Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Creed and Culture in Dialogue: On the Evolution of an Indigenous Faith

C. D. Sebastian*

1. Prologue

Humans do not live and act at random. They follow certain patterns. These are adopted spontaneously, and in general these prototypes stem from models and attitudes adopted as historical and cultural factors. These are not mere charters as directives for life, but the shaping of one’s life in accordance with certain mores, customs. The term mores in Latin means ‘customs’ and ‘manners’, and moral in ‘moral philosophy’ is derived from this very term mores. Its counterpart in Greek is ethikos – ethos which again means ‘custom’ and ‘character’ (and the term ethics is derived from this very term), and we know that ethics is the science of morals or that branch of philosophy which is concerned with human character and conduct. Ethos is the habitual character and disposition of an individual or group. That is why Aristotle wrote in his Eudemian Ethics that “Many things come the way of human beings neither in the course of nature, nor after learning, but after habituation.” 1 Creed and culture of a group will form the ethos of the same. Here in India there is a paradigm of creed and culture in dialogue: The history of mores of the Syrian Christians of Kerala; and it is the basis of their identity as an indigenous Christian faith.

In this paper, I take the ancient Syrian Christians of Kerala (also known as the Saint-Thomas Christians of India) as a case study to explicate the reality of creed and culture in dialogue.2 The pre-colonial  Christianity of India is the Syrian Christianity of south India.3 As the learned scholar and eminent historian of Kerala, A. R. Sreedhara Menon writes, “Christianity is believed to have been introduced in Kerala in the first century AD, i.e., three centuries before it gained official recognition in Rome… Since its introduction, the Christian faith, though alien in its origin, came to be accepted as an indigenous faith and it made steady progress.”4 The history of Christianity in India from the first century AD to the 16th century is virtually the history of the Syrian Christians of Kerala. The Syrian Christianity in India existed within the encompassing framework of a dominant regional culture. “The features of their social life make the Syrian Christians recognizable as a unique cultural group in the comparative analyses of Christian communities in the world.”5 Their life style is described as ‘Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, and Oriental in worship’.6 

2. Historicity

History is the study of the past, focused on human activity. All events that are remembered and preserved in some form, that cannot be invalidated as unhistorical, constitute the historical record. In the cognitive map of the average Indian, Christianity is a product of British colonialism. For this, it is an imperative to mention of the historicity of Christianity in India in the first centuries of the present era. As a learned scholar and sociologist in contemporary India says, “This view (Christianity as a product of British colonialism) about the way in which Christianity came to India inevitably leads to a negative perception. …on the debate on the advent of Christianity in India, we may say that pre-colonial Christianity is a sociological reality and a historical fact.”7 In south India from early times of the current era up to the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and later Muslims lived in peace and harmony, effecting a cultural symbiosis and developing a philosophy of religious tolerance.8

Christianity came to India as early as the first century AD. According to this view Apostle Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, landed in Kodungalloor9 port in 52 AD.11 Indian Christians, particularly the Syrian Christians of Kerala, trace the origin of their church to the Apostle Thomas. The traditions and lore of Syrian Christians are rich in legends about the advent of the Apostle Thomas, his work, conversion of Brahmins12 and his martyrdom at Mylapore (Madras). The tradition of the Syrian Christians of Kerala is a living tradition,13 represented in the memories and lives of people who identify themselves as the Christians of Thomas. By the oral tradition/history,14 which is a living tradition, Thomas came to Kodungalloor, founded seven church communities, namely, Kodungalloor (Cranganore), Palayur, Kottakkavu (Parur), Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Kollam (Quilon), and Chayal (Nilakkal).

The other view ascribes the arrival of Christianity in India to early merchants and missionaries of the East Syrian or Persian Church.15 However, this is the second phase of Syrian Christianity of Kerala as it happened in the fourth century AD. They were called as the Sudists (Southerners) who refused to intermarry with the local Christians to preserve the purity of their blood. This racial division among the Syrian Christians has continued to the present day, and they are known as the Knanaya Christians today among the Syrians Christians of Kerala. As we have stated above, Christianity came to India, to the coast of Kerala, in the early century of the Christian era, and was sustained by the Churches of the Middle East, and the liturgical language was Syriac (as Sanskrit was/is that of the Hindus), and hence they got the appellation the “Syrian Christians”.16 Let us remind ourselves that Christianity had its origin in Asia, and Syrian (or Syriac) Christianity is Asiatic, and the Syriac Liturgy is more ancient than the other two types of Christianity, namely Greek and Latin (Roman). In its traditions, Church life, and ways of thinking, the Syrian Christianity “is closer to the biblical world and more akin to Asiatic mentality.” 17 

