It is widely agreed that prior to the 15th century the Malayalam literature consisted of three streams: (i) the pure or Pacha Malayalam without any admixture of Tamil or Sanskrit words (e.gs: Bhadrakali Pattu and Pulluvan Pattu); (ii) Malayalam with free usage of Tamil words (e.gs: Kannassa Ramayanam and Bharatamala) and (iii) Sanskritised Malayalam. The oldest Malayalam text is Ramacharitam (1300AD), which is a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil. The Sanskrit stream of Malayalam writing is composed in Manipravalam or the ‘high style’ of language. The themes of these texts, commonly referred as Sandesha Kavyas, were taken from the Sanskrit Epics and Puranas and followed the Campu style.
One of the earliest prose works in Malayalam was Bhasa Kautaliyam of the 12th century. The other early prose works are Brahmanda Puranam, Ambarisopakhyanam, Dutavakyam and Nalopakhyanam. Cherusseri Namboodiri was the first big name in Malayalam literature, whose work Krishna Gatha (15th century) is considered as one of the masterpieces in pure Malayalam. He was followed the famous Malayali poet Tunchattu Ramanuja Ezhuttachchan in the 17th century, who popularized a verse form called Kilippattu. His Adhyatma Ramayanam, Uttara Ramayanam, Bharatam, Harinama Kirttanam and Bhagwatam are among the great classics in Malayalam. Tullal or dance drama developed as new literary type in the 18th century, which had themes based on the Epics and the Puranas.
Kotungallur (in North Kerala) and Trivandrum (in South Kerala) were the two important centres of literary activity in the second half of the 19th century. Some of the leading Malayali poets of the 19th and 20th century are Venamani Nambudiripad, Kerala Varma, Kottarattil Sankunni, K.C.Kesava Pillai, G. Sankara Kurup, K. K. Raja, Channampuzha Krishna Pillai and N. Balamaniyamma. Romantic poetry in Malayalam, which was initiated by A.R.RajaRaja Varma, flourished under the three great poets, Kumaran Ashan (Vini Puvu, Lila, Cintavistayaya, Cintavistayaya Sita and Karuna), Ullur S.Parameshwara Iyer (Uma Keralam, Arunodayam and Taraharam) and Vallathol Narayana Menon (Gangapati and Bandhanasthanaya Aniruddhan). The important translation works of this period include Valiya Koyil Tampuran’s Shakuntala (1881), Kunnikkuttan Tampuran’s Hamlet and Mahabharata and Vallattol Narayana Menon’s Ramayana (1878).
The period also witnessed the proliferation of different literary forms like dramas, novels, poems and essays on historical and literary topics. T. M. Appu Netunnati’s Kundalata (1887) can be considered as the first and original novel in Malayalam. Chantu Menon’s Indulekha (1889) and C.V.Raman Pillai’s Ramaraja Bahadur, Marttanda Varma and Dharmaraja are some of the best-known fictions in Malayalam. Some of other well-known Malayali novelists include Vennayil Kunniraman Nayanar, Appan Tampuran, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, V. K. Kunnan Menon, Ambati Narayana Potuval and C.P.Achyuta Menon. Vaikkom Mohammad Bashir is one of the most popular literary figures of Kerala. His Balyakalasakhi (1949) is a notable example of the new type of novel in Malayalam.