Christianity is believed to have come to Kerala in the first century AD when the Apostle Thomas, like other disciples, ventured near and far to spread the gospel in accordance with Christ’s command. There has been some speculation that the reason why St Thomas came to Kerala had less to do with converting the “locals” and was more to do with trying to convert the sizable Jewish population who lived in Kerala especially in Cochin. These Jews assimilated into the community though they continued to maintain their own faith and customs. They were welcomed and, unlike in many other countries, have never been the victims of persecution while living in India – a testament to the receptiveness of the Hindus who lived in Kerala and were willing to receive people of a different faith. Today there is still a centuries old synagogue in Cochin and a handful of Jewish families but most emigrated to Israel over the years because of better economic opportunities.

How successful St Thomas was in converting the Jews is not known but it is generally believed that he converted several prominent Brahmin families and these conversions together with others is the genesis of the Syrian Christians who live in Kerala and elsewhere around the world.

I write about this because there was a communication on a Yahoo group to which I belong consisting of mainly Asians who lived or live in East Africa. Apparently there is a debate going on in the UK about outlawing caste discrimination in Britain – yes, the old-fashioned discrimination against Dalits that is associated with India. There is opposition among some Hindu groups in Britain, to this legislation – in effect arguing that caste discrimination in the UK should not be addressed! This entire issue of seeking to achieve a “protected” status for casteism in the UK by certain Hindu groups is a whole different discussion.

But, in this context another member of the Yahoo group cited an email he received from someone known to me and several other family members which essentially said that such casteism is not just confined to Hindus and that even Christians in Kerala are guilty of the same thing.

A part of his email stated:

“But do you know Hindus are not the only ones to be blamed for this accursed practice. Even the so called upper class Christians in Kerala are guilty of this though they had given up Hinduism centuries ago claiming to have been converted by the Apostle St. Thomas!”

He went on to cite a Goan he knew from many years ago when he was a student in England who apparently asked him what caste he was. He (the Goan) claimed he was of the Brahmin caste. He goes on to say: “Wow! I was confused. My parents had never told me what caste we belonged to, not that it would have interested me in the least.”

Now, I am a Syrian Christian by birth but because of my upbringing in Mombasa, Kenya where there were only a handful of other Syrian Christian families, my involvement in the Syrian Christian faith has been minimal. However, I felt that a response was warranted to address the statements made in that email. Here is the thrust of my response:

“The email that you forwarded from S—- misstates the way that “upper class Christians”, as he puts it, classify themselves. Some of what he says does have some substance.

“I presume that by “upper class Christians” he is referring to Syrian Christians – being the descendants of those who were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas . In all my years, I have NEVER ONCE heard a Kerala Christian – Syrian or otherwise – referring to him/herself as belonging to so and so caste – as S—– pointed out, it would be incongruous to do so. What does happen is that the older generation talks about their antecedents and how they are descended from Brahmins, etc – incidentally such claims are not provable and are based on anecdotal information at best. Many of these claims of Brahmin antecedents are predicated on the belief that St Thomas converted several prominent Brahmin families in the first century. Some of these families are named in these anecdotes and today, if you check out the family websites of some Syrian Christian families, they claim to have descended from these converted Brahmin families. In fact, references to having come from an “ancient (Syrian Christian) family” are found so often that one wonders if there are any families left that are not ancient:)

“What Syrian Christian families frequently do is to refer to their antecedents in the context of their family names. This is pretty much the norm in conversations among them – especially the older generation – where one of the first questions asked is where one is from within Kerala and then a query as to one’s family name. The younger generation who were brought up elsewhere in India or abroad, are quite oblivious of this sort of information and often view it as being rather superfluous and inconsequential.

“My father used to say that the biggest change that had taken place in the social structure in Kerala during his years in Kenya was the diminished importance of family antecedents among Syrian Christians. It has been replaced with affluence – ie how well off is the family! He used to say it with a mixture of regret and pride – those who knew him can relate to his attitude. He was affected to his detriment by its diminished influence but he was intellectually detached enough to recognize that it meant true social progress and he used to say that it was a good thing that a form of meritocracy had taken the place of family antecedents.

