Syrian Christians in India

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Syrian Christians in India

PRONUNCIATION: SIHR-ee-uhn Christians
ALTERNATE NAMES: MalabarChristians
LOCATION: India (Kerala state)
POPULATION: 3,083,884 (2001 Census)
LANGUAGE: Malayalam
RELIGION: Christianity (Syrian Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant)


The term "Syrian Christians" is sometimes used to refer to the total Christian population of Kerala, which lies on the southwestern coast of the Indian peninsula. The presence of Christianity in most parts of India largely reflects the work of missionaries during the Western colonial period, particularly after the early 1800s. In a more restricted sense, however, Syrian Christians trace their origins to the 1st century ad, when St. Thomas the Apostle is believed to have landed in Kerala. As a result of this, they are also known as Christians of St. Thomas. The community derives its designation as Syrian Christians from its early association with the East Syrian Church of Christianity, and its traditional use of the Syriac language in church services. Syrian Christians are also called Malabar Christians, Malabar being the name for the coastal region of this part of India.

According to local tradition, St. Thomas landed on the coast of Kerala in ad 52 near Cranganur, some 30 km (20 mi) north of Cochin. He began to preach the gospel and is said to have established seven churches in the region. St. Thomas found a receptive audience among the local Hindu and Jewish populations, many of his converts coming from the high-caste Nambudiri Brahmans, the dominant landowning caste of Kerala. Many Christians in the region claim descent from these early converts among the local peoples. One group, however, traces its ancestry to Thomas of Cana (Knai Thoma), a merchant who led a party of Syrian Christians to Kerala in the middle of the 4th century ad. Some authorities, however, question the historical accuracy of these accounts. They suggest that Christianity was introduced to Kerala by Nestorian missionaries (a sect named after an heretical 5th-century bishop) during the 6th century. Further migrations from Syria during the 9th century invigorated and revitalized the Christian Church in Kerala. The Christian community in Kerala maintained its ties with the Christian homeland by continuing to get its bishops from Antioch, an ancient center of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The arrival of the Portuguese in India in 1498 introduced the old conflicts of Christendom to the Indian subcontinent. As the Portuguese presence in India grew, so did the power of the Church of Rome. Condemning both the Syrian rites and many practices of the Syrian Christians, the Portuguese set out to "Latinize" the Church in Kerala. By the early 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church was dominant in the region. In 1653, however, some Syrian Christians reasserted their traditional beliefs, swearing before an open-air cross (an event known as the "Coonen Cross Oath") that they would never accept the supremacy of the pope and Western Christianity. One consequence of this and later splits within the community is that the Syrian Christians of Kerala are now divided between the Syrian Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches.


Christians in Kerala are currently estimated to number over 6 million people. Around half this number are Christians who belong to non-Syrian Christian churches, for instance, the Protestant Church of South India (CSI). Syrian Christians (3,083,884 in the Census of India 2001) thus represent about 10% of the state's population (31,841,374 according to the 2001 Census), while Christians in Kerala make up nearly 30% of the total Christian population of India. It is by far the largest concentration of Christians found in the Indian subcontinent.

Kerala is a narrow, elongated state located in the extreme southwest of India. It extends for some 576 km (360 mi) along the shores of the Arabian Sea. The state's southern boundary lies a mere 55 km (35 mi) from Cape Comorin, the southern tip of the Indian peninsula. The state falls into three distinct geographical zones. In the west lie the fertile, alluvial lowlands of the Malabar coast. This is an important, densely populated, agricultural area, with lagoons, backwaters, and canals forming a network of waterways that are the region's main transportation routes. As one moves inland from the coastal plain, the land rises to low hills and plateaus at elevations between 60 m and 180 m (200-600 ft). Further to the east are the rain-swept and forested slopes of the Western Ghats, the range of hills that parallels the entire west coast of the peninsula. The Ghats in Kerala average around 900 m (3,000 ft) in elevation, but peaks in the Cardamom Hills exceed 2,500 m (8,200 ft). The hills catch the full force of the summer monsoon blowing in from the sea, so that extremely high rainfall totals are received in the uplands. Annual rainfall amounts on the coast vary from about 300 cm (120 in) in the north to 100 cm (40 in) in the south. Because of its location between 8°n and 13°n latitude, Kerala experiences an equatorial climate. It is humid and hot all year, with maximum temperatures rarely exceeding 32°c (92°f) and minimums rarely falling below 21°c (70°f).

