Thursday, July 19, 2007

History of conversions to Christianity in Kerala – an overview

This article takes a brief look into the history of conversions to Christianity in Kerala. The Christians of the State can be broadly categorized into three: Syrian Christians who are believed to have been converted from the upper castes (whether such distinction existed at that time is not clear) by Apostle St. Thomas in 1c, Latin Christians who were converted mostly from lower classes by St. Francis Xavier in the 16c and Dalit Christians who were converted in the 19c by the Anglicans and in the 20c by the Catholic denomination of the Syrians. The labels Syrian and Latin came about because of the respective languages that were used in liturgy. (See: Jewish names among Syrian Christians.)

The Syrian Christian community is referred to by historians as Malabar Church and St. Thomas Christians. This congregation was, till the intrusion by the Western Christianity with the arrival of the Portuguese, a distinctive Eastern Church with the Pope of Rome as a hazy father figure at the far end of a thin long line.

Being a Syrian Christian is a matter of birth and inherited religious convictions. Therefore, conversion to that community is an anomaly. In all its known history till the 20c, the Malabar Church never undertook any missionary work. The theology of the community was that every human being achieved salvation through his own religion; a conclusion that modern Christian theology is increasingly accepting. Spreading the Word of Christ and induced or forced conversions to Christianity are two totally different things. As a result, the Syrian Christians remained an exclusive community to which outsiders had no entry.

Two questions arise here: why then did St. Thomas carry out conversions and, why did he convert only the so called upper classes? The Apostle would have, if one accepts oral tradition, received into the Christian fold only those who came forward willingly and out of conviction. On the question of the claimed class distinction in the conversions by the Apostle, it is necessary to understand the background of his mission. His arrival in Kerala (52A.D.) was before the gentiles were accepted into Christianity. Even the word ‘Christian’ did not exist at that time; it was coined in Antioch around 65 A.D. Till then the followers of Christ were known as Nazranis, a name that continues to be used in Kerala.

It is possible that St. Thomas initially targeted the Jews who were already in Kerala. (Several historians claim that the Jews were trading with Kerala even at the time of King Solomon.) Some of the upper crust local people too, presumably, joined the new faith. Here ‘upper crust’ would mean the educated or enlightened who, according to oral tradition, engaged the Apostle in debates.

The Malabar Church enjoyed an organic growth for fifteen centuries, blending with the social structure and being part of it, conforming to the customs and traditions of the land, maintaining upper class stature, receiving support and recognition from the rulers.

The Portuguese arrived in Kerala at the end of the 15c. They initiated a campaign to convert the local Christians (who followed Syriac liturgy) to the Latin Rite. This met with incessant resistance. The net result in the long run was that the Malabar Church was truncated and split into different denominations. Of these, the Catholic faction was subjugated by the Western Latin Church for three centuries.

The arrival of St. Francis Xavier in the middle of the 16c saw a flourish in missionary activity. This great saint of the Catholic Church converted many people of the lower castes to Christianity. He had the patronage of the Portuguese and the maharajas of Travancore and Cochin. In fact, the Maharaja of Cochin had the title ‘Protector of Christians’.

But there were protests against these conversions from the upper classes not on religious grounds but for social and economic reasons. Accepting Christianity released the converts from their obligations under the fine tuned caste system. This led to several problems. To give an example: the coconut pickers who became Christians were no longer under any compulsion to carry out their traditional duty.

This new congregation came to be known as Latin Christians. Whereas the Syrian Christians always enjoyed upper class status, the Latin Christians were treated as lower caste and there were hardly any social interaction between the two. After Independence, the Latin Christians were officially included in the backward class category.

The next round of conversions to Christianity in Kerala was in the 19c by the Anglicans, now known as Church of South India (CSI), who came to Kerala in the wake of the British in the first quarter of the 19c. This episode covered both Syrian Christians and members of some lower castes. The Anglicans championed major causes of the Dalits, like the right of Channar women to cover their breasts in public, and the abolition of slavery. This attracted lower castes to the new edition of Christianity in Kerala.

Then, in the early 1930s, the Syrian Catholic Church suddenly went on a conversion spree against all traditions of the St. Thomas Christians, focusing specifically on the Pulayas who were among the untouchables. They were bonded labor attached to landlords, both Hindu and Christian. Anizham Thirunal Maharaja abolished slavery in Travancore in the mid -19c, but the practice continued in one form or the other till the World War II. The Pulayas were totally at the mercy of their lords. The prospect of joining Christianity appealed to many of them.

Whether all these conversions were genuine, arising out of conviction is debatable. The details about the activities of St. Thomas in Kerala are shrouded in the foggy past. But by no stretch of imagination could he have had the political, financial or military clout to indulge in coercion. The subsequent conversions are unlikely to pass the test because there was an element of quid pro quo involved, in one way or another.

The present scenario in Kerala is that the label ‘Christians’ covers diverse groups without meaningful homogeneity or integration.


Also see:

Vedas, Syrian Christians


Unknown said...

Hi Now again we met here. Now I was searching for about christianity in Kerala. Because I have developed a web site for my parish. You may know that St. Mary's Forane church at Pallippuram. In that I have added an article about Relegious life style in Kerala.Based on that I Was searching for related articles
..I am so happy that I reached at your blog..

Anonymous said...

It is disgusting that brains seclude each other on the basis of caste.
This is a message to the youngsters.
Any change requires a certain period of time.
If you have felt the pulse of the system, and ready to accept it, your arguments will vanish.

Money and power is the basis for all discrimination and prejudice.


rocky chandy said...

Hi abraham,

a book you might enjoy reading-( unless you already have)

Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 (Cambridge South Asian Studies) [Paperback]
Susan Bayly (Author)

does mention the parayil family and also 4 chapters on the syrian christians of kerala.

do enjoy reading your blog.

rocky chandy

Unknown said...

Rocky Chandy, thanks a lot. Shall try to get hold of the book by Susan Bayly.