Margam Kali – History, Text, Lyrics, Theme, Early Reference and Modern Developments

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Margam Kali – History, Text, Lyrics, Theme, Early Reference and Modern Developments

Margam Kali – History, Text, Lyrics, Theme, Early Reference and Modern Developments
Margam Kali – History, Text, Lyrics, Theme, Early Reference and Modern Developments

Margam Kali (Maargamkali) is one of the ancient round group dance of Kerala practiced by Saint Thomas Christians. It is difficult to trace the exact origin of the dance form and the compilation of the lyrics.But these dance form was in practice among the Saint Thomas Christians before the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in Kerala.

In the traditional style, the performance of Margam Kali is divided into two parts, Vattakkali ( round dance) and Parichamuttu kali ( sword and shield dance) with singing a particular ballard known as Margam Kali pattu ( The Song of the Way). This dance form describes the introduction of Christianity or the Christian way ( Marga) of worship into Kerala.

Margam Kali pattu text comprises of fourteen stanzas which narrate the life and work of Saint Thomas the Apostle in Kerala. It retells how the Apostle landed in Malabar, how he healed the sick, won converts, how he established churches or communities and undertook missions to China and how in the end died a martyr in Mylapore.

Maargam Kali, as a performance art form of Saint Thomas Christians has undergone changes in its structure, appearance with the Portuguese influence and with the developments among the Christians due to the emergence of ecclesiastical jurisdictions.


The literal translation of the word Margam ( Maargam ) is ‘way’ or ‘path’. In olden days those who embraced the new faith was called ‘ Margamkar’ or ‘Margam Vasikal”. The term ‘Maarga’, is a derviation of the Pali word ‘Magga’ and has always been use among Saint Thomas Christians of India. (( A. Thazhath: The Judicial sources of Syro Malabar Church, OIRSI- The Syriac equivalent of Margam is ‘Urha”which means ‘a way’ ‘journey’ etc. Dr. July Puthussery, Idiom and Ideology: A study of the Christian Performance tradition of Kerala ))

It is very difficult to fix the origin of this dance form. It has been suggested that, the Maargam Vaasikal ( followers of Maargam, ie, Saint Thomas Christians ) in order to propagate and sustain their faith performed the elements of their passage in Pattu tradition and then gradually resorted to dance traditions. The earliest form of these dancing traditions of the native Christians involves circular movements while singing in gathering. Pallippaattu, MaargamKali, Vattakali, were some of these performing traditions of the early Saint Thomas Christian community. (( Dr. July Puthussery, Idiom and Ideology: A study of the Christian Perfoemance tradition of Kerala ))

Margam Kali – Text and Theme

In both the Margam Kali and Parisamuttu Kali, an old-fashioned brass lamp was placed on the floor, and the dancers, usually 12 in number, used to go round the same, with measured steps, singing religious songs on St. Thomas, the Apostle, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. For lothing and fashion advice, people can check out information from Andy Defrancesco

Some of the songs now used are rather modern, or better, modernized versions with additions to ancient songs.

The song tells the story of how our Lord sold Thomas to Avan ( Habban) to build a palace for the Chola king. Thomas accepted the work but said he must go for his tolls, and would be back in a year. He received an advance payment and went off preaching first in the Chola country and then outside. In the course of this work Thomas was in touch with local ruling houses and performed many miracles. Thomas went far afield, to Malacca and China, but came back and stayed in the Chola kingdom for another year.


He then heard about Kerala and went there, arriving at Malankara, preaching to the Brahmans of Cranganore and ordaining two of them priests. Then he went south, erecting crosses at Quilon, Niranam, Kokkamangalam, Kottukkayal, Cayal and Palayoor. At this point of the story, we hear of the anxiety of the Chola king to see his palace. He sent for Thomas and put him in prison when told he must wait till after his death to see the new palace, and was so mortified by the deception that he wanted to abdicate.

