The Heathen and the Syrian – Syrian Christian Ritual and Tradition pre 1599 A.D.
May19

The Heathen and the Syrian – Syrian Christian Ritual and Tradition pre 1599 A.D.

The Heathen and the Syrian – Syrian Christian Ritual and Tradition pre 1599 A.D.: In A.D. 52, St. Thomas – Doubting Thomas of the New Testament, is said to have landed at the Kerala port of Muziris and started his task of spreading the Christian faith. From this date, all Syrian Christians believe, their Church began and has continued without interruption. Christianity gained a foothold in Kerala well over 300 years before it succeeded in obtaining official recognition in Europe, or in becoming the established religion of Rome. The respect and toleration shown to this faith, found expression in the fraternal treatment extended to its adherents, who were accorded and retained for themselves an honoured place, in the social and economic life of kerala. They succeeded in doing this because they were Christian in faith only, but in all else, they were Indian. They were no doubt staunch in their adherence to their faith, and proud of the apostolic origin of their church, but they made no attempt to evangelise, or become a militant body. Their primary concern was to live in harmony and requite the hospitality and toleration shown to them by the Hindu kings and princes. This could only be done by respecting the faith and customs of their rulers. They were not slow to realise that if they desired to occupy an important place in society, they had necessarily to conform to the pattern and practises governing a caste society. In this perhaps, they can be accused of not having followed the strict tenets of their faith and doctrine, which emphasised the equality of man. But to this small community striving to achieve importance in the social hierarchy, doctrinal affiliations had to give way to expediency. In this they succeeded completely, by assimilating themselves in the society in which they lived and by adopting the language, dress and habits of their Hindu brethren. In A.D. 1599, Alexis Menezes, Archbishop of Portuguese Goa, arrived at Cochin on a mission to ‘purify’ the faith and customs of the St. Thomas Christians. This mission culminated with the Synod of Diamper on the 20th of June, 1599 at Udayamperur (in western literature called Diamper). The synod was an assembly of six hundred and forty representatives of churches across Kerala as well as sixty three Nasrani priests under the presidentship of Archbishop Alexei Menezes with the Nasrani Archdeacon Geevarghese in meek attendance. Dr. Scaria Zacharia in his scholarly work upon “The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Diamper 1599” sums up this synod as the first organised attempt to westernise Kerala society as part of Colonisation. The Portuguese colonialists shaped...

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A Syrian Christian Family Portrait – Circa 1620 A.D.
Oct07

A Syrian Christian Family Portrait – Circa 1620 A.D.

The below folio is from a manuscript at the Casanatense Library in Italy. It is called the ‘Portuguese Codice’ and is from a collection of manuscripts donated by Cardinal Casanata ( 1620 A.D. -1698 A.D.) to an Italian Public library which was to be run by Dominican monks. The codice is composed of 76 folios, containing as many aquarelles, with images of various people the author found in Asia and also Africa. In Asia, only Japan is not represented, which suggests that this Album most probably dates from the XVI century. The legends, in lettering of such period, were in all probability inserted by the author. The author whose name is lost to us seems to have roamed the length and breadth of Portuguese territories in India and the Middle East. Though he does not impress us as a painter, his work is still an excellent primary source of understanding various facets of that period namely cultures, clothing, flora and fauna, weaponry, etc. Folio LXIV (64) is of particular interest to us as the narration on it which is in old Portuguese reads – ‘Malabar Christians, developed by the well ventured Saint Thomas’. The leaf on examination shows a man and a woman, in all probability a couple, standing standing in a field of flowers, the lady holding a flower in her hand with a Cross in the foreground. Now, let us study each of the elements of this portrait and see how we could relate them to contemporary Syrian Christian society and tradition. The flower garden chosen as the background goes in hand with contemporary portraits of that era common to both the West and the Orient. Compare this with many Mughal and Rajasthani Miniatures of that era. The theme is similar – (Courting) Couple in a garden. The lady is seen wearing a costume which is the traditional Kerala Christian ‘Chatta and Mundu’. This can be ascertained from the jacket worn by the lady which has the striking ‘V’ shape neck. Around the waist we see he wearing the traditional mundu which is seen hanging down to the ankles. The characteristic fan or ‘nyori’ that is tucked in at the back is not to be seen possibly as a result of the lady’s position in the portrait. However, what is uncharacteristic of her attire are it’s delightful colors. The traditional Chatta and Mundu combination is a typically ‘White only’ colored attire. Perhaps the lady in the portrait was far ahead of her times when it came to fashion or maybe, we can assign this ‘flaw’ to the author’s artistic license. Her hair is seen packed tight in...

