Qambel Maran- Syriac chants from South India- a review and liturgical music tradition of Syriac Christians revisited
The liturgical music tradition among Syriac Christians is unique. Though the Syriac churches flourished in Indian culture for nearly 2000 years, they continued using Syriac language and Syriac musical tradition.1. Even after divisions and latinisation attempts, Syriac churches were successful in keeping their Syriac music. Recently, all Syriac churches vernacularised their liturgy but the Syriac music prevailed in the Malayalam verses.
There are two music traditions among Syriac Christians in Kerala- East Syriac and West Syriac. Some of the ancient chants composed by Ephraem, the Syrian are used in both traditions. Syro Malabar Church and the Chaldean Church of Trichur (Church of the East) follow the East Syriac traditions and the different Orthodox/Jacobite churches follow the West Syriac tradition in their liturgies.
The ancient Christianity was evolved in Syriac culture and language. The Aramaic language was the official tongue of the Asia Minor up to Arabian Peninsula for many centuries. The flexibility of this Semitic language helped the expression and propagation of early Christianity up to India and beyond. Many early Christian writings have come to us in Syriac and constitute a great body of patristic, historical and exegetical work. Some of finest hymns and theological texts originated in the minds of Syriac speaking scholars who dominated the Eastern Christian realm.2
The St Thomas Christians used East Syriac Liturgy and East Syriac chants before the arrival of the Portuguese Missionaries. The rich liturgical heritage of the East Syriac church can be traced back to the early centuries of Christianity. The Anaphora of apostles Addai and Mari constitutes the earliest surviving anaphora.3
History of Syriac chants goes back to the period of Ephraim, the Syrian. (AD 306-373). The liturgical chants in the East Syriac tradition were reformed by Babai of Gabilta in the 8th century. The East Syriac liturgy says “as our melodies are beautiful, so, let our conduct be the same in His presence, so that with our words and our deeds, we may please the Lord.”4.
A new set of Syriac music also evolved in Kerala due to the attempts of latinisations by the Portuguese missionaries. This has historical and ethno musicological importance also.
When the Portuguese missionaries arrived, they wanted to introduce Latin liturgy among Syriac Christians. Syriac Christians vehemently opposed to it. Nothing other than Syriac was acceptable to them. So, the missionaries had to compromise and they had to satisfy with modifications only in the Syriac liturgy to remove the so called Nestorian elements. (Synod of Diamper 1599). Later due to political and other reasons, the Syriac Christians revolted against the missionaries at the historic Coonan cross oath. (1653). This made the missionaries to become a bit mild in their latinisation attempts and due to various factors like involvement of Carmelite Missionaries, the fact that the revolted group did not have a legitimate bishopric, also due to the political pressure from the Portuguese through the local kings etc., sections of Syriac Christians returned and joined with the missionaries. Subsequently, the missionaries were successful in introducing some Latin practices among the Syriac Christians like the benediction novena, solemn vespers, litany etc. that too only after translating the services into Syriac. This led to composition of appropriate chants in Syriac. These were created by either the missionaries or the local indigenous Syriac Christians.
All these were vernacularised in 1960s but the Syriac music prevailed. Fr. Abel Periappuram CMI (1920-2001) played a significant role in the transition of Syriac liturgy into Malayalam in the Syro Malabar church and he kept the Syriac music in the vernacularised liturgy which facilitated the continuity of the Syriac music tradition.
The role played by CMI congregation in Syro Malabar church in preserving the Syriac tradition is very important. The CMI congregation was created by Palackal Thoma Malpan (1780-1841), Porukkara Thoma Kathanaar (1799-1846) and Bl Kuriakose Elias Chavara (1805-1871) as the first indigenous monastic congregation for the Syriac Christians at Mannanam in Kottayam district of Kerala. It was the brain child of Palackal Thoma Malpan. Mannanam played a very important role in the evolution of Syro Malabar church in the Roman Catholic communion. Bl. Kuriackose Elias established St. Joseph’s press in 1844 to print Syriac books. It has to be noted that the same CMI fathers were instrumental in introducing many Latin practices in the Syro Malabar church, diluting its Syriac Christian heritage.