The possibility that St. Thomas came to India is affirmed by strong commercial links that existed between India and the West. Rawlison writes, “The commercial relation between Chaldea and Malabar go back at least to VIII century BC. It is evident from the teak beams etc. found in the ruins of Chaldean Ur. This intercourse continued down the centuries.”18 The trade was mostly in the hands of Egyptians and Syrians, and the latter played a considerable role in establishing Christianity within ancient India. Besides these frequently traversed sea routes to India, there used to be land route through Mesopotamia, Persia and Afghanistan to the ancient town of Purushapara (Peshawar). There was a dynasty of Christian kings in the Indus delta of the Parthians in the early centuries of the current era, and king Gudnaphar19 is famous among them, and the Parthians were overthrown by the Kushans. So thorough was the ravage that this dynasty of Christian kings was forgotten until the discovery of their coins and inscriptions in the nineteenth century.20 

Church of the Thomas Christians could maintain its unity for sixteen

centuries. In 1599 the Portuguese imposed a Latin hierarchy over them. Their resistance and protests to such a hierarchical system caused division among them.21 Now they exist as a divided Church: Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Malankara Catholic Church, Syrian Jacobite Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, Marthoma Church, Nestorian Church or the Church of the East, Thozhiyur Independent Church, and Anglican Church, etc.22 

In conclusion to this historicity aspect it is befitting to quote the learned scholar of early 20th century who was appointed the Special Officer of the Travancore State Manual, Sadasya Tilaka T. K. Velu Pillai: “The light of Christ’s Gospel was brought to them (the Syrian Christians) by the Apostle Thomas in the First Century of the Christian Era. So powerful was the impassioned eloquence of the great teacher and his followers, and so great the moral grandeur of their character that while in many other parts of the world, conversions were made from among uncivilized and illiterate people, in Malabar the well-to-do classes, living in an atmosphere of civilization, contributed in no small measure to the growth of the Christian Church. The Syrian Christians venerate their religion, but they also respect their ancient traditions and customs. They are the oldest of the Indian Christians. They occupy a prominent place in the educational chart of Malabar and of India.”23 The historicity of the Syrian Christians, though not that known in the cognitive map of an average Indian, has been passed on to us by the lips of last twenty centuries.

Humans are human because of their memory power. If humans lost this capacity to remember, that is to say, their memory, they will lose their human-hood or nature. The memory of a society or group is what we call history. Thus the society which has this memory, i.e. history, will be able to spell out its consciousness and value.

3. Creed and Culture in Dialogue: The Thoma Margams

The Thoma Marga is also known as the “Law of Thomas”,24 signifying the ethics, discipline, theology, spirituality and liturgy of the Syrian Christians of Kerala which they attribute to St. Thomas the Apostle, whom they regard as their faith-giver in Jesus Christ. It constitutes the whole identity of the Syrian Christians or the Christian way of life. It must be added here that the term ‘marga” in Thoma Marga has come from the Pali word magga, as the Syrian Christians had ethical and cultural interaction between Buddhists and them, for Buddhism and Jainism were prevalent in the early centuries in South India. It is important to note here that for the Syrian Christians of India, Christianity was not just a set of doctrines, concepts or dogmas, but a way of life or marga to reach God the Father which St Thomas the Apostle introduced in India (Thoma Margam). This Thoma Margam held the Syrian Christians together as a part of the Hindu society. The Thoma Margam was the complexus of the Rite of the Syrian Christians, the sum total of their liturgical, ascetical, ecclesiastical, social and political life.

It is noteworthy to mention that the asceticism of the Indian religions, namely that of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism, had its bearing on the Syrian Christians and their religious leaders. The community was highly ascetical. More than half of the days in a year were set apart for Fast. The days of fast were the days of abstinence from eating non-vegetarian food, and even milk and milk products, chewing betel (eating pan) and sexual unions (in marital life). Wednesdays and Fridays of the whole year were also the days of abstinence. These days of fasting were devoted to prayer, alms-giving, and renunciation. “The austerity, the rigor and the strictness of the Thomas Christian community were something that the Western missionaries could neither grasp nor practice.”25 Before the 16th century AD the bishops of the Syrian Christians were like the sages of India, preferred to live as spiritual men spending their life in prayer, meditation, fasting, study, and other ascetic practices. They never used to interfere and intervene in the administration of the temporal affairs of the Church, which was under the domain of the Palli-yogams (the representative body of the Christian community) in the respective levels. The Palli-yogams acquired and alienated property and the other temporal matters were with them. “In brief, the bishops of the St. Thomas Christians, who were chiefly occupied with the munus sanctificanti, the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, were spiritual heads, without much interest in the governance and administration of the Church.”26 If one consciously looks at the religions of India, whether it is Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism, it is so evident that each religious community was united not by any juridical bond but by the principle of communion. This very trait could be traced in the Syrian Christians which they had imbibed from their fellow Indians. The above mentioned Thoma Margam bears witness to this very fact. Just as other religions followed the administrative set up, so also the Syrian Christians did, for the administrative practices were mostly based on customs and conventions and there were hardly any written rules and regulations.

