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Sanghakkali (Panayamkali or Yaathrakkali)

Namboothiri's who had acquired political authority in Kerala, developed a new hybrid art form called 'Sanghakkali' through adaptations of the music, dance, martial arts, folk-drama and other local art-forms and adding to it the Naalupaadam sung along the lines of the Veda chants. This represents a turning point in Kerala's traditional theatre arts and stage plays.

The Name:
The word Sanghakkali has regional variations in its name, and is also called Paanenkali, Yaathrakkali, Saasthraangam or chaathiraangam. This art form, which has a ritualistic flavour and yet offers knowledge and entertainment, truly exemplifies the naturally inherent wit, wisdom and satirical qualities of Namboothiris. The strong influence of the four-caste system (Chaathurvarnyam) was reflected in it till recently.

Knowledgeable people say that

It is more likely that as a form of entertainment of the Chaathira Namboothirs who were well-versed in this martial arts, it naturally came to be called Sanghakkali. It is popularly known as Paanenkali in north Kerala, Sanghakkali in the middle region and as Yaathrakkali in south Kerala, and has some variations in the stage and the performance.

The Origin and Myth:
There are only minor variations in the mythical versions. "Aithihyamaala" as well as historical treatises on language and literature make references to Sanghakkali.

During his reign, Pallibaana Perumal organised a debate between Buddhists and Namboothiris on the concept of religion. Jangama Maharshi (sage) is said to have appeared before the Namboothiris who were extremely anxious about the possible outcome of the debate, and helped them by advising some Manthrams for chanting. Standing around an oil lamp (Nilavilakku) with wicks lighted in all the four directions and chanting those special Manthrams for forty-one days was believed to have brought the victory to the Namboothiris so much so that this practice (Manthropaasana) was continued even much later for fulfilling of desires. This 41-day Manthram invocation was originally performed in the temple tank building (Kulappura) of Thrikkaariyoor temple (near Kothamangalam, east of Ernakulam) and is called Naalupaadam. Till recently, the annual temple festival at Thrikkaariyoor included Naalupaadam (Manthropaasana) and the circumambulating around the lamp became popular for fulfilment of desires.

Historical Background:
There was a period when a group of Namboothiris had to become members of the security forces formed to protect the land, forgo the learning of the Vedams and were consequently lowered in status and came to be called Chaathira (the word also means police). It was they who became Sanghakkali groups in the later years. The eighteen such groups as described in "Chandrotsavam" later proliferated into thirty-two. In addition to the responsibility for protecting the land, Chaathira Namboothiris are also to manage kitchen (catering) and the stage (drama,play, etc.). The 32 groups have separate deities, group leaders and instructors. (Click here for the list of these 32 Sanghakkali teams and their member families)

Opinions of history experts differ as to when Sanghakkali originated. Appan Thampuran traces its evolution to as early as 113 BC. According to language historian P. Govinda Pillai, it is 1500 years old (6th century A.D), which is concurred by Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer, Chummar Chundale and Vatakkumkoor. While R. Narayana Panikkar, P.K. Gopalakrishnan, P.Krishnan Nair, Krishna Chaithanya and Dr. S.K.Nair put the period as the latter part of the 8th Century, Kanippayyur Sankaran Nambudiripad believes that it started during the second half of the 10th Century.

The contents of the Paaliyam Declaration (Saasanam) of Varaguna in 926 AD, seeking to organize against the attacks of Chola king Paraanthakan during 925 AD, as well as the style and contents of Naalupaadam of Sanghakkali, have similarities, and therefore it is likely that their periods may also be somewhat close to each other. It can be inferred from the songs sung for Baliyuzhichil that Veerakeralan referred to in Paana may be the same as the emperor of the 8th country within the four Kazhakams. The period of Veerakeralan's reign has been estimated to be in the 8th Century AD. Sanghakkali must therefore have started after that period.

The linguistic characteristic observed in songs, folklore and plays (Poraattu) offer indication to the period. Prominence (or otherwise) of nasal sounds was prevalent even during the "Leelathilakam" period. Linguistic peculiarities during that period can be observed also in Naalupaadam and Paana. References to Sanghams in works such as Unniyachi Charitham, Unniyaati Charitham, Unnichiruthevi Charitham, Sukasandesam, Kokasandesam and Chandrotsavam show that this art form had already developed before such works. Thus, considering the myths as well as historical and linguistic factors, it can only be inferred that Sanghakkali must have evolved sometime between the 8th and 14th Centuries AD.

