Spot A Syrian Christian
It is said, in the grand tradition of apocrypha, that long, long before Christianity wore the vestments of Rome’s official state religion, the Gospel of Christ arrived in Kerala on a Syrian boat and seeped into its being like tea from a teabag (with due credit to Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things). Not entirely canonical legend has it that St Thomas the Apostle, a disciple of Iso Misiha (Jesus the Messiah), with a few Syrian families, docked on the shores of Kodungalloor, Kerala in 52 AD. And therefrom begins one of the most fantastic backstories ever devised by immigrants anywhere, which has—with devotedly persistent retelling—entered popular imagination and even crept into school textbooks. The story goes that St Thomas converted a few Brahmins and established seven churches along the Malabar Coast. Historians are not without doubts about this theory. They point out that Kerala’s Aryanisation probably happened much later: in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries AD. It follows that there may have been no Brahmins hanging about in an earlier time to be converted.
Interestingly though, if you examine any diligently upkept Syrian Christian family tree, you find its roots are drawn from the Brahmin families of yore. The names are listed with pride, Kalli, Kallyamgal, Sankarapuri etc, and then proceed to articulate which branch they are descended from. Historian M. Gangadharan says, “The original Syrian Christians, like the Arabs and Jews, came to Kerala as traders. Perhaps a few Brahmins did convert to Christianity due to land disputes or other reasons. Kerala had abundant spices and oceanic trading played a crucial role in its economy. All trading was done in exchange for gold and the traders were immensely wealthy.” The secular kings welcomed foreign philosophies and allowed settlers to build places of worship. Syrian Christians were even accorded caste-restricted privileges like the use of the umbrella, the spread cloth to walk upon, or the banana leaf doubling as a plate.
At some point in time, Syrian Christians chose not to remain the ‘other’ and positioned themselves as high-caste converts and with great canniness inserted themselves into the deeply caste-embedded society. No small feat given the standing strictures on hierarchy. And having managed to meld into society, they weathered the upheavals that time wrought and tenaciously preserved their position. The conversion story was a handy aid to augment this process. A nativised form of worship evolved, which resembled a fusion of Hindu rites and ancient Syrian liturgy. Says Thiruvananthapuram MP and writer Shashi Tharoor, “Perhaps their greatest contribution has been in infusing the Christian tradition into the Indian socio-religious mosaic in a truly indigenous way, thereby reiterating India’s ability to achieve the highest form of pluralism within a single, holistic working system of human society and thought.”
This high-caste positioning also had considerable influence on their conduct. Says Jose Dominic, MD and CEO of CGH Earth (a Syrian Catholic in the hospitality business), “Syrian Christians take great pride in coming from a ‘good family’ and their behaviour is governed by this. They behave very civilly in society and are good workmen as well.” The Syrians were largely a monolithic church with strong relations to the Oriental Churches of the East till the Portuguese came on the scene and with papal sanction tried to induct them into the Catholic fold. They succeeded: in splitting the Syrian Christian church into a number of splinters, some of which adopted Catholicism, but many retained their Oriental rites. Says Babu Paul, writer, orator and former IAS officer, “The Syrian Christians underwent different divisions and reunions and now are spread across the total spectrum of church theology from the Syro-Malabar at one end to the Pentecostal at the other.”
As traders, they amassed considerable amounts of wealth. This lent itself quite naturally to money-lending activities and later to banking practices. “A story goes,” says P.J. Alexander, a former DGP of Kerala, “a Syrian Christian woman enters her husband’s house with 20 eggs and a hen. Her survival instincts are so strong that the eggs will hatch and the hens will soon multiply and she will have a roaring business.” Chicken-egg analogies aside, there are real-life evincements of such success in the finance sector; in particular, they have consistently enjoyed a foothold in the gold loan business.
In the mid-20th century, Syrian Christian-owned banks—like Palai Central Bank, Kottayam Orient Bank, or Quilon Bank—undertook rapid expansion. One banker says, “You could say they were pioneers in agricultural financing. If you look at the old audit books of the State Bank of India (SBI), there are notes from the RBI that attest to agricultural financing being a non-banking activity. Today, they have reversed that policy.” These banks were liquidated in the early 1960s and merged with national banks like SBI, State Bank of Travancore, Indian Bank among others. But banks like Federal Bank and South Indian Bank flourish. Companies like Muthoot Finance and Muthoot Fincorp have carved out a solid presence in the gold loan sector. Forbes Asia magazine had Muthoot Finance chairman M.G. George Muthoot and his three brothers listed among the hundred richest Indians.
Malayala Manorama, the third largest circulated newspaper in the country, is run by the Kandathil Mappilai Syrian Christian family and has shaped Malayalee public opinion since its first edition rolled off the press in 1890. Says veteran journalist and writer Kurian Pampadi, “Varghese Mappilai, the founding editor, was a visionary who wrote his first editorial pleading for the upliftment of the untouchable Pulayas. Business acumen, vision and practical wisdom helped the Mappilais build up Malayala Manorama into one of India’s largest media powerhouses. Kerala being divided into Centre-right and Left in political affiliation, the MM gives due coverage to the Left while staying steadfast to its more right-leaning stance.” The daily has a circulation of over two million with 18 units in Kerala, India and the Gulf. The group brings out about a dozen titles from its stable, forays into English, Hindi, Tamil and Bengali and even traverses mediums with radio and television broadcasts.
