The Mappila Lamayana

An introduction to the ‘The Mappila Ramayana of Malabar’

Many years back, when my second son was still a child, I used to translate and playfully sing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ in Malayalam for him often as he was always amused by it. One day, some months later, we met his class teacher, a petite Aussie lassie who remarked that she quite enjoyed the Mary version in our native palindromic tongue. I was a bit taken aback, trying to figure out what she was talking about, when realization dawned.

Well, that is how it is, you hear something, you like it, you then assimilate it and then pass it on to somebody else in the natural course…and this was pretty much what Piranthan Hassankutty (The Mad Hussein) did a hundred years ago in North Malabar. This wandering mendicant would go from place to place, with a stick supporting him, and a cloth bag on his back to sing an ‘off the norm’ ballad. Audiences were similarly amused by the playfully sarcastic or gentle ironic take on a famous epic, but sung in the Mappila Pattu style. People humored him and many of you will agree that Malayalees have always enjoyed humor & sarcasm. Even the late writer Kadathanattu Madhaviamma it appears hosted his session at her house, during her times. But then that was many years ago when religion was not ‘all consuming’ as it is in some parts of the world today.

As the story goes, one teenage lad, none other than the famous Vadakkan Pattu exponent TH Kunhiraman Nambiar listened to the Mad Hassan a few times around 1926 and committed some 700 lines to memory. Soon Hassankutty was gone from this world but Nambiar made it a point to narrate and popularize these lines in his private musical gatherings. Many a year later, K Karunakaran, tipped research scholar, writer and academician Dr Prof MN Karassery about this ballad. Dr Karassery, completed his thesis and decided after discussions with his colleagues and mentor VC Sukumar Azhikode to bring this story to light. This was around 1976. The text as he heard and recorded it, was published both by Dr Karassery in Kurimanam and another book of Northern ballads by Kunhiraman Nambiar was later released. The ballad did have a formal title, for it was a take on the Hindu epic Ramayana. And so with this background, let me introduce you to what some people know as the Mappila Ramayana or Muslim Ramayana of Malabar.

When the text was first published, there was some uproar from both communities, for it was somewhat beyond religious borders. But the scholars explained to the public that this was a prime example of a product of religious amity of that period, people agreed and we are richer from the knowledge of this special version.

Now we all know that there are so many versions of Ramayana available today around the world, there is the staple Valmiki version, then there are the Ananda, Adbutha, Vedanta, Kritivas, Damba, Dasaratha versions and so on for the list goes to some 300, but this one is a special version, for it is a commentary on the contents of the Ramayana, as seen by an observer of the another religion during the late medieval in Kerala. He compares and asks questions, but in a jocular and humorous tone.

But let us look at some parts of the text to get a basic feel. I will use here quite a bit of input provided by Dr Karassery for I had the chance to listen to the commentary by Dr Karassery in the Kairali TV Patturumal program

Interlude Excerpts

പണ്ട് പണ്ട് താടിക്കാരെന്‍ ഔലി പാടി വന്നൊരു പാടു
കണ്ടതല്ലേ ഞങ്ങളെല്ലാം ല)മായണ കഥ പാട്ട്
കര്‍കിടകം കാത്തു  കാത്തു  കാത്തിരിക്കും പാട്ട്...........
Translation to English
This is the song the old bearded saint sang a long time ago
The song that we saw as depicting the Lamayana story
We wait to hear the song every (monsoon season) of karkatakam……………

Dr Karassery and many others have talked at length about this version, and have concluded that the text is of indigenous origin, which it is from a language and custom point of view. It also follows the established story line as well. But the usage of the syllable L instead of R made me think, why is it laman and lamayana? Now how could that have come about? Did the usage come from Arabic or perhaps from the Far East? It is certainly a conjuncture that some of the Malabar Muslims migrated from the Tamil Coromandel areas, especially the Marakkars as I wrote some time ago, in a detailed article on that subject. But how would they have imbibed the pronunciation of L instead of R?

We do know that this is exactly how it is in the Chinese sections of South East Asia and China, since they pronounce R as L. We also know that eastern nations had trade intercourse with the traders of the South Coromandel. We know as well that they had their special versions of Ramayana (Malay, Thailand, Indonesia) including an Islamic version. So did the Mappila Lamayan concept originate there? Or was just a natural Arabic slant to R? Not really, for R is present in both Arabic based Beary and Mappilah dialects as a syllable. So as a quick logical conclusion, it does appear that this came back from the Malay or Indonesian regions through one or more of the traders. We do not know, but let us poke around that hypothesis for awhile and see where that leads.

