The Charition Mime and Udyavara

The heading would be mysterious to most people save a few from the Manipal or Udupi region of Karnataka, or those favoring Kannada & Tulu literary discussions. Most others may have heard a passing snippet referring to this in the middle of an uninteresting conversation, and so I thought it a good effort to cover this subject, for it is remarkable in many ways.

I have written often about trade from the Malabar coasts to various regions and countries all around from time immemorial, starting in the ancient times with the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Arabs, Eastwards with the Chinese and so many others. One must note here that there were also many trading ports in the South East and Eastern coastline, but we will for the moment restrict ourselves to the West. Spice & commodity trading at that time was not in reality restricted to the ports on the Kerala coastline, but many small and large ports all the way from Surat in the North of the Coast line to Kanya Kumari in the south. Then again I could be more specific and say that these traders did have a differentiation, and the Malabar Coast by definition extended roughly from the Goa area down to Quilon. Later on Malabar became synonymous with ports the North part of Kerala between Cochin and Mangalore.

I will now take you to a period in the mid 2nd Century AD or sometime earlier, a time when sea based trade intercourse existed between Greece and Malabar coats. It was not the beginning of these trade links or anything like that, but it was a time when Greek theatre was taking root in places farther away from Greece, places where their dominions flourished. This one takes us down to a place some 100 miles south of Alexandria and today’s Cairo, to an ancient Nile river city called Oxrynchus (Oxrhynchos, Oxyhydrinchus), named after the ‘sacred’ fish who ate the p*en*is of the Egyptian god Osiris after the God’s body was cut up by his brother Seth. Somewhere around 332 BC, Alexander conquered this area and established a Greek town with the name Oxyrhynchou Polis (town of sharp nosed fish). It soon became prosperous, and was the third largest city in Upper Egypt. It did well until 641 when the Arabs conquered Egypt, and then it soon fell into disrepair. Today all that is left is a little town that goes by the name El Bahnasa and some archeologists. As it was the prosperous capital of the 19th Nome at that time, vast amounts of paper were created and eventually dumped as garbage. Much of that remained underground as sands shifted and civilization rebuilt over the old remains. Today many of those thrashed fragments have been recovered, testament to the life of the city and are termed the Oxrynchus papyri. The prosperous city housing some 10,000 people even had a theatre that housed some 11,000, which is what we will soon visit. All this came to light when two young fellas from Oxford Grenfell and Hunt started excavation in that area in 1896.

For ten years, from 1896 to 1906, every winter, when the Egyptian climate was bearable, Grenfell and Hunt supervised hundreds of Egyptian workers, excavating the rubbish mounds, digging up tightly packed layers of papyrus mixed with earth. The finds were sifted, partially cleaned and then shipped to Grenfell and Hunt's base at Oxford. During the summer, Grenfell and Hunt cleaned, sorted, translated and compared the year's haul, assembling complete texts from dozens of fragments and extracts. In 1898, they published the first volume of their finds. They worked closely together, each revising what the other wrote, and publishing the result jointly. In 1920, however, Grenfell died, leaving Hunt to continue the work with other collaborators until his own death in 1934. Meanwhile, Italian excavators had returned to the site: their work, from 1910 to 1934, brought to light many further papyri, including additional pieces of papyrus rolls of which parts had already been discovered by Grenfell and Hunt.

Many of us would be familiar with Greek drama, especially the aspect of melodrama and how it became popular. It is not to say that other countries borrowed from it, but the Greeks had perfected it into an immensely popular art form. Drama troupes traveled around, and as an important town in the scheme of things, they were also at Oxrynchus. As it happens, a member of the troupe left behind his stage notes, it happens to be a stage musician who conducted or played the music for the plays that needed it. These were the annotated notes from the 2nd century incredibly survived the passage of time.

