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Tried and True Traditions of Kerala’s Christians

India’s Eastern Christians practice rites and rituals that blend India’s ancient culture and Syrian Christian tradition.

“What is the significance of unleavened bread?” asks ten-year-old Appoo. Appoo’s extended family stands around an altar in their living room, already aware of the answer. By tradition, millions of Christian families throughout the southern Indian state of Kerala go through the same ritual on Holy Thursday, when Passover bread made from rice and coconut is baked in every home. Uncle Joseph answers his nephew, explaining that the Hebrews were in such haste to flee Egypt there was only time to bake unleavened bread for their journey.

“Happy Pessaha!” Family members greet each other and, taking the sacramental, eat a small piece of the Passover bread with a sweet drink made from milk and sugar.

Kerala is noted for its significant population of Christians. Most trace their lineage back to migrations from the Middle East during the early years of the First Millennium, starting with St. Thomas, who landed on India’s shores in 52 A.D. With roots in Palestine and Mesopotamia, and with centuries of evolution in South India, India’s Christians have developed their own distinct customs and traditions.

The expedition under Thomas Knaniya in 345 A.D. brought to India 72 Jewish Christian families, bishops and priests from an area in present-day Iraq. This group of Semites, to which Appoo’s family belong, became known as Sudhists, who for centuries have married among their own caste, thus remaining culturally distinct. Their wedding ritual could almost be mistaken for Jewish.

While in India, I attended a wedding near Kottayam. The night before, separate parties were held at the homes of the bride and groom. At the groom’s house, after food, wine and merriment, the young man sat on a dais. Following tradition, the local barber was brought into the ceremony; he addressed the crowd:

“I ask each of the 17 castes for permission to shave the bridegroom.”

Meanwhile, at another house a crowd sat around watching as henna was applied to the bride’s hands and feet. The intricate designs symbolize the time Eve first touched fruit in the Garden and stained her hand. In the background, religious songs were sung by a small choir.

The following morning the couple exchanged their wedding vows and rings in church. The husband briefly placed a cloth over his bride’s head, a symbol of his power and protection over her, then tied the sacred golden thali around her neck to signify their union. The glare of a videographer’s lights and the flashing of cameras joined a thunderous sound system that broadcast the wedding into the surrounding countryside. A Divine Liturgy followed the betrothal service. Outside, the cheers of a small group announced the new union.

A massive feast of chicken biryani awaited the guests in the parish hall. The bride and groom were carried in boisterously and seated on a stage for more ritual before the meal: relatives touched the thighs of the newlyweds to wish them health and prosperity.

Christianity in India grew during the early centuries of the First Millennium; each Christian migration added impetus, with new worshippers and clergy. The link with the Middle East was vital; Christians looked to Syria for ecclesial guidance.

The result of this checkered history is a colorful church with each jurisdiction – Catholic or Orthodox, Syro-Malabar or Malankara – enjoying their particular rituals and practices. India is a very religious country, whatever the creed. Not only do most people attend a worship service at least once a week, they also practice their religious traditions in the home.

Mathew Varghese is a retired chief engineer from the Kerala Public Works Department. He lives with his wife, Mary, in a pleasant bungalow in Kerala’s capital of Trivandrum. They are members of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, although Mathew was reared in the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. As in many Christian homes, a picture of Jesus hangs prominently in the house. Together the Vargheses pray before the image every evening.

Mathew described their Christmas festivities: “We stroll through the streets as a family, carrying lanterns and singing carols. Then we stop at friend’s houses and have tea and cakes. Long sessions are spent in church, and our Christmas Eve liturgy starts at 10 P.M. It lasts about four hours. Afterward, we process counter-clockwise around the church to the main door, where a small fire is made from dried palm leaves saved from the previous Palm Sunday. Then everyone throws some frankincense into the fire. We return home at dawn to a breakfast of apam [pancakes], chicken curry, tea and cake. For Christmas we usually decorate our houses with lamps and star-shaped paper lanterns, and most families make a Nativity scene. It is not our tradition to exchange gifts, but the custom is slowly creeping in with the influence of the Western media.

“We observe Lent for 40 days,” Mathew continued, “beginning the season by hugging and holding hands in salutation and asking pardon of everyone. Then the fast begins – most households abstain from meat, fish and alcohol. The Lenten period ends with a big feast on Easter Sunday.”

I spent Easter Week in Kerala and joined in different festivities at various churches. Palm Sunday at the Syro-Malankara Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary in Trivandrum was a solemn occasion. The cathedral was lit by colored light that streamed through stained glass windows. Barefoot men sat on the floor on one side of the nave and women on the other. Cyril Mar Baselios, Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, conducted the liturgy, intoning Syriac prayers in ancient Syriac and a long homily in the local vernacular, Malayalam. The palms, comprising a pile of coconut leaves, were blessed and one frond was handed to each worshipper as he or she processed around the cathedral singing “Hosanna.”

Despite the intense heat, Holy Thursday liturgy at the Christ the King Syro-Malabar Catholic Cathedral in Kottayam was overflowing. At one point, Bishop Kuriakose stepped down from the altar to wash and kiss the feet of twelve boys, who symbolized the apostles.

