Sunday, November 25, 2007

Syrian Christians (Nazranis) of Kerala: Some interesting customs

Imagine judging whether a girl is married or not, by looking at her hairdo! Well, among the Nazranis of Kerala this was possible till a few decades back. An unmarried girl had to wear her hair down plaited or tied. Only married women would normally have their hair tied above the shoulders. But all women had to cover their head at a place of worship.

I think that this practice prevailed among the Latin Christians as well. In both communities, inside a church the men used to occupy the front portion and the women had to be at the back. Now the women stay on the left side and the men on the right. Why this pattern? I don’t know. An afterthought – the good thief was crucified on the right side of Jesus Christ. No offence meant to women. It is men who make the rules in the church.

Reverting to the hairdo – initially I thought that the custom might have been connected with Jewish traditions. On checking I find that among Orthodox Jews unmarried women do not have to cover their hair. But the Sephardic (Spanish & Portuguese Jews) custom requires that even unmarried girls should put up their hair.

However, Semitic influence can be seen in some aspects of Syrian Christian life. I have described one instance, about names, in the post Jewish names among Syrian Christians. That, however, has a Biblical angle. Till recently, in some old Syrian Christian families pork and fish that has no scale were taboo to eat. This obviously is a Jewish custom.

Talking about food, in the post Sadhya - a sumptuous Kerala meal I explained why the Nazranis are supposed to fold in the left end of the banana leaf from which they eat a meal. This is a royal privilege that many modern Syrian Christians don’t even know.

Would you believe that there was a time when Syrian Catholics were not allowed to read the Bible? The reason given for this was that laymen who were not trained may end up attributing wrong interpretations to the statements in the Holy Book. Now, al Catholic families are supposed to have a Bible and read it everyday. Here one must acknowledge the contribution of Joseph Pulikunnel (Hosana) in providing Bibles at low cost to the households.

In well-to-do Syrian Catholic families children were tutored at home in the 19c. The curriculum included Malayalam, Tamil, Sanskrit, other subjects and Carnatic music. English was frowned upon because it was the language of the Protestants! Learning of Carnatic music was also discouraged or banned by the Church because the songs invoked Hindu gods!

I have written this from the little knowledge that I have. It would be a great service if those who have more information on this subject come forward with their comments.


Also see:

History of conversions to Christianity in Kerala – an overview

Vedas, Syrian Christians


Anonymous said...

Now that all Catholic families have a copy of the Bible and read it every day; therein lay the explanation for the mushrooming of lay preachers and faith healers of all hues.

Anonymous said...

Well, your observation about Bible is not correct. Till some 1962 these people used to celebrate their mass in Syriac. The latin bishops tired their best to change them but they never gave up Syriac. Only few songs were in Malayalam and that’s the major reason of not having Bible as common till 1960’s. That doesnot mean every one did not had Bible. If you go to some “aristocratic Brahmin converted “ ( as they call ) you can see even Syriac Bible. Its true that the Syrian Catholics don’t try to interpret Bible on their own even today, that doesnot mean that they don’t read Bible. That’s one reason why Pentecostals are still at bay as far as these people are concerned.

You might be surprised in knowing Catholics don’t consider Hosana Pulikunnel as a reformer. Hosana is known as an auditorium hall for bachelors parties in Bharanganam.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jose,
You got it wrong about the "bachelor party" because Mr.Tharakan's maternal family is having their KUDUMBAYOGAM at the venue on the 28th Dec.
If you want to find out his maternal family read the posting of the 27th on India Coffee.

Unknown said...

Jose Cheriyan, thank you for the comment.

I think that vernacular Mass came into force in 1964. You are right about attempts of Latin bishops to abolish Syriac. They tried it for three centuries without success.

About the Bible. I did not say that Syrian Catholics don’t read the Bible now. As far as I know, in the 2nd half of 19c there was restriction on laymen reading it. A century later there were two Malayalam editions of the Holy Book – POC Bible and ‘Pulikunnel’ (or Hosana) Bible.

For the bi-centenary celebrations of the St. Antony’s Church, Thycattussarry which my family (Parayil) built in 1791, among other things, we distributed 200 copies of the Hosana Bible free to the parishioners with the permission of the Church.

I too, a Syrian Catholic, don’t consider Joseph Pulikunnel a reformer. But he boldly speaks against many things that are wrong in the Syro-Malabar Church. I have had couple of discussions with him on these matters. While we did not agree on all points, I did appreciate his clarity of thought, knowledge, and arguments.

The Church continues to make mistakes. That is nothing new. A couple of decades back the National Geographic Magazine quoted a saying in The Vatican. It was something like ‘whatever the Church is doing wrong, it has been doing for two thousand years’.

I know that respectable people go to Hosana Hall for family functions. (Please see Nebu’s comment.) A few years back I went to Hosana Mount at Edamattom with Mathew Joseph Kuruvinakunnel. The activities there impressed me.

Unknown said...

Nebu, thanks for the comments.

Maddy said...

let me check my malabar manual - I recall that logan had something to say about nazranis.

Maddy said...

A wikipedia reference

TenderMangoLeaf said...

I have read in books by travelers during Portuguese rule of Kerala, the torture that local Syrian Christian priests had to go through during forced conversions to catholicism. One traveler writes that he could not sleep at night for the Syrian priest was crying all night while being tortured by the Portuguese.

When the statue of Mary was brought into one church by the Portuguese, the local people asked them to take it out since they were not idol worshippers. Then followed the forced conversions.

About aristocratic brahmin conversion (Jose cheriyan), I have my own doubts about this story...the Nambudiris did not arrive in Kerala until about the 9th century. It is more plausible if you say that Syrian christians are Jewish converts perhaps later mixed with local populations.

If y

Unknown said...

Maddy, thank you. I shall look up the reference.

Unknown said...


Your comment is interesting. There were apparently stray incidents of torture.

Aryan intrusions into Kerala might have started before the Christian Era though caste based Hinduism as we know it today was established only by the 9th c.

My view is that St. Thomas came to Kerala in 52 A.D. primarily to convert Jews who had settled there. At that time only the Jews were baptized. Gentiles were accepted into Christianity only later.

It is possible that towards the end of his stay in Kerala he did convert some people who were locally important, Brahmins or non-Brahmins. By then Christianity had started welcoming Gentiles as well.

Your comment seems to be incomplete.

Anonymous said...

Please visit :

Anonymous said...

Hello Readers,

The church did'nt allow us to read Bible ?? Wrong.It is a Pentacostal propaganda,which was created to destroy the church created by GOD (Mathew 16 )The truth is catholic church says not to interpret Bible the way we want,& only those who got the grace from holy spirit can do so

Anonymous said...

Hey! me did not know that there were other's also interested in this matter of our Yehudi heritage. Mr. Tharakan is not touching upon any DNA matters, why? Suggest you all to visit 'Nasrani Judeo Christians' site in 'Orkut'. You can see me there.
I am really deep deep deep deep into our Yehud heritage.
George Mathew

Anonymous said...

Mr. Tharakna,

When you mentioned
"Now the women stay on the left side and the men on the right. Why this pattern? I don’t know. An afterthought – the good thief was crucified on the right side of Jesus Christ."

How do you know the good thief was crucified on the right side?
None of the Gospels say anything about what side the good thief was on.

This is one of the misconceptions taught in the syrian church.