Krishnanattam - History and Origin

Manaveda - a Biographical Note [1,3,4]

Manaveda, born in A.D. 1585 has a prominent place among the Sanskrit poets of Kerala. He was educated in Poetics, Grammar and Logics by Anayatt Krishna Pisharoty.

Manaveda composed two texts: Purva Bharatha Campu (1644) and Krishnagiti (1654). During the composing of Purva Bharatha Campu, Manaveda's uncle, Sakthan Manavikrama was the Zamorin King. On the death of Sakthan Manavikrama, another Manavikrama became the Zamorin King. When this King expired (28th August 1655), Manaveda became the Zamorin King. At this time, the King of Cochin was planning to attack Zamorin. Manaveda prepared for war with the Cochin King, but did not live to lead the war. He expired at Trichur on 15th February 1658. He was cremated at the Zamorin Palace at Guruvayur. (This palace, supposed to be built by Manaveda [6], was demolished in 1977. A monument for Manaveda was built (16th November 1987) at this place by Guruvayur Devaswom).

Manaveda refers to his teacher Anayatt Krishna Pisharoty, uncle Sakthan Manavikrama and the deities of Zamorin family in Purva Bharatha Campu (slokas 1 to 16, quoted by Ulloor [4]). Purva Bharatha Campu, a work of 12 sthabhakas is composed following the model of Bharatha Campu by Anantha Bhatta. Bharatha Campu deals with the story of Mahabharata starting from King Pandu and ending with the reign of King Yudhishtira. In Purva Bharatha Campu, (published by Manuscripts Library, Kerala University , 1963) Manaveda deals with the Mahabharata story from the beginning upto the birth of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura. A commentary to Purva Bharatha Campu, Krishneeyam, was composed apparently by Anayatt Krishna Pisharoty [4].

Manaveda mentions his teacher (2nd sloka) and uncle (4th sloka) in Krishnagiti as well. In composition and style, Manaveda has followed the models given by Gita Govindam (Jayadeva), Narayaneeyam (Melputtur), Srikrishnavilasam (Sukumara), Srikrishnavijayam (Sankara), Balabharata (Agasthya Bhatta) and Bharata Campu (Anantha Bhatta).

To understand the significance of the multifold contributions of Manaveda to literature, music and art, it is necessary to have a broad perspective of the Indian cultural background [1, 7], landmarks in early Malayalam Literature and the major historical events during this period [8].

Indian Cultural Background [1, 7]

The general cultural background of this period is given by Prof. P.C. Vasudevan Elayath in krishnanattapravesakam [1]: ' In 16th and 17th century A.D., as a result of Vaishnava religious renaissance, many forms of performing arts originated and propagated in different parts of India. Especially, the royal families of Mathura, Nepal and Assam just like the Zamorins of Calicut took great care in the patronage of performing arts related to Vaishnava cult. Many artists created new art forms (as Sanakaradeva in Assam). Among these, a Sanskrit poem Krishna Lila Tarangini by Sri Narayana Tirtha in Tamil Nadu deserves special attention. It is said that Krishna Lila Tarangini used to be performed on Krishnashtami day. Krishna Lila Tarangini has many similarities to Krishnanattam. Both originated around the same time. Thus Krishnanattam is one among many art forms which originated as a result of a strong inner flow of cultural renaissance all over India.

