Margamkali performed during an arts & cultural fest.

Margamkali performed during a Syro-Malabar Nasrani wedding at Arakuzha.

Margamkali (Malayalam:മാർഗ്ഗംകളി ) is an ancient Indian round dance of the St. Thomas Christians community- based in Kerala state, mainly practiced by the endogamous sub-sect known as the Knanaya or Southist Christians.[1][2][3] The dance retells the life and missionary work of Thomas the Apostle, based on the 3rd-century apocryphal Acts of Thomas.[2][4]


There are several opinions on the potential origin of Margamkali. They are:

  1. It is traced back to Jewish wedding songs and dance from the diaspora.[5] Scholars have found common origin among Malabar Jewish dance and songs and the dance form of Margamkali.[5][6] In addition, scholars like P.M. Jussay and Dr Shalva Weil have found many similarities in the customs and rituals of Knanaya Christians and Malabar Jews.[7][8]
  2. It is derived from Sangam kali, a performance dance form of Brahmins.[9][10]
  3. It is derived from the Yathra Kali, a performance art of Nambudiri Brahmins in Kerala.[11]

"Margam" means path or way or solution in Malayalam, but in the religious context it is known as the path to attain salvation. The process of conversion to Christianity was known as "Margam Koodal" until recently in Kerala.[citation needed] Much of this folk art is woven around the mission of St. Thomas, the Apostle. The original Margam Kali describes the arrival of St. Thomas in Malabar, the miracles he performed, the friendship as well as the hostility of the people among whom he worked, the persecution he suffered, the churches and crosses he put up in various places, etc. These details are incorporated in the various stanzas of the Margam Kali songs. Kerala's Margam Kali is an important element in the age-old and hallowed tradition of St Thomas among the Syrian Christians of Malabar Coast.[12]

The disparity between the present condition of this form and the early days leads one to assume three important phases in the history of Margamkali. The first phase was the pre-colonization one in which this semi-theatrical form was performed by the Saint Thomas Christians during special occasions. Parichamuttukali (The sword and shield dance) was also a part of it. Later Synod of Diamper curbed and suppressed this native form. During the seventeenth century, due to the efforts of a Knanaya priest Itti Thomman Kathanar, the textual part of this form got certain upliftment and care. The Margamkali might have been edited and refashioned into the present fourteen stanza structure during this period. However, until the end of the nineteenth century the art form was not in common practice even though it did exist in some places. But at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the form became popular once again, and some structural changes took place then. Masters such as Kalarikal Unni ashan, Indumoottil Kocheppu ashan, Indumoottil Kutto ashan were some of them who were responsible for this change and upheaval. By this time the Knanaya scholar Puttanpurikkal Uthuppu Lukose compiled and published Margamkali Pattukal in 1910. In 1924 the European priest and scholar Fr. Hosten S.J. witnessed the Margam Kali danced by the Knanaya of Kottayam and was enamored by the ancient artform. Subsequently, Hosten endeavored to present the dance at the Mission Exhibitions at the Vatican in 1925 by bringing these dancers to Rome, however this venture was met with mass resentment and disapproval from the Northist St. Thomas Christians who viewed the artform as being an "uncouth performance" and stated that if performed it "might ridicule all the St. Thomas Christians". [13]

In the late 1900s the art form was heavily in decline among the St. Thomas Christian Community but the Knanaya community took upon the initiative to promote and further expand the art form. During the 1960s the St. Thomas Christian scholar of folk culture Dr. Chummar Choondal led a sociological survey of the Margam Kali and noted that the practice was solely of the Knanaya Community. [13] Furthermore, Choondal found that all of the Margam teachers and groups of the time period were entirely Knanaya. [13] The following analysis of the art-form was stated by Dr. Chummar Choondal.

