Lifestyle of Kerala Syrian ChristiansAuthored by Jackson John on Tuesday, April 15, 2008 18:58 - 232 Comments
The way of life or lifestyle of the Syrian Christians of Kerala or St. Thomas Christians or Nasranis, as they are called, is best described by the term ‘Margavasis’ or ‘Followers of the Margam (Path)’ used by them, and speaks for their identity as one of the most distinct and a unique community of Christians. The Thomasine connection and their Jewish or Hebraic heritage in a well blended local keralite culture and atmosphere speaks for their lifestyle. It may be recalled that the Nasranis who confronted the Western Christians described their way of life as ‘Marthomayude Margavum Vazhipatum’ or ‘The Way and Traditions of St.Thomas’. They said: “We follow the way of Thomas and you follow the way of Peter” to distinguish themselves from the western christians. The Canon of the Synod of Diamper (1599) bears testimony to this declaration of the community members.
Social Culture and Lifestyle of Kerala Syrian Christians
St. Thomas Christians were classified into the caste system in accordance with the Hindu tradition, with special privileges for trade, granted by the benevolent Hindu kings and were considered at par with the upper-caste Hindus of Kerala in nobility. People in Hindu kingdoms, regardless of religion, were expected to strictly abide by stringent rules pertaining to caste and religion. This is why St. Thomas Christians had such a strong sense of caste and tradition, being the oldest order of Christianity in India and thus shared many social customs in common with their Hindu neighbours.
Many Syrian Christian practices are distinctively eastern and early western missionaries found them primitive and ignorant in their point of view terming them as heretics. The caste consciousness is prevalent till today among the Nasranis. There are many other Hindu traditions followed by Christians such as dowry system, decorations with rice flower, forty-one day observance after a death in the family. The ceremonies after child-birth, like initial feeding of the newborn with powdered gold and honey, solemn rice feeding (Chorunnu ceremony), tying of an amulet around the waist (arannyaanum) are all Hindu customs while those related to child-birth purification and related observances are Jewish and comply to the Mosaic laws. Beliefs such as those in astrology and horoscopes are also rarely prevalent. Nevertheless the Hebraic or Jewish Heritage is also preserved to such an extent that the westerners, especially the Portuguese, termed the Nasranis as ‘Judaizers’ and also have been known to degrade their original Semitic customs and practices to a large extent. What remains today are probably just few remnants of the original Heritage.
Names of Syrian Christians and related aspects
Their names are Biblical names mostly of Hebraic origin like Yohannan or John, Ousep or Joseph, Mathayi or Mathew, Yakob/Chacko or Jacob, Elias, Aharon, etc. for men, and names like Mariamma or Mary, Soshamma or Susanna, Rosa, Anna, Elsy, etc. for women. Some Armenian and Greek names are also used that are prevalent in the Middle East, making them distinctive unlike the other Christian communities. Examples of Armenian and Greek names are Kurian, Cherian, Alexander (Chandy), Jose, Kuriakose, Paulose and Varghese or Varkey or George (Greek: Georgios). Similarly, a person’s full name consists of first/own name, father’s name and to this is added the family name or surname. The naming convention for children is also similar to that of Sephardic Jews. However in recent times there has been a trend of using Indianized or Hindu names also by some.
Their mother tongue is Malayalam same as the local language of Kerala. However many Syriac words are also used eg. e.g., Mishiha (Christ), Eesho (Jesus), Sleeha (Apostle), Mar (holy), Sleeba (cross), Qurbana (sacrifice/mass), Koodasha (sacrament), Mamoodisa (Baptism), sKaasa (chalice), Mad’baha (sanctuary), Ashaan (teacher), Malakha (angel), etc. Until the 1960s the Nasrani Qurbana was sung in the Aramaic-Syriac language. Many of the tunes of the Syrian Christian worship in Kerala are similar to ancient liturgical tunes of Middle-east and Orthodox Jewish chants1.
Early history of the community also mentions of the Kerala Nasranis been in possession and well aware of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, indicating that some of the early forefathers of the community might have been well versed in Hebrew and Aramaic in addition to Tamil before the Malayalam language developed fully in about 1000 AD.
Professionally, since ancient times, Nasranis are famous as a community of mercantile traders and agriculturists like the Jews. Many Nasranis, even today, own large estates and engage in trade of rubber, spices and cash crops since as of old. Similarly, many others are hard-working agriculturists and farmers. Some are prosperous and own large masses of land in Kerala. They also take a prominent role in the educational institutions of Kerala and throughout India. Many are also professional money-lenders, financers and in related fields similar to the Jews who took on to such professions in medieval Europe. There are many Kerala Nasranis of renowned fame in almost all arenas like Politics, Media, Literature, Business, Arts and Entertainment, Science and Technology, etc.
