Imagine your reaction at the checkout counter if the person behind the till started talking to you in fluent Latin? Or if you were stood behind a man in a queue who burst out in Aramaic? Assuming of course you can decode what would sound like total gibberish you would then be baffled by the sudden resurrection of a supposedly dead language. However some of these ancient dialects are not quite as deceased as you may believe, for example there is an entire village tucked away in the heart of Karnataka whose primary language of communication is the almost extinct Sanskrit.
Mattur is a tiny hamlet in the Shivamogga district of Karnataka which is home to a devout Brahmin community that is keeping the art of Sanskrit alive. It began 500 years ago when scholarly Brahmins migrated from Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu and decided to settle there, along the banks of the river Tunga. The ruler at the time, King Krishnadevaraya offered to donate the land to them as a gesture of humility but they refused because accepting such a gift would constitute dhaanam and they would then be burdened with the Kings sins. They could only safely accept gifts from other Brahmins so the King sent an emissary in the guise of a Brahmin man and donated to them the land on which the community is now built.
The return to these Vedic roots began anew in 1981 when Sanskrita Bharati – an organisation promoting classical languages – held a Sanskrit workshop in the village. The villagers were eager to participate, some were more fluent than others but when Pejawar Mutt, a seer passing from Udipi proclaimed “A place where individuals speak Sanskrit, where whole houses talk in Sanskrit! What next? A Sanskrit village!” the people took it to heart and Sanskrit became the official language of Mattur. The community is mainly agrarian but they are also skilled in the dying art of Gamaka, a form of storytelling. They are a deeply religious community and all the facets of old Hindu traditions are practised here in day to day life. The students at the pathshala chant the Vedas and approach their five-year course with the utmost dedication. They even collect old inscribed palm leaves, ensuring that the script is preserved on computers, and rewrite the damaged texts so nothing is lost. Additionally, many people in the village as well as teachers of the language believe that learning Sanskrit develops students’ aptitude for math and logic, which might explain why so many of their young end up going abroad to study engineering and medicine. In fact, The Better India reports that every family here boasts of having at least one IT engineer in the family.
They sometimes speak a rare dialect, Sankethi which is a mix of Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, and a smattering of Telugu which has no written script but may be transcribed in Devanagari, but every single member of the village from the vegetable seller to the highest priest is competent in Sanskrit. This extraordinary little town and its people are a throwback to history and providing a much needed link to the past in a world that is all too eager to race towards the future.
Featured image courtesy Go Travel Discover