Kerala has given its name to the Kerala model or the Kerala phenomenon, which refers to a set of economic practices that have resulted in the state attaining a high level of standards in human development (no doubt influenced by the strong Christian presence), while compromising on its industrial development. Thus, Kerala has high literacy, a low birth rate, and demographic indices, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, that would place it among the developed nations, but it ranks behind many states in India in terms of industrial and economic development and in per capita income. Kerala also has the distinction of being one of the few states in the world that has regularly voted communist governments into and out of power. The state government in 2008, led by Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, was formed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).


Malayalam is the language spoken by the Syrian Christians of Kerala. It is a Dravidian tongue, closely related to Tamil. Malayalam was, in effect, a dialect of Tamil until the 14th century, when it began to assume its own discrete identity. Both the written and spoken forms of the language use many words borrowed from Sanskrit. It differs from Tamil in aspects such as the absence of personal endings on verbs. Malayalam is thus the most recent of the four major Dravidian languages of South India (Kannada and Telegu are the remaining two) in terms of its development. Malayalam is the official language of Kerala and is spoken by 96% of the state's population. It is written in its own script, which is derived from the Tamil writing system. English is widely spoken as a second language. In fact, the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize) for Fiction was Arundhati Roy, whose mother is a Syrian Christian and who was brought up in the Syrian Christian tradition.


As a devout Christian community, the Syrian Christians lack the elaborate mythology and legendary heroes of their Hindu neighbors. Much of their lore centers on the important figures of their past. St. Thomas the Apostle, of course, occupies the major place in the traditions of the group. There are numerous stories of the miracles he performed through which many high-caste Hindus were converted to Christianity. It is said that St. Thomas was martyred in ad 72 near Madras, now called Chennai, in Tamil Nadu State. He was passing a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, when the temple priests forced him to go inside. As he approached, a strong light shone from the temple, and it was destroyed by fire. The infuriated priests fell on St. Thomas and one of them thrust a spear into his heart. The Apostle died three days later. The Gothic San Thomé Cathedral stands on the site of his tomb on St. Thomas Mount.


Whatever its origins, the Syrian Christian community was well established in Kerala by the 6th century ad. It is thus the oldest among the various Indian Christian groups found in the sub-continent. It also differs from the other Christian communities in the social categories from which its converts were drawn. The Portuguese, for instance, encouraged intermarriage with the local population. The early Christian communities of Goa and other Portuguese colonies were thus of mixed descent and derived primarily from Portuguese males marrying Indian women. Converts to Christianity during the 19th century, on the other hand, came largely from the lower and Untouchable castes or tribal peoples. The former were seeking to escape the Hindu caste system, while the latter were marginal to mainstream Hindu society. Many Syrian Christians, however, came from the landowning upper castes, and the community came to rank as equal to the Nairs, who claim warrior (ksatriya) status. Their social position was further enhanced through service to local rulers. Though Christian in religion and beliefs, Syrian Christians have managed to preserve many aspects of their Indian culture.


Syrian Christians celebrate all the Christian holy days, with Christmas and Easter being especially important. Christmas is preceded by fasting for 25 days, although nowadays only the older generation follows this custom. During this period, no meat, fish, or eggs are eaten. Smoking, chewing betel nut, and drinking alcohol are totally forbidden. On Christmas Day itself, church services begin long before dawn. As part of the service on this day, the congregation goes in procession to the churchyard, where a hole has been dug in the shape of the cross. Worshipers throw incense on a fire lit in this pit, a rite said to commemorate the offering of gifts to the child Jesus by the Three Wise Men.

Easter is another important festival. The Lenten fast is observed for 50 days prior to Easter. Easter Week itself is marked by church services the entire week. Good Friday is called Dukka Valliacha, which translates as "Friday of Sorrow" in Malayalam. Easter Sunday is a day of joyous celebration, when families gather to break the Lenten fast.


