Tamil Diplomat

“Parai” – The percussion instrument nurtured by Ancient Tamil Nation

Premalatha Panchadcharam

Ancient Man lived in caves before being civilized. So as to fulfill his food requirement he consumed foliage plants, fruits, honey and wild animals hunted by him. He wore the skin of these animals and he created percussion instrument from them and enjoyed music and exchanged news using them. Although the time of humans starting to use percussion instruments, cannot be determined, it could be safely assumed that he possessed this skill, right from the period when they started to eat the animals.

Evidences are available in Tholkapium, Literatures, Thevarums, Ancient Tamil books on Music, and epigraphs to show that ancient Tamils had used various percussion instruments. Thus, Although it is known that, the percussion instruments such as Perumparai,  Siruparai, Peru Murasu, Siru Murasu, Perikai, Kandikai, salikai, Karadikai, Padakam, Idakkai Udukkai, Mathazham, Thimilai, Thakkai, Thaddai, Kanapparai Thakadookam, Thamarukam, Thannumai, Thadari Anthari Mulavu, Murasu, Chandravazhayam, Monthai, Pakam, Upankam, Thudi, Nazhikaiparai, Thamukku, Urumi Mezham, Thampaddam, Nakara, Munmelam, Thavandai, Udal Uruddi, Sannai araichaddi, Kodukoddi, Anthali, Amuthakundali, Ariparai, Aakuli, Aamantharikai, Aavanchi, Udal udukkai, Ellari Erankozh Kothai, Kanthoombu, Kallal Kirihaddi, Kunbdalam Chadadai, Chennda, Thakunitham, Thadari pathavai, Kuzhir Kinai, Thudipampai , had been used by ancient Tamils, there  are evidences that Parai and Murasu had been used continuously from “Sangam” Period

‘Parai’ in ancient Tamil Litreratures

murasu-245x300Although the ‘Parai’ and  ‘Murasu’ have different shapes today, they had been indicated in the same meaning and different meaning in the olden literature versus. The ‘Parai’ has been in use for announcing news, as accompanying  beat to music, during Temple festivals and other festivals and for the last rites of dead persons. Murasu had been used to rally soldiers and encourage them during war times and to inform victories or defeats. The information about the use of Parai is indicated in the ancient Tamil Grammar book, Tholkapium.

Theiva munave Ma Maram Pud Parai
Seithy Yazhin Pahuthiyodu thohai ee
avvakai piravum karuvena mozhiya
                                       (Thol. Ahaththinaiyiyal -18)

Here, God, Una, Mango tree, tree, bird, Parai, Yarl( string instrument)  are mentioned. Parai and Yarzh are music instruments. The Yarzh mentioned by Tholkapiar  had been used to play devotional music and Parai for supplying the beat. Although there exists a difference of opinion among Historical Researchers and Tamil Scholars regarding the period of Tholkapiar, A Tamil Scholar called Kuna, had determined the period of  Tholkapium  as 7,000 year old on the basis of eight important factors, in his book “Tholkapiathin Kalam”(The period of Tholkapium) published recently(2011). On the basis of this it is evident the Parai has a long and ancient history.

In the ‘Sangam’ period poems, (300 BC – 200 AD), it is clearly stated that the people of the Five kinds of lands had used five kinds of ‘Yarzhs’ and five kinds of ‘Parais’. The people who lived in Kurinchi Land( hills and adjacent lands) had used Kurinchi Yarzh and “Thondahap Parai” or “Veriyaddu Parai”;The people who lived Mullai Land(Jungle and adjacent land)  had used Mullai Yarzh and Erucord Parai; the people who lived in Marutham Land (Paddy fields and adjacent lands) used Marutha Yarzh and Manmuzhavu; The people who lived in Neithal Land( Sea and coast line) use Vizhari Yarzh and Meencord Parai and the people who lived in Palai Land( Desert and adjacent land) used Pazhai Yarzh and Thudi.

Apart from these, the Sangam period poems indicate about different types of Parais and Murasus, used by people of that period.For Example:

“ ….. Aram Thazhnthe am pahddu Marpin,

saral aruvip paya malai kilavan

Auri kolo? allan kolo?

Paduval, virali! Aur Vannam; Neerum

Man muzha amaimin; Pan yarzh nirumin…”   (Purananooru 152)

In this song , while praising a king called Auri, the bard is asking to beat a Manmuzhavu.