And so I directed my research to the SE Asian areas and after wading through many stories and corollaries of Ramayana as the SE Asians saw it, and I settled down to study the shadow puppet play of Lama called Wayang Kulit. This is a very popular puppet theater in those areas and versions of the Indonesian Wayang Kulit became popular in Balinese, Malay, and Siamese cultures. Wayang simply means theatre in Indonesian and kulit means leather or hide. Wayang obviously follows the pattu tradition that we know in ancient South India and appears to have originally followed Indians to Indonesia from perhaps Kerala. (If you recall we have a similar one involving leather puppets at Palghat near Kavalappara called Tolpavakoothu – See my article on the subject and note this kind of South Indian Theatre was the forerunner to the Wayang).When Islam began spreading in Indonesia, the display of gods in human form was prohibited, and thus this style of painting and on stage play was suppressed and instead of the forbidden figures, their shadow pictures from leather puppets were displayed, and thus Wayang kulit (it was wayang Golek and wayang purva earlier) as we know it, was born. Wayang kulit was later even given Muslim characters and the Hindu myths of Ramayana or Mahabharata were "Islamised" over time. Ramayana became Seri Rama and Mahabharata became Pendawa Lima. And as I also read, the conductor of Wayang called Dalang has a duty to make it very interesting (like a person doing Chakiar koothu or Katha prasangam) and thus comes up with interesting observations, perhaps as we see and hear in Mappila Lamayanam.

But how would that connect up with Hassankutty? Perhaps, a Marakkar or mendicant who went to Melaka or Java brought back the SE Asian version or tradition, perhaps Hassankutty or his forefathers worked in Malay or Burma or Java in the 19th century with the British. So maybe the origin of the Lamayan and the humorous singing comes from SE Asia, in a full turn around, back to India. But well, my friends, this could all turn out to be just irrelevant thoughts of a lazy wandering mind, so it would be better that I leave it to experts. The origin of Mappila Ramayan was really not the theme of this article, anyway.

Mappila Pattu incidentally is the folk song tradition of the Muslim community of Kerala. The tradition is supposedly some 700 years old. These songs are sung to reflect and characterize the day-to-day life of the community. They have the peculiar Arabic Malayalam fusion as the base language and are sung during rituals and occasions. TK Hamsa (he can be seen with Karassery in the video) who wrote the book Mappilapattinde madhuryam, says that he has also traced the similarity of style between `mappilapattu' and `Kilipattu' of Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan. He adds “They belonged to a similar style in time and content. This poetry genre touches on every aspect of life, and the songs formed the basis of learning of the community. It captured their joys and sorrows, hopes and despair. In olden times, women of the community sang `mapillapattu' before going to bed. The songs were an integral part of their life touching on aspects of love, romance and passion. Modern poetry has borrowed from here too."

Mappilapattu is sung among and for a simpler Moplah audience, so there would be quite a bit of transliteration in the text. This Mappila Ramayana, as you can see is a playfully sarcastic version of Ramayana, mocking the alternate religion of the people coexisting with them, according to Karasseri. The Mappila Ramayana covers episodes such as ‘Hanumante Poonkavana Pravesam’, ‘Ravanante Pranayabhyarthana’, ‘Shoorpanakhayude Chamanjorungal’, ‘Shoorpanakhayude Pranayabhyarthana’, and ‘Hanumante Poonkavana Naseekaranam’. Many other stanzas may have been composed, but are lost for now. Let us look at some examples.

Aranya kandam - As you may know Rama and Lakshmana (accompanied by Sita) were doing their penance at Panchavati on the banks of Godavari, as exiled princes. Shoorpanakha with devious or amorous intent, in the guise of a pretty damsel comes to Rama who immediately spurns her and sends her to Lakshman. Lakshmana also refuses her advances and sends her back to Rama. Noting that the brothers are playing with her, Shoorpanakha pounces on Sita only to have Lakshmana slash at her with his sword and she gets her nose loped…and gets Ravana mad.

