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 by their history and socio-religious experience tried to impose upon a Church far ancient than their own and pluralistic in outlook, their own imperialistic notions of Christianity and Christianisation. The apostolic church of Kerala was compelled to piggyback western concepts of social and cultural mores as well as embrace the Holy Roman religious dogma.
It has been an oft repeated lament among Kerala’s Syrian Christian community that much of its historical records were destroyed by the Portuguese at the behest of Decree XVI passed in the synod which commanded all books written in Syriac to be delivered up to the Portuguese college at Vapicotta to be corrected or destroyed. However, a paradox here is that the records of the proceedings of the synod as well as it’s decrees give us an excellent insight into our social and religious customs practised in an unadulterated form then.
The Nasrani church in Kerala has existed here for 2000 years now. Barring intermittent contacts with sister churches in the Middle East for the first 1500 years, she developed as an independent church ‘middle eastern in dogma and Hindu by tradition’. This was obviously because the Nasranis had lived among the local population who were primarily followers of the Brahmanical and other Eastern traditions.
Using the decrees of the Synod of Diamper as a reference source, we will look into the past and examine social customs that the Syrian Christians practised then which are quite alien to us today. This article will not venture into religious dogma of the Nasrani community then, which the Synod termed as “Nestorian or Chaldean’ and wanted replaced with the Roman version. However, certain religious beliefs among them with a direct influence from the Brahmanical (Hindu) or Judaical traditions will be examined here. The Hindu faith was termed as ‘Heathen’ all through the Synod and the Hindus called ‘Heathens’.
Session III, Decree IV: Condemns three heathen errors said to be held by the Syrians
‘The Synod being informed that the Christians of this diocese, by reason of the communication they have with infidels, and by living among them, have imbibed, several of their errors and ignorances, namely, three that are the common errors of all infidels if these parts; the first is that there is a transmigration of souls, which after death go either into the bodies of beasts, or of some other men;’ The Hindu religious system has always incorporated the belief in transmigration or reincarnation. This belief simply put meant that one would be reborn several times until he reached a state of union with the Divine. These births would be in several forms and was dependent solely on one’s conduct in the previous life. If one was a robber in this life he may be born as a mean living being like a dog or a snake in the next life and the conduct of this dog or snake would determine if it would be reborn as a higher being in the next life. Only when one’s conduct in the course of life was blemish free would he attain union with the divine and this cycle of birth and rebirth would end forever. The other Indian traditions like Jainism and Buddhism also adopted this philosophy and merged it to their own lines of thought. However, it is from the Synod papers that we know that the Syrian Christians also believed in this philosophy. The decree further goes on the call this ‘great ignorance’ and says that according to the catholic faith it is taught that our souls after death are carried to heaven or hell or purgatory, according to every one’s merits.
The second is, that all things come necessarily to pass, either through fate or fortune, which they call the nativity of men, who they say, are compelled to be what they are, and that there is no help for it; while Hinduism does not does not actually endorse a pure version of fatalism save for some lines of thought like the ajivakas, an average Hindu does believe in fate. He considered it to be God’s decision made for him exclusively, one that he could not control or overturn. The Syrian Christians also believed in the same. What was predestined to happen would happen.
The third is, that everyone may be saved in his own law; all which are good and lead men to heaven; this ‘heresy’ came as a bolt out of the blue to the Portuguese who obviously believed that only their version of faith could lead one to the Kingdom of heaven. The Nasrani of that time believed like the average Hindu, that different faiths were only different paths to Heaven. It was with this open mind that the Syrian Christians allowed the racially and liturgically separate Portuguese into their churches and partook of the Holy liturgy with them, little knowing that all this would later be held against them.
Session III, Decree XII: Permits children to be taught by a heathen school master, if not required to conform to his idolatries – this is positively forbidden
This decree noted that it is contrary to the sacred canons that Christian children should go to heathen masters schools run by heathen masters; nevertheless seeing that the church was under so many heathen kings it allowed Syrian Christian parents to send their children to such schools where the heathen masters would not force their wards to pay reverence to their Gods or to participate in any heathen ceremony. The decree also recommended to all towns and villages where there were Christian families but no Christian teachers to have their children educated by the parish priests.