Immediately after a child is born, a priest or male relative will whisper "Moron Yesu Masiha" (Jesus Christ is Lord) in the baby's ear. The child is given a few drops of honey in which some gold is mixed to ensure prosperity. The birth of a son is an occasion for great joy and is announced by the kurava (a shrill sound made with fingers moved up and down in the mouth). Care is taken to record the exact time of birth so that a horo-scope may be cast. Baptism may take place soon after birth or be delayed for some months. Children are usually given Biblical names, though these have often been Indianized. Thus, Matthew becomes Mathai or Mathu, and Elizabeth becomes Eliamma.

A child's education begins at the age of three or four, when a ceremony initiating him or her to the world of learning is performed. From this time on, the child usually attends the local school. The ceremony was traditionally performed by a teacher who might be either Christian or Hindu. In modern times, however, a Christian priest is often called upon complete this ritual. Children are brought up to respect teachers and value education They also attend church regularly with their parents, a practice that continues into their adult life.

In the Syrian Christian Church, there is no such ritual as the "last rites." Prayers are said for the dying person, and a priest is usually at the bedside. When a death occurs, women weep and wail and beat their breasts. The kitchen fires are extinguished, and no cooking is done in the house until after the funeral. The body is washed, dressed, and anointed with oil. When the funeral procession is ready, the body is placed in a coffin and carried to the cemetery on the shoulders of friends and mourners. The women of the household usually do not accompany the procession. A simple meal known as Pashni Kanji is served to the relatives and mourners on their return from the churchyard. A Qurbana (Holy Communion) and a feast are held on the fortieth day after the death to complete the period of mourning.


Though Christian by religion, Syrian Christians are Indian in culture and use the traditional "namaskar" greeting. Despite the growing numbers of nuclear households, extended families keep in close touch with each other. They regularly get together to celebrate birthdays and religious holidays. There are no restrictions on consuming alcohol (except during fasts), and drinks are commonly served to guests or at social gatherings.


As a highly educated and literate community, Syrian Christians enjoy standards of health, housing, and material comfort that are among the highest in India. Houses are built facing east, in a compound abounding with mango, plantain, coconut, and other fruit trees. Traditional houses were built of heavy timber, such as teak, with the walls ornately carved and decorated. The roof resembled an inverted boat, to shed the heavy monsoon rains of the area. The people of Kerala have high standards of hygiene and houses have toilets, in contrast to much of India where villagers use the fields for their personal needs. All houses have a roofed entrance gate known as a padipura, a simpler version of the more elaborate gates leading to temples and churches. Settlements are dispersed, rather than forming nucleated villages.


Women are held in high esteem, reflecting perhaps the traditional matriarchal nature of society in Kerala. Education and opportunity mean that some women enter the professions and can lead relatively independent lives. However, many women continue in their traditional roles of wife, homemaker, and mother. Strict endogamy is maintained, with Syrian Christians marrying within their own community. Monogamy is the rule, and divorce is rare, in keeping with Christian traditions. The nuclear family consisting of husband, wife, and children is replacing the multigenerational extended family.

Arranged marriages are typical, although more and more young people are selecting their own spouses. There is no cross-cousin marriage. Girls were formerly married before puberty, although child marriage is now illegal in India. A dowry was paid to the bride's father, with a percentage going to the church as a tithe. A betrothal feast is usually held on the day the banns, the formal proclamation of an intended marriage, are read by the priest in church. The actual marriage is solemnized in church according to the rites of the Syrian Christian Church. Some parts of the ceremony, however, such as when the groom ties a knot in a thread placed around the bride's neck, reflect local Hindu rituals. This is one instance of the many Indian customs that have been absorbed into Syrian Christian life.


Syrian Christians dress in the same manner as do other people in Kerala. Men wear the dhoti, the long, white cotton cloth that is wrapped around the waist, then pulled between the legs and fastened at the back. Alternatively, they may wear a mundu, which falls to the ankles rather than being passed through the legs. In the past, the chest was left bare, but now shirts are common. A folded cloth known as a kavani is draped around the neck.

Women's clothing is generally white. It typically consists of three items: a mundu wrapped around the waist and reaching the ankles, a V-necked jacket or blouse, and a kavani with a narrow gold border draped on the left shoulder. This is used to cover the head when in church. One end of the mundu is folded and tucked into the back of the waist, to fall in the shape of a fan. Women wear earrings, necklaces, and bangles, but usually do not put rings in the nose.

Western dress is common in urban areas, especially among the younger generation. Young women favor the sari over traditional dress styles.