“Between the high literacy rate in Kerala, the influence of the various communist governments in the state and the wholesale migration to the Gulf, there has been a non-violent social revolution which has resulted in a very limited, so called, “working class” since migrants to the Gulf send money which improves the lot of their families in Kerala enabling them not to have to do menial work. This has resulted in a flood of workers coming into Kerala from other states – especially Bihar and Tamil Nadu – to fill the vacuum left by the lack of workers in construction and other fields. In fact, the security and other hired help at the building where our flat is located in Cochin is entirely staffed by Nepalese (Gurkhas)!

“Where I do agree with S—- is that there is a pecking order here in terms of how Christians view other Christians – yes, very unchristian but it is a reality. Syrian Christians – perhaps because of their assertion and belief that they were converted by St Thomas – view themselves as a cut above other Kerala Christians. They tend to view other Kerala Christians who were either converted by the Portuguese or the missionaries with diffidence bordering on mild unspoken derision – again, quite contrary to Christian teachings. In fact, even among Syrian Christians, there is a certain amount of denominational rivalry which occasionally gets quite antagonistic. However, when it comes to marriage, denomination invariably ceases to be a factor if an eligible young man or woman appears on the scene! So, pragmatism rules when it comes to self-interest!!

“Even the example cited by S—– about the Goan who asked him about his caste, I suspect was asking him about his family’s background prior to conversion. I seem to recall the same type of exchanges on this forum by Goan Christians talking about their antecedents prior to conversion.

“Incidentally, we as a family attended an Anglican church when we were in Mombasa – the Mombasa Cathedral – because there was no Syrian Christian church in Mombasa. As a result, I personally have very little affinity with the Syrian Christian service which is long and quite formal. However those who do attend Syrian Christian churches in the DC area and in the US are quite dedicated to the welfare of the churches they attend and eager that their children imbibe some of those religious traditions. I attend a Syrian Christian service once in a while when there is a special ceremony – a baptism, memorial service, etc. In fact, when my daughter got married to an American, the service was a blend of the American church that she and her husband attend and the Syrian Christian marriage service – so there were two priests administering the rites of marriage based on the two traditions.

“One can justifiably criticize Syrian Christians about some other things but talking about which caste they belong to is not one of them!”

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118 Responses to “Christianity and caste”

  1. Appappan says:

    And this sense of cleanliness is still observed (not by youngsters though). The patriarchal Decrees are
    1. Poyi kulichittu vada. Avanu pacha vellam kodukkaruthu (when you come late home and attempt to get some dinner before bath)
    2. Aaa kaalangu kazhukiyechu ….(You are required to wash your legs before entering the house, no matter how clean your legs are)

    Bismillah!

  2. Appappan says:

    Undechu kulikkunnavane kandal kulikkanam. Ethra prayamaayalum aa swabhavam maattaruthu. Neeyokke naale engane jeevikkum…

  3. Appappan says:

    “I just mentioned Hindu names as an example, there are many other cultural symbols among Syrians such as use of Nilavilakku, Thali, Manthrakodi, Margamkali (which originated from Mangalam Kali of Pulayas), etc. ”

    Good spot Dr.Avarna,

    1. Margamkali – In his book, ‘Kerala Sahitya Charitram’, poet-historian Ulloor Parameswara Iyer compares the movements in Margamkali to those in Sanghakkali, practised by Brahmins

    2. you claims ‘Nilavilakku’ is a hindu tradition. But I cant see this being used any where else in Hindustan. So, I would suggest it being a Syrian Christian tradition which the Kerala Hindus adopted later.