A reading of this decree suggests that Syrian Christian children then, freely went to schools run by non-Christian teachers and obviously like their other non-Christian classmates there also partook in the Hindu ceremonies held in the schools of those days which could have been rituals like Guruvandana and paying obeisance to the Goddess of learning, Saraswati. In fact even to this today, the majority of Syrian Christian families observe the Vidyarambham ritual for their children, an initiation into education when the child is old enough to learn to read and write, a ritual that is strictly non-Christian in origin. The Portuguese would have been alarmed at these customs and insisted on this decree to try to cleanse these customs and rituals.
Session III, Decree XIII: Christian schoolmasters forbidden to set up Idols in their schools for their heathen scholars
This is a very interesting decree that says that the Synod is informed that there are some Christian schoolmasters who to conform themselves to theirs and to attract new pupils, set up ‘pagodas’ and idols in their schools to which the heathen children pay obeisance, and these schoolmasters are instructed to removes these pagodas, idols and reverences out of their schools upon pain of excommunication from the church.
So, it was not only Christian children, who would study under Hindu schoolmasters, the reverse was also a social reality then. And the Syrian Christian community had no objection to these Hindu children worshipping their own Gods in our schools.
Session III, Decree XIV: Condemns many Syrian books, forbids all Christians to read them, and commands that they be destroyed
This decree condemned and ordered to be burnt several Syriac books, all of which are out of the purview of this particular article, however one particular Indian book is mentioned – ‘Parisman’. This is the ‘Prashnam’ that is still today in Kerala a method of astrology where one can put questions to the astrologer who consults this book and answers his queries. These queries, as the decree noted were on how to do mischief to ones enemies, how to gain women, how to protect oneself from sorcery, exorcism for casting out devils and several more.
There is no doubt left in our minds that the Syrian Christians of those days had no qualms in consulting astrologers over their day to day and unusual problems just like their Hindu brothers and sisters.
Session IV, Decree III: Those whose baptism had been neglected ordered to be baptized without fee
This decree admonishes the Syrian Christians many of whom were not formally baptised because of their distance from the churches as well as their inability to pay the priests who were to baptise them, to undergo baptism with immediate effect. Many of the Syrian Christians of that time who were not baptized yet, the decree says, also received the Holy Sacraments as all the others who had actually been. So we see that the rigidity of tradition that would later creep into our society was not there then.
Session IV, Decree IX: Children of infidel slaves to be baptized, and the slaves to be instructed and exhorted to receive baptism
The synod exhorted all Christians who kept slaves to baptize them as well as their children and to instruct them in the Christian faith. The keeping of slaves was prevalent in Kerala society and the Syrian Christians had no moral compulsions against this custom.
The Tarisapally copper plates show several privileges granted to the community by the Venadu king, Ayyanadigal in 880 A.D. and among them was a grant of four women of the Ilava caste together with their eight children and one family of the washer man group, to the church for menial services. This copper plate has a sentence about the slave tax : “A tax of 8 kasu can be collected from vehicles, but slave tax shall not be imposed upon the slaves bought by the church”. The Iravi Kortan plates of 1320 A.D. also made five artisan castes subservient to the Syrian Christians. From this decree we learn that slavery as an institution survived till that day.
Session IV, Decree X: Baptized slaves not to be sold to infidels
This decree asked all Syrian Christians not to sell any slave whether baptized or not to any non-Christian namely Muslim, Jew or Heathen. The decree also tells us that not only Christian laymen purchased slaves those days, but even vicars and church-wardens could buy slaves. However the decree quite practically, allowed Syrian Christians to sell slaves to other fellow community members.
Session IV, Decree XI: Commands Christians to rescue and cherish the children of heathen exposed by their parents
The decree noted that the heathen of the land have a custom of abandoning their newborns if they are born on unlucky days and on account of such auguries and superstitions. Syrian Christians are exhorted to adopt and baptize such children. This means that Syrian Christian families resisted adopting Non-Syrian children.