Manner of Property Inheritance & Family life
Nasrani society is strongly patriarchal and inheritance is patrilineal. The father is the head of the family and is often called as ‘karnavar’, a title which is also given to the eldest male member in the family.
Property is traditionally divided among the sons. The most notable is the age-old tradition, that the youngest son is given the family house (tharavadu veedu) where he stays with the parents which is in contrast to rules in almost all other communities in Kerala and is strikingly similar to ancient Hebraic/Jewish property inheritance pattern. However, in view of the recent Indian Supreme court decision in favor of equal division of property, the future division of property will change.
Many local Hindu and Jewish customs are followed. Both the Hindu women and the Nasrani women at the time of marriage have a locket tied around their neck by the bridegroom called Thali or Minnu. The Minnu of the Christians is traditionally in the form of a leaf consisting of 21 beads and a Cross in the centre made of 7 small beads. The minnu is initially put on a string made of seven strands of thread taken from the Manthrakodi.
The ceremony of ‘minnu-tying’ ceremony is/was also practiced by the Cochin Jews and only points to inculturation. The minnu is traditionally tied by the groom around the neck of the bride with a knot and subsequently, another knot may be tied by his sister (if present) to form a reef-knot, a custom shared with the Brahmins in Kerala and also seen among the Cochin Jews. There are also certain Jewish practices and customs related to marriage which are readily seen among the Southists and also in some of the Northists, like the bridal canopy (Huppah), ‘mathuram kodukal’ (giving sweet to the bride/bridegroom), etc. Arranged marriages are common. The position of the bride standing on the right side of the bridegroom, the bridal garment/veil (manthrakodi) and exchange of wedding rings have possible origins from Jewish temple rites and customs as described by Prof. George Menachery.
Dressing manners of the Nasranis
The traditional dress of Syrian Christians is more or less similar to the local Keralite style which includes Mundu or loincloth with or without Kasavu, and Jubba or Kurta for men. Similarly another piece of small cloth called may be used called ‘rendaam-mundu’ or ‘thollmundu’ which is put on the shoulder. Syrian Christian women have a peculiar traditional dress in white called ‘Chatta-Mundu’. The Chatta or jacket is used to cover the upper part of the body with full or half sleeved white blouse. The Mundu is a white, seven yards long, one and a quarter yard broad garment for the lower body. The mundu has a number of fringes, forming a fan-like appendage called ‘Njori’ at the back ( hip portion) rendering their dress highly modest as well as artistically elegant. While going out, they throw over their shoulders and bosom another piece of cloth called ‘Kavani’. However this traditional dress is today only used by the elderly women.
Origin of Chatta-Mundu of Syrian Christian women
The white colour of the Chatta-Mundu seems to be due to an influence from the traditional white attire of upper caste Hindus in Kerala. The mundu seems to be of local South Indian origin while the njori is worn by South Indian Brahmin ladies other than Syrian Christian women in Kerala. The Chatta or the V-necked, jacket-type blouse is of a disputed foreign origin which is probably West Asian as it is also worn by Muslim mapilla women of Malabar and the Malabar Jews but not by Hindu women. and the appears to be a modified version of a Jacket worn by early West Asian traders and Syrian Christians were known to be mercantile traders by profession as the Jews and Muslim mapillas. However the women from the latter communities wear coloured or decorated ‘chatta’ unlike the Nasrani women who wear white.
Syrian Christian women wear a variety of ornaments which includes various kinds of necklaces, Pathakamala, bracelets, bangles or Vala, anklets or Thala, loin ornaments like Aelas and girdles or Aranyaanam, Kunukku or Mekkamothiram, etc. Nasal ornaments (Nasabharnam) are considered a taboo by them and not worn, considered to be a characteristic of lower castes.
Mekkamothiram and it’s origin
The Mekkamothiram or Kunukku is the most peculiar traditional ornament worn by Nasrani women. It is a heavy gilt, circular gold ear-ring worn on the upper ear lobes. The origin of the ear-ring is thought to be of ancient Biblical times. Similar kunukku-like, moon/sun shaped circular ear-rings are known to be worn by ancient Israelite or Hebrew women (Gen 35: 4) borrowed from surrounding pagan cultures. These ear-rings were said to be images of Gods and crescent or circular, in honour of the Sun and the Moon-God which was worshipped in ancient pagan Egypt and Arabia2.