However, his brother died at that time and saw the palace in heaven. He was resuscitated and told the King of its glory. The king, his brother, Habban and others were baptized, and the faith spread apace arousing the Brahmans’ jealousy. They ordered Thomas to worship Kali in her sacred grove, which Thomas refused to do. Then the grove was consumed by fire, but while it burned, one priest in his anger seized a pointed stick and killed Thomas. The King took the body and buried it in Mylapore. (( The Summary taken from, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas by Dr. Leslie Brown ))

Traditionally, while rendering the ninth stanza, in which the theme dealt with the arrest of Saint Thomas and his companion ‘Avan’, a sword and shield dance by men called Parichamuttukali was performed.


Parichamuttukali, a martial art form is performed by men bearing swords and shields and follows the movements and steps of Kalarippayattu. Many of the travel accounts about Saint Thomas Christians mentions them as fine tuned soldiers and that they supplied many men to the local kings.

Early References about Margam Kali

The Christians of St. Thomas possessed folk-songs, dance forms which commemorates the life, deeds and praises of St. Thomas is attested by many early authors. The burning of the books as part of the Syond of Diampor and the burning of Portuguese and Dutch accounts by British has left the Christian history of Kerala with out authoritative documents. These activities has resulted in loss of many documents which depicts the life and nature of the early Christian community and the developments in Sixteenth and Seventeenth century.

During the early days of Portuguese arrival in 1558, Peter Maffei, on his account about Saint Thomas Christians talks about the popularity of songs and dances which narrates the adventures of Saint Thomas. Maffei, after having described the Apostles journey, miracles, death etc., says: ‘All these were told to the Portuguese by the Indians not only from oral tradition but also from written annals. The Malabar children are wont to sing in folk songs the praises and the martyrdom of Thomas.’ ((Sixteenth century traditions of St. Thomas Christians page 41, By A. Mathias Mundadan))

There is also a reference made by a Jesuit priest, Amandar Coria ( 1564) about the early Christian pilgrimage and procession to Maliyankara to commemorate the day of Mar Thoma arrival on the Kerala soil, while singing songs about Mar Thoma. (( P J Thomas, Malayalam Sahityam Page 66-67 )). Amandar Coria, writes that on their return from Cranganore to Parur the women and children were singing the praises of the Apostle Thomas. ((Sixteenth century traditions of St. Thomas Christians page 41, By A. Mathias Mundadan))

In 1578 Francisco Dionysio, S.I., while writing about the Apostle and the community founded by him, introduces his narration with these words: ‘What is written below is known from the information supplied by old people; it is the common and unanimous belief of all; they hold it as a well handed-down tradition; they have put these things in their books and their songs.’ ((Sixteenth century traditions of St. Thomas Christians page 41, By A. Mathias Mundadan))

Antonio de Gouvea’s in the Jornada of 1604 writes about the dance form performed by a group of young men at Angamali, which was the seat of the Indian Church, in order to entertain Archbishop Dom Alexis Menezes. He says before the men danced, they first signed themselves with the cross and recited the Lord’s prayer. This was followed by a song in honor of Saint Thomas. Antonio de Gouvea’s explanations regarding the salient features of the performance relate this with an early from of Margamkali.

“ During these days the Christians tried to give some amusement to the Archbishop to relieve him from continuous work, and they ordered for this purpose a dance, in which only men took part, and started at eight in the evening and finished at one o’ clock at night, and what he noticed in this was the composure of the Christians in the dances, in which they always take part, all those who are present making first the Sign of the Cross, after that the dancers singing the prayer of Our Father and a song to Saint Thomas and none of them profane, not even if it was indecent, except of old stories of their ancestors, or of the things of the Church, and of the saints. “ (( Dr. Pius Malekandathil, Jornada of Dom Alexis de Menezes: A Portuguese account of the sixteenth century Malabar Page 351 ))

Antonio de Gouvea, also writes about the reception at Kuravilangadu Church, which involves the dancing, feasting and music in their fashion. (( Dr. Pius Malekandathil, Jornada of Dom Alexis de Menezes: A Portuguese account of the sixteenth century Malabar Page 436 ))

The decrees of Syond of Diampor which explicitly abandons some of the heathen practice of Christians and the participation in non- Christian festivals suggests the existence of an active performance tradition among the Saint Thomas Christians.