Session IV, Decree XIII: Converts to be instructed and baptized
This decree desires that the Syrian Christians actively convert all in their midst from heathenism to Christianity. A very interesting note in this decree goes like this: “…and whereas the Synod is informed, that great numbers of infidels living among Christians, have long desired baptism of them, but through the coldness of priests and others, have had none that would be at the pains to instruct them….”
This note suggests that Syrian Christianity had by then and perhaps since almost a millennia prior to that stopped accepting converts from near and around them. In the light of this observation, we are not very sure as to how earlier decrees – IX, X and XI would have been followed to the word.
Session IV, Decree XV: Sponsors to be used
The decree commands all that are baptized to have one or two Godfathers and Godmothers to present them in the church and to touch them on the head before baptism, and to receive them from the holy font. The decree also notes that this custom of a baptized child having a Godfather or Godmother was not in use in the Syrian church in Kerala.
Session IV, Decree XVI: Old Testament names to be discontinued and those of the new testament given
This decree commanded to Syrian Christians to give up their Old Testament names as well as names that they shared in common with the heathens and take on New Testament names. An interesting note here is that the decree specifically asked the Syrians to stop using the name ‘Hijo’ which probably was ‘Easho’ or Jesus, as a name which the decree said was very common among them. The name of Jesus was very holy and not to be used by the likes of men. However, Old Testament names are most commonplace among the Syrian Christian community even today but very interestingly, the use of Jesus as a name seem to have disappeared. Another important learning from this decree is that even then as in these days, Syrian Christians shared names in common with the Hindus in their midst.
Session IV, Decree XVII: Children to be called only by the name received at baptism
This decree asked the Syrian Christians to ensure that the names that their children were given at baptism were the same with which they were addressed. We see that most Syrian Christians have not heeded this decree till today.
Session V, Decree II: All above the age of fourteen to take the sacrament at least once a year
The Syrian Christians would confess and partake of the Eucharist at times of their choosing but Menezes exhorted them to take the sacrament compulsorily at least once a year. It went further to advise the vicars to instruct their parishioners to do it oftener, namely at Christmas and Whitsuntide, and the assumption of our lady, giving warning thereof on the Sunday before. Partaking of the holy blood and flesh of Christ was not mandatory for the Syrian Christians.
Session V, Decree IX.IV: The Roman mass to be translated into Syriac
The decree notes that the since the Syrian Mass is too long for the clergy to celebrate daily, the Roman Mass may be translated into Syriac and read in the Churches. There is no mention of masses being said in Malayalam prior to the Synod and even later conforming to the decrees.
Session V, Decree IX.VI: The stole to be worn only by Deacons
The decree noted that the ‘chamazes’ probably the ‘kappiars’ among the Syrian Christians also wore the same ceremonial garment as the officiating priest and henceforth was prohibited from doing so. Only the deacon would henceforth be allowed to wear the stole. This may have been in part because the Nasranis at that period did not have enough priests to take care of communities who were spread all along the length of Central and Southern Kerala.
Session V, Decree IX.XI: Ecclesiastical vestments to be provided
This decree noted that my Nasrani church deacons did not wear the ceremonial robes at all as they may be too poor to afford the robes and requests the Metropolitan to provide all the churches holy vestments.
Session V, Decree IX.XII: All persons commanded to attend mass constantly if not impracticable
The decree says that not attending Mass is a mortal sin and exhorts all Syrian Christian families to attend Mass every Sunday and other Holy days, whenever a church be near them. So, not all Christians were regular church goers then as in today’s times.
Session V, Decree IX.XIV: Forbids heathen musicians and other pagans to remain in church when the sacrament is administered
This is a very interesting decree that prohibits all heathen musicians who play in the church on holy festivals from entering the churches. The decree also maintains that no non Christian should be allowed in the Church or even near the doors or windows of the Church at the time of the holy sacrifice. So, prior to the Synod the Syrian Christians were very flexible on allowing anyone inside their holy places irrespective of their faith.
Session VI, Decree I: The sacrament of confession, the neglect of which declared a mortal sin
The decree stresses upon the sacrament of confession and exhorts the Syrians to confess their sins regularly noting that many among them had never confessed in their lives at all.
