Once sung, rarely forgotten – rhythm, repetition and a hummable tune helps this hymn to stay in the mind and heart. The Tamil word saranam means “refuge” or “I take refuge”, although there’s some debate as to whether its Sanskrit root means “surrender to God”. There’s perhaps a hint of that meaning in the third verse which speaks of vows to Jesus.
The words and tune combined tell a story of the Gospel being “planted into the local soil” of the people, as the song’s author and translator D T Niles intended. A Methodist minister from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, Niles was active in the international ecumenical movement with interests in mission and evangelism. Using a traditional tune from Pakistan and paraphrasing the Psalm in Tamil, he translated the hymn into English and included it in the first East Asian Christian Conference Hymnal in 1963.
This was an early stage in the development of an indigenous hymnody where people sing their theology in their mother tongue using the rhythms and musical idioms of the culture around them. The repetition of “saranam” is like a Hindu mantra, which is a form that would have been familiar to D T Niles. Originally composed in a relatively slow Western style, the hymn has since been arranged to be closer to the source musical style and can be sung at various speeds. It sounds quite different when accompanied on an organ or an Indian harmonium and tabla drums. And yet the meaning is the same, translated into Christianity from an ancient Jewish Psalm – “you are my refuge. I look to you for safety when everything around me is in turmoil, and I know I can rely on your faithfulness”.
Saviour, companion, friend Against the currents we follow you Revive our faith by your faithfulness Always seeking, ever onwards Nurture in us our love of you Above, beneath, behind, beside us for ever Magnify our praise and utter commitment to you
Revd Fiona Thomas, freelance facilitator, member at Christ Church, Bellingham