    3. Taali – From Barbosa I can see that only the Namboothiris and Mappilas (Nasrani, Jootha & Jonakan) had the tribal/oppressive practice of marriage in the past. Since the later two doesnt use a Taali, It is an adoption from the former – Taali is a brahminical custom

    4. Manthrakodi – Not aware of this practice among the Pulaya/Paraiyar communities, but know about similar practices among the Brahmin and the Sudras (they call it pudava). But I doubt the pudava is an imitation of the Mantrakodi. Reason – I believe this is a unique custom of Malabar.

  4. Appappan says:

    “They ridicule and pooh-pooh these insane claims, ignoring historical and demographic evidences”

  5. Yakob says:

    There’s a book on Pothan Joseph written by TJS George (another illustrious Syrian Christian). I wonder if that book would have his famous “dog apology”. Apart from his journalistic talents, I like the way he punched the viceroy’s chief advisor.

  6. Avarna Madam,
    Your comments —“””Also I don’t think “Kshatriya Kshema Sabha” will give membership to any Christians. KKS is not a caste organization like SNDP or NSS. It is a family-based association of Royal families in Kerala. It has only a membership of around 25,000. No rajputs are given membership to KKS. You and your father will be given membership if you belong to any Royal families. But in no way if you are Christians””””
    -Where did I say that I am a life long member of the KKS I said my paternal side has a membership as they are from a Royal Family(Rajput) my father inclusive (and later on after turning a Christian ,he is the member of the Marthoma Syrian church I added ,my father is not an active member as now he is a Christian after baptism when he married my mother(it’s a fact of common sense that a man cannot be a member of two different caste/religion based organizations….. and also it seems that you are ignorant and rather than precisely reading my previous posts just twisted -turned and made a f#$%king hell out of it just to support your complex’d minds degraded deranged egos, I can sense your impatience and eagerness to intensely attack me and my family by your low levels of ignoramus nature to any posts that does not support your suite…Grow Aparna Grow..Go Aparna Go …Bow aparna Bow …no not in opposite direction ..k ..i have a Neapolitan Mastiff. Be aware.
    -And you said it is a family based association???As far as a man is social animal and is born to a specific caste and that he is a member of a family then yes your claim is considerable.But let me teach you one thing that anyone born as an Arya Kshatriya,Samantha Kshatriya,Samantha ….speaking Malayalam as their mother tongue ,who is directly a ruler or anyone related to the above described caste is eligible into this Sabha….”Super shudras” or false Kshatriyas excluded.
    -It has only a membership of around 25,000???where did you get this data from ???It seems day before yesterday night you took population census personally on urgent basis.:-D
    -You said “you and your father will be given membership only if you belong to a royal family”
    Where did I say that I do not belong to a Royal Family????.A Ruling Rajput of yesteryears will definitely not be a “soldier” but a “ruler” and his family will be a Royal one madam.got me madam.. by looking at your posts I think you have some acute chronic brain disease and that you are just an addlebrained nincompoop I ever saw.
    -And lastly,Why did you associate “my” membership with KKS …I never quoted ….I am not a member of KKS,I said about my fathers membership previously is that clear Avarna!!!And I do not need KKS to prove technically that I am a Rajput …According to your statements it is clear about how your ego pricks you ..It is similar to questioning a namboodiri whether if only he has a membership in Yogakshema Sabha only then he shall be a born namboothiri R8??? …I am following a Nasrani Marthomite Tradition now…And I do not want KKS ,only when I visit my grandfather in Kerala I remember my past of being someone from a royal clan.
    -Why I said about my past and personal things was to give you a living example of recent conversion from high caste Hindus to Christianity .
    Hoping that you will have a sound sleep today. Madam aka Sir.
    RN

  7. Yeshurathnam and all fake i.d users,

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    Christianity. Bible, Galatians 3.28

    I look upon all creatures equally; none are less dear to me and none more dear.
    Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 9.29

    Four are the castes–brahmin, khatri, sudra, and vaishya;
    Four the stages of life–
    Out of these, whoever on the Lord meditates, is superior.
    Sikhism. Adi Granth, Gaund, M.4, p. 861

    By deeds, not by birth, is one a brahmin. By deeds one is a ksatriya, by deeds is one a vaishya, and by deeds is one a shudra.
    Jainism. Uttaradhyayana Sutra 25.3

    Confucius said, “By nature men are pretty much alike; it is learning and practice that set them apart.”
    Confucianism. Analects 17.2

    O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes, that you might know each other [not that you might despise each other]. Verily the most honored among you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous.
    Islam. Qur’an 49.13

    Have a good & a sound sleep Sir.