Session VII, Decree I: Describes the age and the circumstances of persons to be ordained
The decree mandates that henceforth no priest should be ordained till he is at least 25 years of age, no deacon ordained till he is at least 23 years old and no sub deacon under 22 years of age should be ordained. All priests ordained are to have a knowledge of either Latin or Syriac compulsorily. Prior to the synod, most priests only had a flexible understanding of the Syriac language.
Session VII, Decree II: Those simonically ordained are absolved
This decree put an end to a old custom in our church that also existed in European churches at least till the reformation of priests paying their way into priesthood. Syrian Christian families with Priests from among them had great prestige attached to them and simony was the order of the day then.
Session VII, Decree III: No leprous priest to officiate
The synod was informed that several priests in the church were leprous and miserably deformed who on account of their corporeal defect gave great disgust to their parishioners. The decree commanded all such priests to stop celebrating the Holy Mass.
Session VII, Decree IV: Priests forbidden to bless who are not in charity with their neighbour
The decree observed that several parishioners in churches would not speak with other worshippers whom they had some enemity with and directed the priests not to bless such persons till they be reconciled with their fellow parishioners. Such disputes still rampant today, were not rare even in those days.
Session VII, Decree VII: The clergy to be punctual in their attendance and devout in their deportment at church
This decree commanded to clergy to be present in their parishes during Holy Mass and Holy days and not divert themselves or talk with others as the decree says has been the custom.
Session VII, Decree IX: Forbids all exorcism but those of Rome
The synod was informed that a great number of clergymen indulged in superstitious and heathen exorcisms for casting out devils and were commanded to use no exorcism other than that of the Holy Roman church. Our church history is replete with famous priests who would exorcise evil spirits from those amongst them.
Session VII, Decree X: Forbids heathen superstitions relating to propitious and unpropitious days for marriages
The decree commanded clergymen to desist from giving propitious days for marriage to their Christian parishioners and also desist from keeping a list of holy and unholy days with them as the heathen did. The decree also sheds light on some clergymen who actually ‘made schemes after the manner of astrologers’ that means, several priests were adept at astrology personally.
Session VII, Decree XI: Priests are to be temperate and sober and not to eat with any but Christians, nor in a public house
The decree exhorted the priests to be an example to their people, curtail their eating and drinking and very strangely prohibited them from eating with ‘Mahometans, Jews and heathens’ as they were wont to do.
Session VII, Decree XIII: The clergy not to engage in secular business
This decree observed that very few priests among the Syrian Christians dedicated themselves particularly to the service of God and the divine worship and most engaged in ‘merchandise’, that is individual businesses of their own. Such erring priests were asked to renounce those businesses with a month.
Session VII, Decree XV: No ecclesiastic to receive pay for Military service
The decree prohibited Syrian Christian priests, deacons and cattanars from taking to the field as soldiers and fighting for their respective kings. It is well known that the Syrians made excellent soldiers and were given the right to carry the ‘curved sword’ way back in the Iravi Cortan copper plates in the 9th Century A.D.
Session VII, Decree XVI: Ecclesiastics forbidden to marry
All clergy were commanded to stay unmarried or if married as the majority were to put away their wives. This decree was not followed to the last letter for obvious reasons and contemporary accounts speak of women being split from their husbands and forced to stay separate so that their husbands may not lose their place at Church. However the decree mentioned that an allowance would be paid to all such wives for the maintenance of themselves and their children.
Session VIII, Decree III: That banns of marriage be published
This decree commanded the practise of all forthcoming marriages to be announced prior to the marriages themselves in the Churches of both the bride and the groom.
Session VII, Decree IV: That marriage registers be entered and kept with care
The synod commanded every parish to maintain a marriage register with all details of the marriage noted therein.
Session VII, Decree V:-None to be married out of church without special reason
The synod prohibited priests marrying couples outside of churches only in the presence of two witnesses and commanded that all marriages should take place inside churches.
Session VII, Decree X: At what age parties may be married
The synod fixes the minimum age of marriage for men to be 14 and that of women to be 12 while noting that no such age restriction had applied to the Syrians till now in matrimony.
Session VII, Decree XIII: Forbids polygamy
The decree noted that several of the Christians from the ‘mountains’ have been married to several women in the face of the church and henceforth forbids polygamy.