Among the fragments they discovered was what we now know as fragment 413 or POxy 413. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 413 (P. Oxy. III 413) is a manuscript of an adaptation of Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris. The setting however is shifted from Greece to India. The anonymous adaptation is known as Charition after the main character. The manuscript is held by the Bodleian Library as Ms. Gr. Class. b 4 (P). Whilst the exact date of the play is unknown, it cannot have been later than the second century CE, and was possibly done earlier. It is also unique in offering several stage directions of a percussive kind (tumpanismos, krousis, krotalismos and fart), indicating where drums; cymbals or other instruments were to accompany the action, dance and song. The contents were published for the new world in 1904, close to two thousand years after its production!!

Ok, so what is great about it? We do have writing samples from Greece, but this one was a very interesting play. This Papyrus 413 and the whole play was what they termed a ‘farce’. It was a farce with plenty of farts, a princess, devadasi’s, booze, a king and many big bodied amazons with bows and arrows and so on. OK, that is also familiar, at least some of it. What is unique?

The interesting part was that the entire play was set in a Malabar coastal kingdom and the ‘Greek’ play has liberal doses of an ancient South Indian language. When it was first discovered by Western historians, nobody had much of a clue. Then word spread around, Indologists were involved who eventually determined it was a Dravidian language. But as you can imagine, experts were divided in opinion. Some said it was an ancient Prakritic language, while most others agreed that it was Tulu or Kannada. The Tulu and Kannada factions have been discussing ever since on which one it is. But I will get to all that eventually. Let us get back to the play and the situation.

Think for a moment out of the box. This is a Greek play in Egypt. Why on earth should you accurately use those ‘gibberish’ words and phrases, realistically in such a far away place? Mere sounds would have helped convey that it was happening in a far away land. Think again about people like me, living in a far away land eagerly running to the movie theatre to see a Desi movie. So were there expatriates, who spoke that language in Oxyrynchus – lying along the Camel route from the Red sea ports to Alexandria? A colony of Kannada-Tulu speaking traders perhaps? Interesting eh? A raunchy noisy play containing ‘Devadasi’s’, perhaps a Firangi Devadasi even, lots of alcohol etc once in a week would have kept them happy and reminded them of home, maybe? As again, we will get to more inferences later. Let us see what this ‘interesting’ play is all about. That there were Indian traders living in Greek towns like Alexandria is testified by Dio Chrysostom (117AD) who mentions Indians among the traders, a very reputable trading class. In context one must also note that while there were Yavana colonies in Muziris (Cranganaore or near today’s Kodungallur) as well as Kaveripoompattinam in Tamil Nadu none have been discovered yet in other places. A historian, E.P. Rice, even suggested that Indian actors could have been involved in the production of the mime in Egypt, and that the barbarizing sections are the transliterated record of their lines.

Now to go to the scene of the play and recreate it, we have to travel to a place near Malpe in Udupi called Udyavara – otherwise termed Odora in these ancient Greek writings. As it happens, a Greek trading ship is wrecked on its shores. One of the members of the group is a beautiful girl named Charition. Odara is ruled by the “nayaka’ of Malpe or Malpinak. Of course a nice Yavana girl has but naturally to be added to any King’s harem of dancing girls or flutists (Hunt’s own opinion is that pirates carried her away to Odara in an ocean raid) and she is thus added to the local lot of Devadasi’s. The girl is dedicated to the Moon goddess of the local temple, the Goddess Selene.

Some days later, her brother heroically sets out with his followers to rescue her and reaches the place. As the story goes, the brother finds her at the temple grounds and they plan an audacious escape. Charition advises her rescuers with ‘inside’ information that they should serve strong wine to the king. Accordingly they serve the king and his bodyguards (women with bows and arrows) the ‘foreign liquor’ or strong wine (undiluted!). Soon the king and party get inebriated, dance and fool around, and fall into a stupor as the brother quickly escapes with the girl after they tie down the king and party with strong ropes. The buffoon attached to the party advises the girl to take away some temple offerings (ornaments?), but she refuse stating that they are the goddess’s property and it would be sacrilege to do so. The fearful Charition makes her final prayers to the Goddess Selene for a safe journey & departs. Charition as we read wants to escape mainly to see her father