One can observe in Sanghakkali, which in itself manifests a unique coalition of music, rhythm, dance, lyrics, acting and costume, a wonderful combination of art forms like Kathakali, Paana, Theeyattu, Mudiyettu, Kaniyarkali, Purushartha Koothu, Paatthakom and Baliyuzlichil of the Velans.

Sanghakkali is usually staged in connection with six of the many rituals of  Namboothiris, namely, marriage, Choroonu, Upanayanam, Samaavarthanam, Panthrandaam Maasam (12th month after a death, first death anniversary), and Sraadham (death anniversary). It was also staged in famous Nair families as well as in temples. Partial staging of different combinations such as; a) Naalupaadam, b) Naalupaadam and  Vechunamaskaaram c) Naalupaadam,Vechunamaskaaram and Paana, is also not uncommon.

When performed in Namboothiri Illams, the stage is in the middle of the audience, under a temporary thatched shed (Nedumpura) in front of the house, while in temples, it is in the Utsavam shed. However, Naalupaadam if performed alone, is staged indoors.

In any Sanghakkali Yogam (team), there are three office bearers - Vakyaavruthy, Parisha and Kizhippuram. The group leader, Vaakyavruthy is mostly assigned to a member of a family having Vedic eligibility (the first five classes of Namboothiris. Click here for classification of Namboothiris). Other members of the Yogam form the Parisha, while Kizhippuram is the treasurer. Most of them belong to the Chaathira class of Namboothiris.

The Grihanaathan (Karanavar, head of the family) of the Illam in which Sanghakkali is proposed to be performed, should send an invitation to the Sanghakkali group leader of the Desom to which the family also belongs. The group leader along with the entire team reaches there on the afternoon of the previous day of the play performance. The Grihanaathan leads an appropriate reception to the team with Nirapara, Nilavilakku and Ashtamangalyam, accompanied by Vaadyaghosham. This formal reception is called "Kottichakam pookal". After they are led to the sit-out (Poomukham), the group sits around the Nirapara and Nilavilakku, and sings the Pookkulamaala song. Thereafter, the group and the Grihaanathan discuss and decide the details of the performance, and thus ends the "Kanamirikkal" part.

Naalupaadam and Uchchappaana:
Naalupaadam involves circumambulating around the Nilavilakku (lamp) which has four lighted wicks arranged in the four directions, and is done after the customary evening prayers of Namboothiris (Sandhyaavandanam). The four-line stanza in praise of the Thrikkaariyoor diety (Siva) is recited in the Vedam chanting style. This four-line stanza is presumed to contain the essence of the four Vedams. Singing hymns in praise of other deities follows this.

Next morning, after Ganapathi Homam and Saraswathi Pooja, there is a ritual called "Aduppil Theeyidal" (light the kitchen fireplace). It is from the Nilavilakku lamp which was used for Ganapathi Homam that the fireplace in the kitchen is lighted. In those days, as was mentioned earlier, the Sanghakkali groups also performed the cooking duties.

During lunch time some Namboothiris perform drumming (Keli) using Chenda, Maddalam, Chengalam and Ilathaalam. This is also known as Paanakkottu or Kaazhchakkottu.

Around four in the afternoon there is a "Chembukottiyaarkkal" (or Paathramkottiyaarkkal, drumming on vessels), which is considered as the Paana of the cooks. The large copper vessel (Kaathan Chembu) used for cooking is brought on to the stage unwashed, placed upside down, plantain leaf spread on it, the group sits around and beats on it, and sings Pookkulamaala, Paadaadikesavarnana and other songs. Meanwhile, two of them each holding a coconut shell ladle (Chirattakkayyil) and standing on either side facing each other, dance to the number "Eedum Koorum". At the end of the songs, they smash the ladles on the floor and then each of them breaks a coconut on the floor. This ritual is also called Uchchappaana (afternoon Paana)

After Chembukottiyaarkkal, there is an extended drumming session to inform the people of the area about the proposed play (Sanghakkali).