Session VII, Decree XIV: Forbids all heathen practices to insure success in marriage
The decree forbids Christians from going to heathen priests as well as their own to learn of the most propitious time for marriage and other wedding rituals.
Session VII, Decree XVI: Condemns a Judaical ceremony adopted by some Syrians at their marriage
The synod condemned the practise of some Syrian Christians of following the Jewish custom of newly married couples not entering a church till after the fourth day of marriage when they wash themselves. The couple are told that not attending church on any holy day is a mortal sin and washing does not in any way contribute to their spiritual health.
Session VIII, Decree XIII: Heathenish ablutions condemned
The synod condemned several heathenish customs observed by the Syrians like not washing themselves in the mornings on fast days, washing themselves every time after they touched a ‘base race’.
Session VIII, Decree XXXI: The sick forbidden to lie in the church
The decree forbid the Christians from bringing their sick to lie in the church in the hope that they would be cured of their afflictions by doing so.
Session VIII, Decree XXXVII: All to be taught to cross themselves from left to right
The decree desires that the ‘Church of the Serra’, should in all things be conformable to the Latin customs, or Holy Mother church of Rome, and asks all the Syrians to make the sign of the Cross from the Left to the Right and not vice-versa as they are accustomed to make now, in the Eastern fashion.
Session IX, Decree II: Explains in what cases Christians may touch heathen and inferiors
This decree is important because it admits that the Christians by reason of their being subject to infidel princes cannot touch those of the ‘baser rank’ asks them in places where they are not subject to strict social mores, to do away with this superstition and associate freely with all of the lower castes.
Session IX, Decree IV: Forbids attendance on heathen festivities
This decree notes that Christians like other heathen go out on the day of Onam, in August, against another with bows and arrows and other arms, in which conflicts some are killed and wounded. It urges the Christians to only observe their own festivals and not festivals of the heathens which it says is devoted to the honour of the devil.
Session IX, Decree X: Against extortion
The decree criticises the lending of money for interest among the Christians and exhorts them from doing so and asks their vicars to regulate the same among the community.
Session IX, Decree XVII: Christians to be distinguished from heathen by their dress &c.
The decree notes that the Syrians cannot be distinguished from their heathen neighbours by appearance and dress and asks them to dress differently from the heathen and not bore their ears like them.
These are the decrees of the Synod of Diamper that give us a glimpse of Syrian Christian life in Kerala towards the end of the 16th C. A.D. and let us enumerate the final observations here:
a) We held the Hindu philosophies of transmigration of souls and that of fate dear to our hearts.
b) We believed that different faiths and religious observances were but different ways of reaching the same God.
c) Our Children studied in Hindu schools and children of other faiths studied in our schools too.
d) We did not baptise our slaves into our faith.
e) During baptism our children did not have Godfathers or Godmothers.
f) Children were even then called by names other than the ones given during baptism.
g) All mass was conducted in Syriac.
h) All priests did not wear ceremonial garments.
i) Hindu musicians played in churches during church festivals.
j) Priests would buy themselves into priesthood.
k) Exorcism was commonly practised among us.
l) We used astrology to determine our days of marriage.
m) Our priests would eat with all of other faiths.
n) Our priests engaged in all secular business outside of their religious duties.
0) Many of our priests also served as soldiers in armies of the different local royalty.
p) Marriages were not well documented then with banns being published and registers maintained.
q) Polygamy was prevalent among many of the community then.
r) Jewish Customs of not entering church till after the fourth day of the marriage was followed.
s) We crossed ourselves from the right to the left in the Eastern fashion.
t) We enjoyed ourselves on Onam, much to the dismay of the Portuguese.
u) We were indistinguishable in dress and appearance from the heathens.
Today with the passage of time many of these common features in our plural tradition are forgotten and the decrees of the Diamper Synod are a mirror into that past.
1) The Syrian Christians of Kerala, S.G. Pothen
2) Kerala History and it’s makers, A. Sreedhara Menon
3) The Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Diamper 1599, Dr. Scaria Zacharia
Author Nidhin Olikara can be reached at: olikara at gmail.com