Continued from Part 1

Missionaries, Colonel Munro and Syrian Christians

    In the early nineteenth century, reports by European travelers and missionaries painted a gloomy picture of the state of indigenous kingdoms. State monopolies controlled by the rajas were apparently strangling trade and commerce. In their drive to finance their own extravagant lifestyles and patronage of Hindu religious institutions, the rajas were apparently making indiscriminate demands on the population and notably on the indigenous Christians. Lurid accounts by missionaries such as Whitehouse (1801), Arthur (1810), Buchanan (1811), and Wrde (1820) of the supposed plight of ‘lost’ fellow believers subjected to ‘dark and cruel tyranny’ of ‘fanatical and bigoted rulers’ appeared in a number of pamphlets, Accompanying these reports of oppression were claims that the Syrian Christians were in a state of ‘poverty and spiritual depression’. There was desperate need to rescue, regenerate, and modernize this group of ancient Christians. The presumption was that this ought to be carried out by right-thinking officials and missionary organizations.

    The time was ripe for the appearance of a ‘savior’ of the Christian community. And he appeared in the form of Colonel John Munro, the British Resident in Travancore and Cochin between 1810 and 1819. He was a fervent evangelical Christian, possessing the familiar qualities that one associates with the early nineteenth-century English administrators of India. With boundless energy, a hatred of heathenish practices, native superstition’ and ‘popery’, and a fierce desire to reform and ‘uplift’ Indian society, Munro had predilection for direct action in pursuit of his goals. And, with his close links with proselytizing organizations, such as the Church Missionary    Society (CMS) and the London Missionary Society (LMS), an army of missionaries descended on Kerala. Many of these missionaries began to engage in a wide range of educational and social reform activities in the region that would have a far-reaching impact on the future of Kerala. An important thrust of their activities was aimed at the Syrian Christians, particularly of the non-Catholic variety. Like the Portuguese, Munro’s game plan was to transform these ancient Christians into a loyal client population. He too believed that this bond could be secured by making them share the same doctrines and style of worship as their European patrons. But unlike the Jesuits, the desire was that the transformed group would become fervently anti-papist and iconoclastic and share the beliefs of the nineteenth-century Anglican evangelist.

    Within a span of three hundred years, the Syrian Christians were faced with yet another attempt at imposing a foreign religious ideology on them. Despite the blatantly direct approach of the Jesuits, which had brought about the first schism in 1,500 year history of the Syrian Christian church, they achieved only limited success. The practices that the Jesuit intervention had introduced, namely the organization of elaborate processional rites, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, and the use of cult images of the saints, had in any case close parallels with Hindu religious practices. However, the supercharged evangelism of the CMS variety was quite alien to both the Syrian Christian and Hindu world-view.

    In 1816, following the death of the current chief prelate, Munro took a step that was to have serious consequences for the Syrian Christians. Instead of confirming the consecration of the dead metran’s heir, traditionally from the Pakalomattom family, he chose a cleric from another priestly family in the belief that the new man would be more sympathetic to the CMS ideology. At a stroke, the Resident had overturned the whole traditional system of succession which had remained the one single stabilizing force, now that state support and encouragement of the Syrian Christian church had virtually collapsed. It was particularly unfortunate for Munro that the new metran died within weeks of his appointment and the same fate awaited the Resident’s next three replacement metrans. Over the next few years, the process of choosing a metran disintegrated into a free-for-all with many leading “Syrian Christian families battling inconclusively for the post. In the end, the claimants were reduced to drawing lots for the metranship. This undignified expedient left the winner with no inherited link to the West Asian church and no clear backing from the Resident or the local rules to sustain his authority. This was amply demonstrated when new overseas metran, Mat Athansius, arrived in Kerala in 1825. On his arrival, he quarreled with hapless local metran and led his followers on an even more aggressive bout of tomb smashing. These exploits reduced every Syrian Christian locality to a state of siege before the Resident finally stepped in and had Mar Athansius deported.

The Firming up of Communal Boundaries

    There were other action of Munro that threatened the delicately balanced age-old relationship between the Syrian Christians and the Hindus. The explanation for Munro’s behavior lay in the potency of European misconceptions. As in their dealings with other supposedly ‘oppressed’ groups, the British administration displayed an immense capacity to create problems where none had existed. They did this by throwing the whole weight of the colonial apparatus into redressing a set of grievances that had only emerged in response to their own misconceptions. The non-existent problem was the supposed oppression of Syrian Christians by the Hindu officials of Travancore and Cochin. Believing in the missionary stores of Syrian Christian penury and degradation, Munro began to inundate the ‘oppressed’ group with funds and state patronage in an attempt to ‘rescue’ and uplift’ them from their ‘melancholy’ State. On the assumption that priestly celibacy was a papist custom forced on them by Portuguese, Munro offered bounties up to Rs. 500 to any katanar who agreed to marry. Large sums of money were allocated for the repair and reconstruction of Syrian churches. Such funds were not forthcoming for the Catholics or other groups.

    Believing that the Christians were being singled out for harsh extraction of revenue, Munro instructed missionaries whom he had appointed to new magisterial posts to collect evidence against Hindu officials who had abused their powers by ‘extorting’ goods and cash from Syrian Christians. There was no evidence to show that Christians in general or Syrian Christians in particular were being treated more harshly than other groups. Indeed, the Syrian Christians who dominated the regions remaining trading networks were well established enough to reach an understanding with state officials on the level of the local revenue demanded. Munro’s policy of singling out one section of the population as a client group and encouraging them section of the population as a client group and encouraging them to avoid the machinery of justice and revenue collection could only aggravate existing tensions among the communities.

    As early as 1821, the touring Anglican missionary, W.H. Mill reported unmistakable signs of tension between high-caste Hindu and Syrian Christians in localities which had earlier operated joint schemes for Hindu and Christian (temple festivals). What Mill found was that funds provided under Munro’s scheme of grants towards the improvement of Christian churches were creating bitter conflicts between the Syrians and high-caste Hindus. There was unrest in Chengannur, a place in which a Christian church stood almost adjoining a sizable Hindu temple. When the Syrian Christians sought to use their newly acquired funds to rebuild the main pathway and procession route leading to the Chengannur church, the local Hindu residents sent a group of Brahmins to block the path and stop the work on the grounds that the Syrian Christians had no right of access to the precincts of a Hindu temple and that their presence there would be ritually polluting. The actions of Munro and his missionaries had resulted in running a high-ranking group with considerable social status into a group who were indistinguishable from low-caste, low-status Christian converts.

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Dr George Gheverghese Joseph

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