Religious schisms have always fascinated me; it is too easy to be sucked into the belief that Christianity is broadly split between Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Catholicism. One of the dominant religious groupings in Kerala , however, is the Nasrani or Syrian Christians.
According to legend St Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, arrived in Kerala at the ancient port of Muziris – what is now Kodungallur – in 52 CE. As was the way in those days he set about spreading the word and converted a number of Brahmin families to the faith and many of the present day Nasrani claim to be able to trace their origin from those original converts.
Whether St Thomas really visited the Malabar we will never know but 3rd and 4th century Roman writers give credence to the tradition by mentioning Thomas’ trip to India. The historian Eusebius reports that his teacher, Pantaneus, visited a Christian community in India in the second century. Somehow, clearly, the Malabar coast, probably as a result of its trading links with the West, became receptive to Christianity.
Organisationally, the Keralan Christians came under the wing of the Patriarch of the Church of the East. From the 7th century a metropolitan bishop would be appointed from Persia based in Crangamore, who would appoint bishops including a locally based Archdeacon.
The Nasrani integrated themselves into local life and the Tharisipalli Copper plate dating to around the 9th century attests to the privileges and influence that they enjoyed in Malabar.
All went swimmingly – the Syriacs assimilated Hindu influences into their ceremonials – until the Portuguese turned up who, in the arrogant way all Occidentals behave when confronted with something unfamiliar, were horrified at this version of Christianity gone native and stove to impose their version of Catholicism.
In 1653, however, the worm turned when the St Thomas Christians in a great ceremony swore a solemn oath before crucifix and lighted candles never to accept Portuguese influence again. The so-called Coonan Cross Oath was the point at which the Syriacs regained their independence. Not all the Christians went the Syriac route which is why there is a significant Catholic and, indeed Anglican following the period of British control, presence in the area.
There were many more schisms subsequently, the causes of which are too boring to relate, but suffice it to say there is still a thriving Syriac church. Services are held in the local Malayalam language and in Syriac.
We visited the Champakulam Valia Palli or St Mary’s Forane Church, situated on the banks of the river Pamba and which is one of the most ancient churches in Kerala, the original supposedly founded in 427CE and the current one dating from the 16th century. The open air rock cross dates from at least 1151 CE. There are archaeological excavations underway on the site of the original church but little was evident from a cursory inspection.
There was a well-attended service underway when we visited, standing room only and spilling outside into the courtyard. Women seemed to be confined to the outer reaches of the church. The church was gearing up for a major festival, the feast of St Joseph, which, inter alia, involved a large boat full of sambar, a celery-based curry, to be dished out to the congregation.
A fascinating insight into part of the spiritual landscape that makes up Kerala.