The Christians of Kerala: History, Belief and Ritual Among the Yakoba

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Oxford University Press, 1993 - Religion - 279 pages
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Christianity in Kerala must be understood as a unique cultural configuration arising out of two kinds of situations. The first is its historical dimension: it is believed to have come to Kerala in AD 52, when St Thomas, the apostle of Christ, landed on the shores of Malabar. On another level, Christianity has existed within the framework of the dominant regional culture of Hinduism. This book is an attempt to understand the practice of Christianity in a small neighbourhood in Kerala. The author explores the relationship between Christianity and Hinduism by using the categories of time, space, architecture, and the body, and examines the ways in which Hindu, Christian and Syrian strands have woven together to form a rich cultural tapestry. Of these, the Syrian element is perhaps the most problematic, for Syrian Christians have felt the influence of the Middle Eastern churches since early times. Over the years, colonial interventions by the Portuguese and the British brought about a series of schism, leading in the late nineteenth century to a situation in which the relation of one denomination of Syrian Christians to the Patriarch of Antioch (the head of their church) was troublesome enough to be taken to the lawcourts. This book is about the Yakoba who are now divided into two groups: the Orthodox Syrians and the Jacobite Syrians. Their quarrel over ecclesiastical jurisdiction is recorded here, using people's voices to express the importance of understanding the past's relation to the present; and the ways in which the 'church quarrel' affects Syrian Christian life and experience. In this context, the relationship between the people and their priests is an uncertain one. A thirdquestion discussed in the book relates to the ritual life of Syrian Christians. Life-cycle rituals - marriage, birth and death - are seen to be not merely 'markers' of transition in the passage of life, but become statements of a moral and theological nature. There is a clear demarcation between domestic and canonical rituals of life crises: while the former are in consonance with Hindu ritual, canonical rituals are rigidly structured within the language of the Syrian Christian rite. Here, then, is presented most clearly the weave between Hindu, Christian and Syrian elements which gives Syrian Christianity its cultural distinctiveness. The problems raised in relation to the annual rituals of the Syrian Christians show that while these liturgical enactments confirm and consolidate given structures, in certain specific instances they also allow for the possibilities of transformation. People's interpretations of Christianity are thus a powerful mode of cultural expression and societal flexibility.

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Susan Viswanathan is giving importance to legends ignoring concrete historical facts. In Kerala history there is absolutely no evidence of Nambudhiris or Jews being converted by St. Thomas or at a later stage by missionaries coming from Persia. Instead of scientifically proving (not manipulated ) genetic link between Jews or Nambudhiris with Syrian Christians, people like George Menachery are making ridiculous references to colour of dress, building model, customs, rituals and social habits to claim Brahmin and Jewish ancestry. Along with these preposterous comparisons, manipulated DNA tests are being conducted to nullify authentic records of conversion of untouchables by saintly and trustworthy CMS missionaries such as Norton, Fenn, Baker, Bailey, Peet, Dawson and others Hawksworth says that he converted slaves, and how can DNA test show that the descendants of the slaves have Jewish blood? The descendants of untouchable Ezhavas, mukkuvas, slaves and others in Alappuzha, Mallappally, Pallom, Mavelikara, Chengannur, Kottayam, Kochi and other places are now a part of mainstream Syrian Christian community. CMS (now CSI) church marriage registers will show how many Malankara and Jacobites have married CMS boys and girls.
Missionaries from Persia who came to Kerala in pre-colonial days were not Jews or Assyrians, but Persians. It is not sufficiently realized by racist writers that the immense majority of the members of the Nestorian Church living east of the Tigris were of Persian, and not Semitic or Aramean birth and extraction. Many were born of Christian parents who originally belonged to the Zoroastrian faith, and many others were only themselves converts from Zoroastrianism. So it is sheer absurdity to claim Jewish or Assyrian genealogy through Persians who periodically visited Kerala.
Another argument of these racists is that tying of thali is a proof that Syrian Christians are descendants of Nambudhiris. But this claim is also not sustainable because untouchables such as Parayas, Pulayas, Mukkuvas, vannans and many others tie thali. Paul Roche gives this account of Paraya Catholic marriage: “The priest, though of higher caste, does not treat the Paraiya couple as untouchables. He blesses the couple and says Mass for them. The symbol of the wedding union is the thali. The thali is a gold medal on a yellow thin string. It is yellow because it is dyed with turmeric (Manjal). During Mass the priest blesses the thali and hands it over to the bridegroom who ties it around the neck of the bride. The priest also blesses two flower garlands and hands one each to the bridegroom and the bride who garland each other.” The fact that Syrian Christians follow Hindu rituals is a clear proof that they were converted from backward Hindu communities. Ezhava, Pulaya and Paraya Christians are having Hindu relatives of their own castes even after conversion and therefore they still retain more Hindu rituals and customs than Syrians who were also lower caste converts. Menachery, instead of pointing out Hindu rituals and manipulated DNA, should give clear evidence about the conversion of Nambudhiris or Jews --- the locality of these Nambudhiris or Jews, the number of people converted, the year of conversion and , above all, the person or missionary who converted them. CMS missionaries’ diaries give a detailed account of the caste of the converted people and the date, place and year of conversion. Can Menachery produce such a record of Nambudhiri or Jewish conversion, instead of showing fake DNA or the white dress that even Paraya Pentecost people wear everywhere?
Quite surprisingly, these racial writers also claim that Church built on the model of a Hindu temple is another proof for their Nambudhiri ancestry. But Paraya and Pulaya temples are also like Nair temples.. Lamp, especially oil lamp, Kuthvilakku, is lighted on all important occasions of Parayas, and this practice is also prevalent in some Syrian houses. Church architecture was modeled on temple architecture because that was the prevalent pattern of buildings in
 