The same tradition seems to have been passed-on to the Malabar Christians alongwith other Hebraic heritage and customs. A Mekkamothiram-like ornament is known to have been worn by Cochin Jewish women also, in addition to the Nasrani women in a similar fashion.
Picture of the Cochin Jews showing women wearing a Chatta-Mundu-like dress and the Mekkamothiram (Picture from the Jewish encyclopedia)
Ancient attire of Syrian Christians
The attire widely used today by Nasranis seems to be of recent past centuries influenced by local culture. However in ancient days of bygone era there are evidences of Syrian Christians using an attire, similar to those of ancient middle-eastern people of Assyria, Persia, etc., which many seem not be aware of. Evidences of such usage of dress and ornaments which is not seen today is found in Government records and publications.
The blessing given by the father on his deathbed to the children by Jews and Nasranis are similar in text. Among the latter group, this is more prevalent today, among the Knanayas.
For Nasranis: “God gave his blessing to Abraham, Abraham to Isaac, Isaac gave that to Jacob, Jacob…to my forefathers…to my parents….and my parents to me….and now, dear son/daughter, I give it to you”
For Jews: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our Lord, and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, and the great mighty and the revered God.”
Dietary aspects and observances of Nasranis
The uniqueness of the community is also reflected in the food observances and certain customs which directly or indirectly point to a Jewish influence on the same. Certain food practices also seem to have originated from and are in accordance with the Jewish ‘Kosher’ (Hebrew: kashrut) food laws as described in the Torah and the Old Testament Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and observed to this day by many Nasrani families. Spices and condiments occupy an important part of any dish. Local food and tastes also form a major part of the diet but the Syrian Christian cuisine is unique in certain respects. It also need not be described that majority of the Nasranis are predominantly non-vegetarians, in contrast to their Hindu neighbours who are either strict or predominant vegetarians.
1). Many Nasranis are traditionally known to be abstainers from pork meat and pork is still considered a taboo in many families which is an important Kosher practice. This practice became less prevalent following the Portuguese era and western influence.
2). Fish without fins and or scales are generally not eaten and considered taboo. Similarly certain varieties of shell-fish, clamps, crab, etc. are also not consumed by many.
3). Dairy products like milk or curd are traditionally not consumed with fish or meat and is a Jewish custom in origin. Instead coconut milk is used as a substitute in preparations.
4). Animals slaughtered for consumption is generally done by the Nasranis as per the Kosher or Halal method and meat obtained in this manner is generally preferred by them.
5). Nasranis are also expert grape-wine makers and widely consume wine in contrast to their neighbours of other faiths. Wine is generally prepared weeks in advance for festivals like Christmas and Easter. It must be noted that wine-making is not an Indian but Mediterranean and middle-eastern in origin.
6).It is believed that the Palappam and Kallappam were derived from an ancient Jewish food. Similarly the Pesaha appam or Kalathappam are also similar to unleavened bread used for Pesaha Vyazham or Maundy Thursday to commemorate the Israelite Passover feast.
Besides the above Jewish influences on the Nasrani diet there are certain casteist practices also prevalent. Nasranis generally never shared or accepted food or water from those of lower castes. This is less prevalent today. During Sadhyas or meals traditionally served on plantain/banana leaves, Nasranis have a custom of folding-in the left end of the leaf to resemble a double-leaf. This practice is due to an ancient royal privilege granted by kings to Nasranis wherein they were privileged to eat on double leaves (placed over each other). Many are unaware of this tradition today. Similarly, vegetarian sadhyas or meals prepared for ‘Chathams’ (day of remembrance of the dead) in Nasrani families is or was done usually by Tamil Iyer Brahmins.
Syrian Christian Art forms: Dance and Folksongs.
Syrian Christians of Kerala had developed their own art forms like the other religious groups in Kerala. However, the art was heavily influenced by local culture and traditions which was interpreted and blended in a Christian scenario to give unique forms of dance or folksongs. They are known to have been developed somewhere during the 15th or 16th cent. AD. These include Margamkali, Ramban pattu and Veeradian pattu. Another form was of Christian theatrical art called the Chavittu nadakam.
Margamkali is a very ancient and the most popular art dance performance prevalent among the Syrian Christians of Kerala. The word ‘margam’ means ‘path’ and it was meant for the propagation of Christian religious ideas. The form of the art was the result of direct inspiration from the indigenous culture. The real source of inspiration for Margamkali was Kalaripayattu and Sangamkali which was very popular when the Christian community had developed the form in later centuries of pre-Portuguese era. The Christian soldiers used to pass free time performing Margamkali and the subject usually was/is the arrival of Mar Thoma and his proselytization activity in Kerala.