Anyway they make their escape and the tale is told in this farce POxy413. As you can imagine, the realism is created by extensive dialog bits in the Canarese language, interspersed with the Greek. The humor of the drama comes with the ‘barbaric dances of the nayaka’ and his entourage after getting drunk, for wine is not available in this region and the people have no idea how to drink alcohol in a sensible way (as explained by the Greeks). They gulp it (much like the slave in the Yiju story of the Geniza scrolls) against their will and fall senseless, after which the Greek team sail away with the fair maiden. Then again there is much mention of loud farts by the clown, but it is not yet clear that it is as intended, it could very well be the word used for a required stage sound effect. But then, at the beginning of the papyrus text there is a discussion of how salvation might be procured through farting; the Fool says that he contains the necessary equipment in his bottom, and addresses a prayer to a divine personification, Lady Fart, mentioning a statue of her made of silver!!

For those interested, a translation of the farce can be found at the linked sites at the end of this article. However, the Kannada or Tulu words are not still clear and are best left to experts who are still poring over it and mediating a final conclusion.

So does it finally mean the settlers in Egypt were of Kannada origin or spoke a tongue akin to that projected? Was that the language used in the North Malabar regions before the entry of the languages we know today? All these I assume, lay ground for exciting anthropological and language oriented research. And strange isn’t it – we come across the Indian weakness for booze in the Geniza scrolls – dealing with the Bomma slave and now again in these papyri. If only the king of Malpe (Malpinak) or Alupa knew how to handle his liquor, we may choose to think, but then again, he did not, and so we have this precious piece of history. Other interesting facts are the usage of women as personal bodyguards (these days the Libyan dictator Gaddafi has such a set of Amazons guarding him) and the attachment the Yavana Devadasi forms with the moon goddess and her refusal to steal the ornaments or offerings made by her devotees, are interesting aspects of the story. Reading the lines and seeing somewhere a word similar to Mariyamma in the farce, reminded me of a Mariamman or goddess dance and kannagi, especially the latter and its relation to trade and the traders of Tamilnadu, but more on all that later, on another day. Does it mean that such a story took place? Probably not! Where did the Greek knowledge of the Udyavara locale come from? Traders or sailors or Indian expatriates in Egypt? How did the Kannada/Tulu/Prakrit words find their way into this mime and farce? What was the purpose? How much realism was intended? The mention of the women bodyguards with the great bows and arrows, the prospect of a monn temple in Odara….

I leave it to you, the reader to figure it all out as you like.

The Barbaric language of POxy 413- One of the most interesting features of the skit is the appearance of a number of Indian characters who speak dialogue in an Indian language. Shortly after the papyrus' publication, Dr. E. Hultzsch, a noted German indologist who had a strong command of the Dravidian languages, demonstrated that the words represented an ancient form of Kannada, and suggested possible readings for the dialogues in question which made sense in the context in which they were uttered (Hultzsch 1904). There is considerable ambiguity regarding the Indian language in the play, though all scholars agree the Indian language is Dravidian, but there is considerable dispute over which one. The dispute regarding the language in the play is yet to be settled, but scholars agree that the dispute arises from the Fact that Old Kannada, Old Tamil And Tulu during the time when the play was written were perhaps dialectical variations of the Same Proto language and over the years they evolved into their present forms as separate languages. Bhaskar A Saletore, KB Ramakrishnayyah and Sama Shastri are the proponents of the Kannada theory while PS Rai feels it is Tulu.

The eminent Dr Hultsch concludes - From the learned researches of Mr. Priaulx, it appears that before 200 A.D. four Roman emperors were visited by natives of India, Viz., Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, and Antoninus Pius. Only of the first of these four alleged embassies can it be safely asserted that, in spite of sensational embellishments, it rests on a historical foundation. For, Augustus himself declares in his Memoirs "To me embassies of kings were frequently dispatched from India, which had never before been seen with a leader of the Romans. The frequency of such missions proves that, already about the time of the Birth of Christ, a lively intercourse existed between India and the Occident. For this reason and those adduced before, there is nothing strange in the fact that the author of the farce discovered at Oxyrhynchu8, or his informant, must have been acquainted with the Kanarese language.