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St.George- Geevarghese Sahada traditions and rituals among Nasranis
Jun12

St.George- Geevarghese Sahada traditions and rituals among Nasranis

The cult of St. George in Kerala represents the antiquity and hybridization of different cultures among the Nasranis. Geevarghese Sahada is champion for indigenous concerns, one of the most venerated saints in Nasrani population.1 George was a good soldier and consequently rose through the military ranks of the time. According to the hagiography, in 303 Diocletian issued an edict authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. The emperor Galerius was supposedly responsible for this decision and would continue the persecution during his own reign (305–311 AD). George was ordered to take part in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticized the imperial decision. An enraged Diocletian ordered the torture of this apparent traitor, and his execution. After various tortures, beginning with being lacerated on a wheel of swords, George was executed by decapitation before Nicomedia’s defensive wall on April 23, 303. The witness of his suffering convinced Empress Alexandra and Athanasius, a pagan priest, to become Christians as well, and so they joined George in martyrdom. His body was returned to Lydda for burial, where Christians soon came to honour him as a martyr. The narratives of the early pilgrims, Theodosius, Antoninus, and Arculphus, from the sixth to the eighth century, all speak of Lydda or Diospolis as the seat of the veneration of St. George, and as the resting-place of his remains (Geyer, “Itinera Hierosol.”, 139, 176, 288). The early date of the dedications to the saint is attested by existing inscriptions of ruined churches in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Southern India and the church of St. George at Thessalonica is also considered by some authorities to belong to the fourth century. Further the famous decree “De Libris recipiendis”, attributed to Pope Gelasius in 495, attests that certain apocryphal Acts of St. George were already in existence, but includes him among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are only known to God”. The episode of St George and the Dragon was Eastern in origin. In the East, St. George has from the beginning been classed among the greatest of the martyrs. During the fourth century the veneration of George spread from Palestine to the rest of the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. It is belived to have reached Kerala at the same period. St. George is most commonly depicted in early icons, mosaics and frescos wearing armour contemporary with the depiction, executed in gilding and silver colour, intended to identify him as a Roman soldier. After the Fall of Constantinople and the association of St George with the crusades, he is more often portrayed mounted...

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Hindu Traditions of St. Thomas –Thondacchan and the Four Silver Coins
May22

Hindu Traditions of St. Thomas –Thondacchan and the Four Silver Coins

The worship of Thondachan, a Hindu family deity, by a particular lineage of Nairs (native martial clan) of Malabar, Kerala, and especially the manner and ritual of this worship is noteworthy. Though a family deity, Thondachan is never worshipped within the Nair household. Nor has this deity been ever given a berth among the pantheon of Hindu gods at any of the Hindu temples presided over by the Brahman priests (called Namboodiris). Thondachan has a special altar built outside the Nair family compound, where non-Brahmin priests perform rituals. While Chaamundi, Vishnumoorthy, Pottan, Rakteshwari and Bhagavathi became the non-Aryan non-Brahmin deities for the village folk of Kolathunaad (an ancient province of North Kerala) along with other primitive spirits and folk-heroes, Thondachan has an even smaller following among a select Nair clan. It is believed, that up to the present day, altars for Thondachan’s worship exists in the Cherukunnu area in Kannur (Cannanore) district, especially in the lands surrounding old tharavad houses (ancestral mansions) of the Nairs. When Thomachan (the apostle St. Thomas, – achan, signifying ‘father’) came ashore, landing at Maliankara near Moothakunnam village in Paravoor Thaluk in AD 52, (this village located 5 kilometers from Cranganoor (Kodungallur), Muziris, on the coast of Kerala), some of his followers as well as other sailors and merchants were suffering from a severe form of scurvy. Thomachan himself suffered from a sore throat which he chose to ignore, and which grew steadily worse, until no voice emanated from his lips for many days.A local Jew named Matan took the weary travelers to a local Nair tharavad (locally known as Kambiam Vallapil), in the province of Kolathunaad, a territory comprising the present Cannanore District and Badagara Taluk of Kerala State. It is said that at the time of Thomachan’s arrival at the Nair tharavad, the Nair karnavar (landlord or head of family) lay injured from a grievous wound that had been inflicted upon him in a feudal duel. Upon seeing this, Thomachan sat beside the injured man and meditated, laying his hands on the man’s head, his throat, his chest and his groin. Immediately the karnavar felt relieved from pain, and his healing was hastened. Within a day he was up and about, his wounds nearly healed. In return, the Nair household offered shelter to the strangers and called upon their family physician to cure the scurvy that the travelers suffered from, as well as Thomachan’s severely infected throat. Nellikaya (Emblic Myrobalan or Indian Gooseberry) based potions prepared by the tharavad was used to cure the sea-worn voyagers. In an act of gratitude, Thomachan is said to have blessed them, and gave them four...