Minting gold George Alexander Muthoot and M.G. George Muthoot of Muthoot Finance. (Photograph by Fotocorp, From Outlook 01 October 2012)
Admittance into the upper echelons of power came early post-Independence, with John Mathai becoming India’s first railway minister and later taking over, yes, the finance portfolio. He presented two budgets. Defence minister and former chief minister of Kerala A.K. Antony is a Syrian Christian. As is the state’s current CM, Oommen Chandy. Interestingly, all the PMs from the Gandhi family have had Syrian Christian personal assistants or secretaries. Though dutiful in service, there have been visionaries too like Dr Verghese Kurien, the spearhead of India’s white revolution. And John Mathai’s son Ravi J. Mathai was the founder member of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad).
An unsung hero in the Indian sports arena is the late Ravi Mammen of MRF (owned by the Kandathil family), who created the Pace Foundation in 1987 to train and develop young fast bowlers. With out-of-the box strategising in the 1980s—its sponsorship of motorsports in particular—MRF was able to establish itself as a market leader. Yes, as Dominic says, “They have excelled in every sphere. They have even done excellent work as teachers in the field of education.”
Not that there aren’t areas for improvement. Dominic laments, “In the field of arts, theatre, music and letters, we don’t find too many. To do that, perhaps one needs to have rich cultural resources from an ancient environment. But who here now knows the Syriac culture? No Syrian Christian speaks Syriac.” A grievance many in the community acknowledge. The willingness to sacrifice bits of self-identity in order to better assimilate into the whole. As an anti-scriptural pithyism perhaps purports to illustrate: a Syrian will marry a tribal princess and readily shed his clothes to become the chief when she inherits the throne.
Apropos the piece on Syrian Christians in the Outlook special on business communities, (The Latters of Thoma, Oct 1), I visited Antioch, now in Turkey, in 2007, wishing to see the original Jacobite Orthodox Syrian church. When I reached the church I thought was my destination, I found the liturgy incomprehensible. The priest later said I was at the wrong church. He was also a Jacobite Orthodox Christian by denomination, but belonging to a church with Arabic liturgy. He said where I needed to go was the Suriyani Orthodox Church in Turkey, and I should visit Mardin in Eastern Turkey near the Syrian border, to visit an ‘ancient monastery’ controlled by Suriyanis, as also visit the first Christian church built by St Peter and St Paul. The latter, by the way, was a Syrian. I did visit this church, which is more like a cave, and which is in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. I managed to visit Mardin and found the monastery, headed by a ‘rabbaan’ (equivalent to an abbot). It was my milieu! The priest was also called Mathai, just like me. The earliest part of the monastery was built around 4000 BC, when the cult worshipped the sun. This is probably the origin of Syrian Orthodox churches facing the east, and not Jerusalem. The different parts of the monastery show the evolution of various cults, ending with Jacobite Syrian Orthodox rites. The Rabbaan showed me a portrait of the Elias Patriarch, who had to flee Turkey in the early ’30s and died in Omalloor in Kerala. He explained how in the 4th century AD, one Thoma (known as Kollam Thoma) left Mardin with 72 families to escape persecution from the Romans to Kerala. The present Syrian Christians are considered descendants of this group, originally Syrians. There could have been a lot of inter-marriages with the locals, just like with the Jews in Kerala (who were there even before Jesus, the mixing leading to the classification of ‘black’ and ‘white’ Jews). The community’s claim, therefore, of Brahmin ancestry cannot possibly be true.
There is no demographic evidence to show that St. Thomas converted Namboodhiris or Jews.Persian missionaries came to Kerala and they alos went to Sri Lanka and China.he converts were only local people. There is no reference to Namboodhiri or Nair conversions in their community chronicles or oral belief. But the arrival of the Portuguese was a great boon to the Syrian Christians.The Portuguese wanted loyalists and fifthcolumnists in a strange country.So they went out of the way to help the Christians. In a caste-ridden country, the Portuguese appointed Syrian Christians as army and police officers and thereby gave them power to control and punish Namboodhiris and Nairs.This position elevated their status in society.Christians were also appointed planters of estates, merchants and traders,priests, cooks or butlers (the famous Portuguese cuisine in the place of kappa (tapioca) and fish, the staple food of Syrian Christians), clerks and messengers in their facories and brokers (to negotiate wit the Raja and pepper merchants. The Kochi Raja was an obedient vassal of the Portuguese, and even his crown was brought from Portugal.What is more, Albuqurque officially sponsored mixed marriages and it gave white color and good personality to the children. The Poruguese ruled Kochi for 150 years and this led to the production of several generations of children with white color. Albuqurque protected the Christians from other oppressive higher castes by keeping them in a separate zone and giving them all privileges. Then came CMS missionaries. They indulged in widespread conversion which led to the sudden surge in Syrian christian poulation. The theological colleges established by the Portuguese and the schools and colleges established by CMS missionaries made this community literate in Kerala society. This literary advantage opened the gates for this community to Sri Lanka, Malaya, Singapore, Africa, Burma in the previous centuries and Persia (Iran), the Gulf countries, and now the USA(dreamland) in the present century made Syrian christian community the elitest community in Kerala.
