Enter any home in Mattur, and you will be greeted with Bhavatha nam kim (What is your name?), Katham asti (How are you?) and Coffee va chaayam kim ichchhathi bhavan (What will you have, coffee or tea?) in eloquent and poetic sounding Sanskrit.
A village with one foot in the Vedic times and another in the 21st century, Mattur is one of the very few places in the world where residents still converse in the classical language of Sanskrit!
Tucked away in the verdant Shimoga district of Karnataka, Mattur is a tiny hamlet on the banks of the perennial river Tunga. The villagers of Mattur, who lead a Vedic lifestyle, chant the ancient texts and converse in Sanskrit, have made sure the ancient language flourishes in their village.
The journey back to Vedic roots started in 1981 when Sanskrita Bharati, an organisation that promotes the classical language, conducted a 10-day Sanskrit workshop in Mattur. It was attended, among others, by the seer of the Pejawar Mutt in nearby Udupi. Seeing the villagers eagerly take part in the unique experiment to preserve Sanskrit, the seer reportedly exclaimed, “A place where individuals speak Sanskrit, where whole houses talk in Sanskrit! What next? A Sanskrit village!” It was a call the residents of Mattur took to heart. This is how Sanskrit became the primary language of the village.
Mattur is an agrarian village that primarily cultivates areca nuts and paddy. It is inhabited by the Sankethis, an ancient Brahmin community that had migrated from Kerala and settled down in Mattur about 600 years ago. Other than Sanskrit, they also speak a rare dialect called Sankethi, which is a mixture of Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada, and bits of Telugu. The Sankethi dialect has no written script and is read in the Devanagari script.
The entire village of Mattur is built as a square, like a typical agraharam, with a central temple and a village pathshala. The Vedas are chanted at the pathshala in the traditional way. The students learn them meticulously in their five-year course, under the careful supervision of village elders.
The students at the pathshala also collect old Sanskrit palm leaves, expand the script on computers and rewrite the damaged text in present day Sanskrit to make it available to the common man in the form of publications. Over the years, many students from abroad have also stayed and undergone crash courses at the pathshala to learn the language.
Everybody in Mattur, from the vegetable vendor to the priest, understands Sanskrit. Most speak the language fluently too. It is not unusual to see a group of elders reciting Vedic hymns by the riverside while a couple of young men zoom past them on their bikes, flaunting their mobile phones as they converse in the ancient language. Even young children squabbling and playing cricket in the ground speak Sanskrit fluently.
Another interesting sight is Sanskrit graffiti on the walls of the houses in Mattur. The slogans painted on the walls are ancient quotes such as Maarge swachchataya virajate, grame sujanaha virajante (Cleanliness is as important for a road as good people are for the village). Some families also have the sign “You can speak Sanskrit in this house” proudly written on their doors.
The schools in Mattur have some of the best academic records in the district. According to the teachers, learning Sanskrit helps the students develop an aptitude for maths and logic as well. Many of Mattur’s young have gone abroad to study engineering or medicine and the village boasts of at least one software engineer in every family!
Mattur has produced over 30 Sanskrit professors who are teaching in Kuvempu, Bengaluru, Mysore, and Mangalore universities. Mattur is also the home village of several illustrious personalities that include Mathoor Krishnamurthy of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bangalore, violinist Venkataram, and gamaka exponent H.R. Keshavamurthy.
Mattur and its sister village, Hosahalli, are also known for their efforts to support the ancient tradition of gamaka, a unique form of singing and storytelling in Karnataka.
In gamaka, also known as Kaavya Vaachana, a gamaki (singer) reads a stanza of a poem with a high emphasis on meaning, in a raga (melody) that matches the emotion of the poem. Another person then explains the vyakyana or meaning of the stanza through examples and anecdotes. The ragas are drawn from traditional Kannada folk tunes and Carnatic music while the poems are mostly from old Kannada epics such as Jaimini Bharatha, Harischandra Kavya, Ajita Purana, Devi-Bhagavata, and Torave Ramayana.
What makes Mattur so special is that at a time when Sanskrit is spoken by less than 1% of the country’s population, not only do the villagers use the language in their daily life but they are also ready to teach it to anyone interested in learning it. Their commendable effort will go a long way towards keeping the knowledge of this ancient and scientific language alive in the years to come.