4. Social and Cultural Interfaces

Kerala society in the early centuries of the present era was traditionally plural. It allowed for the interpretation and interaction of the Hindu, Christian, and Syrian codes. There was an effective internal impetus towards mutual adaptation among the various spheres of social life, and less of dominance or submission of any one in relation to the others.27 There had been the areas bound by a pluralistic system of values in which the other spheres of activity are accorded their due and place. It does not mean at all that the Syrian Christians did not have their private world. They did have their own private world. It related to their rituals and ecclesiastical life, “with the norms of endogamy determining the level of contact and intimacy between the individuals”.28 The Christian community, as the traditions of the Syrian Christians indicate, lived and the Christian life developed on the pattern of temple-life of the Hindus. The community must have lived together as a caste, in villages or in towns, as is the ancient custom of India, and the church probably stood in a central place. Apart from the convenience for church-worship, the Christians considered it spiritually elevating to live near the churches, and this preference for living near the churches has continued in Kerala down to the present day. They used to bring the sick to the church.29 The churches and the surrounding places were used as inns or Dharmashalas by the pilgrims.30 

However, their public life was much more fundamental. Their public life related to their affiliation to Hindu kings, their acquisition of Hindu norms of purity and pollution, their own status and rank consciousness, and even their adherence to customs linked with food, language, and culture. In their public life, they had a wider framework of interaction. Respect was accorded to the private life of the Syrian Christians, and in turn they too respected the exclusive domain of Hindus. There was a consciousness of difference which separated them, each group being aware of its individuality, though there had been much of a similarity in cultural life. As it is the case in the plural societies that interaction and communication do not take place through the loss of identity, so it was with the Hindu – Syrian Christian pluralistic society of ancient Kerala.

There was a perfect communal harmony between the Hindus and the Syrian Christians of Kerala till the 16th century. As mentioned earlier, in south India Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jews and later Muslims lived in peace and harmony till 16th century developing a philosophy of religious tolerance. There used to be mutual exchange of gifts in kind and money between the Churches and Temples during Feasts and Festivals. Culturally the Syrian Christians were fully Indian and they practised all the customs like that of their fellow humans in the country. There was difference in their faith, which was an internal matter, the concern of the spiritual. Thus, there was no chance for communal disharmony. One find in the decree of the Synod of Diamper strictly ordering the Syrian Christians of Kerala to distance themselves from the cultural practices which strengthened the communal harmony. It is evident that the Westerners had distaste for whatever was Indian. The cultural practices and customs which the Syrian Christians used to keep in common with the Hindu brethren was labeled as unchristian, “heathen”31 or even as superstitious by the Portuguese missionaries in 1599.32 

The Syrian Christians used to take Indian and Indianised names. OĻam was the national festival of Kerala and all celebrated it irrespective of religious affiliations. Syrian Christians used to learn the temple arts and fine arts. They were good in Kathakali, Kooth, Thullal like classical dances and folk dances. Even the men folk of the Syrian Christains, like their Hindu brethren, used to wear ornament on their ears. Till 16th century, we find the Syrian Christians as a harmonious and culturally integrated community with no scope for communal tension and disharmony. A learned scholar writes: ‘the westerners, especially by Diamper Synod, estranged the Syrian Christians of Kerala who had one language and one ethos with their fellow Keralites, from their fellow non-Christians.’33 In Kerala at the time of the Synod of Diamper, there had been many elementary schools which the Keralites called Kalaries in every village. Both Hindu and Christian children learnt to read and write in these kalaries, irrespective of the religious faith of the teachers called Ashans, and mainly these Ashans were Hindus who were men of moral integrity and exemplary life.34  The Syrian Christians, who lived in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious context of India, had always maintained a tolerant, benevolent, and positive approach and theology of non-Christian religions.

The Syrian Christians of Kerala had the same cultural traits as that of their fellow Hindus till 16th century, for they were from the same stock and race. One can call it as cultural and ritual interactions in terms of values and life style. It was one of the most remarkable traits of the Syrian Christians that even while they remained Christian in faith, they retained typical Hindu social customs. The Hindu dietary and dressing habits, socio-religious ceremonies, and art and architecture rules were all observed with just slight variations. The Syrian Christians also practised ritual related to birth, vidyjrambha (initiation to learning), vivjha (marriage), and death.35 

Customs connected with pregnancy and child-birth were exactly that of the upper caste Hindus. When a young woman was about to become a mother, that is usually in the seventh month of pregnancy, she was taken to her parental home, where she would remain for three, five or even seven months, after the delivery. The new born baby was bathed in tepid water and was fed with drops of honey in which gold used to be rubbed. The women attending on her were considered unclean, and became purified after a dip-bath in a pond, a stream or a river.  The mother was said to be unclean for fifteen days after which she was purified by a ritual bath. She could not go on with her usual routine for either fifty-six days or ninety days. The naming ceremony of the new-born child was known as Mjmmodšsa in Syriac and its Malayalam translation was Jajna-snjnam meaning “bath to attain wisdom”. It used to take place either on the seventh day or fourteenth day of the birth. In the naming of the newly born child at baptism, the Syrian Christians had their tradition like that of their caste-Hindu brethren. The paternal grandfather’s or grandmother’s name was given respectively to the first male or female child. The second child acquired the name of the maternal grandfather or grandmother.