  8. TJ says:

    Yakob, there is a fascinating anecdote about Pothan Joseph and K.P.S. Menon arriving uninvited to tea at the residence of the English principal of CMS College in Kottayam. They were both accompanying their older brothers – George Joseph and Gopala Menon respectively – who were invited!

    You can read about it here:

    http://tinyurl.com/bvoqo32

  9. Appappan says:

    According to Dr. KP “Census Report of 1898 made Syrian Christians casteless. Taking advantage of the new status during the course of 3 centuries, a well orchestrated campaign was launched to claim Nambudiri caste and Jewish race.(For further details refer Sadasivan, S.N., A Social History of India, New Delhi, A.P.H.Publishing House, , 2000)”

    Niranam Grandhavari.
    04.03 Pakalomattathu Kudumbam
    Marthoma sleeha malayalathil vannu margam aruvichappol pattamanaparaurenna kottakkayal gramathil mukhyapetta illakkar Chankarapuriyennum Pakalonmattam ennum Palliyennum Kaliyakum Karayennum. Ivaru naalu tharavaattukaru ee vedam anusarichu. Marthoma Sleeha Chankarapuriyilum Pakalonmattathilum pattavum Koduthu.

    This was written in 1815.

    “They ridicule and pooh-pooh these insane claims, , ignoring historical and demographic evidences”

  10. Appappan says:

    And see what F.WARDE says in his ‘Account of the St Thome Christians on the Coast of Malabar’

    Asiatic Researches volume 10

    There is also still a common amongst them that they descend at least that are from Syrian origin from four principal samilies who had successively settled on coast …..

    …. They made at first some proselytes amongst the Bramins and Nairs and were on that account much respected by the native princes so that even at present they consider themselves equal in rank to of the above two casts

    “They ridicule and pooh-pooh these insane claims, , ignoring historical and demographic evidences”

  11. Appappan says:

    “Thaalikkettu (tying the wedding locket): is done by father. Smruthi suggests two types of thaalikkettu. Either the bride’s father or alternatively, the bridegroom, may do it. Namboothiris opted for the former” – http://www.namboothiri.com/art.....iyakal.htm

    But among Nasranis Taali is tied by the Groom. So Nasranis are fake Namboothiris. ?

    “They ridicule and pooh-pooh these insane claims, , ignoring historical and demographic evidences”

  12. Agent J says:

    “You’re no longer part of the System. You’re above the System. Over it. Beyond it. We are the Men in Jesus.”

  13. After a long time I came across this blog and found peace …my goodness!!!!yes this is the way it should be ,Historians like Mr.Yeshurathnam did came to know that history doesnt have to be sectarian neither being a critic in all ways is fruitfull..he will be the best researcher atleast now without any inclination ….appapan (an unknown person counter attacked with reality …I too believe that leaving aside all tensions and issues i am a human being…and am sorry if by any means insult anyone by words and so on….let’s not differentiate but be one believing in the holy ghost.Amen.God bless you all.

  14. Yakob says:

    Chill, watch Yohan at their tharavadu at Mankotta Island……

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qo4m-RzO6KI

  15. St.Thomas says:

    There at least five Royal Nasrani butchers/meat traders known to me in and around my village. Also pork is a delicious item in the their menu. What type of blood is it? Namboothiris or Jews. In my opinion Syrian Christians are the decendants of Chandalas.

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