“Knanaya Christians have the most ancient and varied art forms. Margamkali is their dance form. Generally, it is said that margamkali is said in vogue among the Syrian Christians, but a close and critical observation will show that the practice and propagation of margamkali were among the Knanites. During my research in the 1960s, I could not find this art form practiced in the regions like Trissur and Pala where the Syrians are thickly populated. The traditions of margamkali can thus by analyzed: 70% among Knanaya Catholics and 25% among Knanaya Jacobites.” [13]

In the 1970s and 1980s the Knanaya priests Fr. George Karukaparambil and Jacob Vellian as well as scholar of folk culture Dr. Chummar Choondal undertook years of heavy research and study with the help of 33 Knanaya ashans or teachers of Margam Kali to revitalize the ancient art form. Through critical historical, musicological, and ethnochoreological evaluation this team of researchers systematized Margam Kali and promoted it among schools and cultural organizations as an item of competition in youth festivals and eventually presented it to Kerala's Minister of Education who introduced a 14 minute long documentary created by the team. In order to make sure Margam Kali would be an art form set in stone, the team looked for a formal center for the furthering or Margam Kali and allied Christian art forms. Mar Kuriakose Kunnasserry the Bishop of the Knanaya Diocese of Kottayam came to the aide of the team in 1995 and established Hadusa (Syriac for Dancing/Rejoicing), as an All India Institute of Christian Performing Arts which in part has forever aided the existence and prominence of Margam Kali today. Hadusa has released a text titled "Margam kali Aattaprakaaram" which is considered as an authentic reference material for this art form. [3]

Women wearing Margamkali dress as part of a performance in a college arts festival


Knanaya Margam Kali

Typically, a dozen dancers sing and dance clapping around a Nilavilakku wearing the traditional "Chattayum Mundum". The lamp represents Christ and the performers his disciples. The performance is usually held in two parts ("padham") and begins with songs and dances narrating the life of Saint Thomas, the apostle. It then takes a striking turn with a martial play of artificial swords and shields. Margamkali does not use any instruments other than two small palm size cymbals played by the same person who sings the song. It was originally played by men and afterwards by boys, but nowadays women also perform the dance.[14]


Currently both Margamkali and Parichamuttukali are included in the State Youth Festival of Kerala. This makes these art forms a competitive item in the Four-tier system (i.e. School, Sub District, Revenue and State level) Youth festival.[15] Margam Kali is performed mainly by women in cultural shows and by school children in a variety of competitions.[16]


See also


  1. ^ Ipe 2015, p. 289.
  2. ^ a b Vellian 1990, p. 31.
  3. ^ a b Karukaparambil 2005, pp. 497.
  4. ^ Curtin, D. P.; James, M.R. (June 2018). The Acts of St. Thomas in India. ISBN 9781087965710.
  5. ^ a b Neumann K (1998) "Mond, Gott Siva und heiliger Thomas: Die religiöse Gemeinschaft der Knanaya in Kerala" Universität Marburg p 150
  6. ^ Vellian, J (1990) 'Crown, veil, cross : marriage rites' in Syrian churches series, vol 15 p 30
  7. ^ Weil, Shalva. "Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: the Cnanite Christians and the Cochin Jews of Kerala," Contributions to Indian Sociology, 1982. 16(2): 175-196. Weil, Shalva. "'Symmetry Between Christians And Jews In India: The Canaanite Christians And The Cochin Jews Of Kerala" in Tim Timberg (ed.) The Jews of India, Delhi: Vikas Publication, 1986.pp.177-204.
  8. ^ Jussay, P. M. (2005). The Jews of Kerala. Calicut: Publication division, University of Calicut.,pages 124-125
  9. ^ "Preserving the purity of Margamkali". 29 April 2011 – via
  10. ^ Ulloor Parameswara Iyer - Kerala Sahithya Charithram
  11. ^ M. V. Vishnu Namboothiri, Dictionary of folklore, page 529
  13. ^ a b c d Karukaparambil 2005, p. 582-583.
  14. ^ The Hosten pictures of 1924 published by Prof. George Menachery may be referred to
  15. ^ The efforts of Prof. George Menachery was met with the approval of Minister T. M. Jacob in introducing this item in the State Youth Festival
  16. ^ "Margam Kali – History, Text, Lyrics, Theme, Early Reference and Modern Developments". 4 May 2009.

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