There used to be the custom of the first feeding of child with rice as practiced by the Hindus (Annaprasam or ChorrĻu). It used to take place in the sixth month after birth. Parents often used to make vows to have the ceremony performed in a particular church, as the Hindu parents take their children to particular temples in fulfillment of special vows. When the child was about four years of age vidyjrambham (initiation to learning) used to take place. The Ashan (teacher) of the village or community was invited, and a brass vessel full of rice was taken to him. A lamp being lit, the teacher holds the right hand of the child and makes him write a letter or two on the rice, which along with a few chakrams (coins of money) and pjn were presented to him. Boys and girls were taught together. 

Marriage was an elaborate ceremony among the Syrian Christians, and it was very much social in character with the local Hindu traditions. There was no wedding ring and the Tali had taken the place of wedding rings. Child marriage was rather common among the Syrian Christians. They followed the Brahmin custom of dowry, given by the party of the bride to the bridegroom. It was given in cash and gold on the day of engagement at the house of the bride. Marriages usually took place on Sundays and the celebrations would last for four days. Kalamezhal (or rangoli like designs made with rice flour in the pavilion erected in front of the house), Antamcharth (the ceremonial dressing of the bridegrooms hair), ceremonial bath, Mailanchiyidal (feet of the bride used to be anointed with henna), Madhuram-vekkal (feeding the bride and bridegroom with sweet), etc. were part of the marriage ceremony among the Syrian Christians and even today they are kept up. The most important function within the marriage was the tying the knot of the Tali or Minnu (a cross with 21 minute beads around more or less in the shape of a heart) at the neck of the bride by the bridegroom, and the thread of which is drawn out from the Mantra-kodi or the bridal veil. This again resembles the Minnu, the exact counterpart of the Tali in the Brahmin marriage ceremony in Kerala. The tying of Tali and the subsequent covering of the head of the bride by the bridegroom with the bridal veil all resembled the Hindu custom, with slight Christian modification. The Tali which is the marriage badge should not be removed as long as a woman remains a wife, and should be given to the church after her husband’s death, a practice observed from time immemorial till today. Marriage procession used to proceed on elephant’s backs or in palanquins with the five traditional types of music and with the loud hooting of joy which is still known as Kurava in Kerala, which was one of the 72 privileges of the Syrian Christians. After the religious ceremonies in the church, the bride and the groom were taken home in procession, and at their arrival they were welcomed with the sprinkling of nellum nirum (paddy and water) – a fertility-cum-coronation rite and with lighted lamps, another sign of nobility-practice. Special attention was paid that the couple entered the house with their right feet.

Death pollution, vegetarianism during mourning periods, ceremonial bathing to remove death pollution (pulakuli), funeral rites followed by feasting (adiyantram), death anniversary feeding (Shraddham or Chatham) all were part of the culture. After the death of an aged person, the members of the family observe pula or pollution, usually for 11 days, or even 13 days, after which there is a vegetarian feast and prayers are offered for the repose of the soul. This ceremonial observance is known as Pulavidal till today. Anniversary of an individual’s death is also celebrated with prayers for the dead and banquet called as Shraddham or Chatham in Malayalam. This is also a typical Hindu practice. This practice is still kept up among the Syrian Christians. Further, taboos relating to menstrual pollution were followed strictly by women. Formerly, it is said that, like the Hindu girls and women, Syrian women also were under seclusion for three days during which they could not enter into the kitchen, and they bathed on the fourth day.

The Churches externally looked like non-Christian pagodas, except the Cross put on top of the roof. Church architecture of the Syrian Christians for the first sixteen centuries in India, before the advent of the Portuguese missionaries, resembled the Hindu architecture. Though in their internal structure, the churches resembled Jewish synagogue, the construction of the churches took place in manner prescribed by Hindu Thachu Shastram, and the rules followed were adapted from the building principles for the Hindu temples. That is why it is said, “In the faēade of the church, the cultural elements of Hinduism, Christianity and the Syrian tradition are clearly in juxtaposition.”36 Perhaps the most popular functions among the Syrian Christians had been and still are, like in the Hindu temples, the feasts and festivals. In the Syrian churches, right down today, music used to start several days in advance of the festivity, and processions with parasols, trumpets, chenda-melam, and elephants were taken through the main streets. After analyzing the different devotional and religious practices of the Syrian Christians, A. R. Sreedhara Menon says, “Thus a sample analysis of the Nerchas (food offerings) in the churches shows their variety and their resemblance to the Vazhipadus offered by Hindus in their temples in some respects.”37 

The Syrian Christians, like Hindus, had the practice of horoscope and the related things, whether one today would subscribe it or not. Astrological calendar was used. Kanni month (September-October) was thought to be an inauspicious month. During this period houses were never constructed and marriages rarely took place. Dhanu was considered to be the best of months. Agricultural cycles also follow the above said calendar, and lunar eclipse (vavu) was one of the most important determinants. Even in the building of houses astrological dimensions were taken into consideration. The Hindu Ashari (master builder) would follow Hindu Thachu Shastra (Vastu), and every house must be located within its own seat and strength, to avoid misfortunes on the inhabitants. Even there used to be auspicious days and inauspicious days (Tuesdays and Fridays). Thus these might sound superstitious and Christian priests used to enlighten the people to get rid of such practices, as they are against the tenets of Christianity. However, people followed these practices.

