Who is a Malayali Anyway?

On January 24, 2011 by admin

G. Arunima

In 1806, an Anglican priest called Claudius Buchanan travelled to Kerala from Bengal to understand the relationship between Hindus, Jews and Christians there. In a letter that he wrote back home to one Sandys (possibly a colleague), Buchanan declares: “the bonds of infidelity and superstition are loosening fast.” In an extraordinary travelogue, collected and edited in several volumes of memoirs, he describes the different religious groups he met all over Travancore, their histories as he understood them, and what he saw to be their most distinctive attributes. What makes this fascinating ethnography remarkable is the complexity of Buchanan’s point of view. He was at once an Anglican amongst Syrians and Latin Catholics, a white missionary amongst co-religionists of a different race, an observer with a partisan interest in spreading the word. Buchanan’s meticulously maintained diary becomes one of the earliest accounts of the religious complexity of Kerala, which is often taken for granted without adequate scrutiny in contemporary discussions of the region and its past. It is a different matter that his narratives also throw a light on the emergence of print technology and public sphere in Kerala. But that is another story.

Buchanan narrates a delightful tale of his meeting with the priests (kasheesha) and elders in Mavelikara. Initially they were suspicious of whether he was a Christian at all and what his motivations were. Moreover, they were perturbed by his suggestions that they should translate their bible! They said that they could not depart from their bible because it was the true Bible of Antioch we have had in the mountains of Malabar for fourteen hundred years, or longer. They questioned Buchanan and his Western translations and in order to convince themselves that he was a true Christian and the copies he carried with him reliable. They set about to compare four copies of the third chapter of St. Mathew’s Gospel, in Eastern and Western Syrian, English and one Thomas’s translation in Malayalam. At the end of the exercise they found that all the translations were fine, except for the one into Malayalam. They had never seen a printed Syriac New Testament before and were astonished to see one, but every priest took a turn to read a portion from it, which they did fluently. Most of the places had ancient copies of the Scriptures, or of some part of them. Of these, the texts most commonly read were the Oreta, or the former part of the Old Testament, the Evangelion, the Praxeis and the Egarta. The Prophets were the rarest.

In Buchanan’s account, despite the initial resistance, most of the priests were amenable to the idea of translating the Bible into Malayalam. In a letter to one Henry Thornton on 24 December 1806 he writes, “Syrian is still their sacred language,and some of the laymen understand it; but the Malayalim[sic] is the vulgar tongue. I proposed to send a Malayalim translation of the Bible to each of the Churches; and they assured me, that every man who could write would be glad to make a copy for his own family.” They also assured him that they would establish schools in each parish for Christian instruction in Malayalam, which would be undertaken by four of the chief elders there, where the Bible in Malayalam would be the principle text book.

Two issues become apparent at this point. One, the complex mediation of Christianity in Kerala via the intervention of the Western church to the extent that even the idea of making the Bible available to the average parishioner in Malayalam appears to have come from outside. The second: that the initial need for print technology here, as in the case of Europe, too, seems to be coming from the desire to increase the circulation of the Bible. These two matters: that of language and of an emergent print culture has been central to discussions of modernity and the creation of ethnic identities, principally that of nationalism. But about that some other day. But the contemporary issues of Malayali identity also crucially go back to the pre-colonial interactions and today I’d like to talk about the originary myths of one particular group: the Syrian Christians.

For more than a thousand years Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus have lived together in Kerala.  By the 20th century, the term Malayali was used to designate all these people across community or caste difference.  In fact, as soon as Kerala is viewed within the wider social geography of the Indian Ocean—an all together  different ‘regional space,’ the story about the insider/and outsider, belonging and identity take a different meaning. 

If we examine Kerala’s history as the narrative of these different groups as an integral part of its social fabric, what is immediately evident is that such a cultural mix was possible only because Kerala was connected to an extended network: from the Arab world on the west towards China on the east with large parts of the present South East Asia linked to it through established networks of trade.  This connection meant that Kerala not only nurtured a vibrant commercial culture but also that it had become home to people from diverse parts of this world, with their different cultural practices and belief systems.  From religion and ritual, dietary and culinary practices, and new technological inputs,  to a rich history of loan words that are an integral part of present day Malayalam language, today’s Kerala is shaped by the history of its geographical positioning. 

We gain an interesting tapestry if we consider the ‘origin myths’ about the arrival of the Jews, Syrian Christians, Mappilla Muslims and Nambudiri Brahmins – the four main groups that came and settled in Kerala somewhere between the  4th and 9th centuries CE. By juxtaposing conventional histories of Kerala with these stories of arrival and settlement, by means of trying to understand this complex past, one also hopes to isolate moments and contexts that are indicative of rather assertive religious identities at certain points of time.