An outline of the cultural background of this era is indicated by N.V.Krishna Varrier [7] as well. A popular tradition of performing arts was existing in various parts of India. Gitagovindam (Ashtapadi) composed in Orissa during 12th century A.D was performed in various parts. Later, this tradition perished in the north due to attacks from outside. During the 15th and 16th century, in Krishna Chaitanya's time, the performing arts were renovated in Bengal. During 16th Century, Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva popularized the Vaishnava tradition of performing arts in Assam. Melputtur Narayana Bhattathiri indicates in Prakriyasarvaswam (krishnAvalOkOtsava krIdAkauthukimAnasam) and in a poem (karmaughOcchanda mArddangika layavasagAn vAsanAgAnasaktAn) the possibility of existence of some kind of art forms involving music and dance based on Krishna's story in Kerala. Achutappa Naikan who ruled Thanchavoor during A.D. 1561 to A.D 1614 brought Brahmins who are experts in acting and singing from Andhra to Thanchavoor. Even now they perform the dance drama ' Bhagavatha Mela. Raghunatha Naika and Vijayaraghava Naika , the descendants of Achutappa Naika, sponsored Bharatanatyam in Tamil Nadu. The Nawab of Golkonda, Abul Hasan Kutub Shah (A.D 1672 - A.D.1687) donated a village to the Brahmin dancers of Kuchipudi. There are indications that these brahmins had performed the dance drama ' kelika ' before the ruler of Vijayanagaram in A.D.1502. The Sultan of Bamini Malik Ibrahim encouraged the performance of the Telugu dance drama 'Sugriva Vijayam' in A.D. 1558. In Karnataka, 'Virataparva', the first Yakshagana play was composed in A.D.1564.

Landmarks in early Malayalam Literature [8]

Malayalam began to develop as an independent literary language around the same time that the Malayalam Era (Kolla varsham ) began (A.D. 825). Tolan (9th Century) wrote Attaprakaram for Kutiyattam. Between 9th and 12th centuries, manipravalam (mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam) dominated the scene. Niranam Poets and Cherusseri (author of Krishnagatha) belong to 15th century. Ezhuttacchan, Puntanam (1547-1640) and Melputtur Narayana Bhattathiri (1560-1646) who wrote exclusively in Sanskrit belonged to sixteenth and seventeenth century. Melputtur composed Narayaneeyam (1588) when Manaveda was just three years old. It is likely that the grammatical text Prakriya Sarvaswam by Melputtur influenced Manaveda to a large extent [1,4]. Manaveda completed Purva Bharata Campu in 1644 and Krishnagiti in 1654.

Major Historical Events during this Period [8]

Under the rule of Zamorin, Calicut became a strong political entity in the 14th century. Manaveda's famous ancestor, King Manavikrama ruled as Zamorin in the 15th century (1466 to 1471). The famous patinettara kavikal (eighteen and half poets) belonged to his royal court. Punam Namboodiri who wrote in Malayalam was the arakkavi (half poet)! Famous among the eighteen are Uddanda Sastrikal, Kakkasseri Damodara Bhattathiri (author of Vasumathi Manavikramam), Chennas Narayanan Namboodiri (author of Tantra Samucchayam) and the two Payyur Bhattathiris.

Vasco da Gama arrived at Calicut in 1498. Beginning of 15th century, Zamorin became the leading force against Portugese expansion in Kerala. Udayamperur Sunnahadoss in 1599. Dutch East India Company signed an agreement with Samuthiri on 11th November 1604. Kunankurisu revolt in 1653. Manaveda completed Krishnagiti in 1654. Dutch captured Kollam in 1658 and Kochi in 1663.

Legends [1, 4, 5, 6, 9]

According to a legend, Manaveda requested Vilwamangalam Swamiyar to enable him to see Krishna in person. Swamiyar facilitated this request and Manaveda was able to see Krishna playing under an elanji tree. When Manaveda tried to embrace Krishna, the lord disappeared leaving behind a peacock feather in Manaveda's hand. An idol of Krishna was made using the wood of the elanji tree. (The elanji tree stood at the place where now, the Kuttambalam stands, on the south-east side of the sanctum sanctorum of the Guruvayur Temple). According to the advice of Vilwamangalam, Manaveda composed Krishnagiti sitting before the idol. The peacock feather was incorporated in the headgear of Krishna. The headgear was found to suit the heads of all actors performing as Krishna. The actor also used to get 'possessed' on wearing this headgear. It is said that this headgear perished during the attack of the Kodungallur fort by the Dutch. Another version is that the headgear perished in the fire which engulfed the Zamorin Palace in 1766 [2].

In 1766, the Zamorin, attacked by Haider, burned himself and the fort palace at Calicut. It is said that all wooden ornaments, crowns and masks used for Krishnanattam were destroyed in the fire [2].