….Maraipadai Nuvalum ari kural Thannumai

Innisai Kedda thannaru maravar……(Purananooru 270)

A poet called Kazhaththalaiyar sings about warriors who had become unreachable to enemies,  after hearing  the sweet sounds of  one kind of drum,  summoning soldiers to war   with an inspiring sound. And in the 67th verse of Purananooru, there comes a note about Kurumparai in the line, “ …….Uyarnilai Madathu Kurumparai asaie…”

There are also evidences in the books of the period immediately following ‘Sangam Period’ to the effect that people of that period had used Parais with different names.

Parai- womenOne of the five great classics, Silapathikaramhas in its Vedduwa Vari(Hunter’s lines)has a citation of   Aareripparai, about Kodukoddy Parai in Kadaladukathai( Sea bathing story) and in “ Seevaka Sinthamany” notes about “Pampai’ and ‘Aripparai’ are found. Apart from these, In the books of the Later periods had used names of Parais like Kallavadam(Thevaram), Veeranam(THirupukazh), Uvahaipparai and Saapparai(Thivakara Nikandu), Thakkai and Thadari(PinkalaNikandu), Padalai (Soodamany Nikandu).

While seeing names of these Parais, we could discern that, Parai is a common term used for most of the percussion instruments of ancient Tamils.  If we go to find out why this term is used , we will see that in ancient Tamil ‘Parai’ means ‘talk’. ‘Paraithal’ means ‘Telling’. We can guess the terminology of Parai from the 4th verse of Purananooru, which says “….Kazgankkozha kazhal parainthana” . The word “Paraithal”  is used in Jaffna Tamil and in Malayazham to denote telling even today. As it is a beat instrument which could play the speech, it was called “Parai”

The Parai which was knitted with the day to day life of ancient Tamils ( dance and song, worship, war, threshing ground, and the funeral rites) could be observed to be in limited use in Tamil Nadu  in the later periods( After 8th and 9thcenturies) .Important factors behind this is the class difference brought about by the impacts of Ariyan invasion and the use of northern musical instruments forced on by the dominance of Sanskrit. For example,  the musical instrument of Tamils , Yarzh had become extinct and its place had been taken by the northern instrument “Veenai”. “ Mathankam” (Thannumai), the name of a percussion instrument of ancient Tamils, had distorted into a Northern name of  “Miruthankam”, and  the ‘Thabela’ which is a supporting percussion instrument in Northern Hindusthani Music had penetrated into Carnatic music as a supporting instrument.  With the passage of time the ancient instrument Tamils, Parai had been run down into an instrument belonging to a particular caste, it ceased to be played in most of the temples constructed in accordance with the scriptures, those who play Parai were made “un-touchables” and a general tradition of playing Parai only during funerals was forced on Tamil.

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Parai in Eelam


Parai Mela Kooththu in Batticaloa

In the percussion instruments called Parai, only two types are in use in Eelam. One big type with similar structure on both ends is called “Periya Parai Mezham”. The other one with one enlarged end to resemble a small Murasu is called  “ThunthudiMezham”. Combined together these two are called “ Oru Kuddai mezhankazh” (A pool of drums). In Vanni and Batticaloa areas, those who play Parai Mezham enact an art form of “Parai Mezha Koothu”. The uniquiness of this art form is that it is enacted without songs or any other musical instruments. The players stand in two rows facing each other, and beat their drums in accordance with the theme they are playing and the sentiments expressed by the opposite players and with appropriate body movements. There are 17 types of beats in this art.

Parai in Mullaithivu

Parai Mela Kooththu in Mulliyawalai, Mullaithivu

Although the Parai is played widely during funerals, it is also played in few famous temples constructed in accordance with scriptures, and in other temples not constructed as per the scriptures. Kannakai Amman temples of Vattapalai, Pantrithalaichchi, Kachchai, Chuddipuram, Porikadawai,  and Selvachannathy, Kathirkamam, Kokkaddicholai Thanthontri Eeswarar  are such temples.

Percussion instruments of ancient Tamils in the life of Sinhala People

Keta-bera-While the importance of  Parai is declining in Eelam like Tamil Nadu due to class discrimination, the percussion instruments of ancient Tamils  are gaining importance in the life of Sinhala People. The fact that the Parais used by the Sinhala people had gone from Tamil people could be seen from the names of the Parais used  by them. Parai is called by name of “Bera”. It is clear that this word is a distortion of Tamil word Parai.

The  Geta Bera and Yak Bera  among the percussion instruments used by the Sinhala people, could be identified with the  to the Parai variety , and the Davula, Thammaddama and Udakkiya  with the other percussion instruments of the Tamils.

It could be seen from this article that, how a musical instruments nurtured by ancient Tamils becoming obsolete and losing its place of pride due to caste culture and pervasive minds. It is the duty of every Tamil world over to nurture this instrument revive and prop up its lost glory and take it to the next generations.

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