One of the significant foundational moments for each of the three Semitic religions seems to have been the moment of arrival in Kerala.  In all these ‘origin myths’ under scrutiny here, it is significant that, for the Jews, Christians and Muslims, their arrival in Kerala is remembered as part of a momentous welcome.  Therefore, unlike the mnemonics of trauma and repression (especially within the Judaic tradition, and persecution in their homeland in the case of the Cananite Christians) that might be part of their historical memory in their lands of origin, what we witness in Kerala is a reversal of this ‘historical consciousness.’

Lets consider Christianity, which has had a rich and complex history within Kerala. By the 20th century, almost all the major Christian schisms and sects have found a presence within Kerala. The “Syrians” claim two broad divisions amongst themselves – one the Western Syrians, who claim Apostolic descent from St. Thomas, and the other, the Eastern Syrians, who trace their origins from Thomas of Cana.  Unlike the Portuguese Jesuits who arrived on the west coast in the 16th century, the Syrian Christians were not missionary and do not appear to have been proselytizers.  In fact, within their own self-perception they see themselves as the descendants of the first settlers. It is of course perfectly possible, especially when examining the degree of shared life cycle rituals, that many original residents in the region would have become followers of this new religion.  In fact, one of the earliest periods of “religious crisis” that we find on the Kerala coast was provoked by the Portuguese who targeted all three groups – Jews, Christians and Muslims – but it was the Syrian Christians who were probably the worst affected by this encounter.  However, in the history of religions in Kerala, with the arrival of the Portuguese one finds the establishment of the Latin church too, and until the mid 19th century arrival of the Protestant missions from England and Germany, Christianity in Kerala was primarily “Nestorian” or Roman Catholic.

If one examines the ‘origin myths’ we witness certain repetitive themes and motives among all the four groups that I have mentioned.  In the Syrian Christian narratives of origin the most important is the Apostolic genealogy.  Referred to originally as the St. Thomas Christians (as a result of the tradition that the church was set up by the Apostle, St. Thomas) these followers of the Eastern Church claim to be the descendants of upper castes (principally Brahmin) converted to Christianity by St. Thomas himself.  The point of entry of the Apostle in India is also debated within ecclesiastical histories. Some claim that the Kerala coast was the original point of entry whereas others say that he lived and died on the Coromandel coast, and that the people were the descendants of those Christians who migrated westwards from there. 

However, the more important issue here is that as the original Christians, these people claimed a presence in India from a period almost contemporaneous with that of Christ.  The next critical event in this tradition is the contact with the Eastern Syrian church with the arrival of Thomas of Cana, known as Cnai Thoma or Thomman within the Christian narrative.  He appears variously as a merchant, traveller and pilgrim, and is meant to have brought a group of Christians with him at a time when clearly there were waves of anti-Christian persecution in their homeland. 

According to the Canaanite legend, Thomas set about transforming Kodungallur, organizing it as a Christian community around a church.  These two divergent points of origin within the collective memory of the St. Thomas Christians are probably responsible for their endogamous divisions:  vadakambhagakkar [Northists] and tekkumbhagakkar [Southists]. 

An early 18th century tradition by a Jacobite priest named Mathew gives the following account.  After 93 years of being without a priest (after the death of St. Thomas) a non-Christian magician called ‘Manikkabashar’ appeared who attempted to wean Christians in Mylapore away from the faith.  Those who were faithful fled to Malabar and were received by their brethren. But these hundred and sixty odd families had no priests or leaders.  At this time the Metropolitan of Edessa had a dream about their plight which he narrated to the catholicos of the East, who then addressed a great multitude of the faithful, of whom many were bishops and merchants.  A certain Thomas from Jerusalem said that he had heard of Malabar and he was sent by the Catholicos to visit the place and report back.  Upon hearing his report, the Catholicos sent him back with priests and deacons, men, women and children from Jerusalem, Baghdad and Nineveh.  They landed in Maliamkara in 345 CE.  The Christians in Kerala welcomed them and all of them proceeded to meet “Sharkun”, the king of all Malabar.  He then gave them royal honors and complied with all their wishes. These grants were recorded on copper plates.   As a part of this grant, they proceeded to build a church at Kodungallur, and a township emerged there with 472 families. 

