Syrian Christian of Kerala

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Syrian Christian of Kerala

ETHNONYMS: Christians of St. Thomas, Nazarani, Suriyani Christiani


Identification. Syrian Christians live in Kerala State in the southwest corner of India and speak Malayalam, one of the four major Dravidian languages of south India. They can be considered a caste and are endogamous.

Location. Kerala State lies at the southernmost extremity of the peninsula between 8°18 and 12°48 N and between 74°52 and 77°22 E and stretches along the shores of the Arabian Sea for a distance of about 576 kilometers. It is a relatively narrow strip of land varying from 120 kilometers at its broadest to around 32 kilometers at certain points in the north and south. Kerala is only 38,863 square kilometers in area, forming distinct regions separated from the adjoining states by the Western Ghats, mountains that run parallel to the sea. The average elevation is 909 meters, with peaks soaring up to 1,800 to 2,400 meters in certain places. The plains are very humid and warm with an average temperature of 85°C. There are two monsoons providing adequate precipitation: the southwest monsoon from mid-June to early September and the northeast monsoon from mid-October to the end of November. The rest of the year is dry with occasional showers.

Demography. The population of Kerala according to the estimate for 1987 is about 27.6 million, with Christians comprising about 21 percent of the population. In Kerala about 93 percent of the Christians are Syrian Christians; the rest have been converted by European missionaries.

Linguistic Affiliation. Ninety-six percent of Kerala people speak Malayalam and about 2.37 percent speak Tamil. The latter reside mainly in the border areas adjacent to the state of Tamil Nadu. Those who are on the border of Karnataka State speak Tulu and Kannada. Malayalam was the last language in the Dravidian Group to develop a distinct form and Literature. Until the ninth century AD., Kerala was a part of Tamilakam and the language of the Kerala region was Tamil. Gradually Malayalam came under the influence of Sanskrit and Prakrit with the spread of Aryan influence. Sanskrit words and sentences are freely used in Malayalam. Kerala had its own scripts (lipis ) from early days. The modern Malayalam script is adopted mainly from the grantha script (book script). Malayalam with its fifty-three letters perhaps expresses by proper marks the most extensive phonology among all the Indian languages. With more than 74 percent literacy, the highest in India, Kerala has developed a wealth of Literature unmatched in any other region. The more than forty newspapers are read by intellectuals as well working-class farmers and factory laborers. The best known is Malayala Manorama (first published in 1888) with a readership of close to a million, the largest in India.

History and Cultural Relations

Those unfamiliar with the history of Christianity in India are likely to consider it a by-product of Western colonialism. The tradition is that Saint Thomas, the disciple of Jesus Christ, landed in a.d. 52 at Maliankara near Cranganore and preached the gospel. It is believed that he visited different parts of Kerala and converted a good number of local inhabitants, including many from the literate upper-caste Nambudiri Brahmans. It seems that Saint Thomas established churches in seven places in Kerala. The present Christian population claims descent from this early origin, though there has been much scholarly debate over the date of Saint Thomas's arrival. They are popularly known as Syrian Christians in view of the Syriac (classical form of Aramaic) liturgy used in church services since the early days of Christianity in India. They are also known as Nazaranis (followers of Jesus the Nazarene). The survival of the church in Kerala is very much a result of the development of an indigenous character and adaptation to local traditions. Syrian Christians came to rank after the Brahmans and as equals of the Nayars. The survival of Syrian Christians in Kerala was also a result of the benevolence and tolerance of the rulers in Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar who donated land and helped financially to build churches. The early church received this aid partly Because of the favorable impression created by the Christians, who served the rulers in various capacities, as well as respect for the religion. Syrian Christians remained an independent group and continued to get bishops from the Eastern Orthodox church in Antioch in Syria. After the Portuguese arrival in 1498, they gradually established their power and were eager to bring all Christians under the Church of Rome. With superior organizational skill and Portuguese help, Bishop Alexis de Menezes was successful in establishing the Roman Catholic church as the dominant church of the Malabar Coast (Kerala). However, when the Portuguese power declined by the early seventeenth century, the hold of the Roman Catholic church in Kerala weakened, and allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox tradition was reaffirmed in front of an improvised cross at Mattancherry in 1653, an event known as Coonan Kurisu Satyam. At present, Syrian tradition is quite well established, though Roman Catholic church members are more numerous.