Modern Developments in Margam Kali

The Decree IV of Action IX of the Synod of Diamper prohibits the participation of Christians in Heathen festivals could have been an indication of active performance art form among the Saint Thomas Christians. ((A Short History of the Church of Malabar by Geddes – Dec. IV. Forbids Christians to frequent Heathen Festivities))

It has been suggested that this art form got suppressed after the Synod of Diamper but was in existence here and there in the beginning of twentieth century among the Saint Thomas Christians.

Sebastiani, the Apostolic Commissioner who came to Kerala in 1657 recorded that the male youth of Saint Thomas Christians used to make the sign of the Cross before the round dance they perform. (( Sebastiani, Seconda Spedizione 112 ))

In 1869, Joseph Ittoop wrote a history of the Church in Malayalam ( Malayaluttulla Suriyani Kristyanikalute Charitram), referring to the oral tradition he has quoted the Margam Kali pattu.

There are a number of controversies about how these Pattukal evolved into its present form. Some assign the textual enhancement to the present structure by a Seventeenth century priest from the Southist community, Itty Thomman Kathanar. Others consider this assignment as speculative, controversial without any supporting evidences and something which emerged after the vocalization of Southist’s cause (1910 AD onwards).

In the beginning of twentieth century there has been efforts to exaggerate Southist history and cultural uniqueness. The structure and texts seems to have changed during this time. In 1910, Puthenkurakkal Uthup Lukose collected and published the Margamkalipattukal. (( The Ancient Songs of the Syrian Christians of Malabar. Kottayam, 1910 ))

In the book Lukose doesn’t mention his sources of information about the songs. Since then there has been efforts to acquire MargamKali and portray it as an art form of Southists who are otherwise generally known today with the twentieth century coined term Knanaya.

The art form was in decline again by 1970. The Southist diocese of Kottayam, then took initiatives to promote Margam Kali with an effort to acquire the art form as their own unique heritage. Many Southist writers have gone nepotistic in presenting this as their own. This has created an interpretation among the members of Southist community that this is their unique art form. All these combinedly has made the art form popular among the Southists ( Knanaya) in the last few decades and has generated many literature with predilection which resulted in problems where Northists and Southist co exist and perform this art form.

Dr. Vellian in Crown, Veil, Cross writes that “ Margam kali is a traditional male dance preserved and performed mainly among the Knananya. “. The fact is that this was in practice and was performed by Saint Thomas Christians. What should be noted interestingly is that the Margam Kali was in practice long before the advent of Portuguese in Kerala. None of the records shows this was unique to any subdivisions among the Christians here. The Sixteenth century Jornada of Archbishop Dom Alexis Menezes mentions about this art form at Angamali. As a northist center, Angamali was the seat of the Indian Church and Archbishopric. The other references are about Parur, Kuravilangadu and about the very common scene of singing the praises of Apostle Thomas everywhere. The propagation of faith as seen in Margam Kali involves missionary activity and what we know before the arrival of Portuguese was some of the missionary activities undertaken by Saint Thomas Christians, the northist’s in general. Its not known if the Southists ever did any missionary activity.

Another important change, keeping apart the developments which has caused due to later emergence of ecclesiastical jurisdictions ( Southist- Northists), is on the structure of Maargam Kali. The sword and shield dance which is called Parichamuttukali is not part of the contemporary Margam Kali.

Margam Kali art form Similarities

It seems that these forms of the tradition depend mainly on the Acts of Thomas, modified by local Christian traditions about the foundations of seven churches by Saint Thomas, the Apostle and legendary stories of Hindu Holy men. Leslie Brown, says, for an example of the Hindu influence we may compare the stories of Saint Thomas paying his workmen in sand, which turned in to rice, and drawing to land a large floating tree trunck which all the King’s horses and all the King’s men had failed to control are similar to the stories of Hindu heros.