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Names, Middle Names and Last Names among the Syrian Christians
May16

Names, Middle Names and Last Names among the Syrian Christians

A syrian christian takes his own name which is the name of his paternal grandfather, the name of his father  and his house or ‘tharavad’ name. He may make any of these his surname and hence he may be G.J. Olikara, ‘G’ for Gevarghese (name of paternal grandfather),  ‘J’ for John(name of father) and ‘Olikara’ for name of his ancestral house from where the line of his paternal family descends. He may be the son of O.G. John, ‘O’ for Olikara(name of the house), ‘G’ for Gevarghese (name of father) and ‘J’ for John(name of paternal grandfather). It was customary that the eldest son be given the name of his paternal grandfather and the eldest daughter the name of her maternal grandmother. The second son bears the name of his maternal grandfather  and the second daughter bears the name of her maternal grandmother. This naming convention is also seen among the Sephardic Jews, whose customs may have been imbibed by the Syrian Christians in kerala. As a general rule, the Syrian Christians bear names which are biblical. It is interesting to record that despite Decree XVI of the Synod of Diamper of 1599, which forbade the use of old testament names, for 400 years after this date the Syrian Christians still continued using such names, though through usage they became Indianised. Some common Syrian Christian names are: For Men: (Thomma, Thoman, Mamman, Oommen) from Thomas, (Chacko, Yakob) from Jacob, (Pathros, Pathe, Pathappan) from Peter, (Yohannan, Lonan, Ninan) from John, (Mathai, Mathan, Mathu, Mathulla) from Mathew, (Yesoph, Ouseph, Outha, Ipe) from Joseph, (Koshy, Easo) from Joshua, (Abragam, Avraham, Avrachan, Itty) from Abraham, (Ittack) from Isaac, (Lukose) from Luke, (Philipose, Pothan, Pothen, Poonen) from Philip, (Paulose, Piley) from Paul, (Chandy, Chandi, Idichandy)  from Alexander, (Iyob, Iyoben, Eapen) from Job, (Cheriyan, Kurien, Kuriakose) from Zachariah, (Verghese, Vargisa, Varkey, Varied, Geverghese) from George, (Kuruvilla) from Korah. For Women: (Mariam, Maria, Mariamma) from Mary, (Akka, Rabka, Raca, Akkamma) from Rebecca, (Rahel, Rahelamma) from Rachel, (Susanna, Sosa, Sosamma, Achi, Achamma) from Susan, (Saramma) from Sara, (Elspeth, Elisa, Elia, Elacha, Eliamma) from Elizabeth. This ‘nativising’ of root Greek, Latin and Hebrew names can be seen in all the ancient chrurches like the Ethiopian, Slavic as well as the Armenian ones. In kerala, the Syrian Christians are known by the distinguishing nomenclature of ‘Nasrani Mappilas’. They also shared with the Nairs some honorific titles. The word ‘Tharagan’ or ‘tariff collector’ is a title that some families bear. Similarly, ‘Panikkar’ which denotes proficiency in arms is a title borne by certain Nasrani families. In and around Quilon, there is a group of families claiming descent from the fourth century...

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The Mural tradition of Kerala Churches
May01

