'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

'Vatukan' - An Exercise In Etymology

This post is on the mysterious etymology of the rather controversial (for some details, see below) Malayalam word 'vatukan' (note on pronunciation: 't' is retroflexed).

Long back, while at primary school in Kerala, we got to learn a word from the Malayalam language lessons: 'vatu' ('t' retroflexed again). This was said to mean 'a young Brahmin'. It sounded funny enough (well, in Mallu pronunciation) - and disparaging enough - for most of us to use it as a communal nickname for the few 'Palghat Iyer' students in our batch. Well, Kerala is a very sectarian place, from the ground up!

I heard the word 'vatukan' when I was somewhat older. In our part of Kerala (strictly the central part), it is an infrequently used word and generally meant 'a disagreeable fellow'. I remember trying to connect 'vatukan' with 'vatu', unsuccessfully - 'vatukan' was used against anyone, without caste connotations.

While at College, our Malayalam language professor told us, 'vatukan' actually is a 'traditional slang word' for a ... Malayali Christian! That was quite a big surprise (still later, I got to hear from some folks who hailed from southern Kerala that the word was still very much in use in their part of the province - to abuse Christians. As I said, Kerala is ... well, you know!).

In those days, there used to be an international correspondent for 'The Hindu' named Batuk Gathani. The surname sounded Sindhi (it still does to self) but the first name appeared to be the same as 'Vatuka', corrupted (the V-B thing is universal, the Bongs have no monopoly there). Somewhat later, I happened to read about Batukeshwar Dutt, the young Punjabi revolutionary who accompanied Bhagat Singh on his final, fateful mission.

Somewhere on the web one sees: 'Vatuka' refers to the god Siva - it is indeed derived from 'vatu' (which means Brahmin). The 'ka' at the end is a diminutive, so 'vatuka' means a 'little vatu'. Aside: 'vatu' too seems to refer to a brahmin student (a 'brahmachari') and not one in his prime. Not sure how Siva came to be referred to as a little Brahmin - although mythology says he did very briefly assume the form of a 'vatu' to test Parvati's devotion.

In a work on Kerala History by Raghava Variyar and Rajan Gurukkal, there is mention of a name that featured in one of the ancient inscriptions: 'Chattan Vatukan'. The said person was apparently the leader of a guild of Christian merchants. So, the 'Vatukan' - Christian connection seems very old indeed. In those dim days, the word does not seem to have been derogatory. Perhaps the story of 'nasrani', a classical word for 'Christian' (and which now is very much a politically incorrect word) is a close parallel to 'vatukan'.

Let me stop this search by admitting I still do not have the last word on this word - a word that mysteriously links Siva and Mallu Christians of a long-gone era.


  • At 12:54 AM, Blogger Bharani said…

    its nice to know the explanations for the word 'vatukan',but in my childhood days my valiyammaman with his harsh voice uttered 'da vatuka,ivide va'posted in me that word as anonsense word-thanks for your wide explonation.

  • At 9:51 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks bharani, for visiting and for the comment.

  • At 12:11 AM, Blogger Random Vandamme said…

    Interesting. I think Vatu means a young bachelor, not neccessarily a Brahmin. I saw a movie in which a shepherd-boy is addressed as Vatu by a passer-by. This leads to the following questions:
    a. Are young bachelor boys considered 'disagreeable' and hence the slang meaning?
    b. If yes, were there many such young boys?

  • At 1:02 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks vandamme. as you say, 'vatu' might only mean a youngster, something like 'kumar', nothing very brahminical about it. and yes, how the negative connotation to 'vatukan' came about is beyond me.

    aside: the new hit 'lage raho munnabhai' has a character 'Batuk Maharaj' - a coincidence of sorts!

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