A few days in Syria, ‘Land of Prophets’ for the 2000th anniversary of St Paul’s birth made me realise the original eastern character of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox Church was the main player there, with priests and journalists from Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and of course, from all over the Middle East, especially Bilad-al-Sham (Syria-Lebanon-Jordan, which was one country until the British carved it up).
I found myself having strange, intense and wonderful conversations with many men in black. At first they thought I was a Syrian Christian from India and when they discovered I was Hindu, a hail of questions flew at me about the philosophy, customs, manners and ceremonies. My point, made first at the Maaloula Church, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is spoken, and thereafter wherever I could, was this: “In an increasingly mutual world, please let us re-nuance correctly and politely. Let’s not use words like ‘pagan’, ‘heathen’, ‘idol-worshipper’ and ‘unbeliever’. Instead, why not say ‘non-Abrahamic religions’ until we think of a better term to describe Hinduism, Buddhism and the rest of us?” Interestingly, several ‘Abrahamic’ people there seemed open to the idea.
The language of Christian prayer in Syria at the various services I attended was Syriac (Arabic and Aramaic). They were so deeply musical and prayerful that I was moved to tears. Hearing Arabic words like mahabbat (love) and rahman (merciful) made you recall that Christianity was the big religion of that region first.
Back home in Delhi on Friday, I heard the fascinating history of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala from Father Sam Koshy of Kottayam, a Marthoma (Reformist) priest. It’s the tale of ‘direct’ Christianity in India from its land of origin, the Middle East, different from the blonde, blue-eyed colonial English/American version of recent centuries.
As you know, St Thomas (the doubter at the Last Supper) is said to have come to Kerala in 52 CE and founded seven churches. Kerala has a narrative tradition of this small historical presence. Then, in 345 CE, Thomas of Cana (from Syria) brought the Syriac liturgy and rituals to Kerala in a big way.
In 823 CE, another group of Syrian leaders called ‘Mar Sabarisso’ arrived in Kerala. Those were the days of turf wars between the three South Indian Hindu dynasties of Chola, Pandya and Chera. The new Syrian group made friends with the Chera king (of the present Kerala region). In addition to the existing Syrian Christian centre at Kodungallur, they set up, by 825, a supplementary capital at Kollam (Quilon). The Malayali Christian calendar thus begins at 825 CE!
Since the Syrians had a good grasp of Middle Eastern currency and commerce, the Chera king gave them special privileges (‘cheppedu’) as business enablers. With the negotiating skills and social savvy of their Jewish heritage, the Syrians influenced many in Kerala and built up a strong middle class of Malayali Christians.
In the eighth century, the Brahminical community of Kerala got organised and ritualised and in a parallel move, so did the Syrian Christians. Their culture was and is an eclectic mix of Dravidian, Brahmanical, Jewish and Syriac.
Along came the Portuguese Catholic, Vasco da Gama, in 1499 and a process of Latinisation began that climaxed a century later in 1599 with the Portuguese local boss, Alexis de Menezes, organising the Council of Udayanperoor (near Kochi), where all Syriac religious books were summoned and ceremonially burnt: shades of the Inquisition. The benefit was socio-political unity. The flipside was the emotional loss of language.
In 1755, the East India Company came to Kerala and in 1795, the first British Resident moved in. By 1800, the huge British territory of the Madras Presidency was a fact and in 1810, Parvati and Laxmibai, the queens of Travancore who ruled by British grace and favour, awarded ‘Dewan Pattam’ (prime ministership) to a smart gora called Colonel Munro, who set up the secretarial system of administration in Kerala.
In 1816, Munro also founded Kerala’s first theological seminary (with 300 gold coins), to ensure a well-educated clergy. The sambar thickened further with liturgical differences in 1836, 1908 and in the 1950s. In sum, there are now three groups of Syrian Christians: Syriac-Latin (Malankara), Syriac-Greek (Jacobite and Orthodox) and Syriac-Malayalam (Marthoma aka Reformist). It is natural to want to pray your own way and keep your own culture. And under ‘the burning sun of Syria’, you refresh both the particular and the universal with the thought, “Inna lillahi wa inna elaihi raaze’un.” ‘O God, we are Yours and verily unto You we return.’