also seen in the customs records of Aden in Yemen from the 13th century, and Lambourn infers that these were wooden chests made in India and circulated in the western Indian Ocean aboard the annual Indo-Egyptian kaarim trade fleets, eventually reaching Egypt where local records also use the word.

The interconnected world of the Indian Ocean is a bountiful field of research, and as Lambourn concludes, “All loanwords tell a story of contact, but as words for material things, these nouns also open up an ephemeral and mobile world, a lost ocean of objects that spanned the Indian Ocean and its connected riverine systems, even through to the eastern Mediterranean.”


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