02 September 2008

Traditions and rituals among the Syrian Christians of Kerala

Kerala Syrian Christians are often referred by the traditional name Nasranis. They have preserved some of the original rituals of the early Jewish Syrian Christians. One can easily find many Jewish Syrian rituals and traditions among the Nasranis. These early Christians believed in Jesus as the Christ and followed Syrian Jewish traditions and called themselves Nazaraeans or Nazrani, meaning followers of the Nazarene Messiah (Jesus). The term Nazaraean was first mentioned in the New Testament in Acts 24:5. The term nasrani was used essentially to denote Jewish followers of Jesus from Nazareth, while the term Khristianos “Christian” was initially used largely to refer to non-Jewish peoples (”gentiles”) who followed the Christ (Acts 11:26).Until the advent of the Colonialists in the 1500’s in Malabar shore, the proto-Jewish-Nasrani ethos in Kerala thrived with Jewish customs and the Syrian tradition.

This article examines some of the traditions and rituals among Nasranis. Most of the traditions and rituals exist even today among the community.

Syrian Christians were a highly mobile occupational and geographical group, whose main occupation were in Agriculture, Commerce and Military Service. It appears that Syrian Christians had a long cultivating past of warrior skills and serving the local ruling groups. They controlled the lucrative pepper trade industry and in Quilon and other ports acted as brokers and port revenue officers.

Marthanda Varma reported to have recruited several thousand Syrian Christians in to his army during his campaign of conquest in North Travancore. Travancore state trading monopolies depend heavly on the skills of experienced Nasrani traders based around important market towns like Kanjirapally, Mavelikara, Chertalai. These traders played important roles in processing pepper and forest based commodities for export. In Cochin Syrian Christian prelates participated in the installation ceremonies of rulers.

The ruler of Venad ( Travancore) granted Syrian Christians seventy two rights and privileges usually granted only to high dignitaries, including exemption from import duties, sales tax and the slave tax. A copper plate grant dated AD 1225 further enhanced the rights and privileges of Nasranis.

During absence of prelates from Mesopotamia they looked at local rulers and kings to adjudicate disputes or renew the authority of their metrans.It appears that a gradual inculturation of Hindu themes embodied among Nasrani culture during the process.

During the course of time some Hindu traditions has also become an integral part of Syrian Christian rituals making significant life events. Milk boiling ceremony that take place during the blessing of a newly built house, the groom tying a golden jewellery ( cross) around brides neck during the marriage ceremony and the yearly celebration of sradham feast commemorating the death of a relative.

In some areas the ties with Hindus and Nasranis were reciprocal each taking part and having roles at both Hindu and Christian festivals. In some areas Christian Churches and Hindu temples were constructed on virtually adjoining sites. In due course some of the Christian churches resembled Hindu temples from outside and jewish Synogue from inside.

Their liturgy was in Syriac, their prelates looked to Mesopotamia for conformation, their clergy ( kattanars and metrans) presided over their rituals such us celebration of feast days and Eucharist.

Traditions and rituals among Syrian Christians

1. The symbol of the Nasranis is the Syrian cross, also called the Nasrani Menorah or Mar Thoma sleeba in Malayalam. It is based on the Jewish menorah, the ancient symbol of the Hebrews, which consists of a branched candle stand for seven candlesticks. (Exodus 25) . In the Nasrani Menorah the six branches, (three on either side of the cross represents God as the burning bush, while the central branch holds the cross, the dove at the tip of the cross represents the Holy Spirit. (Exodus 25:31). In Jewish tradition the central branch is the main branch, from which the other branches or other six candles are lit. Netzer is the Hebrew word for “branch” and is the root word of Nazareth and Nazarene. (Isaiah 11:1) .Note that the Christian cross was not adopted as a symbol by Mediterranean and European Christianity until several centuries had passed.The menorah (Hebrew: מנורה), is a seven branched candelabrum to be lit by olive oil in the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem. The menorah is one of the oldest symbols of the Jewish people. It is said to symbolize the burning bush as seen by Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 25).

2. Covering their heads while in worship. This is tradition among the Jewish Christians and Jewish descendents of Abrahamic religion. This is observed by the entire Nasrani people until this day.

3. Their ritual services (liturgy) was and still is called the Qurbana (also spelled Kurbana), which is derived from the Hebrew Korban (קרבן), meaning “Sacrifice”.Another surviving tradition among most of the Nasrani population .

