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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

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

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

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