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The Syrian Connection - Christians of Kerala

Syrian Christian is an umbrella term for any Christian living in Kerala” was the first piece of information I got as I set out to gather information for this article. “They could be Latin Cathuolics.” My informant went on, “such as the Syrian Christians who went over a the Pope after the advent of the Portuguese, or Latin Christians who are mostly fishermen who were converted much later and the only common factor is that they all come under the Pope.” The liturgy or language used for the church service would vary from Latin to Syrian to Malayalam.

Then there are the Jacobites who belong to the Orthodox Church, or Eastern Church, which prides itself on being older than the Church of Rome. It was at Antioch (now in Turkey) that the disciples were first called Christians. The language that earliest missionaries used to spread their message through the continent of Asia was Syriac, a dialect of Eastern Aramaic and so closest to the language that Christ himself must have used. Of these were two factions, the Patriarch’s side who owed allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch and the Malankara Orthodox Church that appointed its own bishop at Kottayam, which is an important centre of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala set amidst a lush countryside of rubber, tea, coffee, teak and pepper, plantations. All of them, I was told, are known as Jacobites. As far as I could make out, they held their services in Syrian.

I was then introduced to another group who claim to be a part of the Mar Thoma Church. “Sometime in the last century there was a reform movement in the Jacobite Church. Possibly because of the influence of the Protestant missionaries who did not see any merit in the worship of Mary, or in the need for the prayers of the Dead, which they felt was part of the whole system of worship of the Catholics, there was a movement of rebellion and reform. From this came the Mar Thoma Church, a mixture of Protestant and Jacobite, who conduct their service in Malayalam.

“Quite apart from this there is also an Anglican Church started by the British Missionaries and the sect calling themselves the Nestorian Christians who have small congregations at Trichur, Ernakulam and Trivandrum.” By now I was totally confused. It is possible that I may have left out some sub-groups. My apologies to them.

In some ways one can compare the Christians to the Parsis they are an ethnic religious group within the Indian social frame who have retained their identity and absorbed the flavour of their surroundings. They have strong affiliations to the place of their birth, yet they look Westwards for the spiritual spark that gives them their special status. Whereas the Parsis came as a persecuted people, as perhaps some groups of Syrian Christians in the ninth century, the majority of Syrian Christians are of native stock.

The Syrian Christian tradition is that St. Thomas, one of the original apostles of Christ, came to India in 52 A.D. He was known as Doubting Thomas because legend has it that he could not believe his eyes when he saw the risen Christ and touched one of Christ’s wounds. He was shocked to find that it still bled. It is said that when St. Thomas landed at Musir5is, which everyone believes to be the present sleepy hamlet of Kodungallur, a Jewish girl playing a flute was there to welcome him. The ties between this stretch of the Kerala coast and those of the Middle East go back to the time of Solomon who used to send his ships to trade in the wealth of the ancient spice coast. St. Thomas may have taken the overland route across the Palghat gap in the Western ghats to find his way to Mylapore, or Meliapore as the Greeks would have it, suburb of Madras where the elegant Cathedral of San Thome stands serenely with the sea and the sky as the backdrop. The cave on St. Thomas Mount, where he was murdered still stands and no airborne visitor to Madras can miss this landmark on an otherwise flat plain.

Some of the legends connected with St. Thomas’ life are intriguing. It is said that when the apostle set to work he found a group of Brahmins or Nambudiris, as they are known in Kerala, standing in a poll of water performing their ritual prayers throwing the water over themselves. He is supposed to have chided them gently about their gods who could not accept their offerings and asked them if they would convert if he showed them how powerful his god was. They agreed and when he got into the water and threw the water up, the droplets stayed in the air, while even the surface of the pool was dimpled with the mark that his hand had made on it. Not all the Nambudiris agreed to be converted and the place came to be known as Chavakkad, or accursed place. With the help of those he had converted St. Thomas set about creating seven churches one of which now remains at Niranam and still retains its old glory.