Rice and fish are the staple diet of Syrian Christians in Kerala. Fish abounds in the rivers, lakes, and coastal waters of the region and is cooked in a variety of ways. It is made into fish curry or a fish moillee (stew), served in a masala (spicy) sauce, rubbed with spices and fried, and stuffed, to name but a few. What are seen as "Christian-style" fish dishes are cooked in tamarind and coconut sauce. A peculiarity of Kerala is that all food is cooked in coconut oil. Meals are eaten with an assortment of sauces and pickles. Kalan, for example, is a sauce made from yams, yogurt, and coconut. Rice flour is made into vella-ppam (known as appam elsewhere in South India), a mixture of rice and coconut similar to the "hoppers" of Sri Lanka. Tapioca and fish, boiled together with turmeric and chilies, provides a nourishing meal for the poorer classes in the region. Coconuts, plantains, jackfruit, mangoes, and other tropical fruits form an important part of the local diet. Wafer-thin banana chips are a specialty in many areas of Kerala.


Syrian Christians have a strong commitment to education, and the community has virtually 100% literacy. Christian schools have the reputation of being among the best in the state, and parents encourage children-girls as well as boys-to pursue further education or professional qualifications. This is in keeping with, and no doubt contributes to, the educational characteristics of the general population of Kerala. Kerala has the most highly literate and educated population of any state in India It has eight universities, including the Universities of Kerala and Calicut (Kozikhode), numerous arts and sciencescolleges, professional colleges, engineering colleges, and training institutes such as the Indian Institute of Management (Kozikhode).


Religious dances and songs are part of the Syrian Christians' cultural heritage. However, they are rarely performed, and few still know them today. Songs told of the life of Christ, St. Thomas the Apostle, and other figures from the community's past. Folk dances presented dramas on Christian themes, or harked back to the days when Christians served in the armies of the local maharajas (princely chiefs).


Agriculture is the primary occupation of Syrian Christians. Many Christians own land, while labor is provided by low-caste Hindus. Christians dominate the plantation industry, growing cardamom, tea, coffee, and rubber. They are also successful entrepreneurs, owning factories that process agricultural goods (e.g., coconut fiber or coir, rubber, and cashews) and small businesses. Syrian Christians are well represented in government service, teaching, and professional fields, such as science and medicine. Many women enter nursing. Unlike other parts of South Asia where they have less access to education, women compete on relatively equal terms with men. The Gulf States provide high-paying job opportunities for many people from the region, and they regularly remit funds back to their families in Kerala.


In terms of sports, Syrian Christians are no different from their neighbors. They participate in modern games, such as soccer and cricket, and in traditional activities of the region. Many Christian families, for example, own "snake" boats that take part in regattas held to celebrate events like the Onam festival.


Syrian Christians enjoy all the amenities available to the people of Kerala—elevision (color TV for the more-affluent), newspapers, and movies in Malayalam. Much of their social life revolves around church-related activities and events.


No folk arts or crafts are identified specifically with the Syrian Christians of Kerala today. In the past, however, they were noted for their skill as woodcarvers, brass- and metalworkers, and jewelry designers and manufacturers.


Unlike many Christian communities in India, Syrian Christians are literate, educated, and relatively affluent. They rank high in the caste structure of Kerala and have a powerful voice in the affairs of the state. They do not suffer from the poverty, discrimination, and political underrepresentation that characterize many other minorities in South Asia.

One problem facing the community is that of fragmentation. There exist, for example, four denominations in the Syrian Church: the Romo-Syrians (Catholics), the Jacobites (Eastern Orthodox), the Reformed Syrians (Mar Thoma), and the Anglican (Protestant) denominations. The Syrian Christians are divided between these churches and often do not marry outside even their own branch of the Syrian Christian Church. Syrian Christians are also divided into two major sections, those that come from the north (Vadukkumbagars) and those from the south, Thekkumbagavars, also known as the Knayana Christians. Several theories exist as to the origins of these sects. One holds that Knai Thoma (Thomas of Cana) had two wives, one a Persian and one a Hindu from Kerala. On his death, he left his possessions north of Craganur to the children of his Hindu wife and his possessions in the south to the offspring of his Persian wife, hence the existence of the two sects of Syrian Christians. Another theory suggests the division came about as a result of two distinct migrations, with the Vaddakumbagars in the north reflecting the work of Knai Thoma on his original arrival in Kerala, and the Thekkumbhagavars in the south being the followers of two Nestorian Persians, who led a second immigration to Quilon in ad 822.