Qambel Maran is a music CD released by Pan Records Netherlands under their ethnic series by the Christian Musicological Society of India. This CD contains chants of the Syriac Christians of Kerala, South India. This contains 29 Syriac chants in 5 different sections sung by a few CMI priests from Kerala with Syriac choir in different Syro Malabar churches. This 66 minute CD comes with a 16 page very informative booklet also with relevant photographs. The booklet provides useful historical, linguistic and musical information on the chants. English translation and transliteration of the contents of the CD is also available.
This is a research product of Rev. Dr. Joseph Palackal, a CMI priest from Syro Malabar Church. He is a musicologist, composer and singer with special interest in the musical traditions of Indian Christians. He is the founder president of the Christian Musicology Society of India. He earned degrees in Christian theology, Psychology, and Hindustani classical vocal music in India and Ph. D. in Ethnomusicology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has published a number of research papers in English and Malayalam.5
The authorship of most of these chants is unknown. These are handed over by generations. Chants 3 and 16 are probably by Ephraim the Syrian. These texts were transmitted orally and via manuscripts until 19 century when printing in Syriac started in Kerala. The producer has confirmed the source of the text from the collection of ancient Syriac books at St. Joseph’s Monastery, Mannanam, Kottayam.
The music of these chants is the same as the liturgical songs of Middle Eastern churches. This music is also handed over to generations by oral tradition. There were some attempts to publish notations but that did not get popularized and there were regional deviations also. The producers deserve compliments in that they have taken very keen interest in keeping the traditional music in this CD. This is a real attempt to preserve our Syriac music heritage which is being disintegrated due to the vernacularisation of the liturgy. Note that these chants were sung by the choir of two Syro Malabar churches- St John’s Konthuruthy and St Mary’s Forane Church, Pallipuram, Cherthala, and the latter choir consists of a family who performs in the parish for more than a century which confirms the continuation of the tradition.
Violin, Harmonium, Drum and Triangle are the commonly used musical instruments in the liturgy. Violin is referred by Syriac music performers in Kerala as fiddle or rebec. All of these are string instruments and rebec, although it is a European instrument, it was derived from rebab, an Arabic- Islamic instrument. So, it is possible that we would have used such an instrument in the pre Portugese period. Harmonium, drum and triangle are probably European introductions.
This CD contains Syriac chants from different time span- from the ancient time of St. Ephraim, the Syrian, through the Portuguese latinisation era of composition of indigenous Syriac chants- showing a historical transformation of Syriac music heritage in Kerala. It is also a model for future researchers to study lesser-known musical genres in India.6
These Syriac liturgical chants are categorized into the following different names.7
Slotza – it is a prayer.
Hutamma is a concluding prayer at the end of a service.
A psalm is called mazmora.
Marmiza is a set of two or more psalms.
Chants of praise are called tesbohta.
Madrasas contain didactic texts which are sung in a solo refrain manner.
Turgama is an interpretation of biblical text.
Onita is a very popular type of chant which is sung in two groups that alternate the strobes The strobes begins with an incipit- suraya- which is often a verse from psalms that introduces the theme of the strobe and often falls outside the syllabic structure of the strobe The designated leader of each group intones the incipit that serves also as a cue for the melody of the strobe.
Some of these chants are restricted for certain occasions only-for example, services for the dead, some are only sung for funeral services of clergy, some are only for Raza etc.
The chants in the CD are divided into 5 groups as follows.8
I CHANTS FROM THE LITURGY OF HOURS
The most common hours are Ramsa, (evening) and Sapra (morning) in the East Syriac tradition. Leliya (night) is sung by monastic communities only.
1.Awun D’wasmayya- our father in heaven.