The Mural tradition of Kerala Churches

The mural paintings remained a major medium of public communication for over a thousand years. Great cycles of religious stories were spread across the walls of ecclesiastical structures almost as Christianity became state religion in west and at a similar period in east. Pope Gregory the Great ( 590-604) is said to have encouraged the pictographic forms as the ideas conveyed are universally communicable. For a long time in history pictures, inscriptions worked together as an explanatory symbiosis of Christianity. Historical discussions of visual story telling began in the beginning of nineteenth century. This article examines some of the Mural paintings in Kerala Churches.1 Many Kerala churches have century old murals to decorate their walls. Most of these are done in Kerala style. There are famous Altar and Madhbaha decorations in Ollur, Kanjoor, Kottayam, Alangad, Koratty, Chengannur, Akaparambu, Paliakkara, Pazhuvil, Thumpamon, Palai, Kaduthuruthy and Mulanthuruthy. The huge Angamaly paintings of Hell and the Last Judgement are incomparable contributions of Kerala to the world mural heritage. The mural paintings of Cheppad, Piravam, Paliakkara, Angamaly,Akaparambu, Kanjoor, Ollur, Pazhaji and Vechoor deserve world recognition for their artistic excellence and skill of execution.2 The centuries old jute panels which decorate the ceiling of the Ollur Church are 300 squre feet each in size. The walls and ceillings of the Chancel and the nave of that church are so fully covererd with exquisite frescos and murals that one is reminded of Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. .3 The roots of the extant mural tradition of Kerala could be traced as far back as the seventh and eighth century A.D. It is not unlikely that the early Kerala murals along with its architecture came heavily under the influence of Pallava art. The churches of Kerala contain paintings which depict characters and scenes from Christian mythology. The paintings of Virgin Mary in the churches at Edappalli and Vechur are of deep religious significance to the devotees. The Orthodox Syrian churches at Cheppad at Mulanthuruthi contain interesting murals. The outer walls of the Kanjur church have a huge mural which depicts the scene of a battle fought between the armies of Tipu Sultan on the one side and those of the English East India Company, aided by the bare – footed local militia, on the other. Here is a brief list collected from different sources about Murals.4 1. St. Anthony’s Forane Church, Ollur and the Shrine of St. Raphael There are large numbers of frescoes, murals – both Kerala and western style murals, woodwork, metalwork, ivorywork. Ollur church is also famous for the large number of exquisitely carved sacred images in wood. One of the reputed possessions of the...

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Church feast and festivals in Central Kerala-Kottayam
Mar31

Church feast and festivals in Central Kerala-Kottayam

The Bible and other historical records of the apostolic era confirm that the original Christian Church continued to observe the same festivals Jesus observed. Church festivals are days set apart by the Church either for the remembrance of some special mercies of God or for celebration of feasts. This article details the Church feast and festivals in Kerala especially in and around Kottayam district.1 The rituals of Nasranis seems to reach it culminating point on the occasion of Church festivals. Not only are the great wealth and vast tradition of the Kerala Church made manifest to those who crowd the streets, but the possession appeal to varying degrees to people of all faiths.Even those who have no well established religious feeling also seem to take a certain measure of delight in the splendor of what they have come to regard as the outward and visible sign of existence. Non Christians also participate in the Church festivals and some of the Churches have historical collaboration with Hindu Temples on sharing resources for festival possessions. 1.Kuravilangadu The Moonnunombu and the ship made of wood at the ancient 3rd Century built St. Mary’s church here is famous. The Kappalottam during the second day of munnu nombu attracts thousands of devotees. Rogation of the Ninevites commemorates the repentance of the people of Nineveh at the preaching of Jewish Prophet, Jonah. In the Old Testament section of the Bible the story of Jonah is written as a prophetic teaching. The historical Johah was one of the twelve minor Jewish prophets who lived sometimes during the reign of the Jewish king, Jeroboam II (783-743 BC). Jonah’s story is one of the most familiar stories of the Old Testament: God instruct Jonah to go to Nineveh and condemn Assyrians for their “wickedness.” Instead Jonah runs away. He boards a ship bound for Spain, but the ship encounters a storm. The passengers cast Johah into the sea and he is then swallowed by a great fish, traditionally thought to be a whale. After three days in the belly of the fish, Johah is coughed up and travels to Nineveh. The Ninevites repent and God withholds his judgment against a non-Israelite nation, hence demonstrating concern for all humans. For Eastern Christians especially Chaldeans and Assyrians the Rogation of Ninevite has esteem spiritual significance. In this way they were always reminded of Nineveh throughout the history until the ruins of Nineveh were discovered in early half of the 19th Century.2 Rogation of the Ninevites is the main ritual during the Munnu Nombu festival. A forty feet wooden ship, beautifully built with prow, stern, masts and rigging, having on one...

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Palm Sunday ( Kuruthola Perunnal), Maundy Thursday( Pesaha), Good Friday (Dukha Velli) and Easter among Saint Thomas Christians of India
Mar25

Palm Sunday ( Kuruthola Perunnal), Maundy Thursday( Pesaha), Good Friday (Dukha Velli) and Easter among Saint Thomas Christians of India