[Margamkali performed by male/female performers]
Margamkali was performed mainly by men on festive occasions, especially during the time of marriage. But later it came to be performed by women as in Thiruvathirakali style. The dance is performed by 12 members moving in a circle around a lighted oil lamp. The oil lamp denotes Christ and the dancers symbolize his apostles.
The songs of the Margamkali are composed in modern Malayalam. The dancers sing themselves while performing the dance. Unlike other dance forms of Kerala, Margamkali lacks musical accompaniment. The traditional text of the song is an elaboration of the activities and martyrdom of St. Thomas in Kerala. Later many other songs were also added to the original test.
Margamkali is often presented as a stage item today and also for Art competitions at the school and college levels.
Ramban Pattu and Veeradian pattu
There is a time honoured tradition in Malabar which is handed down from generation to generation in the form of the songs of the Nasranis as the Rambanpattu . The other tradition comes from Veeradian pattu which is performed by a Hindu caste on festivals and occasions of the Syrian Christians.
The Ramban pattu and such type of other ballads are using Malayalam language called Vattezuthu, and this type of dialect is known to be used in 15-18th century AD. According to the Ramban pattu, St. Thomas went up the Malayattoor mountain to converse with the Lord and pray.
The Brahmin conversion theory is mainly supported by the above folklore songs, originally composed orally by a disciple of St. Thomas and written by Thomas Ramban Maliekal in 1600 AD or later. Thomas Ramban is considered a descendant of one of the first Brahmin converts to Christianity as per tradition. Literary scholars like Mahakavi Ullor S. Parameshwara Iyer and Chummar Choondal (Ref: Bosco Puthur, ‘St. Thomas Christians and Nambudiris, Jews and Sangam Literature’, 2003) the above folklores were all written in 15th cent AD or later. Hence the folksongs are not considered as historical evidences but only folklore by historians and literary scholars which obviously have influences from indigenous culture and later century oral traditions.
An offshoot of theatre, this form of play was prevalent among the Christian community spanning from Kodungallur to Ambalappuzha developed in the 16th cent. AD. Training is provided to performers before staging the play. The master is known as Annavi. The whole play is performed through musicals. The main characters sport broached dress, head-dress and crowns. The soldiers sport hats fitted with quils. The bell and drum are two instruments used as back ground score. Most of the times the stories related to Christianity or Biblical stories are played. This art is largely extinct today.
Religious Lifestyle of Nasranis
Syriac Christianity in Kerala and the Middle-east with which the former has ecclesiastical relations, is older than Rome according to the St.Thomas tradition. It began as an Oriental religion. There are even references relating the Kerala Nasranis to the Essenic Jewish sect due to some similarities in the beliefs and practices of the two communities. However Essenes are non-existent today as a community, to be found only in history pages.
The Nasranis have a special identity. Their customs and manners are different from those of other Christian groups. 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 Syrian Christians are a prosperous community commanding extraordinary political clout to an extent. The religious practices of this group were shaped in the place of origin and are dominated by church services which follow traditional Semitic patterns.
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 or Mamoodisa is practiced as the sacrament of initiation. The Episcopal Churches emphasize child baptism and use sprinkling of water in the name of the Triune of God. Believer’s baptism by immersion in water is practiced by Pentecostal groups. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated by various groups and the Aramaic word Qurbana (Hebrew: ‘Korban’) which means “sacrifice” is used for the practice. Women cover their heads while in Church with their garment which is a Semitic practice. The Nasrani Church has a separate seating arrangement for men and women as in Jewish synagogue style.
The mainline Churches also practice Kayyasturi/Kaimutthu (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 handshake. The ‘Kiss of peace’ is a sign of respect and friendship and has its roots in the Jewish Temple worship.
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.
Syrian Christian priests have elaborate dresses used during liturgy and wear cassocks, caps and beards as seen also in West Asia.
Church-centred life and Synagogue-centred life:
The Nasranis and Cochin Jews are two communities grown in parallel in Malabar. The life style of the Jews was synagogue centred. The Nasranis also have similar lifestyle centred in their churches. The clergy-laity relationships are very strong. It is well known that every Nasrani church irrespective of the denominations have committee meeting after Qurbana (mass). It had been the Jewish custom to teach literacy to its followers so that they could read and meditate the Torah scriptures. The Nasranis also made the same custom by making ‘Pallikkoodams’ along with the pally or church with Catechism or ‘Vedupadesham’ as it is called, for scriptural and religious studies. Similarly the archdeacon was the head of the Church and Palliyogams (Parish Councils) were in charge of temporal affairs similar to the Jewish Sanhedrin Council. They have a liturgy-centered life with days of fasting and abstinence. Devotion to the Mar Thoma Cross is absolute and churches were traditionally modelled after Jewish synagogues with local blends.