One can find the cultural interaction even religiously too among the Syrian Christians. The bread used for Qurbana (Eucharist) was baked by the deacons by chanting psalms and the bread was brought to the celebrant in the place of worship on a fresh leaf, preferably lotus leaf.38 This practice has resemblance with the Hindu practice of naivedya or food offerings to the gods. According to Hindu Dharmashastras offerings should be made in a vessel either of gold, silver, bronze, copper or clay, or on pal±a leaves or lotus leaf.39 Another interaction of mores was the social amusement particularly that of the national dance, called Maragam Kali and Paricha-muttu Kali. In both these social functions, an old-fashioned brass lamp was placed on the floor, and the dancers wearing peacock feathers on their head, usually 12 in number, used to go around the same, with measured steps singing religious songs on St Thomas, the Apostle and Mother Mary. “They remind one of the Yathra Kali Pattu of the Brahmins.”40 Some of those songs now used are rather modernized versions of the ancient ones. They are akin to the old ballads of Hindu Kerala called Payannoor Pattu, or the ballads in honour of Aromal Chekavar. Similar songs and ballads of great antiquity and historical importance were used to be re-enacted at the Syrian Christian weddings from time immemorial. The wedding festivities usually lasted for four days, and gave a free play to the artistic and musical sense of the people.

The Syrian Christians adopted those socio-cultural customs of their milieu. The names, surnames, lifestyle, architecture of the houses and churches, the manner of church-administration, church and religious festivities, attire and the insignia of the clergy, educational system, clerical formation, family life, dress and ornaments of the Christians and their dietary were so Indian. Thus, one can find the categories of time, space and the body articulated in social use represent the world held in common by the Syrian Christians and Hindus of Kerala. This could be called as the interaction or even assimilation of the socio-ethical values by the Syrian Christians.

5. Caste System and Mentality

The Syrian Christians have been seen a part of the Hindu caste system in many anthropological studies. “When St. Thomas converted several Namboodiri brahmin families to Christianity some decades after the death of Christ, this conversion was taken to mean the loss of caste status”,41 and they got segmented from the original caste group. L. K. Ananthakrishna Ayyar writes, “In point of physical characteristics the members of the various sects of the Syrian Christian communities do not vary from those of the higher Hindu castes.”42 They took with them certain privileges, and the converts from labourer and artisan castes related to their Syrian Christian benefactors in the same way as they had to do to the higher Hindu castes. The converted servants belonging to the lower castes remained so without having equal status, though equality could have been seen only during religious worship in the churches. Even today one could trace the same mind-set in the traditional family circles of Kerala’s Syrian Christians. It is a fact, however embarrassing it might be to Christianity which teaches of equality of human beings, that there was restriction for and discrimination against the “New” Christians (puthu-kristhyanikal in Malayalam, a term used even today) converted in the nineteenth century by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) that they were discouraged from entering the Syrian Churches. Lower castes were not allowed in the kitchen but were fed separately on ritual occasions, thus the caste mentality and pollution attitude remained among them.

As the Syrian Christians claimed to be the run-away ones from the Namboodiri Brahmins, “they could, in certain context, claim higher status than the Nairs, who were next only to the Brahmins”.43 However, the hierarchical relationship between Nair and Syrian Christian is a matter of bit ambiguity. They did intermarry with persons of upper caste background, “particularly Nairs”44, and there was no proselytisation but a gradual assimilation which made possible a peaceful coexistence.The Syrian Christians were held in high esteem by the rulers of state-kingdoms in Kerala.45 Thus, the ‘Syrian Christians of Kerala have long been regarded as ritually superior to all other Christian convert groups’46 in India. An eminent scholar on the culture of the Syrian Christians, Placid Podipara wrote that for the high caste Hindus, the touch of a Syrian Christian was sufficient to purify articles defiled by the touch or near approach of low caste people in the yester years of untouchability. Hence, the non-Christian kings of Kerala often made the Syrian Christian families live their royal residence in order to profit by their service to purify the defiled articles.47 Further, it is interesting to note that the Syrian Christians of Kerala are also even today called Nazarani-Mapilas. The appellation Nazaranis was given to the ancient Christians in early centuries. It originated from the derision of the Jews who called the Christians Nazarenes, as Jesus was from Nazareth and was called the Nazarene. Thus Nazarani meant the follower of the Nazarene, which means Jesus of Nazareth. The Syrian Christians are also called Mapilas. The term Mapila is compound Malayalam word Maha (great) and Pilla (son), and it means Prince or Royal sons, which was the honorary titles granted to Thoma of Cana and his followers by Cheraman Perumal, Emperor of Malabar.48 The Syrian Christian priests are entitled and called Kathanars, which is an abbreviated form of the Malayalam words Karthan (Governor) and Nathar (Lord), that means the ‘governing lord’ of the parish community.49 It is well known that when the Portuguese came to Kerala in the 16th century AD they found the Syrian Christians a prosperous and flourishing community with a very high social and political status. The majority of them, in the early second and third centuries, consisted of Brahmins living in 64 villages spread over the country. On account of their numerical strength and influence and their observance of Brahmin customs which were not opposed to Christianity, they succeeded in relating their social position among the Hindus. This position was confirmed and raised further by the numerous political and social privileges conferred on the Syrian Christians by the rulers of Malabar.50

