Strange it may seem,that the Jack fruit was the first edible fruit in use in antiquity in the Indian subcontinent. The nature of the word Pala, Phala or Pela to represent the Jack fruit even today suggests that the word (Pala / Pela/ Phala) was originally or since beginning was used to denote the common Jack fruit, arguably a native fruit of Indian subcontinent.
The basic word ‘phala’ stands for ‘fruit’ in Sanskrit. The presently commonplace word has been absorbed by most of the Indian languages, like phala (Kannada), phalam (Malayalam), etc.
Michael Witzel (1999) while analyzing words found in the Vedas concluded that some words in Rigveda (early part of Rigveda were estimated be ca.1700-1500 BC old) are not original Indo-Aryan (or early Sanskrit) words. He has given a list of words borrowed into middle compositions of Rigveda (ca.1500 BC or younger) which includes phala, mayur etc. These extraneous words must have been borrowed from contemporaneous languages that existed in the proximity of Vedic scholars and their settlements. He has stated that phalam is derived from the Tamil word ‘palam’ meaning ripe fruit.
Incidentally, apart from the word ‘palam’(=ripe fruit), the word ‘pala’ also means jackfruit in Tamil according to Dravidian Etymological Dictionary by T. Burrow, M. B. Emeneau. Similarly, in Tulu language word ‘pela’(>pelakai) or ‘pila’ (>pilakai) represents the jack tree/fruit. Earlier, in Tulu also the ‘pala’ version might have existed; since the wooden planks derived from the jack tree are called ‘palai’. However, presently the word palai in Tulu represents any wooden plank.
It seems that during the early historical period of composition of Rigveda, the proto-Tulu/Tamil word pala represented the jack fruit. Possibly, it was the most popular or common fruit at that time. It can be visualized that the Vedic scholars considered the pala (or pela or pila), the jack fruit, at that time of history as an important and popular edible fruit and adopted it in the form of ‘phala’. The word ‘phala’ incorporated into Sanskrit subsequently stood to represent the fruits. Maybe the mango, the king of Indian fruits, was not properly recognized at that time.
Thus, subsequently the word pala (>phala) represented any ripe fruit.
The jack fruit/trees may not have been common trees in Pirak region or Vedic scholars were initially not familiar with the Pala /Pela tree. Therefore it appears that the Vedic scholars picked up the word from proto-Tulu/Tamil tribes.
Similar words exist in Malayalam. The equivalent word for jack fruit in early Kannada was ‘palas’. Telugu equivalent word for jack is ‘panasa’.
The existence of similar words in Tulu and Tamil suggest (a) either their derivation from a common proto language or (b) coexistence of proto-Tulu and proto-Tamil tribes at a certain point of history dating back to the period of compilation of the Vedas. In other words, this coexistence or common heritage of Tulu-Tamil languages and exchange of words among these communities imply that some members of these tribes were living in the vicinity of Vedic tribes at the period of compilation of Vedas.
However, the Tulu tribes do not commonly use the word ‘pala’ or ‘phala’ to represent fruits in general. They employ the term “parn′d” to mean fruit. [The symbol ′ here represents the time delay in pronunciation; d as unaspirated th in English ‘the’]. The Tulu word “parn′d” also means ripe banana; alternately, it also means any ripe fruit. It is interesting to note that when Vedics adopted the ‘pala’, the jack, to represent edible fruits, Tulu tribes preferred the word ‘parn′d’, the banana, to signify fruits!
Apart from the intriguing pala/ pela in Vedas, Michael Witzel lists three extraneous words which he considers as words of uncertain origin in the early part of Rigveda. These are ukha(=hip), phalgu (=minute weak) and aaNi (=lynch pin). These words exist in Tulu and may be that Vedics borrowed them from proto-Tulu neighbours.
Ukha means hip in Tulu. Okka noolu in Tulu refers to ‘loin string’ or the thread tied around the hip in olden days. Phalgu has similarity to ‘palku’ in Tulu; palkuni (verb) in Tulu means becoming soft, like a ripe fruit. And aaNi in Tulu means nail. Another word of interest is mayUra (=peacock), which is also considered as an extraneous word in Rigveda. In Tulu ‘maira’ exists since olden days; the ‘Maire’(=peahen, the female pea fowl) was a favourite name kept for women among Tulu tribes in earlier days.
The existence of Tulu words in Rigveda, indicates the antiquity of Tulu language. It may also mean that proto-Tulu speaking people were living in the area where Vedas were composed.
Footnote on Pela and Peja
The English word ‘jack fruit’ was derived from the Malayalam word ‘chakku palam’. In an earlier note (24) I erroneously suggested that word came from ‘jakku palam’, based on a random reading. I must have misread it. Manjunath pointed out to me that he has not heard any ‘jakku palam’ in Malayalam. So I googled on this howler and found some interesting information provided by Julia F Morton (1987).
Jack fruit or Jakfruit or Jak or Jaca (botanical name: Artocarpus heterophyllum) is considered native to
Western Ghats of . The trees thrive well in rainy, tropical-subtropical regions and are commonly found distributed in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Indonesia, Philipines, Mauritius, Uganda, Kenya, Zanjibar, and parts of Himalaya and southern China, apart from being distributed in most parts of India. India
Morton classified Kerala jack fruits into (1) Kooja chakku and (2) Kooja phazam (barke or Varika). The ‘kooja chakku’ is the jack fruit with soft, puply carpels, called ‘tuluve’ in Tulu. So we find the word ‘chakku’ here that became ‘jack’.
The Malayalam word ‘kooja’ is related to the Tulu word ‘gujje’, the jack fruit. The Tulu word ‘barke’ denoting soft jackfruit that can be opened with hand is found also in Malayalam. ‘Varika’(Malayalam), varukkai(Tamil) and ‘varaka’ (Srilanka) appear to be related to the ‘barke’.
Western Ghats and coastal hinterland has another species of Artocarpus genus (A.pubescens?-wild jack ) known as peja or pejakai. The fruit, is of the smaller size of orange with soft spiny exterior and contains smaller carpels of grape size that taste distictly different from jackfruit. Otherwise it is similar in features to jackfruit. This tree is not described elsewhere and hence may not be a common tree in other tropical forests. The village name Pejavara (=peja+avara) means an open ground containing peja trees. Note the similar sounding tree names: pela and peja in Tulu.
Early Kannada (or Old Kannada, ca.400 AD)) bloomed around Banavasi town (presently southeastern Uttara Kannada region), with establishment of the Kadamba dynasty by Mayur Sharma at Banavasi. The similarity of Tulu ‘pela/pala’ and Kannada ‘palas’ words, in the two languages that grew up in close proximity is significant.