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Susan Visvanathan gives importance to imaginary facts without verifying evidences. Too much importance is given to vague oral tradition without looking for literary, numismatic, architectural and inscriptional evidences.
The claim of Syrian Christians that they are the descendants of Brahmins converted by St.thomas is completely baseless. These false and manipulated stories are being circulated to appropriate Brahmin status for Christian converts. There were no Nambudiris in 1st century AD and their arrival in 8th century begins with the introduction of Sanskrit in Kerala dispensing with Vattezhuthu which was in use till then. .
Their claim of Jewish descent is also fallacious, for the very presence of Thomas of Cana is doubted by Church historians. Like the fake Brahmin claim, Jewish claim has been propagated even by some Church establishments. Only the Believers Church has denounced such false claims in its Bulletin. The copper plate granting Thomas of cana certain privileges was also a false propaganda. Historians believe that it was to claim that Christians enjoyed superior caste privileges, a story was circulated about the granting of this plate with a long list of privileges , although there was no such plate. The dream of the Bishop is another invented story because no such dream is mentioned in the archives or tradition of Assyrian church in Edessa,Chaldea or Damascus Research scholars highly doubt the arrival of Thomas of cana. In those days, how could he bring women on ships? Who was the authority in the Eastern church to depute Bishops to Kerala? Why no Assyrian or Chaldean Bishop was seen when the portuguese came to Kerala?.Buchanan tried his best to trace the alleged copper plate given to Thomas of cana,, but failed, although other copper plates given to the Jews were found. Later some fake plates called chepped were artificially produced without any authentic source regarding their origin.
These fake claims linking the poor converts to Brahmins and Jews began in the 18th century after the Poruguese, during their 150 year-old rule, elevated this labour class to the status of army, police officers, traders, political agents, brokers, butlers and messengers. Mixed marriages between Portuguese and Hindu women( who were converted to christianity )gave them white colour and good features to remove the untouchable past. The Portuguese also made them wealthy by giving estates for cultivation and made them cultured by educationg them. This new status made them produce false family histories like Niranam granthavali, folksongs like margamkali and fables claiming Brahmin and Jewish pedigree.
Now they are giving up Nambudiri pedigree because Kerala historians, especially Elangulam Kunjan Pillai, have pointed out there were no Nambudiris when St.Thomas came to India. So they have switched over to Jewish and now Assyrian pedigree.This is the current trend amng some haughty Christians. . Thomas of cana was not a Jew and he is a fictitious figure. There was no Assyrian exodus to Kerala. When rhe Portuguese came to Kerala they could not see a single Persian or Assyrian priest. Churches were managed by local persons who had poor knowledge of Christianity and they were following distorted Nestorianism.
 

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About the author (1993)

Susan Viswanathan, Teacher at Hindu College, Delhi University; Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum, Delhi.

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