ശൂര്‍പണഖയുടെ  പ്രണയ അഭ്യര്‍ത്ഥന
ശൂര്‍പണഖ - അണിനുപെണ്ണ്, പെണ്ണിനോരാണ്  ശേരിയത്തില്‍ നേമം
രാമന്‍ - അപത്താനെ പെണ്ണെ മോളെ മുല മാറ്റി പാല് (കുടിച്ചാലേ)
തേക്കൂനെണ്ണ പിടിച്ചിലെന്ന്നു മാറ്റി കാച്ചണോ
ലങ്കസിങ്ക പോടുമോളെ പാട്ടും നോകീ.....
ശൂര്‍പനഖ - അണിനു പെണ്ണ് നാലോ അന്‍ചൊ വെച്ചാലെന്താ
പെണ്ണിനങ്ങനെ പാടിലെനനാ ശരിയത്തിലെ നേമം 
Shoorpanakha’s Overture of love
Shoorpanakha- – For a man, one woman, for a woman, one man that is the law of Shariyat
Raman – It is dangerous to sip milk form more than one woman’s breast and it is not right to just change the oil if it does not suit you, so get lost you Lankan lioness
Shoorpanakha – A man can keep 4 or 5 wives, but a woman cannot keep more than one man according to Shariyat

As you hear the words, you realize that the person who created the ballad studied the original Malayalam or Sanskrit Ramayana stanzas (Which seems a bit strange for a learned Arab or Mappila cleric would possibly not have bothered to pass on a Hindu epic text to the Mappilas. So there is even more likelihood that this came from across the Eastern seas, but then again one wont to argue could say that Hassankutty just listened to a Ramayana recital somewhere, probably a few times at Kavalappara and made the new ballad up) carefully, compares them to Islamic practices and asks pertinent questions. And from the words there are many other things like king becoming a Sultan and Surpanakha’s friend named Fatima, Manthara becomes Kooni and so on..

And that friends, was yet another ‘something’ for you to narrate to your friends, children or grandchildren, some opportune day. And ironically it tells you of a time when tolerance was in vogue, when the borders of languages and religions merged and resulted in some sort of creativity. But before you go, click on the Patturumal episode link to get a feel for the poetry and the narrative style and the dialect of this folk music from Kerala.

And maybe, I will, some other day cover the Malabar rites of the Nazrani’s and the difficulty the Pope and Rome had in approving it (I had briefly mentioned it some years ago in connection with Robert Nobili)

Ramayana Stories in Modern South India – Paula Richman
Hindu article – Aug 12, 2005
Indian express article – 3rd July 2002
Humor and comedy in puppetry: celebration in popular culture - Dina Sherzer
Muslims of Kerala – Dr M Sharafuddin

Suggested reading
Dr KM Karasseri – Kurimanam
Vadakkan Pattukalum Mappila Ramayanavum – Kunhiraman Nambiar

Notes on Arabi Malayalam - Learning Arabic was a religious necessity for Malabar Muslims as the Holy Quran is written in Arabic. To give voice to their creativity however, they had to use Malayalam. There are 28 letters in Arabic alphabets but 13 of these do not have phonetic equivalents in Malayalam. Even words like “Allah” and “Muhammad” cannot be phonetically written in Malayalam. Similarly, Arabic’s 28 letters were not enough to represent all 53 letters of the Malayalam language. The solution that Muslims came up with was a language called Arabi-Malayalam. It is Malayalam written in a modified Arabic script that can account for all Malayalam sounds and still represents Arabic words in the original script in order to preserve correct pronunciation. Different scholars have dated the origin of the script differently; estimates vary from 1500 years ago to 1000 years to about 500 years ago. Arabi-Malayalam became the language of choice for Mappilas. It wasn't until recently that they began to learn Malayalam in its original script. Mappila literature was written in this new language, and was taken to new heights in both poetry and prose. Mappila Pattu are the folklore songs in Arabi -Malayalam language and are generally devotional in nature. This continues to be a popular art from in Malabar. (Above notes extracted from Mappila Culture – by Kashif-ul-Huda,
M Sharafuddin says in his book Muslims of Kerala - However though some clerics knew Arabic, the common man spoke his mother tongue being Malayalam, which was dissuaded and frowned upon these clerics, calling it Aryanezhuttu. It was the love for Arabic and indifference to Malayalam that led to the development of Arabi Malayalam which utilizes Arabic script.

A small rejoinder about R & L in the East – Japanese can't pronounce L's because the sound doesn't exist in their language. Forming the R sound is the next closest mouth movement to the L sound, which is why R's replace L's. Chinese people, however, have problems pronouncing R's, so they do the opposite and replace R's with L's. This is prevalent also in SE Asia where there is a large Chinese influence.

Dr Karassery also mentions the peculiar aspect related to R & L as something that even Sanskrit permits, i.e. the exchange of R & L.

As you know, these things evolve over time. After 7500BC, changes occurred to the epic on a constant basis, with the above Mappila version probably dating to circa late 19th century or thereabouts.

