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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Keeping the Faith in Bangalore

Bangalore is booming with Keralites

Almost 20 years ago, Jolly Sebastian decided to leave his home in Kerala, a state in southwestern India. He had no job, though he used to help his parents who eked out a meager living farming. An uncle lived in Bangalore, India’s fifth-largest city and the capital of Karnataka, the state just north of Kerala. Figuring he might have better luck in the big city, Mr. Sebastian secured a small bank loan there and bought a minibus. Today, he has a fleet of five in his taxi service and has created a comfortable living for his wife and three children.

“Life here is okay,” he said, “though I miss my friends in Kerala.”

More than 10 percent of Bangalore’s 6.5 million inhabitants hail from Kerala; like Mr. Sebastian, most came for work. After India achieved independence in 1947, Bangalore emerged as a major manufacturing center. More recently, it has become the hub of the country’s booming information technology industry, accounting for about 35 percent of India’s software exports. The city is now known as “the Silicon Valley of India.”

In contrast, very few major corporations have chosen to operate in Kerala, which since 1956 has been ruled by a series of Marxist and socialist-inspired governments. While their policies have pushed literacy rates and advanced public health and other social indicators well above the Indian average (advances that should also be credited to Kerala’s many Christian social service institutions, such as hospitals and schools), they also have buttressed a heavily unionized economy, holding economic expansion in check. While its per capita gross domestic product of $291 is higher than the national average, Kerala’s unemployment rate, which economists estimate between 20 and 35 percent, is India’s highest.

Thus, many Keralites look for work outside the state’s borders. Traditionally, they find work overseas, especially in the Persian Gulf. (About 20 percent of Kerala’s GDP comes from overseas remittances.) But the great urban centers of India are another draw, and none is more so than Bangalore, the subcontinent’s fastest growing city.

Many of Bangalore’s Keralites are Christians. In Kerala, 20 percent of the state’s 32 million inhabitants are Christian — a substantial and influential minority. Many of Bangalore’s Christian Keralites have settled in the southeastern suburb of Bomanahally. This has proved to be a challenge to local priests who, with limited resources, are charged with pastoring a growing flock in an increasingly expensive neighborhood.

“Our parish church in Bomanahally is filled to capacity and the congregation stands in the street outside,” said Father Thomas Kollamparampil, C.M.I., who also hails from Kerala, the heartland of the 3.8 million-strong Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. “There is great need of expansion.”

Land prices are high. Father Thomas hopes to enlarge the church vertically, adding a story as funds become available. The parish also has purchased a small adjoining piece of land, but has yet to develop it in consideration of Hindu sensibilities. Hindus, who account for more than 84 percent of the state’s population, have come to revere a small anthill on the property, adorning the mound with marigolds and other ornaments.

“We have not removed the anthill out of respect to the Hindus,” said the priest. “We must tread very carefully.”

Syro-Malabar Catholics — one of the Indian Christian communities of the Syriac tradition that trace their origins to St. Thomas the Apostle, who evangelized India in A.D. 52 — first established an official presence in Bangalore in 1957, with the founding of Dharmaram College, which included a seminary. The first mission, or “pastoral center,” was established in 1983. In 1998, four of these centers became full-fledged parishes.

Most of the Christian Keralites who settle in the Bangalore area cling to their roots, attending Syriac churches and speaking Malayalam rather than Kannada, the language of Karnataka.

“I cannot read or write in Kannada, but I speak it,” said Mr. Sebastian. “I conduct all of my business transactions in English.”

Mr. Sebastian’s neighbor, Joby Pulickal, who has lived in Bangalore for 22 years and runs a successful packaging business, spoke of the efforts his family makes to preserve its ties to Kerala.

“I have two girls, 12 and 8, who go to a Christian school here,” he said. “It gives preference to Christians, but has many children from other religions too.

“We all live harmoniously here, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. I have several good friends who are Hindu or Muslim. But there is very little intermarriage. Thus, our culture remains intact.”

Not all Keralites in Bangalore have prospered, however. Poverty exists here, as it does throughout India — though it is worth noting that Bangalore has a smaller percentage of its population living in slums than any other major Indian city.

A dozen years ago, Aleykutty, 80, joined her three daughters in their one-room home. Asthmatic and bedridden, she counts on her daughters to look after her. But they have trouble enough providing for themselves.

Mariamma, 44, works six days a week at a factory, earning about 30 dollars a month. Her sister Annakutty tends to their mother.

“We came here from Kerala to seek work, as we were poor when we lived there,” Mariamma said. “We had two acres of land, but the soil wasn’t fertile. We are still very poor now, but we survive and have enough to eat.” A third sister, who had entered religious life, left the convent to return home to help support her family.

Though they have come to Bangalore in search of a better life, many Keralites rely on the church to maintain their spiritual health.

Peter Chackappen, a lay community leader in Bomanahally, spearheads a local church finance committee and is working to bring more churches to the underserved Christian Keralites of Bangalore.

“We want to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and confess in Malayalam, and it’s becoming harder to get to Dharmaram College to worship,” he said. “When people are away from their parents and elders, customs change. TV is a big influence. Maybe people don’t go to church anymore, especially if there isn’t one nearby.

“But when there are neighborhood churches,” he continued, “people follow the example of others and go to church.” Already, nearly 300 residential plots near a new church have been purchased by Christian Keralites.

“Our faith is instilled in us from an early age,” Mr. Chackappen said. “Church is not just for Sunday worship, it is for life. And the parish church becomes a center of coordination.”

Based in Wales, photojournalist Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to ONE magazine. Mahesh Bhat is a Bangalore-based photojournalist.

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