The Lord’s Prayer contains probably the exact words that Jesus taught his disciples. The chant begins with the greeting of the angels to the shepherds at Christmas night- and on earth, peace and good hope for all people Luke 1:14.In the East Syriac tradition, the prayer is further interpolated four times with the text based on the hymn of angels mentioned in Isaiah 6:3 and revelations 4:8- “Holy Holy Holy are you-qandis qandis qandisat. This chant is a slota.-prayer or supplication and is a part of solemn vespers- sung ramsa. The celebrant and the choir alternate the verses and the deacon concludes the chant with a wish for peace (n’salle slamma Amman)
2 Hallel hallel- praise praise
This is from Leliya. Usually sung before the Christmas night qurbana.This chant is from the third marmiza that consists of psalm 93, 94 and 95 “we glorify you with songs, the angels sang hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, at the birth of the Christ the King”, and “the being who is from the eternity”
3. Iso maran msiha- Lord Jesus Christ
This is an acrostic hymn by St Ephraim titled “Hymn of praise composed by St Ephraem with the letters of Jesus Christ-tesbota d’awida I mar aprem al atwata d’ Iso maran m’siha. It is sung in Sapra on a Sunday. This melody is one of those common to all the Syriac traditions in Kerala.
4 Marya kolhon hawbai-Lord all my faults
This is an onitsa from Lelia on Thursday. The text describes the cry of a repentant sinner who seeks refuge in God’s mercy.
5 Bendan sapra– in the morning
This is an onitsa from sapra on Monday. This describes the scene at the second coming of Christ. This is an example of hepta syllabic verses in Syriac poetry, popularized by St Ephraem – B’en-dan-sap-ra-d’met-pat-hin
This is an onitsa from ramsa on Tuesday. It describes the death of St Stephen, the martyr.
7 Brik hannana-blessed is the merciful one.
This is a tesbohta from leliya on a Sunday praising the mystery of incarnation.
8 Etpan al slotsa– turn to the prayer.
This is a tesbohta from Leliya on a Monday.
9 Taw n’yaqar– come let us honour
This is from the Leliya on the feast of virgins
II CHANTS FROM THE RAZA
The most solemn form of East Syriac Qurbana is called Raza. The degree of solemnity depends on the number of celebrants, number of readings and chants, rubrics, musical instruments and incense. Raza are celebrated on feasts.
10 Sliwa dahwa ian– the cross that became for us
The public veneration of the cross is part of the introductory ceremonies of Raza. The celebrant offers the cross to the people who show their respect by kissing it.
11 O dezdamman inja-O you are invited
This is a turgamma-interpretation to prepare people to listen to the reading from the Bible. A special feature of this particular chant is the addition of the vocable inja at the end of each line which is not in the text, in order to fill the melodic and metric structure. Such practice, which is common in secular folk songs in Kerala, seems to be peculiar to the liturgical tradition of the Syro Malabar church.
12 K’tawa ramba– the great book
This is sung in the Raza during the gospel procession. The same text and melody is sung four times, each time, with a different incipit.
13 Slam lek maryam– hail Mary
This is a hutamma-concluding prayer from the liturgy for the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The celebrant sings the verses and the congregation responds by singing amen
III CHANTS FROM THE SERVICES FOR THE DEAD
14 Qambel maran– receive o our lord
This madrasa from the short form of the office for the dead sung in a solo- group format. The celebrant sings the verses and the congregation repeats the first stanza as a refrain. This is sung by Fr Abel in this CD- probably the only recorded music by Fr Abel available.
15 La tekre lak– don’t be sorry
This is from the funeral services for the lay people. This is sung during the funeral procession from the home to the church.
16 Laika ezal min ruhak– where shall I go from your spirit
This is written by St Ephraem, based on psalm 139. The text is an example of syriac prosody in which a strophe consists of lines with varying number of syllables- e.g. lines of 8, 9, 10 and 7 as in lai-ka-ma-ran/ne-roq-ne-nnak//W’ai-na-at-ra/net-thse-min-qud-maik// en-hu-mar-d’har-te/d’al-ma-ma-thyat-la//b’rah-me-neh-we/su-la-mma//
17 B’had min yawmin– on one of the days
This is a madrasa for the funeral services for lay women. The text describes the sorrow of Martha and Mary at the loss of their brother Lazarus.