After the routine evening prayers (Sandhyaavandanam) the Naalupaadam is performed in much more elaborate manner than on the previous night, after which, a Vechunamaskaaram is also usually done. Contented at having accomplished his desire, the Grihanaathan offeres in a cloth sack (Kizhi) the remuneration amount by placing it along with the customary betel leaf and arecanut, on the wooden seat (Avanappalaka) set in front of the group. The team receives it and blesses the Grihanaathan. A portion of this amount is distributed among the members.

A sumptuous feast (Vaattelassadya) at night is an important part of the function. People are seated in several lines in the thatched dining shed (Nedumpura or Pandal), keeping one leaf near the lamp purportedly for Ganapathy. The group leader (Vakyaavruthi) is seated at the head of the line (Maanyasthaanam). Once the dinner is served and the Kutikkuneer Veezhthal (a rite to be performed before each meal) is over, starts the Vilambu Parayal, shouting aloud "Upastharanam Kondaa" (bring ghee!) which is followed by similar shouts from the others for other items. Any item, even those that are not available in kitchen, are ordered for! Reciting poems describing the quality of the curries (curry-slokams), and Neettuvaayana (prolonged renderings) demanding the enemies to surrender, all form part of the customary dinner proceedings.

Kandappan and Kurathi:
After a brief post-dinner break, all the members dressed in their full costume sing together the Vanchippaattu (alias Thonippaattu, boat-song) while entering the stage and perform Paana sitting around the Nirapara, Nilavilakku, Paalakkombu and Ashtamangalyam. The Paana consists of Paanathotham, Kandappan, Poli, Kurathiyaattam, Baliyuzhichil and Paanapari. Then accompanied by drums, prayers are offered to Ganapathi and Saraswathi, followed by singing songs in praise of Bhagavathi. Instead of Chenda, Para (a big standard measuring jar) is used as drum. Then the local chieftain (chief administrator of the village) character, Ittikkandappan alias Kandappan (Kaimal, a sub-caste of Nair community) arrives on the scene, supposedly to obstruct these prayer forms (Kottippaadisseva) of the Namboothiris, seeking explanation for the performance without his official permission. Ittikkandappan keeps throwing convoluted arguments and abuses at Namboothiris with the sole purpose of annihilation of this class. The Namboothiris, in turn, dexterously turns and arguments and words around and defeats him with convincing ease. Though humiliated, Ittikkandappan pretends as if he has received what is rightfully his and finally leaves. Kandappan's part is a full-length comedian's role.

After Kandappan's departure the group sings Polippaattu. The Grihanaathan is the first one to do Poli to encourage the participants by offering financial contributions. All the relatives and friends take part in the Poli. This ritual is over when they sing "Kaaliyum Thadavi Mechu" and perform Kottikkalaasam, and then they get up.

Kurathiyaattam is an important part of Sanghakkali and is considered to be a dance performed by Sreeparvathy disguised as a jungle huntress (Kurathi), having been much pleased that a Kottippaadisseva has been performed. Beginning with a slow Chembada rhythm and adapting a Kathakali style, it gets faster and ends in quite a fast pace. The costume includes a red skirt overcloth packing (Uduthukettu), a glittering scarf over the head, necklace, waist-band, Chilanka, and bracelets around the arms and wrists. Bhasmam (ash paste) will be smeared on the forehead. The dance requires considerable training and is accompanied by drums, but no music. Poonthottam Namboothiri's Murampitichaattam is another dance form in this category. Only Poothottam Namboothiri performs Murampitichaattam.

Ittykkandappan - Details of the mask
Ittykkandappan - Details of the mask
Ittykkandappan - Purappadu
Ittykkandappan - Purappadu


Ittykkandappan - Another scene
Ittykkandappan - Another scene
Ittykkandappan - Another scene
Ittykkandappan - Another scene


Baliyuzhichil and Aayudhameduppu:
Baliyuzhichil is a ritual supposedly meant to remove any kind of demonic (Bhootha-Pretha-Pisaachu) influence that may have afflicted the family and its members, and is similar to the Baliyuzhichil prevalent among the washermen community (Mannaan, Velan Piravi).

The ritual that follows Baliyuzhichil is the Aayudha Prakatanam (exercise with arms). Four Namboothiris carrying swords and sheilds after praying in front of the lamp perform 18 different varieties of martial arts such as Chaachukali, Munechachukali, Itakkikkali, Thirippu, Vaataaypu and Valiya Vaataaypu. Drums set in Chembada rhythm accompany this.

