Chavittu Nadakam

The Indian Ocean rim fascinates me

Somehow in my history education I absorbed an untruth that I imagine is fairly common among Americans: I saw European and American cultures as changing over time but assumed that non-European cultures were more or less static throughout history. The "high" non-European cultures were probably an exception (I knew China had dynasties and periods, and of course the Muslims were always doing "stuff" in southwest and south Asia), but I didn't really think about it.

My history textbook treated the Bering strait land bridge and the Aztecs in the same chapter. Even at the time I probably could have told you that, yes, 20,000 years or so separated them. But it never really occured to me to ask "when was the Aztec empire founded?" I just kind of viewed the people as dispersing from the upper northwest and founding societies that sprung fully formed and lasted unchanged until 1492. "Founding" was only for European people.

But obviously this is ridiculous. The Aztec empire was founded in 1428: that was the same year Joan of Arc received her vision. Oxford's Queen's College Library predates the Aztec Empire by a century.

Several recent popular books have helped shake me from this idiocy, in particular 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann. Another book has helped me shake my static view of India and the far east: Holy War by Nigel Cliff. Cliff's story of Portugal's first contact with India changed a lot of my views, particularly since I read it while in Mumbai and Goa.

Another outcome of reading those books was that I got interested in the history Indian Ocean rim, and in particular the west coast of India. One part of the coast I wasn't able to visit when I lived there was Kerala, but in some ways it's the most interesting part of the coast.

Neighbors knew each other

Part and parcel with my assumption that non-European cultures never changed was that historic cultures lived in isolation from one another until intrepid European seamen sailed their caravels in the 1400s. But obviously this is nonsense too: Pliny the Elder wrote suggestions for which ports on India's coast were best for traders, and Tamil bards complained about Roman merchants driving harder bargains than Greek ones. The classical Indian Ocean was a hive of trade, with African, European, Arabic, Persian, Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese traders everywhere. The breakdown in communication was not between Europe and India, but within Europe itself: English and Portuguese adventurers would go looking for Prester John and men with one large foot that they use as an umbrella because they weren't talking to Greek or Venetian traders, who were going to Cochin regularly.

This brings up the question that Cliff's book asks: given that, what the hell was so special about Vasco da Gama? It's true he did find a new route to India around the African continent, but what was historically more important was that he militarily secured that route with shore installations and local defensive pacts against Ottoman and Ottoman tributary trade exclusions.

I mention all this as a meandering way of coming to talk about the traditional Keralan performance art Chavittu Nadakam. It is a heavily European- and Christian-influenced form of stage performance, blending dance, singing, acting, and costume design. And its origins are murkier than they seem.

Medieval European drama in southwest India

A Chavittu Nadakam performance most resembles a medieval European passion or nativity play: a Biblical or Greek story, pared down to a few vignettes, performed to music and dance with beautiful and symbolic costumes. It's performed in Malayalam, even though most of the population of the area hears Mass in Latin (and, this being one of the most literate areas in India, most of the population can read Latin and Malayalam).

But Christianity in Kerala long predates the da Gama's arrival (oddly, da Gama himself seems to have failed to make significant contact with the Christians living in southwest India at the time, despite finding them being the alleged purpose of his voyage). European and Indian tradition hold that Cochin is where Thomas landed (again: heavy Greek traffic in the Indian ocean at the time); however seriously one wishes to take that claim, the fact remains that Nestorean Christianity on the subcontinent is centered there.

Nestorean Christians have some very similar folk art to Chavittu Nadakam, including the bright costumes, dancing, singing, and Biblical/classical European story lines. These are attested by Indian sources long before da Gama was born, so it seems at least plausible that Chavittu Nadakam is an amalgam of Indian and European traditions.

Priority and originality

One question that is always dangerous to ask about a place is "who lived here originally?" It is dangerous both because it has no single unambiguous answer and because it is a way of saying these people "deserve" to be somewhere while those people do not.

When da Gama landed in Goa, the Taj Mahal had not yet been built (for that matter there are dormitories at Harvard that are older than the Taj Mahal). The dynasty that would build the Taj Mahal had not yet been founded, though its founder was besieging Kandahar at the time (not coincidentally, both da Gama and Babur had to seek greener pastures because of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople; both would wind up finding India by different routes).

Mumbai, where I lived when I was first reading about this, currently has a Marathi majority that is quite strident about staking the legitimacy of its claim to the true identity of the city. But the uncomfortable fact is that the Marathi empire did not make it over the Ghats until long after the Portuguese had built forts on the coast: in 1470 the entire coastal strip was Konkani territory. I bring this up because questions of identity and authenticity are currently very politically important in India, but there were Portuguese Indians before there was a Mughal dynasty, and Latin Christians in Kerala before there was a Marathi empire.

Some pictures


Figure 1: Queen Brijeena


Figure 2: Some hats

Weldon Goree (

2019-08-12 Mon 00:00

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