Tail note: Some say that the temple referred to at Udyavra is the Shambu Kailaseshwara temple or Shambhukallu (Chembukal) Bhiarava temple. However experts at Tulu Studies believe that this was built during the 4th century CE. Was it perhaps a Bhagavathy temple earlier? Note also that the Greek Goddess of the story - Selene is the Moon goddess, sister of Helios. However Greek history enthusiasts would now recall that the worship of Selene had been taken over by worship of the goddess Artemis (not the same deity) by 750-800BC. If that were that case, could this Drama be even older than 2nd A.D? And if that were true, it was well before the advent of languages like Kannada, Tulu and Tamil as the argument rests at today. Food for thought.

The Oxyrhynchus papyri (Vol III) – Grenhall and Hunt
The alleged Kanarese speeches in Poxy413 – LD Barnett
Remarks on a Papyrus from Oxyrhynchus: - E. Hultzsch
Iphigenia in Oxyrhynchus and India: Edith Hall
History of Indian theatre, Volumes 1-2 - Manohar Laxman Varadpande
Goddess Selene facts

For more details on Udvyara the place, refer Dr B Vishal’s charming blog. and this scholarly article at Tulu studies
For the complete mime/farce script check this link – Translation by Mark Damen
Images – Shambu temple – Tulu studies, others from www thanks


clash said…
This is a gem of a piece.

Thank you Maddy.

Keep writing :;)
narendra shenoy said…
Superbly written. Your writing makes people and places come alive. Enjoyed!
Extremely interesting. Plays could be based on historical facts or on mere fiction. Probability of the play dating back to 750 BC is remote.
I have gone to Malpe but unfortunately could not come across the temple referred. However there is an ancient Shiva temple in Udipi proper which could have been originally the moon temple. Probably it is known as Chandramouleeswarar temple. Udyavra might have become Udipi.
Maddy said…
Thanks Clash, Narendra..sometimes you sit & think how it was when those yavanas visited these places, what they thought of us.. and how life was..
Maddy said…
Hi PNS..
Welcome back, hope all is well at home..

The play is dated to 2CE or earlier, but people had forgotten Selene many hundred years before that - so why not??

Odara & Udyavara still exists . It is most probably the location because, in the play you see references to the brother looking across to see if the ship had come to take them away - they could do that only if it was on the shore line especially on a hill top as the temple referred to & pictured is located.
narendra shenoy said…
Maddy, I know this subject has come up many times but at the risk of sounding like a nagging wife, you should really, really compile these articles into a book. There are many people out there who absolutely refuse to read blogs out of sheer inertia, but will devour anything in print.
Happy Kitten said…
That was very interesting!

Indian expats in Egypt and elsewhere and inspiring enough to create plays...

nd this also brought to my mind what I read on the preface of Vkram and the Vampire by Sir Richard F. Burton

"It is an old, and thoroughly Hindu, Legend composed in Sanskrit, and is the germ which culminated in the Arabian Nights, and which inspired the "Golden Ass" of s,Boccacio's "Decamerone," the "Pentamerone," and all that class of facetious fictitious literature..
Dr. B Vishaal said…
Thank You For Linking to my blog post. Your article made for an interesting read. I am no history buff... but the writing was clear and vivid.

From the other comments on this post, I guess your other posts are equally delightful. Will try to read them when possible.

Older than tulu/tamil/kannada... hmmm... that could be very interesting.
Excellent content & presentation as usual !
I also request you to compile all your posts to a book .
Thanks again for this wonderful blog ..waiting for more to come
Maddy said…
Thanks Narendra..
I am giving it serious thought..let me see..
Yup - HK , how trade was a catalyst to many things called history..

Vishal - Thanks - you gave Udyavara some life with your photos..

Thanks Pravasi - plenty more on the way....
Fëanor said…
Hey man. A bit belated to the party. Didn't realise Oxyrhynchus papyri had references to India. I read this excellent book City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: The Lives of the Greeks in Roman Egypt, and blogged about some points of interest in it, but didn't recall any mention of India.
I came across this writeup, following links of this play. Very interesting and elaborate article. Thanks for this.

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