(This Essay is an extract from a book titled “George Joseph, the Life and Times of a Kerala Christian Nationalist” [Orient Longman, New Delhi] by Prof George Gheverghese Joseph. CRI wishes to thank Prof George Gheverghese Joseph )
A serious misunderstanding of the Syrian Christian heritage is prevalent even today among the more perceptive and knowledgeable Indians. Even a commentator of the calibre of Nirad Chaudhuri is misinformed about the origins of the Syrian Christian community.
“I have not included in my account the oldest Christian community in India. It is formed of the Syria Christians of Kerala of the former Princely State of Travancore. They came over from Syria when the Arabs conquered their country, and since their arrival in India they have been living here as colonists. (The Continent of Circe, 309) “
The statement is riddled with inaccuracies which will become evident to the reader in the course of this essay.
From time immemorial, a member of Syrian Christian was popularly known in Kerala as a Nasrani (meaning from Nazareth, the birthplace of Jesus Christ). The term ‘Syrian Christian’ is of Dutch origin and now a commonly used name for the community. And, despite some misgivings, we will continue to refer to the group by that name.
The name, ‘Syrian’, has little to do with the country, Syria. It was probably derived from ‘Cyrus’ the king of Persia (559-529 BC), who conquered Babylon and liberated the Jews by permitting them to return to Judea. The name ‘Syrian’ is equivalent to the term ‘Christian’ and was used for the first time, to refer to Christ’s disciples in Antioch, because early Jewish converts to Christianity believed that Cyrus resembled Christ, the liberator of captive mankind. From them the term ‘Syrian’ spread first among the newly converted Christians of Mesopotamia, Persia and further east. The name eventually came to refer to those connected with the Church of Antioch at the very beginning of Christianity. It was referred to as the ‘Syrian Church’ in the epistle of St. Ignatius (the third Patriarch of Antioch), to the Romans in AD 107. The label was also attached to the churches in the East as far as India, which submitted to the ecclesiastical authority of the ancient capital of Syria. When the Dutch first appeared in Kerala, the old Christians that they came across were labeled ‘Syrian’ Christians and the more recent Portuguese converts as ‘Latin’ Christians, a distinction that remains even today.
Historical research into the Syrian Christians of Kerala has often tended to dwell far too heavily on the question of the validity or otherwise of St. Thomas bringing Christianity to this part of India. The arrival of Doubting Thomas of the New Testament at the port of Kodungallur in 52 AD is an important part of an oral tradition of all Syrian Christians, kept alive in each generation by songs and stories about miracles and conversions performed by him during his stay in Kerala. Irrespective of whether it happened or not (and on the existing evidence it could well have happened), the St Thomas connection is important to all Syrian Christians, whatever their differences, for their very identity has been shaped by this tradition.
Associated with this tradition is yet another legend. It is believed that St. Thomas converted some thirty-two Brahmin Families (the numbers vary with account) out of which eight are normally given precedence in the Syrian Christian society. One of the families, Pakalomattom, is believed to have been granted the traditional privilege by St. Thomas of supplying metrans (bishops). The second in order of precedence n traditional Syrian Christian society was the family of Sankarapuri. The membership of these old families was, until recently, an important index of social status within the community.
While this early conversion must have resulted in the loss of the caste status of this group, they still retained certain privileges. An infusion of immigrant Christian traders of East Syrian stock and the ensuing economic benefits led to the granting, over many centuries of further privileges and honors by the Hindu rules of the region. The community reached its peak of influence during the reign of Marthanda Varma. He recruited several thousand Syrian Christians into his army during his campaign of conquest in North Travancore. His state trading monopolies depended heavily on the skills of experienced Christian traders. Based around important market towns such as Kanjirapalli. Mavelikkara, and Sherrallai, these traders played an important role in processing pepper and forest-based commodities for export.
As a reward for their services, a few Syrian Christian families were given honored privileges in many state rituals by the rulers. In Cochin, Syrian Christian prelates participated in the installation ceremonies of the rulers. During the premier Kerala festival, Onam, part of the regalia for the rituals was stored in a Cochin Syrian Christian church. The procession carrying the Hindu deity, Krishna, at that festival was expected by custom to make a brief stop at the home of a prominent Syrian Christian family who had contributed to the cost of financing that procession. The high status of the Syrian Christians in Hindu society was reflected everywhere by their right of access to Hindu society was reflected everywhere by their right of access to Hindu shrines and ‘sacred space’. In Alleppey, a newly emerging urban center in Tranvancore, during the eighteenth country, a Hindu temple and a Syrian Christian church were built on adjoining sites, a practice found in the case of older churches and temples in places such as Niranom, Chengannur, Kallopara, and Parur between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Christians continued to use Hindu style torches, umbrellas, and banners at their festivals to honor saints and bishops of the Syrian church. There was at least one Hindu temple that lent its temple elephants for Syrian Christian festival processions.