(Dr. Sikora [2] states that a Bronze image of Krishna is available at the Zamorin Temple of Tali, Calicut. The crown, ear ornaments and decorations such as the circular and floral patterns on the breast plate and hurdle of this image resembles those worn by Krishna in contemporary Krishnanattam. However, Dr. Sikora notes two major differences: (1) Absence of the figure's costume of skirt, side panels and long shawl with mirrors at each end. Instead of these, the figure's costume is a simple dhoti. (2) Absence of chutti on the figure's face).

There is a story [4, 5] about the troupe performing Krishnanattam at Tripunithura. The King of Cochin ordered the troupe to play Kamsavadham. An elephant was brought to the stage to enact the role of Kuvalayapeedam. The actor performing as Krishna killed the elephant and went after the King. The King managed to escape somehow. It is said that after this incident, Krishnanattam was never performed South of Guruvayur.

The History of Krishnanattam

Dr. Sikora [2] divides Krishnanattam history into four eras: The time of Zamorins, The time of Transition, The time at Guruvayur Temple under the Management of A.C.G. Raja and recent times.

Dr. Sikora notes that evidence is available for the existence of Krishnanattam in some form at least by 1694 and it included dance by 1780. No details are available on the creators of this art, no audiovisual concept of its first production and no details of how the art developed.

Under the Management of A.C.G. Raja, the troupe, for the first time performed outside Kerala and abroad (Europe and U.S.A.).

During the third era, many changes took place in various aspects of Krishnanattam. These are documented in the book by Sikora [2].

A documentary film was made on Krishnanattam by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Mankada Ravi Varma was the cinematographer.

P.C.C. Elayath took charge as the Superintendent of Kalanilayam in 1983. He introduced a microphone for the singers.

An excellent portrayal of Krishnanattam then and now is provided by retired Krishnanattam Asan, K. Velayudhan Nair [10].

Krishnagiti Day

Every year, 30th of Malayalam month Thulam is celebrated as Krishnagiti day at Guruvayur. This is the day on which Manaveda completed composing Krishnagiti as indicated by the words Grahya Sththirgathakai in the last sloka of Swargarohanam. More information is provided here .


We thank our Malayalam Teacher P . Radhakrishnan Nair and retired Krishnanattam Asan P. Parameswara Panikkkar for checking and suggesting changes in the preliminary Malayalam version of the sections of this article from 'Preamble' to 'Tableaus'.

We also thank Dr. Rustom Bharucha, Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and retired Krishnanattam Asan K. Velayudhan Nair for allowing us to translate their excellent articles on Krishnanattam, L. S. Rajagopalan and P.K.S. Raja (Zamorin of Calicut) for allowing us to utilise their writings on Krishnanattam and Krishnanattam Musician M. Vasudevan Namboodiri for providing a list of the ragas and talas used for the padams and padyageethams of Krishnagiti today. We also thank Dr. P.N. Ganesh for many hepful communications.


[1] Krishnanattam, commentary in Malayalam, Prof. P.C. Vasudevan Elayath, Guruvayur Deveswom, Guruvayur, Kerala, India (1985).
[2] Krishnattam, Dr. Martha Bush Ashton Sikora and Robert P. Sikora, Oxford and IBH Publishing Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, India (1993).Krishnattam, Buy from amazon.com
[3] The Zamorins of Calicut, K.V. Krishna Iyer.
[4] Kerala Sahitya Charitram, Chapter 33, Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer.
[5] Mohana Tejas Athava Sri Guruvayurappan, Thekkootu Matathil Sankaran Nambidi, (1955).
[6] On Krishnanattam - P.K.S. Raja, Zamorin of Calicut.
[7] Preface, N.V.Krishna Varrier, Kottayathu Thampurante Attakkathakal, commentary by Desamangalattu Rama Varrier, National Book Stall, Kottayam, (1976).
[8] Manaveda, A Historical Perspective - web article.
[9] Krishnagiti Mahatmyam - P.C. Ettanunni Raja.
[10] Krishnanattam - Then and Now, K. Velayudhan Nair, published in Bhaktapriya (Publication of Guruvayur Devaswom) - November 2001. English Translation.

A. Harindranath, harindranath_a@yahoo.com
A. Purushothaman, purushothaman_avaroth@yahoo.com
web: http://www.geocities.com/krishnadas_a2000/krishna/krishnattam.html