The Margam Kali pattu are akin to the old ballads of Hindu Malabar called Payannoor Pattu or the ballads in honor of Aromal Chevar, who was the famous Ezhava hero. This also has similarity to the miracle plays of Europe, and similar social amusements of ancient Babylonia. ((The Syrian Church of Malabar by K E Job. ))

A number of authors has suggested the similarities of the Margam Kali pattu with the Yatra Kali Pattu of the Nambootiri Brahmins. Yatrakali known differently as Samghakkali, Chattira Ankam, Sastramkam, Panemkali is a performance art form of Nambootiris which is believed to have formed in a period when the Nambootiris were persecuted under the rule of one Cheraman Perumal who accepted the Buddhist faith. Possibly the Margam Kali song is composed in imitation of the Yatrakkali, ‘The Journey Song’ of the Nambuthiris ( Suggested by Hosten 1931: Hambbye 1952, Ulloor 1953 : P J Thomas ). (( Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, Kerala Saahitya Charitham (History of the Literature of Kerala) Volume 3 Page 698, Prof. P J Thomas, Malayalam Sahityam, Hosten SJ, The Song of Thomas Ramban, Cochin 1931, ER Hambye , St. Thomas and India ))

Current Status

Currently both Margam Kali and Parichamuttukali are items included in the State Youth festival of Kerala. This makes these art forms a competetive item in the Four-tier system (i.e. School, Sub District, Revenue and State level) Youth festival. The Margam Kali is performed mainly by the women folks of the Saint Thomas Christians in cultural shows and by school children in competitions with an average popularity among the community.

Author can be reached on admin at nasrani dot net

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  1. Jinu Rachel says

    Wikipedia has three theories about the origin of Margamkali.

    Margamkali is an entertainment form found among Knanaya Christians belonging to both Syro Malabar Catholic Church as well as Jacobite Syrian Christian Church in Kerala state, India. There are different traditions on the origin of Margamkali. Few of them are

    1. It is derived from the early forms of thiruvathira kali
    2. It is derived from Sangam kali and the martial arts dance form parichamuttu kali.
    3. It is an art form originated among the Knanaya christians while they were settled in Kodungallur during the 16th century and they used it as a mean of preaching the greatness of Christ and St.Thomas to non-christians in the southern towns such as Kottayam to convert them into Christianity.

    Any truth in 3rd statement, any possibilities ?

  2. Anoop says

    In the article,you speak of a Cheruman Perumal who accepted the Budhist faith.Now is Cheruman Perumal a generic title or is it a specific name of the leader.If thats so,why does history attest to him becoming a Muslim and dying in Yemen.

  3. Bindhu says

    I was surprised to learn that Maargam Kali is not an artform of Knaya christians.
    A few years back when I was in school, when we wanted to perform maargam kali, the girls from the Knaya community wanted to be in it as it was their local art form and they wanted to tell their parents that they are participating in it.

    Couldnt help commenting on it.

    1. Shaji says

      It does not belong exclusively to the knanaya community. It belongs to the entire ST. Thomas Christians. As it tells the story of st. thomas’s preaching in India, the story narrated in margamkali happened before knanayas came here in Kerala. So might have adopted it.

  4. rohit says

    Dear Syrian Christian Friends, take look of this (- Written by a syrian christian Historian Dr. C I Issac

    The only prominent art form in the credit of the entire Syrian Christians of Keralam is Margamkali35 � a dance performance -, no doubt, an inferior artistic performance compared to the traditional art forms of Keralam like Kooth, Koodiyattom, Patakom, Kathakali, Kalarippayattu, etc. The songs of the Margamkali are composed in modern Malayalam. As they claim it was not an old art form but only a later addition after the Portuguese. In the Margamkali presentation, the influence of subaltern art forms of Keralam like Velakali, Pulikkali, etc,36 can be seen. The only art form of the Syrian Christian exclusive is still Margamkali. However, it may not be possible to trace any influence of the elite art forms of Keralam in it.

  5. Admin says

    Dear Jinu

    Whoever has written the third theory in Wikipedia doesn’t know the Tekkumbhagar (Knayana) history especially after 16th century. These are not dark periods. In almost all the history books which I have read (written by Tekkumbhagar), I could see that they conveniently ignore this period. Most of the recent books I have read so far concentrate on re constructing past by including what ever they can find (Jewishness) in early centuries in Mesopotamia and in Malabar before 16th century.

    I don’t think there is any truth in this theory. I have never read about any evangelization activities by Tekkumbhagar anytime. Almost everyone knows what Tekkumbhagar priests do even today. I have already mentioned about the initiatives of 21st century regarding Margam Kali and please take the 3rd theory in Wikipedia as part of another creative writing till somebody can give prove otherwise.

