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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152 Responses to “Christianity and caste”

  1. Vil says:


    Period : 1710 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱

    2. ௮௰௫(885) மாண்ட க

    3. ர்க்கட மாதம் ௰

    4. ௳(10 ம் நாள்) கொச்சு மறி

    5. யம் நல்ல வழி

    6. எட கூடி

    On the 10th day of the month of Karkatakam in the Kollam year 885, kochu Mariyam died.

    1. கொல்லம் …………….

    2. ௨௰௫(25) மா ………..

    3. தெல மா ………………..

    4. ௮௳(8 ம் நாள்) கூந…

    5. செரி மறி ……………….

    6. ம்ம நல்ல ……………….

    Fragment of a Tombstone

    Period: 1701 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱

    2. ௭௰௬(876) மாண்ட

    3. துலாமாதம்

    4. ௰௮௳(18 ம் நாள்) புன்னூது

    5. மாப்பெள நல்ல

    6. வழிக்க எட கூடி

    On the 18th day of the month of Tula in the Kollam year 876 Punnudu Mappila died.

    1. கொல்லம் ௯ ….

    2. மாண்ட தனு ….

    3. மாதம் அ ……….

    Fragment of a tombstone

    Period: 1717 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮

    2. ௱௯௰௨(892) மாண்

    3. டு மகரம் ௰௯(19)

    4. மாத்தெ

    5. ஆவுதெப்பது

    In the Kollam year 892 Makaram month 19th day Matte Avudeppu died

    Period: 1589 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௭௱

    2. ௬௰௪(764) மாண்ட

    3. சிங்ஙமாத

    4. ம் ௭௳(7ம் நாள்) பொ

    5. த்தென் இப்ப

    6. ச்சன் நல்ல

    7. வழிக்க பொ

    8. யி மிசியா

    On the 7th day of the month of Simha in the Kollam year 764, Ippachan died. Messiah

    Period: 1650 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮

    2. ௱௨௰௫(825) மாண்

    3. ட கர்க்கடக

    4. ௴ ௨௰௳(20 ம் நாள்) கண்

    5. டக்கெல சா

    6. …….நல்லவழி

    On the 20th day of the month of Karkataka in the Kollam year 825, Kandakkal Sa…….. died.

    Period : 1645 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱௨௰(820)

    2. மாண்ட விருச்சிய

    3. ஞாயிற்று …………..

    4. க்கட்டலை யய்ய மா

    5. பிள மகள் மறியம்

    6. நல்லவழி

    On …… of the month of Vrischika in the Kollam year 820, Mariyam daughter of Ayya Mappila died.

    Period : 1642 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱௰

    2. ௭(817) மாண்ட கன்னிஞா

    3. யற்று ௪௳(4 ம் நாள்) நா

    4. ல் ……………….. சி அயி

    5. …………….நல்லவழி

    6. க்க பொயி

    On the 4th day of the month Kanni in the Kollam year 817, ………………died.

    Period : 1674 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱௪௰௯(849)

    2. மாண்ட தனு ……… ௨௰

    3. ௯௳(29 ம் நாள்)………ச்

    4. சி நல்லவழிக்க

    5. பொயி

    The date is Kollam 849, Dhanus 29, the persons name is damaged

    Period : 1637 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱௰

    2. ௨(812) மாண்ட விரிச்சி

    3. க மாதம் ௪௳(4 ம் நாள்)

    4. ……….ள்ளிவ…………..த

    5. ……………………………….

    6. நல்ல வழிக்க

    On the 4th day of the month of Vrischika in the Kollam year 812, ……….. died.

    Period : 1674 AD

    1. கொல்லம் ௮௱௪௰

    2. ௯(849) மாண்ட சிங்ங

    3. மாதம் ௮௳(8 ம் நாள்) அ

    4. ச்ச மாபிள ந

    5. ல்ல வழிக்க

    6. பொயி

    On the 8th day of the month of Simha in the Kollam year 849, Achha Mappila died.

    1. Except month Names no Sanskrit used
    2. Tamil Numerals were used
    3. Period between 1550 AD to 1717 AD.
    4. Kollam era used (Kollam Era+825=Modern Era)
    5. Syrian Christians were using Western Tamil not Syriac or Karzoni.

  2. Vil says:

    Medieval Tamils mixed with Nestorian Syrians from Seleucia Ctesiphon in Persia, Portuguese and Dutch to create a Mestizo community.

    1. Except month Names no Sanskrit used
    2. Tamil Numerals were used
    3. Period between 1550 AD to 1717 AD.
    4. Kollam era used (Kollam Era+825=Modern Era)
    5. Syrian Christians were using Western Tamil not Syriac or Karzoni.

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