Christians of Kerala

Christian community in Kerala is not a homogenous entity. However most Kerala Christian groups follow certain common practices derived from local cultural influences such as wedding customs, and use of Malayalam language in liturgy. Most groups also believe in the St. Thomas tradition. The origin of Kerala's Christians dates back to 52 AD, when St. Thomas came to the region landing in the port of Cranganore near Cochin. He visited different parts of Kerala and converted local inhabitants including many from the upper sect known as Namboodiri Brahmins. It is also believedthat St. Thomas established Churches in seven places in Kerala ( Kodungallore, Palayur, Paravur, Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal, Korakkeni, Kollam) and a chappal (half church-"Arappalli") at Thiruvankottu. The present Christian population have descended from these early groups.Some of the early Christians were Paklomattam, Shankarapuri, Kalli, and Kaaliyankavu in the north and Thayyil, Pattamukkil, Manki, and Madathilen near Niranam . They are popularly referred to as Syrian Christians because of the Syrian Liturgy which they continued to use in church services. They have also sometimes been called Nazaranis (followers of Jesus of Nazarene) or St. Thomas Christians. In some official documents Syrian Christians are even now referred to as Nazaranis. An added fillip to the growth of the Church took place when a group of about 400 people migrated from Syria in 345 AD and joined the then existing Kerala Church. The leader of this group was Thomas of Kana. They stayed on in the region. The descendants of this group even today maintain their separate identity,and are known as Kananites. Syrian Christians remained as an independent group, and they got their bishops from Eastern Orthodox Church in Antioch in Syria. The Portuguese who arrived by sea in 1498, gradually established their power base

and were eager to bring all Christians in the fold of the Church of Rome. With their superior organizational skill and with the help of Portuguese political power Bishop Alexis De Menzes succeeded in establishing the Roman Catholic Church as the dominant Church of Kerala.Between 1500 to 1650 the Portuguese made an effort to convert local inhabitants to the Roman Catholic faith and also bring some of the existing members of the Syrian Christian Church under Roman Catholic influence. The climax of this was what is known as "Synod of Udayamperur" . The Portuguese power declined by the 17th century. That weakened the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Kerala. In 1653 there was a re-affirmation of allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox tradition in front of an improvised cross at Mattanchery. This event is popularly known as' Coonan Kurisu Satyam' (Oath taken on a bent cross). The immediate provocation was the alleged murder by Portuguese authorities, of a Bishop who was sent from Syria After the decline of the Portuguese the next major influence sprung from British rule. There was a significant influence in the area of education through the efforts of the Christian missionaries which account for the high literacy rate and high degree of education among Keralites. The subsequent history of the Syrian Christian Church of Kerala includes the evolution of the Syrian groups and the Roman catholic groups. First let us look at the Syrian groups. Around 1800 one of the Syrian Christian Bishops, Mathew Athanasius, influenced by one Abraham Malppan made a move to the Protestant side and this was the beginning of the Kerala Mar Thoma Church. They developed strong links to the Western missionaries and emphasized evangelical renewal and Bible study. But the majority of the parent Syrian Church remained loyal to their own Bishops. On September 14, 1912 a visiting patriarch from Mardin elevated one of the local bishops in the Syrian Church to Catholicos, a position that existed before in Tigris. This event took place at the famous Niranom Church and subsequently led to disputes and litigation between the factions called Orthodox Syrians and Jacobite Syrians of the Syrian Church in Kerala.Several Catholicos followed. Their names are testament to the Churche's eastern connection. The first Catholicos was Basaliose Poulose the I (September 14, 1912 to May 2, 1913) The second was Basliose Geeverghese I. (April 30, 1925 to December 17, 1928). During the time of the third Catholicos (Basaliose Geeverghese3, ( Feb 15, 1929 to January 3, 1964) the positions of 'Malankara Metran' (Head Bishop) and Catholicos were combined. The fourth Catholicos was Basaliose Ougen I (May 12, 1964 to December 8, 1975) and the fifth Basaliose Thomas Mathews I (October 27, 1975 to April 27, 1991).When Mathews Basaliose I retired sixth Catholicos Thomas Mathews II took office on April 29, 1991.

