People and Places

The Syrian Christians of Kerala

I belong to the Syrian Christian faith. My great-great-grandfather, Joseph Ittoop, known popularly as Pucadyil Ittoop Writer, wrote the first history of the Syrian Christian Church in 1869. The book “Suriani Christianikalude Sabhacharitram” (A History of the Malabar Syrian Christian Church) is the story of the Syrian Christian Church in Kerala, as old as Christianity itself. The faith was established by St. Thomas in AD 52 and nurtured by the early converts, who came to be called Nazranis, the follower of Christ of Nazareth.

Joseph Ittoop was born in 1821 in the Pucadyil family in Kottayam. After early education in Malayalam and Tamil, he joined the Grammar School run by Missionaries and entered the Syrian Seminary after a few years. Rev Pete, a missionary, took him and a few other students under his wing and admitted them into CMS College, where he started getting a scholarship from Bishop Spencer. after marriage, he started working under the Forest Conservator, P W D Monroe. After Monroe’s death, Ittoop became a writer under Baker. In 1846, after Baker left for England, he joined Judge Callen in British Cochin as a Clerk. In 1860, when the Malabar Printing Company was incorporated, Ittoop started publishing Western Star, a weekly paper. He also published a book in 1857 in collaboration with his brother-in-law, Joseph Ittyera, a translation of the Sanskrit Book Amaresam. At this time, he started planning the history of the Syrian Christian Church. He got most of the source materials from records kept in ancient houses, historical texts by Whitehouse and Buchanan, Records from the Suriani Seminary, records from the Ponjikara residency etc. After his passing away in 1861, his son Joseph Ittoop published the book in 1869.

As a result of St Thomas’s mission, many natives accepted Christianity. Members from Brahmin families became priests for the community. He built many churches. St. Thomas later went to China to spread Holy Gospel, and after his return, he became a martyr. The faithful buried his body at Mylapore, in Tamil Nadu.

These were the times of the resurgence of the Christian faith after Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity. In AD 325, following the Synod at ‘Nicea’, the early Christians were divided into three groups. Each group came under the authority of one of the three Patriarchs of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Finally, in AD 345, an expedition of 40O odd members from 72 families reached Kodungalloore under the leadership of Thomas of Cana, a merchant. They settled by the Kodungalloore Palace Street.    

With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498, the Roman Catholic faith gained a foothold in Malankara and tried to proselytize the Nasranis of Kerala. Their Archbishop Menezes convened the historical Synod of Diamper on June 20, 1599, and started the forced conversion of Syrian churches into Catholicism. The agitated Nasranis numbering about 25,000, assembled at Mattancherry and took a pledge at ‘Koonan Cross’ in 1653 that they and their future generations will always be loyal to the throne of Antioch.

With the establishment of the British East India Company, missionaries from Britain tried to introduce reformation concepts in the Syrian Church, though unsuccessfully.  The Malankara Church remained loyal to the Holy See of Antioch. As a result of internal disputes and with the help of British authorities, a reformist faction under the leadership of Mor Athanasius Thomas organized themselves as the Marthoma Syrian Church of Malabar.

On Pulikottil Mor Dionysius’s initiative, two Metropolitan-designates were ordained Mor Kurilose Paulose and Mor Dionysius Geevarghese by the Patriarch of Antioch in 1908. After the death of Pulikottil Mor Dionysius V, the newly ordained Metropolitan Mor Dionysius Geevarghese caused to bring forth the unfortunate division in the Jacobite Syrian Church. His group later became the ‘Orthodox Syrian Church’ after adopting a constitution in 1934.

The Nazarenes blended the pastoral world of the Syrian Church with the socio-cultural environment of their homeland well, maintaining a strong sense of caste and tradition.

The Rulers of Kerala gave the Nasranis various rights and privileges documented in decrees of the Copper Plates. The Travancore King granted seventy-two rights and freedoms traditionally granted to high-borns.

Boundaries between Christians and Hindus almost disappear in the cultural sphere, such as house building, astrology, birth and marriage. The traditional white dress of Syrians resembles cream coloured upper-caste Hindu garments. Syrian Christians follow the Dowry system, decorations with rice flowers, forty-one-day observance after a death in the family. The ceremonies after childbirth, like the initial feeding of the newborn with powdered gold and honey, tying an amulet around the waist, are all Hindu customs. Belief in astrology and horoscopes is also prevalent. The initiation in education by making young ones trace letters in rice is common. Customs connected with death: death pollution of ten to fifteen days, vegetarianism during mourning periods, ceremonial bathing (pulakuli)to remove death pollution and feasting after funeral rites all follow Hindu customs.

Since ancient times, Nazranis, like the Jews, have been a community of mercantile traders and agriculturists. Many Nazranis engage in the trade of rubber, spices and cash crops. Many are also professional moneylenders and bankers like the Jews. Over the centuries, Syrian Christians became landowners themselves. The Syrian Christians were also very quick to allow women in their community to receive an education.

Like Namboodiri Brahmins, the Syrian Christians were patrilineal in a largely matrilineal society. The father is the head of the family, and the sons inherit the property. The youngest son inherits the family house (Tharavad), where he stays with the parents, a custom strikingly similar to ancient Hebraic/Jewish property inheritance custom. However, this has changed because of the recent Indian Supreme court decisions.

At marriage, both the Hindu women and the Nazrani women tie a locket (Minnu) around their neck by the bridegroom. Twenty-one beads form the leaf-shaped Christian Minnu, with seven beads making the inlaid Cross. The minnu is initially put on a string of seven strands of thread taken from the bridal wrap – manthrakodi. The bride’s position standing on the right side of the bridegroom, the manthrakodi and the exchange of wedding rings have possible origins from Jewish temple rites and customs.

The real showpieces of Kerala Christianity are its heritage churches. Living far from the main centres of Christianity, the early Christians looked at temples for inspiration in building churches. Timber is the prime structural material that demands accurate joinery and clever assembly. The elaborate carving of the wood for columns, walls and roofs frames are also unique to Kerala architecture. The preferred structural material is Laterite instead of Granite.

The Syrian Christian story shows that faith, like life, has great tenacity. It fights for its survival with unshakeable determination.

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