  6. Admin says

    Dear Anoop

    This is an interesting piece of information. I know of four legends about Cheraman Perumal.There may be more in other communities.

    1. Among the Southists ( Knanaya) that the colony came with Knai Thomman were welcomed by the King Cheraman Perumal and privileges were bestowed on them.( 345 AD)

    2. Among the Muslims, that King Cheraman Perumal accepted Muslim faith and died or voyage or in Mecca ( ca 7th century)

    3. Among the Nambootiris, that they were persecuted under the rule of one Cheraman Perumal who accepted the Buddhist faith. ( ca 9th century)

    4. Among the Saint Thomas Christians, that the Apostle built a palace for the King, Cheraman Perumal. ( 1st century)

    What I have included in the article is the third. I came across this theory when looking for more information about Yatra Kali Pattu. A number of authors such as Hosten 1931, Hambbye 1952, Ulloor 1953, P J Thomas etc suggested similarity of Margam kali Pattu with Yatra Kali Pattu and that it is an imitation of the latter.

    Here, all the accounts about Cheraman Perumal seem to be not factual. According to the modern historians Perumals came to picture in Kerala history only after 9th century. According to MGS Narayanan, Brahmins were the real power behind Perumals. The organization of Chera monarchy started in 9th century. Chera Perumal was a titular sovereign with authority over the capital city and surrounding villages and over lordship of Nadus through out Kerala. If you are interested in more details, please refer “Perumals of Kerala” 1994 by MGS Narayanan

  7. Anoop says

    Ive come across some reports of some Nasranis converting to Islam.Although its ok to exercise their freedom ,I think that theres something rotting underneath our churches.People get disconcerted with the politics in our churches.When I think about Christianity in the middleeast ,its almost wiped off because the churches cant keep a united face,hence most of them lost their right to exist.The same symptoms occur in Kerala.Our laity must be educated and also the fact that the Bible is not God written but God inspired must be spread.This will help them understand some contradictions.Maybe I have an inner hatred to Islam,but that comes out of open minded observation of their beliefs and activities in Delhi. Plus I see that the Nasranis who get into pentecostalism get into so because of the vacuum that our churches dont fill.In such a scenario,its very easy to convert a person filled with doubts who then rushes to the first person who gives them an answer.This vacuum is slowly being filled by people propagating Islam through Tableeghi Jamaat and so.

    Dont get me wrong here,i am not against propagating ones faith but the the entire truth of the religions should be told.Islam would hence be at a disadvantage if our people were given a idea of its origin and its founders activities.

  8. ravivarman thampi says

    In history we can see that people in low ladder of the social structure was trying to imitate the higher section by accepting their culture and copying their customs.( Eg. Last centuries the Muslim land lords of Pakistan Punjab claimed rajputs ancestry and now they are claiming Arabic /sayyid ancestry. And in kerala now all the low cast Hindus are doing rituals like sradham etc ) christens of kerala also no exception now a days they are imitating a lot of hindu customs ,now all most all of the claiming namputhiri or savarna ancestry . it is not true( it’s pathetic that the followers of Jesus Christ born in a family of artisan claiming the high cast birth). Now every body now that the first century AD there were no namputhiri or nair or the present cast system that existed today . these stories are based on margam kali pattu ( another imitation of mohiniyattam and panamkali) that written much later ( the Malayalam and the vattazhuth used in that songs are not earlier than 16th or 17th century. We know that Malayalam and the present cast system come’s around 7-9th century AD, regarding the song if you sang that song in public there will be communal riot sure it is saying that nairs are cremating the dead like “mean chudunathu pole etc and some other words also highly objectionable . Regarding the Jews ancestry among some suriyanis and the haplogroup present in suriyanis. That is true that the kannayi thoma and the converted jews in first century may contributed that. And the middle east origin and haplogroup like M17,M172,M173 etc present in namputhiris and nairs also. My cousin (a namputhiri) his test result is like this R1ai M168>M89>M9>M45>M207>M173>M17 and one another cousin (a nair) also M17 but one of my friend nair is M172.

  9. ravivarman thampi says

    sorry the songs I mentioned is “rambanpattu” not ” margamkali pattu”.