Christians in Kerala have seen traditions becoming extinct over the years, be it Holy Week, Christmas, Weddings, Funerals or other ceremonies. But there are some traditions which are observed with out any change. The Pesaha celebrations observed by Saint Thomas Christians is one among them. One recognizes intimate and deep rooted influences of Judaism on Christian ethos in general. Resurrection, the climax of Christian event and the basis of Christian faith has particular importance among Eastern Christians. Pesaha, the ritual supper which is the narration of the Paschal event is celebrated amongst Saint Thomas Christians. The observance of Pesaha at home is an unbroken tradition which only the Saint Thomas Christians has in the whole Christian world. It is the real Paschal catechesis in the families.1 This article focus on the Palm Sunday, Pesaha, Good Friday and Easter celebrations amongst the Nasranis. Palm Sunday Oshana Njayarazhcha, which is Palm Sunday in Malayalam is also called as Kuruthola Perunnal. A ceremonial procession around the church, with people holding the palm leaves and singing hosanna forms the highlight of the day. On Karikkuripperunnal, which is Ash Wednesday in Malayalam, the blessed palm fronds received during the previous year are burnt in the families of Catholic Christians and members of the family mark their foreheads with the ash. There was a tradition of burning the Kuruthola of previous year during Christmas night outside the Church and was in practice till the beginning of this century among both the Catholics and Jacobites.2 Jacobite / Orthodox continues this practice. Recently this Chaldean practice can be seen re introduced among certain Catholic Churches in Kerala. Pesaha ( Maundy Thursday) Passover commemorates the Exodus and freedom of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. As described in the Book of Exodus, Passover marks the “birth” of the Jewish nation, as the Jews’ ancestors were freed from being slaves of Pharaoh. On Maundy Thursday night, the Saint Thomas Christians, observe Pesaha. The breaking of bread, a bread that is broken amidst family members on Maundy Thursday in memory of the breaking of bread by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago .In memory of this Paschal event, the Saint Thomas Christians have the unleavened bread called Pesaha-Appam along with Pesaha Pal or Passover coconut milk. Pesaha Observance among Saint Thomas Christians From the very olden days, Saint Thomas Christians used to make Pesaha Appam and Pesaha Pal at their house. Traditionally, head of the family cooks the Pesaha Appam and Pesaha Pal by woman of the house. During the time of making Pesaha Appam and Pesaha Pal, family members spend their time in prayer. The main ingredients of Pesaha Appam are...

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Traditions and rituals among  the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala
Jan12

Traditions and rituals among the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala

Traditions and rituals among the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala Saint Thomas Christians were often referred by the traditional name Nasranis. 1. Nasrani The term Nasrani or Nazrani is derived from an Arabic word Nazraya, which means Nazarene or Christian.1. Another possibility is that Nasrani comes from Arabic word Nazranya, which is derived from Greek Nazarenos. The word Nazarene might have been derived from Hebrew word, Nazer. The Syriac speaking Churches retained Nazraya in Syriac, and Nasran in Armenian, while the name ‘ Christians’ given by the gentiles in Antioch ( Acts 11: 26:28:1 Pet 4:16) eventually replaced Nazarene, as the designation of the Greek and Latin speaking Church2 2.Social Life of the Syriac Christians of India This article examines some of the traditions, rituals and social life among Nasranis. Most of these traditions and rituals exist even today among the community. Syrian Christians were a highly mobile occupational and geographical group, whose main occupation were in Agriculture, Commerce and Military Service. It appears that Syrian Christians had a long cultivating past of warrior skills and serving the local ruling groups. The ability and usefulness of the first Christian groups were recognized not only by the grant of land by local rajas but by the grant of concessions and privileges recorded on copper plates. They were given charge of the collection of revenue for the rajas in certain places. They controlled the lucrative pepper trade industry and in Quilon and other ports acted as brokers and port revenue officers. In the fourteenth century, Marignolli found that they were in charge of the public weighing office in the Quilon Customs. The ruler of Venad ( Travancore) granted Syrian Christians seventy two rights and privileges usually granted only to high dignitaries, including exemption from import duties, sales tax and the slave tax. A copper plate grant dated AD 1225 further enhanced the rights and privileges of Nasranis. Marthanda Varma reported to have recruited several thousand Syrian Christians in to his army during his campaign of conquest in North Travancore. Travancore state trading monopolies depend heavily on the skills of experienced Nasrani traders based around important market towns like Kanjirapally, Mavelikara, Chertalai. These traders played important roles in processing pepper and forest based commodities for export. In Cochin Syrian Christian prelates participated in the installation ceremonies of rulers. During absence of prelates from Mesopotamia they looked at local rulers and kings to adjudicate disputes or renew the authority of their metrans. It appears that a gradual inculturation of Hindu themes embodied among Nasrani culture during the process. During the course of time some Hindu traditions has also become an integral part of...

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