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.
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.
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.
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