Untouchability was practiced by the Syrian Christians. They used to go for a ritual bath after getting in physical contact/touch with the lower castes, and even the Nair castes. We get this information from the Diamper Synod Decree 2 in Section IX. In it the Portuguese missionaries admonishes the Syrian Christians and abolishes untouchability with the terms: “the superstitious and absurd customs of the heathens of Malabar of better not mixing with the lower, and of having no communication or correspondence with those that have but touched any of them, totally be abolished among the Christians.”51 

The bottom line I would like to draw is that the caste mentality or casteism, an aspect of the mores of Indian ethos was very much prevalent among the Syrian Christians. They took rank among the highest nobility of the realm. Like the then Brahmins they had the right of sitting on carpets before kings, or riding on elephants and other privileges. No outsider, except the king and his prime minister, could hold civil jurisdiction over them. They were the lords and protectors of the Kammalas and other lower castes. They had the right to keep soldiers who were recruited either from among themselves or from the castes under them.52 During the domination over the Syrian Christians by the Portuguese missionaries, they condemned and abruptly abolished many of the innocent Hindu upper caste customs and rules observed by the Syrian Christians.53 The sudden removal of these and other caste rules lowered the Christians a little in eyes of the Brahmins and Nairs. The attempt to extend equal status to the then (16th century) recent low-caste converts added prejudice of the caste Hindus.

6. Epilogue

In short, I have been analyzing the Syrian Christians of India as a specimen of creed and culture in dialogue. We know little about the early religious life of the Syrians in the first three centuries, other than the oral tradition which was kept up. Their acceptance of Christianity does not appear to have involved any revolutionary change of life of the individual as “conversion” in the colonial period did. Hinduism, ancient Hinduism to be specific, had recognized the liberty of individual worship and it is a fact that in ancient times it seldom took notice of a man’s beliefs as long as he followed the social practices appropriate to his caste. Besides that, kings used to respect the religions of his subjects, as the Kerala Christians were, in all probability, considered a sect like the Jains and Buddhists who were numerous in south India in the early centuries of the current era. Syrian Christians did not develop their own theology. They had everything that of the Eastern Church, say of the Persian Church. Further, “there seem to be several prerequisites for this (formation of its own theology) to happen. First, the community should have a critical minimum number and sufficient socio-economic strength so as to produce its own intelligentsia, including theologians. Second, the community should experience oppression, objectively and subjectively. Third, the community should envision a specific lifestyle and identity for itself. In the case of the Syrian Christians prior to the introduction of western Christianity, the first condition existed but the latter two did not: they did not opt for a distinct cultural identity and they were not an oppressed collectivity.”54 In fact, the Syrian Christians did practice Hindu customs and being converts from upper castes could coexist with dignity along with Hindus. The Syrian Christianity existed in the Indian socio-ethical milieu for centuries together keeping its individuality intact. It grew up in the Malabar Coast evincing the characteristic features of an indigenous Indian Christian faith and institution.


       1    The Eudemian Ethics I: 1: 20 (Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, Michael Woods (Tr.), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 1). The same idea could be seen in The  Eudemian Ethics II: 2: 1 – 5

       2  Some parts of this paper owe to the author’s detailed account of the philosophical and ethical nuances in his previous paper: C. D. Sebastian, “Interaction between Classical Indian Ethics and Christians Ethics” in Rajendra Prasad (Ed), A Historical Developmental Study of Classical Indian Philosophy of Morals, New Delhi, Centre for Studies in Civilizations (Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture Volume XII, Part 2), Pp. 477 – 496

       3  E.O. Windstedt, The Christian Topography of Cosmos Indicopleusstes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1906, Pp. 321, 332, 344, 346.

       4  A. R. Sreedhara Menon, Cultural Heritage of Kerala: An Introduction, Ernakulam, Cochin Government Press, 1978, p.17

       5  Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 1

       6  Placid Podipara, “The social and Socio-Ecclesiastical Customs of Syrian Christians of India”, Eastern Churches Quarterly, Vol. 7, 1947, London, Pp. 222 - 236

       7  T. K. Oommen and Hunter P. Mabry, The Christian Clergy in India, Vol.1, New Delhi, Sage Publications, 2000, p. 40

       8  A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. 1: From the Beginning Up To The Middle of 16th Century, Bangalore, Theological publications in India, 1984, Pp. 154 – 156

       9  The most important port on the West Coast in the first centuries of present era was Musiris, so named by the foreigners for Mayuri Kotta, the ancient name of Cranganore or present day Kodungalloor.