4. Some writers have mentioned that the ritual service used to be held on Saturdays in the tradition of the Jewish Sabbath. It got changed by the Portuguese invasion. The Portuguese described the Nasranis as Sabbath-keeping Judaizers. The Acts of Thomas, states that the early Christian converts by the apostle Thomas in Kerala were early Jewish people settled in the Malabar coast. Most of all, the Portuguese burned the Nasrani Aramaic Peshitta Bible known today as the Lost Aramaic Bible that was based on the Jewish Targum and included the Gospel of the Nazoraeans. The Portuguese imposed the teaching that the Jews killed Jesus. The Nasranis, who were, until then, the “living fossils” of the Christian-Jewish tradition, lost their very defining ethos.

5. The Nasrani Qurbana used to be sung in the Suryani (Syriac) and Aramaic languages. Another surviving tradition among most of the Nasrani population, Until 1970s all the nasrani churches followed Syriac liturgy.

6. They also believed in earlier times that it was the Romans who killed Jesus because, historically, Jesus was crucified; the official form of execution of the Jews was typically stoning to death, while the official form of execution of the Romans was crucifixion.

7. The architecture of the early church reflected a blend of Jewish and Kerala styles.

8. Passover (Hebrew: פסח; transliterated as Pesach or Pesah), (Chag HaMatzot - Festival of Matzot) is a Jewish holiday which is celebrated in the northern spring. It begins on the 15th day of Nisan (on the Hebrew calendar), which falls between March 15-April 30. Passover commemorates the Exodus and freedom of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. As described in the Book of Exodus, Passover marks the “birth” of the Jewish nation, as the Jews’ ancestors were freed from being slaves of Pharaoh and allowed to become servants of God instead. This is another surviving Jewish tradition still followed by the Nasranis is the tradition of Pesaha-appam or unleavened Passover bread”). On passover night, the Nasrani people have Pesaha-appam along with Pesaha-pal or “Passover coconut milk”. This tradition of Pesaha-appam is observed by the entire Nasrani people until this day.

9. The Nasrani Church has a separate seating arrangement for men and women. From the ancient time irrespective of men or women difference or female menstruation cycle, women were allowed to attend church and has separate seating arrangement.

10. Many of the tunes of the Syrian- Christian worship in Kerala are remnants of ancient Jewish Syriac tunes of antiquity.

11. The “Holy of Holies” is divided by a red curtain for most of the time and is opened during the central part of the Nasrani Mass or Qurbana. Another Syrian tradition still followed in many nasrani churches.

12. The Nasrani Baptism is still called by the Hebrew-syriac term Mamodisa and follows many of the ancient rituals of the ceremony. In 20th century it is referred to in Malayalam as njana Snanam (Bath of Wisdom)

13. Most of the Nasrani’s even today use Biblical names like Jews. Biblical names along with Greek, Armenian, Syrian names are the popular names in Nasrani Community through out existence. They prefix and suffix Kerala names to these traditional names. The naming convention is also seen among the Sephardic Jews, whose customs may have been imbibed by the Syrian Christians in Kerala.

14. Another surviving tradition is the use of “Muthukoda” (ornamental umbrella) for church celebrations, marriages and other festivals. This can be traced back to a Syrian Christian Aristocrat Mar Sapir Iso who lived in the ninth century. Even today traditional drums and Arch decorations and ornamental umbrella are part of the church celebrations. Because of the harmonically co existence of religions in Kerala this became quite popular with other communities also.

15. Nasranis were given the right to access Hindu temples and sacred territory. Some prominent Nasranis were patron and sponsors at Hindu temple festivals. They also acted as pollution neutralizers.

16. Nasranis and Hindus maintained their individuality in Kerala aware of and accepting similarities and differences. Boundaries between Christians and Hindus are blurred in some cultural sphere such us house building, astrology, birth and marriage ( use of sandalwood paste, milk, rice and areca nut)

17. The inner life of Nasranis is significantly ordered by liturgical obligations and by its specifically Christian ethics. Death rituals express Christian canonical themes very distantly especially in the ideas concerning life after death and the anticipation of final judgment.


1] Christians of India - Rowena Robinson
2] Kerala Folk Literature- Chummar Choondal
3] A History of Christianity in Kerala, from the Mission of St. Thomas - C. V. Cheriyan

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