Catholics together constitute about 61.4%, the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Jacobites together about 21.4%, the Marthoma Syrians about 5.7%, the Church of South India 5.2% and others about 6.3% of Christian in the state.The Syrian orthodox and Syrian Jacobites are sometimes referred to as Syrian Christians today. All affore mentioned groups together constitute Kerala's Christian population During the 1930s one of the leading Bishops of the Syrian Christians, disillusioned by the split between the Catholicos group and the Patriarch group left the Church and moved to the Roman Catholic Church, forming a group called "Reethu". (Malankara Roman Rite) Nearly a hundred thousand people went over to this new rite from the Syrian Orthodox Church. The two groups of the Syrian Church, namely the Jacobite Syrians and the Orthodox Syrians continued court battles and finally in 1960 the Supreme Court of India ruled putting an end to the litigation. Bbut even after this temporary reunion the division emerged again. Today there are again two divisions, the Orthodox Syrian Christians owing allegiance to the Catholicos of the East and the Jacobites Syrian Christians owing allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch in Syria. Very recently the supreme court of India has once again ruled putting an end to legal struggles between those two groups and recognizing the legitimacy of the Catholicos. Now let us turn to the Roman Catholics The Roman Catholic Church accepted allegiance to Pope and came to be known as Syrian Roman Catholic. There are Roman Catholics converted by European missionaries known as Latin Roman Catholics. There is also Roman Catholic group mentioned earlier called "Reethu" or the Malankara Syrian Rite.The Roman Catholic Church went through it's own evolutionary struggles after the Portuguese power declined in India. In 1662 the Dutch took over Cochin from the Portuguese. The Portuguese before departing elevated a local priest to bishop and papal representative. He ruled the church from 1662 to 1687. There was a period of dominance by Carmalite missionaries during the Dutch period. However there was an ongoing struggle for local autonomy in the church. In 1887 the process of liberalization started. Two new diocese, Kottayam and Trichur started with local autonomy. Three Kerala priests were appointed as bishops In 1896 for the first time. New diocese in Palai, Kothamangalam, Tallicheri and Manathavadi were started.In 1956 the status of Changanacheri diocese was upgraded.In 1969 the metropolitan of Eranakulam was elevated to Cardinal. For the Catholic Church of Kerala the most momentous occasion was the visit of Pope John Paul II. The Pope visited Kottayam and performed the beatification of a Kerala priest and nun. Eventhough the Kerala Catholics follow the religious practices of Roman Catolics world over, they have much in common with other Kerala christians.They follow

Syrian rites as opposed to Latin rites. As stated earlier Roman Catholics along with other christian groups use malayalam language for service and follow certain local customs and traditions during weddings funerals etc. A Kerala catholic, while accepting papal authority and mainstream Roman Catholic practices might be inclined to feel more at home with other Kerala christian groups socially and culturally. The CSI Church in Kerala had its beginnings mostly from Anglican missionaries who had converted the local population. However later on they united with the Basil Mission, Presbyterians and Baptists and formed the group called Church of South India. As in the case of catholics these various groups follow largely the relegious practices of their parent groups world over.However lingustically,socially and culturally they have much in common with other Kerala christian groups. In addition to the aforementioned major groups the early St. Thomas Christians have now spread out to about 30 groups in Kerala. Among them are such groups as the Chaleddeans and the Pentecostals. At the time of Mar Thoma 6th a visiting bishop named Mar .Gregorios elevated a priest from the Kattumangattu family to bishophood. This group came to be known as Thoziur' church. The Pentecost followers lead a simple life and prefer to treat sickness through prayers. Their origin was in Tennassie state in 1887. Pastor Cook started the Kerala Pentecostal church in Mulakkuza near Chenganoor in 1925. There are several sub groups like Pentikostu Deiva sabha, Indian Pentikostu sabha, Pentikostu Deiva Samuham, Celyon Pentokostu, Apostolia united pentikostu, independent pentekostu, Adhakrutha pentikostu, Penticostu Gospel group and Philadelphia Penticostu. Travancore-Cochin Anglican church is a break away faction from CSI going back to 1966.Brotherans, a break away faction from the Baptists have their headquarters in Kumbanadu near Thiruvalla. Salvation Army originated in London England in 1878. William Booth was the founder.Salvation army came to the state in 1878. They centered their activities in southern Travancore. Yuyomayam was started by an anglican priest Yusthoose Youseph. He was also known as 'Vidwan Kutty' and was the son of a Brahmin from Thirunalveli.He forcasted that Christ will come for second time in 1980. Another prediction was that darkness will encircle the earth on August 10, 11, and 12, 1875. DeivaSabha was started by a methodist priest from the U.S.A in 1884. A Kerala branch was established in 1910. Russel church , otherwise called 'Jehovaha's witnesses was started by C.T.Russel in