A late 18th century anonymous account has a slightly different version of this story.  According to this St. Thomas had ordained priests from four principal families of the region –  Sankuri, Palamittam, Kali and Kaliave – whom he had baptized.  This was in 52 CE.  However the community began to decline as it lacked successors to the bishop. This was remedied by the “rich and zealous” merchant Cnai Thoma [Thomas of Cana] who returned to his homeland in Babylonia and brought with him one bishop and two priests, who were well versed in the languages of the Rite (Syriac and Chaldaic).

This version deals more with how the St. Thomas Christians came to be within the dominion of the Eastern Syrian church.  While it is not clear when East Syrian prelates began to come to India, certain reconstructions of Church history in Kerala date it back to the 3rd century CE.  From then until about the 9th century it is possible that there was a steady flow of prelates from Eastern Syria to India, even as the rest of the Church hierarchy would clearly have been Indian,  as attested by the Portuguese.  The complex history of the development of the ancient Syrian Christian church, described pithily by Podipara as ‘Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, and Syro Oriental in worship’, once again has to be told another day.

In a third account documented in the early 19th century by Ward, one of the officers of the survey department in Travancore, the story is almost completely transformed. This narrative is said to have been in the Lebbi (probably Syriac) language but was explained to Ward in Tamil as follows:

‘At a former time seven persons of a strange religious persuasion came to Travancore; among whom the name Mar Thomas occurs.  The king of the country had previously received some admonitions respecting them in a dream. They called on the king to embrace their system, and to allow them to build places for their mode of worship.  The king demurred to their claims and said these must be proved.  He also summoned a council of Brahmans, enquiring if the new system ought to be received: who replied most certainly not.  The foreign persons ascribed to themselves the faculty of retaining the soul (when departed from a body) in the air above, and of recalling it, so as to reexamine the body; and, as stated, gave the proof of this power in the case of one among themselves.  The king, however, resisted their claims.  Soon after the king’s younger brother died; whereupon the recently arrived strangers told the king that if he would build seven churches in different places they would restore their brother to life.  The king made the promise, and the body of this brother became re-animated, awaking as if out of a sleep. In consequence both the king, and his brother, adopted the new system, and along with them 64 householders with their families received the initiatory rite of baptism.’

After this is a detailing of disputes within the community; and an account of the building of the first  seven churches.  This account too mentions ‘Manicavasavar’, referred to as “a person who chanted panegyrics, came to ‘Malayalam’ and disseminated the Saiva five-lettered system; teaching to swallow the Saiva compound of five substances; and to use the Vibhuthi or sacred ashes. He drew away several families”. It goes on to say that the head of the Christians received various privileges and immunities from Cheraman Perumal, who always directed the election of the Metran.

The traditions of the St. Thomas Christians point to a history of unconditional acceptance and the granting of extended privileges which covered religious (church building) and economic (land grants; establishing of a town) interests.  The relationship is established between the king and the leader of the community; while in these narratives, the king is not often mentioned (or else has an unidentifiable name), at least in the  third narrative one encounters mention of Cheraman Perumal.  Kodungallur once again is [one of] the principal sites of settlement.

The two instances that could suggest sources of threat to the community are both interesting – 1) of ‘Manicavasavar’ (or the Shaiva saint Manicavaccacar) attempting to win converts to Christianity back into the Shaivite fold and the 2) of Brahmins refusing permission to the king to convert (in the 3rd narrative) both point to interesting symbolic and historical issues that shall be discussed later.

If we examine the principle themes and motifs in these traditions, especially with reference to religious identity, we see that these knit together narratives of a favorable arrival, prosperous settlement, as well as moments of stress and conflict that affect the internal ordering of communities as much as the relations between them.   In almost a parallel to the Mosaic tradition in West Asia, of which the three religions were inheritors, in Kerala too, the origin myths of the Jews, Syrian Christians and Mappilla Muslims share repetitive motifs in terms of travel, arrival at the same city (Kodungallur) and a royal welcome granting them economic and religious freedom.

What complicates the story is the relationship of  Islam as the third religion of the Book, and one that had a higher status than the other two (in Kerala, the Mappillas refer to the Quran as the Nalam Vedam or the 4th Veda, the others being the Jewish and Christian texts).  By explicitly situating the origin myth of Islam within the existing tradition of origin of Judaism and Christianity (and a similar arrival in Kerala), and then ousting them from royal favor, we find an assertive statement of Islam, directed towards the other two Semitic traditions that had already found space within Kerala.  That story I promise to continue. Do watch this space.

G. Arunima is Associate Professor, Women’s Studies Programme, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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