     10  Edgar Thurston, Caste and Tribes of Southern India, Vol. VI, Madras, Government Press, 1909, Pp. 3ff

     11  Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. viii

     12  E. Tisserant, Eastern Christianity in India: A history of Syro-Malabar Church from the Earliest Time to the Present Day, London, Longmans, 1957, Pp. 1- 10

     13  The Rabban Pattu or Rabban Song is the most important written account of the Syrian Christians. The original form of this song/folk song is very ancient and it is believed according to the description in the song itself that it was composed by Thoma Rabban II of the Maliekkal family (one of the first Namboodiri families that became Christian at the time of St. Thomas the Apostle) from the place called Niranam. Thoma Rabban II was a disciple or grand-disciple of St. Thomas.

     14  A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, Bangalore, TPI, 1984, Pp. 1-21

     15  The Christian tradition which used the Syriac language is Syrian Church and “the main centres of the Syrian Churches were Antioch on the Orontes, Edessa in the Euphrates-Tigris valley and Kodungalloor (Cranganore) in Kerala” (Geevarghese Chediath, “The Syriac Churches in Dialogue”, Christian Orient, XXVI (1), 2005, p.20). Today their number Syrian Christians of India is: Syro-Malabar Catholic Christians – 3,753,000, Malankara Marthoma Christians – 700,000, Malankara Catholic Christians – 405,000, Malankara Orthodox Christians – 100,000, Malankara Jacobite Christians – 100,000,, Church of the East Christains – 15,000, and Thozhiyur Independent Church Christians – 5,000 ( Statistics given by Geevarghese Chediath, “The Syriac Churches in Dialogue”, Christian Orient, XXVI (1), 2005, Pp. 22 – 23). Thus, they number some 5.1 million all over the world.

     16  Geevarghese Chediath, “The Syriac Churches in Dialogue”, Christian Orient, XXVI (1), 2005, p.21

     17  R. G. Rawlison, Intercourse Between India and Western World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1916, p. 133

     18  A.F.J. Klijn (Ed.), Acts of St Thomas, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1962

     19  G.M. Moraes, A History of Christianity in India, Cambridge, Cambridge university Press, 1964

     20  The arrival of the Portuguese missionaries at the beginning of the 16th century opened a new chapter in the history of the Church of St. Thomas or the Syrian Christianity in India. The initial friendly relationship between the missionaries and the native Christians gradually changed into a contrast and collision of cultures, ecclesiastical traditions, theological visions and canonical institutions. The Syrian Christians were reduced to a simple suffragan to the Archdiocese of Goa and brought under Portuguese patronage by the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperur) in 1599. The conflict culminated in the so-called Koonan Krusu Satyam (or Coonan Cross Oath) in January 1653, and the subsequent divisions in the Syrian Christians or Kerala. For details see P. Pallath, The Catholic Church of India, Rome, 2003, Pp. 3 – 100, as quoted by Matthew Vellanickal, “The Syro-Malabar Church as an Individual Church”, Christian Orient, XXVI (1), 2005, p. 136

     21  Xavier Koodapuzha, “The Indian Church of the Thomas Christians”, Christian Orient, I (1), 1980, Pp. 20 – 61

     22  Sadasya Tilaka T. K. Velu Pillai, “Preface”, in K. E. Job, The Syrian Christians of Malabar, Changanacherry, St. Joseph’s Orphanage Press, 1938.

     23  A detailed study on this, see V. Pathikulangara, The Law of Thomas: History, Liturgy and Theology of the Community of Thomas Christians, (Licentiate Thesis) Rome, PIL, 1974.

     24  Mar Sebastian Vadakel, “Syro-Malabar Church: Its Pastoral and Missionary Rights and Obligations as Sui Iuris Church”, in Francis Eluvathingal (Ed), Syro-Malabar Church since the Eastern Code, Trichur, Marymatha Publications, 2003, p. 25

     25  Paul Pallath, “Some Aspects of the Progressive Theology of the Church of St. Thomas Christians before its Westernization”,Journal of St. Thomas Christians, Vol. 13 (4) & Vol. 14 (1) 2003, p. 71

     26  L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St Thomas: An Account of the Ancient Syrian Church of Malabar, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982

     27  Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, p. 1

     28  The Decrees of the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperur) referred earlier throw interesting light on this aspect of community life of the Syrian Christians before the Portuguese period. One of the Decrees prohibits the practice of bringing the sick to the churches. See P. Thomas, Churches in India, p. 8

     29  Another Decree of Daimper prohibits the use of churches as inns by the pilgrims. See P. Thomas, Churches in India, p. 8

     30  See Decree 2, in Section IX of Diamper Synod, as seen in Michael Geddes The History of the Church of Malabar together with Synod of Diamper, London, Sam Smith and Benj. Walford, 1694