The 16th century Church of St. Mary in the village of Valliapally Kaduthuruthy is one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in India. Its white exterior is decorated with colorful statues of saints and cherubs. The solemn liturgy was interrupted by two processions around the church. In the first a young man led the way, carrying a small crucifix, followed by the congregation, who stopped at Stations of the Cross set in the wall of the church compound. A few nuns recited prayers through a loudspeaker carried on the parish jeep. An hour later, the second procession brought a large crucifix outside and around the church to a canopy beside an ancient granite crucifix. The corpus was anointed with oil and worshippers rushed forward to kiss the statue. At the end of the ceremony, hundreds of faithful circumambulated the church on their hands and knees in penance.

Later that afternoon in Kottayam I visited the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Cathedral, where a service had been going on for seven hours. There was an extended Divine Liturgy, a procession around the cathedral and a ceremonial burying of a cross under the altar. The congregation stood for most of the liturgy – a very tiring ordeal, especially since none had eaten that day. Around 2 P.M. the worshippers broke their fast by drinking sour vinegar, then took a bowl of vegetarian food prepared at a nearby field kitchen.

At the Syro-Malabar Catholic parish of Sts. Gervasis and Prothasis, in the village of Akapparambu, the Easter liturgy started at 3 A.M. and ended two and a half hours later. Halfway through the service a silent candlelight procession carried the cross past pitch-black coconut groves.

Next door, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox parish was celebrating their four-hour Eucharistic liturgy, which included a procession around the church accompanied by firecrackers. The Orthodox liturgical chants were solemn, almost Byzantine; the Catholic choir was modern, almost Protestant.

Lent ended and the feast began. From the poorest to the richest families, a great meal including beef, chicken, pork and fish, a smattering of vegetables and rice was enjoyed along with beer, homemade wine or palm toddy. In the afternoon people dozed while men played cards.

A woman died during my stay in Akapparambu and there was an emotional wake at her house. The priest gave his blessing and there was an outpouring of grief as those she left behind reached out to touch her body. Amid wailing and sobbing, she was carried to the cemetery where another service accompanied her to the grave. Each family member kissed the deceased through a cloth over her face. Some collapsed with emotion and were carried away as she was lowered into the tomb.

A week after Easter I attended the feast of St. Thomas in the village of Kallara near Kottayam. The Sunday after Easter commemorates the day Thomas met the resurrected Christ. (On 3 July the church also celebrates the death of Thomas, who was killed with a bow and arrow by a Brahmin in a forest in Tamil Nadu.)

A local patron in Kallara paid for the celebration, which had a carnival atmosphere. The front of the church was decorated with thousands of flashing lights. Around the church were numerous stalls selling cheap plastic toys, religious items and sweets, while music blared from the ubiquitous Indian sound system. Beggars lined the entrance to the church compound; hundreds of people milled about. The church filled with people and the liturgy commenced. Afterward, a procession of statues of saints – Thomas, Sebastian, George – were paraded down the steps and around a stone cross. The heat was intense, but two bands kept up the tempo – one was frantic on drums and horns like Brahmin musicians, while another was dressed for the circus and played Dixie music. It was a boisterous spectacle, encompassing spirituality, humanity and fun. Only in India!

Dance and song are important in religious Kerala. The Hindus have the Kathakali, which narrates the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic. The Christians have the Maargamkali, which tells the story of St. Thomas’ arrival in India, the miracles he performed and the persecution he suffered.

The dance, now part of school’s curricula in Kerala, is the focus of intense competitions. Traditionally performed by men, it may now be performed by women as well. No musical instruments are used – the rhythm is maintained by a chant that has roots in the Syriac liturgy.

A village group near Kottayam performed the traditional dance. Twelve young men representing the Apostles, stripped to the waist in lungees, or traditional wraps worn around the waist, arranged themselves around a large brass lamp, which symbolized Christ. They danced dynamically to the chanting, leaping in the air, falling to a crouch, with gestures strong yet delicate. This group was top in its parish league, performing in schools.

“We are singing the life and experience of St. Thomas,” explains the group’s leader, James Kaysee. “The dance comes out of our strong feelings for our faith.”

There are various theories as to the origins of Maargamkali, but most likely it started from the earliest times of Christianity in India. Over the years, different priests interested in choreography modified it and remodified it. Three centuries ago, Itti Thomen Kathanar realized the martial art possibilities of this dynamic dance and, in a vengeful spirit, is said to have organized a coterie of young revolutionaries against the Portuguese.

The customs and traditions of India’s pious Eastern Christians are intricately woven with history and religion, and the line between what is religious or secular is blurred. Daily devotional practices are practiced in the home, liturgy is attended weekly if not daily and full attendance at feasts and religious holidays is the norm. Behavior regarding birth, marriage, death and morality follows a formula prescribed by centuries of tradition. The strength and ease with which Indian Christians maintain their faith keeps them strongly tied to the past but also rooted in the present. Rich in culture and tradition, Kerala is one of the subcontinent’s most stable regions, and the Thomas Christians are its heart.

Sean Sprague is a frequent traveler through “our world.”

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