Today we have the latest US NRI version which goes thus

Introducing NRI Ramayan

A young second generation Indian in the US was asked by his mother to explain the significance of “Diwali” to his younger brother, this is how he went about it..."

So, like this dude had, like, a big cool kingdom and people liked him. But, like, his step-mom, or something, was kind of a bit*h, and she forced her husband to, like, send this cool-dude, he was Ram, to some national forest or something... . Since he was going, for like, something like more than 10 years or so..... he decided to get his wife Sita and his bro along.... you that they could all chill out together.

But Dude, the forest was reeeeal scary shit... really man...they had monkeys and devils and shit like that. But this dude, Ram, kicked with darts and bows and arrows.... so it was fine. But then some bad gangsta boys, some jerk called Ravan, picks up this babe (Sita) and lures her away to his hood.. And boy, was our man, and also his bro, Laxman, pissed... all the gods were with him... So anyways, you don't mess with gods.

So, Ram, and his bro get an army of monkeys.... Dude, don't ask me how they trained the damn monkeys... just go along with me, ok...So, Ram, Lax and their monkeys whip this gangsta's ass in his own hood.... Anyways, by this time, their time's up in the forest... and anyways... it gets kinda boring, you know.... no TV or malls or shit like that. So, they decided to hitch a ride back home... and when the people realize that our dude, his bro and the wife are back home... they thought, well, you know, at least they deserve something nice...and they didn't have any bars or clubs in those days... so they couldn't take them out for a drink, so they, like, decided to smoke and stuff ... and since they also had some lamps, they lit the lamps it was pretty cooool... you know with all those fireworks... And this is how Diwali started……………


Hearing for the first timeabout this Version Of Ramayana. Thanks a lot
Very very interesting, Maddy. Thank you for bringing such unusual treasures to our attention.
Very beautifully described. I was scratching my head as very recently I encountered Mapilla Lamayanam and I could not get the context. I rang up my brother at Kochi but in vain.
Maddy said…
hi Premnath...

thanks a lot..I heard about it recently as well and was surprised myself
Maddy said…
Thanks Raji..

it was fun researching it, though i could not get my hands on a couple of the suggested books which seem to be out of print.
Maddy said…
thanks PNS

not many people know about it, so i thought of writing something about the ballad.
Happy Kitten said…
nd I thought Lamayanam was a typo :)

So much to learn from you..
Nabeel said…
Maddy, good write-up on the mappila lamayana.
Mappila poets of the early centuries were very fluent in sanskrit. There's an ishal ( I think its in the malappuram padappattu) where Moyinkutty Vaidyar has a full stanza in pure Sanskrit. Besides they had a very good knowledge of Tamil too. Many other major poets like Chakkeeri Moideen Kutty and Chettuva Pareekkutty were very well versed in Sanskrit and Tamil, having written dictionaries between Sanskrit and malayalam and arabic. Vaidyar was actually an Ayurvedic practitioner. The sanskrit verses are quoted by tk hamsa in that book you referred to in the article.
Even Badaryudhakavya (poem on the battle of badar) was translated to Sanskrit by Kottakkal Kunhava Vaidyar.
There's a study on this in Malayalam literary survey, Volume 16, Issue 1 - Volume 17, Issue 4
Kēraḷa Sāhitya Akkādami - 1994

Google books has its snippets in

So it isn't actually that strange at all!!!!
Maddy said…
thanks HK..

that was a surprise too when i first encountered the term...
Maddy said…
Hi Nabeel..

maybe i did not explain myself properly..I did not mean that a cleric knowing Sanskrit or expertise in Sanskrit was strange, but that the numbers of Muslims of that time, who knew it were minimal. What was strange, as i meant it was that the transfer of the verses of Ramayana from a cleric to a common man would have been strange, for it was frowned upon. so it must have been picked up orally by Hassankutty ...
if lazing around produces such interesting stuff, do more of it, so that your mind wanders more.

very interesting post.

surprised that a techie has so much interest in history.
clash said…

I read a lot of trash everyday but a visit to your blog once in a while opens up a different world altogether for me.

thanks for writing this piece.

Anamika said…

I came across your blog when searching for "Mark Twain". Enjoyed reading the post " India the marvelous".

Never heard about this version of Ramayana. Very interesting.

Best regards
Maddy said…
thanks Anamika..

and welcome to the site, do keep visiting often..
ROHINI said…
the blog was very interesting. but honestly Maddy, the NRI version was the most enjoyable and very crisp. I think I'll vote for this "dude" version
riyaz mohammed said…
well appreciated!!

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