     31  Michael Geddes The History of the Church of Malabar together with Synod of Diamper, Decree 1, in Section IX under the head “Of the Reformation of Manners”, it goes like this: “Whereas of all the evil Customs that are to be rooted from among the Faithful, those are most dangerous which have something of the Heathen Superstition in them, of which this Bishoprick is full, therefore the synod desiring that all such customs were totally extirpated, that so Christians may enjoy Christianity in its purity, doth in order thereunto command, that all Superstitious washings which are by some most superstitiously practiced as Holy Ceremonies be utterly abolished, such as washing of Dead Corps the Day after they have given a Dole, reckoning it a Sin to neglect such washings, the making of Circles with Rice, into which they put the Parties that are to be Married, having given Rice before to Children, as also the taking a thred out with great Superstition when they cut a web of Cloath, and taking two grains of Nele (Paddy) back again, after they have sold and measured it: all which Heathenish Vanities in the Synod totally prohibits, commanding all that shall use them hereafter to be severely punished.”

     32  G. Chediyath, Marthoma Slihayude Indian Sabha (Malayalam), Kottayam, Oriental Institute of Religious Studies, 1988, p.124

     33  The Synod made strictures and prohibited the Christian children to be sent to such kalaries, See Decree 9, in Section III of Diamper Synod, as seen in Michael Geddes The History of the Church of Malabar together with Synod of Diamper.

     34  Mar Sebastian Vadakel, “Syro-Malabar Church: Its Pastoral and Missionary Rights and Obligations as Sui Iuris Church”, in Francis Eluvathingal (Ed), Syro-Malabar Church since the Eastern Code, Trichur, Marymatha Publications, 2003, p. 24

     35  Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, p. 9

     36  A.R. Sreedhara Menon, Cultural Heritage of Kerala: An Introduction, p. 57

     37  Placid, Nammude R­thu (Malayalam), Mannanam, K. E. Press, 1944, p.34 – 35

     38  P. V. Kane, History of Dharma±stra, Vol. II, Pune, Bhanderkar Oriental Institute, 1974, p. 733

     39  K. E. Job, The Syrian Christians of Malabar, Changanacheery, St Joseph’s Orphanage Press, 1938, Part IV.

     40  Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, p. 2

     41  L. K. Anatakrishna Ayyar, Anthropology of the Syrian Christians, Ernakulam, The Cochin Government Press, 1926, Appendix E

     42  Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, p. 2

     43  T. K. Oomen and Hunter P. Mabry, The Christian Clergy in India, Vol. 1, 41

     44  L. K. Anantha Krishna Ayyer, Anthropology of the Syrian Christians, Ernakulam, Cochin Government Press, 1924, p. 56

     45  Susan Baily, Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700 – 1900, Cambridge, South Asian Studies 43, 1989, Pp. 251 - 252

     46  Placid Podipara, The Thomas Christians, Bombay, St. Paul Publications, 1970, p. 83

     47  Taken from A Synopsis of the History of the Syrian Church in Malabar, Kottayam, V. G. Press, 1910, as seen in George Menachery (Ed), Indian Church History Classics: The Nazaranies, Thrissur, The South Asia Research Assistance Services, 1998, p. 266.

     48    Referring to Dr Herman Gundert who was the first ever composer of Malayalam dictionary, Nagam Aiyya, the Settlement Peishkar, Travancore State and the Compiler of Travancore State Manual writes: “…the fully ordained secular priests of the Syrian Church, Kathanars, is according to Dr. Gundert deriverd from CARTHEN….” The Travncore State Manual, Vol. II, Trivandrum, Government Press, 1906, Pp. 126 - 127

     49    Most of these privileges are contained in the two copper plates granted to the Syrian Christians by the emperors of Kerala before the arrival of Thoma of Cana in the 4th century AD. The first plate was granted by Veera Raghava Perumal, the emperor of the then Kerala with the approval of his feudatory princes, to the Christians through their Chief. The second plate consisting of 72 privileges was granted by Sabarisho, the Lord of Quilon, to the Christians with the permission of the emperor, Sthanu Ravigupta, and with the consent of the local prince, the Raja of Venad (Travancore). P. Shankunny Menon, the celebrated historian of Travancore establishes the date of the first Copper plate as 230 AD. (for details see P. Shankunny Menon, History of Travancore, Travancore, Government Press, 1878, Pp. 45 – 48) and the second 250 AD.

     50  Michael Geddes, The History of the Church of Malabar together with Synod of Diamper, London, Sam Smith and Benj. Walford, 1694, Decree 2, in Section IX.

     51  K. P. Padmanabha Menon, Kochi Rajya Caritram /History of Cochin (Malayalam), Thrissur, Bhavilsam Press, 1087 (Malayalam year), Pp. 471, 478 etc.

     52  The Diamper Synod prohibited in strong terms the custom of growing a tuft of hair in centre of the head and boring of the ears and wearing ear-rings (see Section IX of the Decree 17 of the Diamper Synod, Michael Geddes, The History of the Church of Malabar together with Synod of Diamper, London, Sam Smith and Benj. Walford, 1694).

            53             T. K. Oommen and Hunter P. Mabry, The Christian Clergy in India, Vol. 1, p. 42


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