U.S.A. The Kerala branch was established in Mallappalli in 1925. Lutheran mission run by followers of reformist Martin Luther established themselves in Perurkkada near Trivandrum in 1911.They operate in some 70 centers in sothern Travancore. The miracle crusaders are fast gaining ground in the state. In a small town Potta near Trichur, Father Naickam Parambil is attracting thousands of devotees. While the Church in the West is still Evangelical, in India the focus of the main line Church is social. There is also a strong ecumenical movement. Today Kerala Christians are a prosperous community commanding extraordinary Political clout. The religious practices of this group were shaped in the place of origin and is dominated by Church services which follow traditional patterns. Their basic belief is in the Christian doctrine and life after death. The clergy laity relationships are very strong. Syrian Christians have strong and active religious organizations and a majority of the people attend Sunday Church services. Church services are conducted in Malayalam with some segments often in Syriac. Baptism is practised by all Kerala Christians. The Episcopal Churches emphasise child baptism and use sprinkling of water in the name of the Triune of God. Believer's baptism by immersion in water is practised by Pentecostal groups. The Lord's Supper is celebrated by various groups and the Aramaic word Qurbana which means "offering" is used for the practice. The Greek word "Eucharist" which means thanksgiving is also used and is an expression of one's renewal of faith and participation in the death and suffering of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist liturgy of the Syrian and Mar Thoma Churches stem from Eastern traditions and is based on the liturgy of St. James. The liturgy of the Roman Catholics is western. The liturgy of the Church of South India combines elements from both these. Pentecostal Churches do not follow a definite liturgy. The mainline Churches also practices Kayyasturi (in Malayalam) an oriental custom meaning kiss of peace, which enhances the celebration of the Lord's Supper. It is done by a form of eastern handshake. The Pentecostal's also practice this, but in their case the brothers kiss brothers and sisters kiss sisters. The manner of celebration of the Lord's Supper varies from denomination to denomination. Syrian Christians use several accessories such as the bells, the veil, the altar, the cross the coverings and the candles. Many Hindu traditions and customs are followed by Kerala Churches. Among Hindus and Kerala Christians consanguineous marriages are permitted only if the partners are separated at least four generations. Both the Hindu women and the Nazarani women at the time of marriage have an amulet tied around their neck by the bridegroom. It is called "Thali" by Hindu and "Minnu" by Kerala Christians. There are many other Hindu traditions followed by Christians such as dowry system, decorations with rice flower, and forty one day observances after a death

in the family. Syrian Christians celebrate all Christian religious days. The more orthodox people maintain Lent for twenty four days prior to Christmas and fifty days prior to Easter. Those who do so, eat only vegetarian meals and refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages during Lent. Easter week is very important. There are special Church services on Palm Sunday and also every evening including Good Friday on Pesaha (Maundy Thursday) There is a special Church service with Holy Communion. Good Friday is of great significance and Church services start at nine o'clock in the morning and continue on to three o'clock in the afternoon. On Easter Sunday Church service starts at four o'clock in the morning and concludes with Holy Communion. Easter breakfast and family get together is traditional. Only recently westerners have begun to recognize Christianity's Eastern foundation. Christianity in Kerala is older than Rome according to the St.Thomas tradition. It began as an Oriental religion. Syrian Christian priests wear cassocks, caps and beards as seen also in west Asia. The Syrian Christians have a special identity. Their customs and manners are different from those of other Christian groups. Their names are unique, Thomas is Mammen, Peter is Ommen, Paul is Peeli, Elizabeth is Eliamma and so on. Some Syrian Christians still believe in astrology and horoscopes. Arranged marriages are common. As mentioned previously during the marriage ceremony exchange of rings is less important than the tali which the bridegroom ties around the bride's neck. Junior priests are allowed to marry and eat meat. But only those who remain unmarried can rise to the rank of bishops. Many Syrian Christian practices are distinctively eastern and early western missionaries found them primitive and ignorant in their point of view. © Kerala History Series : Dr P K John