Whatever the origins of Syrian Christians in Kerala, they definitely do not interact with neo-Christians, recent converts from the low castes (some Christian churches in Kerala have separate pews for low-caste and high-caste members of the congregation). Conflicts between churches have sometimes ended up in the courts. Nonetheless, the Syrian Christian community has existed in Kerala for nearly 2,000 years, and no doubt will continue to do so for centuries to come.

Caste remains a problem among the Syrian Christians of Kerala. Early writings place them at the level of the matrilineal Nairs but below the patrilineal Namboodiris. Following efforts by the Christian Missionary Society in the 1880s to enhance the rights of "New Christian" low-caste converts, and their demands to equal status with Syrian Christians, the "delicate bonds" tying Syrian Christians to high-caste Hindus were broken. The effect of Hindu fundamentalist organizations and other upper-caste Hindus in regarding Syrian Christians as a polluting caste and banning their entry into Hindu temple grounds combined with Syrian Christian attempts to affirm assumed savarna (i.e. caste Hindu) status—ome were denying—to create a situation in which riots and mob attacks on Syrian Christians occurred. This led to a "chasm" opening between Syrian Christians and their high-caste neighbors. Anthropologists have noted that the caste hierarchy among Christians in Kerala is much more polarized than the Hindu practices in the surrounding areas, due to a lack of jatis. Also, the caste status is kept even if the sect allegiance is switched (i.e. from Syrian Catholic to Syrian Orthodox).

One way in which Syrian Christians differ from the society in which they live is that, unlike the matriarchies that dominate in South India, they are patriarchal. Thus, as in the North, cross-cousin marriage is not permitted, although Kerala is one of the few regions in India in which females outnumber males. However, by the end of the 20th century, the fertility rate among Christians had dropped below that of Hindus and Muslims, largely because of the increasing age of marriage and the pursuit of education.


Syrian Christian women have high social status, reflecting perhaps the traditional matriarchal nature of society in Kerala. Education and opportunity mean that some women enter the professions and can lead relatively independent lives. However, many women continue in their traditional roles of wife, homemaker, and mother. Strict endogamy is maintained, with Syrian Christians marrying within their own community. Monogamy is the rule and divorce, though possible, is rare, in keeping with Christian traditions.

Christian society in Kerala mirrors many aspects of Hindu society. At one time, for instance, it was common for women to be married by the age of 15 years. Marriages are still arranged, though often this is done at the request of the individuals involved, and the custom of demanding (and giving) a dowry is well entrenched among the Syrian Christians. Traditionally, a woman received one quarter of the property sons received if a father died intestate, but, given some Supreme Court decisions regarding a woman's right to inherit equal shares, this is rapidly changing.

Syrian Christian women from Kerala, such as Nayantara, are suddenly hot items in the Tamil film industry. As Syrian Christian families are progressive and educated, they are not averse to the idea of the cinema as a career option for young girls.

Syrian Christian women tend to dominate the nursing profession in India. This is explained, in part, perhaps, by the fact that, unlike high caste Hindu women, Syrian Christian women do not have to deal with concepts of ritual purity and pollution relating to bodily secretions.

In general, Syrian Christian women in Kerala exist in a cultural milieu and have the socio-economic independence to allow them to follow their lives without the restrictions that circumscribe other women in South Asia.


Balakrishnan, V. History of the Syrian Christians of Kerala: A Critical Study . Thrissur: Kerala Publications, 1999.

Pothan, S. G. The Syrian Christians of Kerala. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1963.

Thodathil, James. Antiquity and Identity of the Knanaya Community. Chingavanam: Knanaya Clergy Association, 2001.

Thomas, Anthony Korah. The Christians of Kerala. Kottayam, India: A. K. Thomas, 1993.

Visvanathan, Susan. The Christians of Kerala: History, Belief, and Ritual of the Yakoba. Madras: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Zachariah, K. C. The Syrian Christians of Kerala: Demographic and Socio-economic Transition in the Twentieth Century. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2006.

—by D. O. Lodrick

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Syrian Christians in India

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