The last item of Paana is the Paanapari (Removal of Paana twig). The members stand in a circle, sing 'Pookulamala' and 'Kesaadipaadavarnana' and remove the Paala branch from the stage, thus ending paanapari.

Marathenkodan is the same Kaimal character who had earlier come on the stage as Ittikkandappan, but degraded as a fish-vendor. He now comes on the stage, carrying a basket of fish on the head and a walking stick in the hand. After a debate with the rest, he keeps the basket down, takes out the items from inside it, pretends the articles to be fish, introduces them to the audience and sings in praise of the quality of the fish.

The next programme is called "Vattamirippu" in which the group sits in a circle and sings songs. Yet another ritual is the "Vaaymurichuvatu" in which some of the members donning special costumes perform mono-acts on the stage. The  Poraattu comedian characters apt to make the audience burst into laughter are the Othikkan (Namboothiri Priest), Pattar (Tamil Brahmanan), Kongini (Kongini Brahmanan), Maappila (Muslim), Muthassi (grandmother), Kuravan-Kurathi (hunter-huntress), Mannaan-Mannaathi (washerman-woman), Viddhi (moron), Kallukutiyan (drunkard), Pandaran, Udumbupitiyan (catcher of  Udumbu, the giant lizard ), Maachan, etc.


Thereafter, all the actors, still in their costumes come on the stage, stand in front of the lamp, offer prayers of Ganapathi, Saraswathi, Sreekrishnan and other gods, and then circumambulate the lamp. This is called "Kunukkam". Next is the "Thonkaaram" in which they praise Devatha through the song "Alayorkaarmukil" and is followed by final "Dhanaasi" before they leave the stage.

Dhanaasi is the last item of the play. They use some dance steps while singing the slokam beginning with "Olikkolla……". They may also sing the number "Kaanaay Varenam Krishnaa…..". The singers then place the Chengala and Ilathaalam on the stage, pray to the lamp, and leave the stage, which marks the end of the proceedings.

Concluding Remarks:
This art form which had conquered an entire period in history has almost become extinct. The Naalupaadam and Aayudhameduppu portions of Sanghakkali are  still continued to be staged as part of the Utsavam in Baalusseri-Kotta (in Kozhikode district), Thirumaandhaankunnu temple (in Malappuram district), Kongad temple (in Palakkad district), Perumudisseri Vettakkorumakan temple, and Kodungallur Sree Kurumba Kavu. Recently Sanghakkali was staged partially in Thiruvittanam temple near Chathanur, and in Kottakkal Paandamangalam temple. There is only a handful of elderly (aged 60 to 100) and interested persons well versed with this ancient art form and are trying to keep it going.

The reasons for imminent disappearance of this art form may be traced to several factors such as the break-up of the feudal structure (land reforms, etc), modernization of education, new views about art, lack of trained teachers and willing disciples, and so on. It is indeed the duty of every Keralite to preserve, promote and strengthen such magnificent heritage links, even if with new adaptations and modernization, which reflects the times.

The very basis of survival and popularity of Sanghakali for such a long period was perhaps that it had constantly modified the proceedings and adapted and incorporated contemporary themes, be it the Kathakali or the Europeans or their cannons. In any revival effort now, it is therefore logical to continue with this concept of adaptations and modernisations through contemporary ideas, but maintaining the very essence of broad-minded satire and wit so inherent in this unique art form original to the Namboothiris.

| Article No:21.1 | Last update of this article:14th July 2002 |
1. "Chaathirangam" by C.K.Namboodiri, published by Kerala Sahitya Academy, Thrissur.
2. "Sankhakalikku Oru Aamukham" by Dr. P. Sankaranarayanan in the Mathrubhoomi Sunday Supplement.

1.Dr. P. Sankaranarayanan, whose thesis for Ph.D (from University of Calicut) was on "Sankhakali". He is now the Principal of Sreekrishna College, Guruvayoor.
2. Moothakorambu Namboothiri, a veteran, 99 year old Paanayamkali player of "Vellam Chaathira Yogam" and residing at Kuruvambalam, near Kolathur in Malappuram district.; He died very recently

Photo Courtesy:
Moothamana Parameswaran Namboothiri, Erumapetty, Trissur Dist.

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