Although Persian missionaries converted local people and introduced heretical Nestorian belief, the Portuguese evinced keen interest in the Christian community they found in Kerala. They guided them to the correct form of worship. They wanted friends and loyalists in a foreign country. So they appointed the members of this neglected community as army and police officers, planters, brokers to negotiate with kochi Raja and other local pepper traders, priests, teachers, cooks (the famous Portuguese cuisne in the place of Kappa and fish curry, the staple food of poor Christians), and trusted staff in their factories. Albuqurque officially sponsored mixed marriages, and during their 150 year rule the mixed marriages with the portuguese produced a generation of white colored Christians. When local Christians were appointed army and police officers, they could control and punish even Namboothiris and Nairs who had been oppressing them all these years. This elevated status gradually made them claim Namboothiri and Jewish geneaology. The thrological colleges established by them skyrocketed this community in the field of education. Then came the English. CMS missionaries increased Syrian Christian population by large scale conversion. Colleges and schools established by CMS missionaries opened the gates to Syrian Christians to Sri Lanka, Malaya. Singapore, Burma and Africa in the earlier centuries, and then to Persia (now Iran), th Gulf countries and lo! the USA in the later centuries made this commuity one of the elitests in Kerala.
@Jacob Mathai:You do know that 'caste' is not based on birth,right?
@Jacob Mathai://as in Christaian theology there is no scope for dividing humanity into various castes//
But they have no problem dividing humanity into 2 groups -
1)Us,the believers with the divine right to spread 'god's' word
2)Them,the infidels & pagans with nothing better to do than deny the 'truth'
I visited Antioch about five years ago, in 2007. I wished to see the original Jacobite Orthodox Syrian Church. My friends in Turkey (where Antioch is presently located) had arranged my visit to a supposed Jacobite church where a baptism was also going on after the mass. I found the whole liturgy incomprehensible and strange in more than one way. So I sought a meeting with the priest after the ceremony.
The priest explained to me that I came to the wrong church. His is also a Jacobilte Orthodox Christian, but belonging to the Church with Arabic liturgy. He understood what kind of church I was wanting to see. He said that in Turkey, it is called "Suryani Orthodox Church". He recommended that I should visit Mardin in Eastern Turkey near the Syrian border where there exists one of the ancient Monasteries, now in the hands of "Suryanis". Meanwhile, he advised that I should visit the first Christian Church built by St. Peter and St. Paul. The latter, as the historians know, was a Syrian, by the way. I did visit this church, which is more like a cave and is in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. There hangs a notice signed by the Pope John-Paul II giving an indulgence of two weeks (shortening the time in purgatory!) for any one who prays in the church.
I managed to visit Mardin, after an arduous road journey from Antioch. I found the monastery which was indeed headed by a "Rabbaan" (equivalent to an Abbot). I was back in my own milieu! A student of the monastery who showed us the whole place was also called "Mathai", just as me. My Turkish friends could then clearly understand my deep-rooted connection to Mesopotamia to which the present Turkey and Syria belonged in the past.
The earliest part of the monastery was built around 4000 BC when the cult used to be worshipping the sun. This probably is the origin of the Syrian Orthodox churches looking always towards the east and the prayers are always carried out facing the east (?) and not facing the direction of Jerusalem. The different parts of the monastery shows the evolution of the various cults ending with Jacobite Syrian Orthodox rites.
The discussions with the "Rabbaan" proved to be extremely interesting. He showed me the big portrait in his office of the Elias Patriarch who had to flee Turkey in the early thirtees and died in Omalloor in Kerala. For brevity, I am skipping this part of the story.
The Rabbaan explained to me how in the 4th century AD, one Thoma (now known as Kollam Thoma) left Madrin with 72 families to escape persecution from the Romans. Strange is this number of 72 which is in the mind of every Muslim, for he is supposed to get that many number of virgins, if he dies as a martyr! The Rabbaan explained that this has nothing to do with Islam and is a holy number appearing in the Old Testament linked to the Tower of Babel. Please see Wikipedia for further explanations on this.
The Rabbaan had been to Kerala few times accompanying the Patriarch, now stationed in Damascus (previously in Homs where my father had met, in the fifties, the then Patriarch Ignatius). The Rabbaan had found the Kerala climate too hot and humid and food too spicy!
The present Syrian Christians can be considered to be descendants of this Thoma group who were originally Syrians. There could have been lots of intermarriages with the local population over the centuries, just as it happened to the jews who took refuge in the Malabar coast, even before Jesus, leading to the discriminatione between the so-called "black" and "white" jews.
The present claim of the Syrian Christians to trace their origins to Brahminical roots can only be erroneous, as in Christaian theology there is no scope for dividing humanity into various castes.
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