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 ))
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.
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