The age-old Nasrani tradition of offering a part of the first-fruits and grains first harvested, to the church, on certain festive occasions is an ancient Israelite practice of making similar sacrificial offerings. The term used is ‘Kazhchaveppu’ which literally means ‘Offering’.
Syrian Christians celebrate all Christian religious days. The more conservative and orthodox people maintain Lent for twenty four days prior to Christmas and fifty days prior to Easter, the ‘Moonunoyambu’ or 3-day fast of Ninevites, etc. Those who do so eat only vegetarian meals and refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages during Lent. Easter or Passion week is very important. There are special Church services on Palm Sunday and also every evening including Good Friday and 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 around three o’clock in the morning and concludes with Holy Communion. Easter breakfast and family get together is in the traditional manner.
Syrian Christians are also known to have high devotion towards saints like St. Thomas, St. Sebastian, St. Joseph and St. George (Geevarghese) which is found across denominations. There are novenas and special prayers and pilgrimages made in honour of the same. Malayattoor pilgrimage in honour of St. Thomas on Good Friday and Dukhrana (July 3) days, pilgrimage to Edapally church in honour of St. George and chicken-sacrifice are commonly observed. Similarly the feast of St. Sebastian is also celebrated by many Nasrani churches and commonly called as ‘Ambu Perunal’ or ‘Pindi perunal’ in some regions of Kerala and is an integral part of Church festivals other than Easter and Christmas. Church festivals in Kerala are celebrated with great pomp and show and in a grand manner with processions, decorative lamps and umbrellas (pattkuda) and traditional music and drum-beats similar to temple festivals.
The Divine Office and the Liturgy of the ‘Hours’
Traditionally the Nasrani religious day begins after sunset with prayer observances. This is purely an age-old Jewish tradition, wherein a day is counted from sunset to sunset, divided into eight equal ‘Hours’ or ‘Vigils’ and related prayer sessions.
Nasrani prayers are sectionalized as per the ‘Hour’ observed and they are called as ‘Yaama prarthanas’ and include Psalms and other prayers and can be found in traditional Nasrani prayer books. Thus the divine office is organized as Lelya or Nocturns, Sapra/Sapro or Morning prayers (also called Matins) and Ramsha/Ramsho or Evening prayers (also called Vespers). The above pattern is also observed by almost all Churches of Eastern tradition of Christianity which have common Semitic pattern.
The day begins after sunset with the vigil or ‘Hour’ of Ramsha alongwith other prayers, recited in the evenings, generally at individual ‘family units’ (kudumbakoottaayma), in a Church parish, by organizing prayer meetings called kudumbaprarthana. This is followed by the Lelya at night which is today generally observed by the religious and ascetics/priests, followed by rest and then follows the Sapra at dawn of next day. This may be followed by the Liturgy of the Word and Qurbana (Mass) at church. Thus one religious day, from sunset to sunset, is of the above order. These are traditionally observed by the entire community to this day.
The St. Thomas Christians of Kerala blended well, the ecclesiastical world of the Oriental Syriac Church with the socio-cultural environment of their homeland. Their social and religious lives are not much distinguishable from each other and thus the community and it’s members are some of the most conservative and religious people. Thus religious views largely govern the daily lives of most Nasranis as observed in their religious and social lifestyles. However it remains to be said that much of the rich heritage is fast degrading which can be contributed to factors like lack of awareness or disinterest in preserving the same and also due to migrations of many of the community members to places far from their homeland. Thus the preservation and continuation of the Nasrani heritage has become the urgent need of the day, lest this almost two millenia old identity of the community is wiped-off only to be found in pages of history.
Many thanks to Mr. Joseph George & Mr. George Mathew for the suggestions.
Author Jackson John can be reached on mjjackson_12 at yahoo dot co dot in.
- Ref: Israel J. Ross, ‘Asian Music’ [↩]
- Ref: Jerome Biblical Commentary, Pg. 35 [↩]
- Photo published in the ‘Cochin Government Royal War Efforts Souvenir’ in 1938 [↩]
- EDGAR THURSTON, K. RANGACHARI ‘Castes and Tribes of Southern India’, Madras: Government Press, I909 [↩]
Related NSC Network Articles
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- ‘The Syrian Christians of Kerala, Demographic and Socio-Economic Transition In The Twentieth Century’ by K. C. Zachariah
- ‘The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India’- Volume II , Chief Editor Prof.George Menachery
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