Samayamam Rathathil , V Nagel, Guru Dutt and Swing Low Sweet Chariot

Rev V NagelThere is no other dirge that we hold close to our heart than the classic Samayamam Rathathil (In the Chariot of Time, here I am, on my journey to heaven), which has become a symbol of passing regardless of caste, creed or social boundaries. No ‘Passing ‘ is complete without Samayamam Rathathil, if you are in Kerala, regardless of caste, color creed or social barriers. It is amazing that a hymn written as an exultation of praise and longing to be with the Lord, somehow over time gradually migrated to represent the collective pathos and separation of a whole community. I believe it was Aranazhikaneram(1970) that played an important role in the popularisation of this hymn that somehow got stamped as a dirge with the effective usage of that in the movie. Vayalar seems to have taken the original lines written by Rev V Nagel, tweaked it a bit, and Devrajan Master speeded up the tempo a bit to form Samayamam rathathil, as we know it today. But the song itself, along with the central idea of the chariot that’s taking one on a journey has some interesting cousins in history. I’m sure most of you know it, this is for the ones who don’t.

The Lyrics.

The lyrics of the dirge, seems to have some startling similarities to the hymn written by Wallis Wallis, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home’, composed sometime before 1862. Being in Europe till 1893, the last 6 years with  the Basel Mission, it might be possible that he must have come in touch with this hymn from the Americas, in his time at the Mission. Swing Low Sweet Chariot is one of the most loved hymns of inspiration and hope, and by far one with the most versions.  The Jubilee Singers who first recorded the version did a tour of the US and Europe which made popular in both the continents. The Wikipedia lists close to 60 versions ! What must have attracted Rev Nagel would have been the lyrics, which he would later come to use in his own praise of the Lord.

Here is one of my favorite versions, Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s cover of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.

The Tune.

Rev V Nagel seems to have been inspired from yet another tune of the 1800’s, the waltzy My Darling Clementine. Said to have been written by “a bereaved lover singing about his darling, the daughter of a miner”, the melody of which is attributed to a “Spanish tune, which was made popular in the US by the Mexican refugees during the Goldrush.” The tune is so tender, catchy that it also has been covered so many times, including a Hindi version too(yes!), in Guru Dutt’s CID (1956), the popular ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ {aw, c’mon, don’t tell me you didn’t know THAT 🙂 }.

Here is a version that holds close to the original, the Freddy Quinn version.

Hers is Guru Dutt’s version 🙂

The version from Aranazhikaneram, additional lyrics by Vayalar, sung by P Leela and P Madhuri.

So, here is what I think and love very much about the most famous dirge in Malayalam.

It was composed by a German missionary, who chose Kerala to serve humanity, learned the language, and amongst the many hymns composed, Samayamam Rathathil stands out with its tune inspired from a lineage that goes all the way to Spain and Americas, lyrics that could claim origins from the underground railroad from the cotton-pickin’ 1800’s, and which has now been adopted by a population that considers its presence an integral part of saying the Final Goodbye to a loved one’s Passing.

I doubt if any other hymn in the planet could hold an equal claim!

Addendum. (4 October 2010)

Just came across an article at Manorama Online by MP Sukumaran which is an extensive writeup on the history of the song and Rev Nagel. Was also delighted to note that its 110 years since Kerala wholeheartedly embraced  Rev V Nagel’s hymn into its popular culture.


10 thoughts on “Samayamam Rathathil , V Nagel, Guru Dutt and Swing Low Sweet Chariot

  1. I had written a detailed article on the Sunday edition of Manorama a decade back. Also I had authored the only Biogrphy of Missionary Nagel titled Samaya rathathinte Pattukaran. Sukumar Azhikode wrote the preface. Need any help on this topic
    ? contact me 09447213777 ,

    1. Hi George,
      Thank you for writing in to the Old Malayalam Cinema blog. The objective of the post was to bring in a detailed perspective of the Samayamam Rathathil hymn with respect to its Movie version, and exploring its tonal structure and version recording for the movie, written by Vayalar. Am sure, with your contact details here, anyone who is seeking more information on the subject would find it much easier to get in touch with you. Thanks, cinematters.

  2. Samayamaam Rathathil…..The song first appeared in 1904 in print. Or so it is believed. In the book, it was the first song under the category ‘charama geetham’. Probably Nigel wrote this a few years before. Mathrubhumi newspaper had carried a news item in 2004 about it and also published the photo of the page. The report said that Nigel used to sing the songs penned and tuned by him loudly at night, sitting in his bullock-cart, while coming back to Kunnamkulam from missionary work. The Manorama link mentioned above has been removed, but the age of the song seems to be correct. The great Devarajan had confirmed that Vayalar changed only one word.

    1. Dear Rajaram,
      Thank you so much for that update.Is there any way that you have in possession of the article that appeared in Mathrubhumi? I should have known better about not archiving that article by MP Sukumaran ( I usually take screenshots and keep at as Manorama Online doesnot have a digital archive for its daily). Vayalar actually tweaked two lines from the original composition – the original lines in the set, aakayalpa neram maathram, ente yaathra theeruvan, Yeshuvey ninekku sthothram, sthothram, sthotthram paadum njaan was changed to aakayalpa neram maathram, ente yaathra theeruvan, akkey aranaazhikaamaathram, eeyuduppu maattuvaan.” You can almost listen to that tiny welding and a slight bump in the rhythm flow as P Leela leans on those words to get it in tune 🙂

      Thanks again..cinematters

  3. Here are some links to those who wish to read up further on this beloved missionary:

    A detailed biography and translation of the lyrics of “Samayam-am”:

    Archival pictures from Basel Mission:

    From a blog by a great granddaughter of V.Nagel:
    His family line; some correspondence between family members; pictures of his widow & children; and his burial place in Weidenest, Germany:


  4. As Charley says, we do not know how this song came to be associated with funerals – probably because of its version sung in the Malayalam film. It is a beautiful song of hope about an eternal home. It should be sung every morning when a new day breaks.

  5. Thank you so much for the very interesting read. Would like to point out, though, that the songwriter could not have intended the lyrics to be sung as a funeral dirge, for it is sung from the perspective of a very much living person contemplating the new day he has been granted, and the journey ahead, and the brevity of it all, and yet what assurance of salvation he has, and what hope of better things he possesses. It is very much a morning hymn, and for all its notoriety, it’s a pity that the film’s usage has diminished this beautiful work to something that the normally superstitious Malayalee would be almost afraid to sing at daybreak! 🙂 So glad to see you notice the song, though, and I share your enthusiasm. Thanks again!

    1. Dear Charley,
      Thank you for passing through and taking time out to leave your impressions on the Hymn. Couldn’t agree with you more on the notoriety part. The blame for making it enveloped in this dark and misery-laden aura rests squarely on the ‘mood’ of Aranazhikaneram, I strongly believe. The original lyrics resonate with hope, wanting to join the Lord and exultation. ” It is very much a morning hymn, and for all its notoriety, it’s a pity that the film’s usage has diminished this beautiful work to something that the normally superstitious Malayalee would be almost afraid to sing at daybreak! 🙂 ” That is spot on.
      Thanks once again,

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