The next important person to make his mark on the Christian landscape of Kerala was Thomas Cana. A merchant, he came with a large number of men, women and children in the middle of the fourth century (A.D.) from Babylon, Ninevesh and Baghdad. The details are shrounded in controversy, but in the Persian city of Ishaha, there are written documents that speak of a connection between the Christians of this city and a king of South India. Cana’s descendants in Kerala are distinguished for the fairness of their complexion, distinction that they tried to preserve by not marrying out of the community. The Knanyi Thomas’s as they are known were again divided into a northern faction and southern faction, based on those who were the immediate descendants of Thomas Cana and who lived around him, and those who were his followers, who lived a little to the south of the leader’s house.

Thomas of Cana or Knayil Thomas was apparently received with full honours by Cheruman Perumal, the reigning king of the Chera country. Amongst the various marks of favour that would signal their status, was the right to carry a royal umbrella. This would seem a negligible honour, but in Kerala, where the rain lashes the countryside with indiscriminate fury, it was very practical one. During royal feasts, the Christians could expect to be served on a double layer of banana leaf as another mark of honour, and even today some of them observe this by tucking in the ends of their banana leaf.

Like other merchant communities, the Syrian Christians affirmed their comfortable status by eating well and communal feasts are still an occasion when this alimentary bond can be displayed and shared. They, more than any other group, have learnt the culinary secrets of the colonizers, even though some of the older Syrian Christian families abstain from eating beef in defence perhaps to their Hindu origins. Some are even vegetarian.

It was the same Cheruman Perumal who is said to have conferred the title of Mapillais on the Christians as against the designation “Pillai” or children that he used for his ordinary subjects. Another theory is that one of the Pandian kings from Tamil Nadu apparently attacked the Chera kingdom and routed the army. At this point the Syrian Christian women marshaled every household implement that they could get – the stone pestles used in grinding, the long wooden ones used for husking the rice grains, the flat-bladed knives for hacking a coconut open – and offered resistance. Seeing them, the men of their community took heart and forced the Pandeians back, for which reason they are known as the Mapillias or Mama’s boys, a most unlikely story, let it be added.

More lasting than any; of the royal tokens of favour that Cheruman Perumal granted them was the right to trade. Since in Kerala at that time, there was no merchant class as such, the Christians filled the role quite well although they had occasionally to fight both the Jews and the Arabs for the pepper monopoly. Pepper was the main reason for the Portuguese appearing on the scene in search of an easier sea route to India, with Vasco da Gama making early overtures to one Kerala ruler after the other.

If they had stuck to trade nobody would have minded too much, but the Portuguese were also in search of souls to save and to harvest for the kingdom of God. “The extraordinary thing about the Syrian Christians is that they have never been interested in conversion,” commented Jaiboy Joseph, a journalist. It was something that the Western Christians were never able to understand. This trait could have contributed to the Syrian Christians’ ability for survival through so many centuries without being assimilated. It would also explain their need to maintain their links with Antioch, one of the great centres of the Orthodox faith. The Portuguese could not bear the ‘heathen’ Christians daring to defy the authority of Rome. They tried to re-educate the Kerala Christians first by persuasion at the Synod or conference at Udayamperur (Diamper in English). Here one of the native priests signaled his contempt by appearing with his pants over his head, his shirt through his legs to show how upside-down the world had become. The Portuguese were not amused and began destroying the existing documents, whether written on palm leaves or leather or inscribed on copper plates, which lies one reason why there are so few records available. Finally they brought in the Inquisition.

The Syrian Christians however did not submit for long. When one of the emissaries sent to them from Antioch was detained by the Portuguese at Mylapore, thousands of them took what came to be known as: “The Oath of the Coonen Cross” (Learning Cross). “It was the first spontaneous uprising on Indian soil against the Western powers,” said a senior member of the community with obvious pride. Their leader was proclaimed the head of the Church.

It is also quite extraordinary to listen to the sonorous chanting of the priest in the Mar Thoma Church reciting the prayers in front of the simple wooden Cross before him a helper swinging a globe shaped censor with the heavy fragrance of burning camphor. The long draw out ululations of the priest could well be as old as those that were heard in Antioch, Alexandria, or even Constantinople. But he is in fact reciting the prayers in Malayalam, as indeed are the responses of the congregation as they stand up to sing their hymns in their moths tongue, ending with “Alleluias”. It was quite extraordinary, listening to Indian voices reciting prayers in an Indian language and yet hearing echoes that went far back into the vaulted dome of time.