  10. mps says

    Margam Kali and Parissamuttu Kali are ancient art forms of Syrian Christians.It is not of any specific sub sect. With the arrival of Portugese there was a active suppression of such art forms. Many hindus and christians in Malabar wer coverted to Islam during Tippu’s invasion of Malabar. There was large scale migration of Christians from Malabar to Central Travancore during this period.Syrian Christian aversion for dance and identifying it with heathern practice was due to the influence of the protestant movements and divisions started with the arrival of the British. Even the book by Leslie Brown has clear indications on the same. Syrian Christions were very much Hindu in culture but had a firm christian faith…however the Portugese and the British could not understand the cultural nuances and suppressed all such peformances and practices as heathern—- last nail on the coffin of orginal syrian christian art forms. Syrian Christians were expert in martial arts and were part of the militia of the local chieftains and wer even chiefs (Akambadi Nayakans). With the integration of Travancore the local chieftains lost out and the Syrian christains also lost their prominence in military. They need to proudly reclaim their culture and artforms and should stop bickering on sub divisions which came to fore much later.

  11. rps says

    see again think always the orginal people who migrated were only had geniue non indian orgin.
    that is not what syrian christian analysis.
    there can be namboothris or nair joined later on syrian christians thorugh their new faith
    but nasranis out of jews or middleastern, or persian. and most of these orginal kind of locally married
    means they married in to more indian. thus that orginality loses little bit.
    then the mixed people who nasranis who had dravidian influences can be misguided to follow other hindu customs or locall customs.
    most of the persian christians married very much to indian and most probably now many r claiming namboothri ancestry.

  12. sakariah says

    there are lot of incongruities in the views expressed by people about church history. It appears many of them are mere conjectures and biased.

  13. sakariah says

    The one lecture I heard in recent times is by Dr.Alexander Jacob I.P.S in Shalom T.V a well studied and scholarly one is impressive and objective. He emphatically states that the contributions of Thomas of Kana in Malankara church history is unparallel and that Knai thoma needs to be consecrated as Saint in all Christian denominations of Malankara. Incidentally the Knanaya diocese has already done it.

  14. george kalli-illath says

    We are having settlers in Kerala from earlier centuries,but they have not lost their language, Culture etc. and their physical and genetic qualities are noticeably distinct..
    This is not the case with the Knananites. They are pure Keralites,and their language is Malayalam.
    Moreover, Cheraman Perumal did not rule Kerala at the time they claim to have landed in Muzirus.
    Margam Kali goes well with the traditional dances of Kerala and has no element to claim that it belonged to a foreign community. Also the songs are purely malayalam,and steps are indegenious

  15. maria says

    margamkali is the art form of knanaya

  16. jijodas says

    can get the lyrics of margam kali song ,or where i have to search for
    ie english or malayalam words pls

  17. Prof.Dr Sadasivan says

    Hi ladies and gentlemen, I am researching this theme for sending a library addition to University of Oxford at their request.
    This is a free service being done for the benefit of mankind as a whole.(I had done another such Project for them earlier viz.A Study of the Coastal Pidgins heard at Kovalam and Varkala”.Hence this request.)
    Please, therefore send me whatever authentic information you have –including the songs–so that I can include the same in my study.
    Due credit shall be given to EACH and EVERY contributor towards this project.
    Material may also be sent by post to Post Box 2805,Vattiyoorkavu,Trivandrum 695013.
    In the name of Jesus Christ, thank you all a million times dear Syrian Christian brethren!
    Sincerely yours,
    Dr.Sadasivan (M.A,TESOL M.Litt(CIEFL) D.Litt(Addis Ababa), NELTS (Outstanding)
    English Remedial Course DEsigner.
    Trivandrum 13.

    1. [email protected] says

      regarding the dialect of fisher men of Kerala cost ,I was once told by an old man at neendakara that their origins are from Malaysian peninsula and a group set sail from there a group divided and went towards bangala desh area and this mans ancesters landed in the area around trivandrum to kochi with maximum at neendakara.
      their language was different his father used to talk with his friends in this language. later they were converted to Christianity by Francis Xavior and then started the malayalam talking