18 Etta pus lek– farewell o church
This is from funeral services for priests.
IV SYRIAC TRANSLATION OF LATIN CHANTS
These chants belong to the particular phase of the history of Syro Malabar church and hence important historically.
19. Quryelaison– Lord have mercy
This was used in the litany in honour of Blessed Virgin Mary- para liturgical service called ladinj.
20. Ha qes sliwa– Behold the wood of cross
This is used in Good Friday celebrations. This is a translation from Latin service.
21 Sanbah lesan– praise my tongue
This is a free translation of the first stanza of the famous Latin hymn Pange Lingua- Sing my tongue- used in benediction of Corpus Christi.
22 Kollan dasne– Let us all offer.
Syriac translation of the last two stanzas of Latin hymn Pange Lingua.
23 Ta lak ruha– Come O spirit.
This is the Syriacised Latin chant Veni Creator Spiritus. For the invocation of Holy Spirit in the ordination rites.
24 Slam lek– Hail to you.
This is a Latin chant Salve Regina translated into Syriac, used in Syro Malabar church in various occasions like ladinj etc.
V. CHANTS FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS
25. Bar marium– Son of Mary.
This is an ancient chant used by the Knanaya Community in the wedding ceremony.
26 Lak mar yawsep– You, St Joseph.
This is a chant praising St. Joseph. This was probably introduced in the post Diamper period in devotion to St. Joseph.
27. Sanbah I’marya– Praise the lord
Psalm 117 is sung with a refrain halleluijah added to each verse. This is sung as a part of flag hoisting ceremony on the first day of the parish Feast.
28. Hadmin ire– One from the angels.
This is about the angel Gabriel, used during the feast of annunciation on March 25.
29 B’eda d’yawman– On this festival day.
This is a tesbohta in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the solemn vespers for Marian feasts.
In all of these chants except bar marium, no female voice is heard which denotes that in the past, Syriac choir was male only. It may be that women were not allowed in the bema.
This CD is a very valuable piece of work in the Syriac heritage. As the liturgy was vernacularised, the Syriac heritage is slowly disintegrating in our community. This is causing identity crisis which is the important cause of the differences in the church. I think, this CD will revive our old Syriac music tradition in our churches and will be a valuable guide to our choir. We should encourage the choir to sing a few of these Syriac chants in the Holy Qurbana on at least Sundays. The synod should also instruct the community to use these beautiful chants in our Qurbana.
PS. Many thanks to Mr. Bernard Kleikamp ( PAN Records, Netherlands) and Rev. Dr. Joseph Palackal for permission to use two clips of 30 sec. length each from the CD as a sample in the article.
Author M Thomas Antony can be reached by email at – m dot Thomas dot antony at live.co.uk.
- Syriac chant traditions in South India, Palackal, Joseph J., Ph.D., City University of New York, 2005, 245 pages; AAT 3170204 [↩]
- Michael Najim ThD, Antioch and Syriac Christianity, A chalcedonian perspective on a spiritual heritage. [↩]
- Sebastian Broke, Oxford University, Some early witnesses of East Syriac liturgical tradition, Journal of Assyrian Academic studies, Vol 18 No 1, 2004 [↩]
- Geoffrey Wainwright, Westerfield Tucker, Oxford history of Christian worship. Oxford University Press, 2006, [↩]
- Wikipedia article about Joseph Palackal. [↩]
- Dr. Paulachan Kochappilly, CMI. Christian Orient, Vol. 27, no. 2 (2006), pp. 82-83. [↩]
- Qambel Maran- Syriac chants from South India, PAN records, Netherlands- CD and leaflet. [↩]
- http://www.thecmsindia.org/- Official home page of Christian Musicological Society, www.panrecords.nl- the website of Pan Records Netherlands [↩]