While most of rural India is a series of discrete villages separated by open fields, in Kerala there are no such concentrations. Instead, houses are scattered over the countryside in a dispersed pattern with some surrounding land intensively cultivated with rice and tropical vegetables and fruit trees. Every 5 to 10 kilometers, there are small and large towns ranging in size from 5,000 to 50,000 inhabitants. There is a railway running from north to south as well as paved roads crisscrossing the state, used for regular bus service run by the state as well as private companies. In the lowland areas, there are rivers, canals, and backwaters providing transport facilities with motor boats and manually operated small and large boats. There are schools, hospitals, and colleges in larger towns. People are conscious of a high level of hygiene; they wear clean clothes, brush their teeth before the first meal, and rinse their mouths after every meal. They bathe once a day or even twice in this humid climate. Towns as well as the Countryside are fairly clean and people use private toilets rather than open fields (unlike the rest of rural India). The traditional construction of houses was similar to that of the upper-caste Hindus. The buildings were constructed mostly of wood; teak was commonly used. The front of the house always faced east. Every house had a storage room for rice (paddy). Furnishings were simple: cots were made of wood, and in traditional times, people squatted on the floor on woven palm-leaf mats. Modern houses are brick and of Contemporary design, with electricity available to all. The well-to-do have modern amenities including color television.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture remains the main occupation and nearly half of the population depends on agriculture, growing a variety of tropical vegetables, fruits, spices, and rice. Animal power is rarely used Except for plowing in some rice fields. Bullock carts have mostly been replaced by small and large motorized vehicles. Cattle, buffalo, goats, chickens, and ducks are found in most rural areas. The quality of cattle has improved through interbreeding with Jerseys, resulting in more milk production and better nutrition. With the introduction of white Leghorns (Mediterranean fowls), egg production has multiplied, producing higher income as well as improved nutrition. Christians are leaders in modern education that was introduced by European missionaries in nineteenth century. They also took advantage of the lead given by British planters in the nineteenth century and thus they continue to dominate the plantation economy, owning cardamom, coffee, rubber, and tea plantations. These cash crops have made many Christians affluent. Other communities are emulating the Christians and are also getting actively involved in education and new economic enterprises contributing to the increasing prosperity of Kerala. As there are not enough employment opportunities in Kerala some Christians have moved to other regions and overseas and taken jobs in all professions. Most noteworthy is the near-monopoly Christian women from Kerala have on the nursing profession throughout India. With the rapidly expanding economies of the Middle East oil-producing nations, many Christians discovered all sorts of opportunities. They have also found well-paying jobs in Western countries.

Industrial Arts. There are few large-scale industries in Kerala. However, there are factories (many Syrian Christian-owned) that manufacture tiles and coconut fiber (coir) and process cashew nuts and rubber.

Trade. Many Christians own a variety of small businesses in towns, such as textiles, groceries, stationery, hardware, restaurants, etc. Some bring their farm producefor example, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, and other tropical fruitsto weekly markets in town. The rest of the cash crops, such as coconut and pepper, are sold through large-scale dealers located in towns. Cashews, cardamom, coffee, tea, and rubber are sold through marketing boards.

Division of Labor. In farming areas, Christians own land and the manual labor is usually done by low-caste Hindus, members of Scheduled Castes, and also a small number of Christians. Men as well as women work in the farming areas. Many work in factories, as laborers, as technicians, on plantations, and in shops in towns, while others work in civil Service. At home, men never get involved in household tasks because these are considered women's responsibility.

Land Tenure. Private ownership of land has been a special feature of the system of land tenure in Kerala from ancient times. Absolute ownership of land is known as the jenmom system. Tenancy rights vary depending on the terms and conditions of the lease. Due to the high population density, there is a great shortage of land for individual families. Thus, the Communist party-dominated state government (1957-1958) passed the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill, fixing a ceiling of about 6 to 10 hectares on family holdings, depending on the size of the family. All excess land is surrendered to the government, which then sells it for a modest price to landless tenants; however, the large plantations are exempted, as large-scale landholdings provide economic advantages for the state. The government has been somewhat successful in redistributing land.


Kin Groups and Descent. Syrian Christians do not have the exact equivalent of the Hindu joint family. However, extended families are found in which parents live in the same household with married sons and their families. This is rapidly changing due to modern education. In a 1987 study on changing kinship in Kerala, I found that among the educated middle and upper classes, the majority of married sons have independent households, a situation almost always approved by the parents who themselves are well educated. However, they maintain close ties with lineal and collateral kin and provide financial help where necessary. They get together often to celebrate birthdays and religious festivals. Even so, due to the increasing emphasis on individualism, as a result of Modern education, these ties are not as strong as they once were. Fortunately, the general improvement in the standard of living makes it less necessary to be economically dependent on kin. Descent is patrilineal. However, a 1987 Indian supreme court decision successfully challenged the exclusive right of sons to inherit.

Kinship Terminology. Depending on the age and rank of the immediate family members as well as other kin, there are different kin terms used to show respect and even older nonrelatives are addressed similarly to indicate respect.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Syrian Christians are monogamous and strict community endogamy is maintained. Arranged marriage is still practiced, although prospective spouses are consulted about the marriage proposal. Today, quite a few marriages take place by self-choice and the families simply go through the formalities of arranging the marriages. There are no cross-cousin marriages. As residence is patrilocal, soon after Marriage the wife will start living in the husband's house. Whenever they are able to move out to a separate household, they do so; but, if there is only one son in the family, parents may continue to reside with the couple. Divorce is rare due to the Christian tradition of permanent marriage. However, there are a few cases in which women are asserting their individuality by separating from their husbands, especially when they are well educated and not willing to accept a subservient role as housewives. Divorces are not yet statistically significant.

Domestic Unit. Husband, wife, and children constitute a family. Men as a rule take the responsibility of working outside the home and the women's role is primarily in the family home, except for professional women who have an active role outside the home. The nuclear family is now increasingly replacing the two- or three-generation extended family.

Inheritance. Property is traditionally divided among the sons. The youngest son is given the family home where he stays with the parents. However, in view of the recent Indian supreme court decision in favor of equal division of property, the future division of property will change.

Socialization. Both parents have responsibility for disciplining children. Fathers tend to be more strict than mothers. There is less emphasis on physical punishment due to Modern education. Girls are more strictly controlled by the parents than the boys. Parents are willing to make a considerable effort to encourage children's education, especially professional education like medicine and engineering where competition for admission to schools is quite keen. Women are quite successful in all professions and compete on equal terms with men.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Kerala society like the rest of India is divided into castes. Syrian Christians have enjoyed centuries of tolerance from the majority Hindu community by respecting the endogamous tradition of Hindu castes. They have not even tried to increase their numbers by proselytization. They rank themselves close to the Nayars in the caste hierarchy. It seems that most of the early Christians were converted from upper castes and even today they very rarely intermarry with Christians converted by European missionaries whom they consider inferior in social rank. Roman Catholics and non-Catholics rarely intermarry even if they are Syrian Christians. Non-Catholic Christians never use European names. Their names are Biblical names, as well as some Armenian and Greek names that are prevalent in the Middle East, making them distinctive. Examples of Armenian and Greek names are Kurian, Cherian, Alexander, Stephanos, and Markose.

Political Organization. India has a democratic federal constitution. Kerala was formed in 1956 from the two Kingdoms of Travancore and Cochin ruled by maharajas and the district of Malabar in the north. Kerala is divided into districts administered by a collector who, though appointed by the state government, is a federal civil-service official. At the district level there are taluks, which are smaller administrative units under a tahsildar. Towns with both elected and appointed officials fall within the taluks. At the rural level the administrative unit is the panchayat with an elected council and appointed officials. The panchayat is responsible for revenue collection, supervision of the elementary school, medical care and public health, and the development of agriculture, animal husbandry, and cottage industries.

Social Control. Traditional social controls such as community pressure to conform to accepted values are still important. However, informal social control mechanisms are being increasingly replaced by the codified law of the state. Elders are no longer afforded the same level of respect as in the less urbanized times fifty years back. Today there is increasing reliance on the state police and the judiciary to resolve disputes, although the level of individual violence is lower than other states in India partly due to modern education and a sense of tolerance. However, people of Kerala spend an inordinate amount of time and money on long court cases.

Conflict. Kerala has been fortunate to have had a long period of relative peace. The last major war there was the invasion of Tipu Sultan of Mysore at the end of the eighteenth century, which only affected the northern areas of the state. This long history of relative tranquillity also changed the attitude of the people, although the Indian army is an important source of employment today.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Syrian Christians as a community have strong and active religious organizations and a majority of the people attend Sunday church services. The church is divided into various denominations. Those who accept allegiance to the Roman Catholic pope are known as Syrian Roman Catholics. There are Roman Catholics converted by European missionaries known as Latin Roman Catholics. The rest are non-Catholics who are members of the Orthodox Syrian church, Jacobite Syrian church, Marthoma Syrian church, and Church of South India. Roman Catholics which include Latin and Syrian Catholics are 61.4 percent of the Kerala Christians, Syrian Orthodox and Jacobite Syrians are 21.4 percent, Marthoma Syrians 5.7 percent, Church of South India 5.2 percent, and others who are members of various Evangelical churches 6.3 percent. The Church of South India is a Protestant church uniting former Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others. Syrian Christians, especially Syrian Orthodox and Jacobite Syrians, use the old Syriac Language for their liturgy, as a means of maintaining contact with churches in the Middle East that provided bishops for a long time. Jacobite Syrians still consider the Patriarch of Antioch to be the head of their church. One cannot claim anything special about supernaturals in the context of Christianity. There are some parishes mostly of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Syrians, or Jacobite Syrians where some saints have special importance.

Religious Practitioners. Because the Syrian Christians are divided into several different sects, they have a diversity of priests. Those Catholics who are Romo-Syrians have two bishops assisted by a vicar-general and a council of four. At the parish level they, like all the other sects, have priests. The Latinite Catholics are governed by an archbishop and two bishops. The Jacobite clergy are organized under a metropolitan, and all except him are allowed to marry. The Protestants belong now to the Church of South India, with its own hierarchy of pastors and bishops. The Chaldean Syrians, centered on Trichur, have their own priests.

Ceremonies. Syrian Christians celebrate all Christian religious days. However, among the more orthodox people they maintain Lent for twenty-five days prior to Christmas and fifty days prior to Easter. Those who do so eat only vegetarian meals and refrain from consuming alcoholic beverages. Easter week is very important with special church services on Palm Sunday and also every evening including Good Friday. On Pesaha (Maundy) Thursday there is a special church service with Holy Communion. Good Friday is of great significance and church service starts at 9 a.m. and continues until about 3 p.m., when it is believed that Christ was crucified. On Easter Sunday, the church service starts at 4 a.m. and continues until 6:30 a.m., concluding with Holy Communion. Family members get together for Easter breakfast and break the Lenten fast by eating meat and special bread made for the occasion.

Arts. There are no special art forms at present that are typical of Syrian Christians. However, there used to be singing of folk songs and performance of some folk dances by men. One of them is margam kali, which is a kind of dance drama on a Christian theme. Another is parisa muttu, which is a martial dance from the time when Christians served in the army of the maharajas.

Medicine. Modern medicine has almost completely displaced traditional indigenous medicine, and there are many Syrian Christian physicians. However, there are some people who continue to learn Ayurveda, the Indian traditional Medicine that is still widespread in Kerala.

Death and Afterlife. Many people prefer to bring their critically ill relatives to their family homes where a priest will administer the last rites and last communion. After death, the body is ritually washed, dressed up, and laid on a bed in a large room with lighted candles behind the head of the departed. All close relatives attend and sing hymns and read passages from the Bible. The funeral takes place within twenty-four hours. The body is taken to the church while People sing hymns. After the burial, close relatives and friends come to the house of the deceased for a simple vegetarian meal. In the case of older people like parents, there will be a memorial church service on the fortieth day after death and also an elaborate vegetarian lunch to which all relatives and people in the community are invited.

See also Indian Christians; Malayali


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Kurian, George (1961). The Indian Family in Transition A Case Study of Kerala Syrian Christians. The Hague: Mouton.

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