22 November 2018

Plate Pole Apart


Dr. Kanam Sankara Pillai is a renowned Surgeon, Obstetrician & Gynecologist, who resides in the cool estate-region of Ponkunnam, Kerala.

In his spare time, he promotes health-education and natural-farming to the public.

If that is not enough, he has also published many books and has articles & columns in many periodicals and papers.

Dr. Kanam’s research provides a rather fresh & different perspective to one of this region’s archaeological gem: the Tarisāppaḷḷippaṭṭayam (Tharisapally grant, a set of copper-plates engraving of certain grants) These plates are supposed to be grants provided to the Saint Thomas Christians, rather to a batch of immigrants to Kollam in the 9th century. 

But Dr. Kanam begs to differ …


How did you include Tharisapalli-pattayam into the various other interests and Why?
Oh [laughs], I was interested in the Tharisapalli plates since the 60s. Anybody with interest in Kerala-history will be interested. The plates are proven to be from 849 CE. It is one of our most important surviving artefact.

But recently one book (in Malayalam) was published by Kesavan Veluthat and M. R. Raghava Varier, based on research done at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. Some 30 people from 10 countries got together to learn about early West-Asian trade, specifically between West-Asian regions and South India. The plates were used as a resource by the Veluthat team to highlight such trade. But I see several wrongdoings in this research. Is the Tharisapalli copper plates even about West-Asian trade?

The author writes that the plates are with 5 (copper) leaves. And that currently one part of the set is with the custody of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church headquarters at Kottayam, while the other is with Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church headquarters at Thiruvalla. The book does not say how they were separated, why they are in different languages and why aren't they connected by a connecting-ring.
Proven?! The date?
Dated to 849 CE yes. I guess majority of the historians have narrowed down and agreed to this date. No one seems to be disputing it too.

And it is said to be written (engraved) at Kurakenikollam (earlier reference to present day Kollam)
In which language is “Kurakenilkollam” engraved on these plates?
It is written (engraved) in Vattezhutthu script. The language is Naanam Moonam, it’s like a predecessor of the current Malayalam.
Can people still read this script?
In fact, up to my grandfathers' time it was prevalent. This script was brought here by the Jains from the North.
Wait...the Jains?! Isn’t this a Dravidian script? Any evidences for this?
No, not Dravidian script.
And Yes, enough evidences. You can look up on the net too.

The Jains worship a muni "Jina" Devan. The phrase "Namothu Jinanam" means "I bow to Jina".
It is interesting to note that till some 300 years ago, this phrase was used during the Vidyarambham ritual! "Om Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah ..." was a later introduction.

Now, when we study the history of Kerala & Tamil Nadu we come across a community called the Vellalar. They are currently labelled as farmers, which is wrong. In those earlier times the Vellalars were the community who could read, write do manage accounts & arithmetic.
Oh, I thought it was a Nair or Namboothiri prerogative.
The Nairs generally did not do any of these, at least in those days. As they were all mostly sent to Kalaris at an early age.
In fact, the term "Nair" was then only a title given to graduates from the Kalaris. They would then join up as part of the militia of a local chieftain.
Ok, so how far back is this situation that you are talking about? About the Vellalars etc.
Well the earliest is 849 CE, from these plates itself.
Because one 'Velkula Sundaran' is mentioned in these plates. And this very name seems to crop up in other resources too.
This should probably mean: Sundaran (name) from the Vellala Kulam (Vellalar community).
This name comes up as a witness in the plate - could also be the engraver of this plate for the then governor Ayyanadikal.

There are 5 groups of people mentioned in the plates - Vellalar, Thachan, Ezhava, Vannar & Eruviyer.

Somewhere it states "Bhumiku karalar Vellalar" - that Vellalars probably held land ... as per these plates it seems at least in Kollam too this was the case. The plates mention that four kudi (of land?) to be given to Vellalars ... whether for farming or just to survey the land we dont know.

The Ezhavvers (Ezhava) are mentioned too - maybe for coconut farming or for related industry like Copra, Coir, mats etc.

The Eruviyyers dealt with salt.

But there is no talk of foreigners, Sudras, Brahmins, Muslims etc. let alone Persians or Syrians....except in the non-matching leaves of the plate set!  

So it’s funny that there is no mention of any dominant landowning community like say Brahmins... BTW Kerala was not for Brahmins as they claim later on - that is just a story they had built up to wield authority over others.

The historians, who are studying these plates, have conveniently ignored all of these details and only emphasize the word “Tharissapally” and the plates’ foreign connection. They have been quiet on all the smaller details like the mention of the other communities.

Dr. Hermann Gundert, somebody who discussed these plates early on, was the first to label it a Christian chepped (copper-leaf).
But why did he?
Because he saw it in the possession of the Christians.
But tell me, can one label it as a Christian chepped? What if this originally belonged to somebody else (hypothetically speaking)? What if it is a stolen item? Should it be attached as that of the robbing party?
Unless, it was in the possession of a community who later became Christians?
Yes, that is possible.
Anyways, Gundert shouldn't have labelled it as Christian or Kottayam chepped just because he saw it in the hands of the (Syrian) Christians. The Tharisapally chepped (or plates) should have been referred to as "Kurakenikollam chepped".

Note that there is no mention of Christians or Muslims in this chepped. The closest connection is with the word "pally" (means church in Malayalam) - now here’s the thing, in 849 CE do you think pally means a Christian church?
Well, I understand that "pally" in Malayalam referred to all non-Hindu places of worship?
That’s a rather later interpretation from people who wrote the local dictionaries. Give me a historical record of a functioning Christian "pally" in this part of the world during 9th century.
Secondly "Tharissa", as per our historians, is supposed to be a Syriac word. But the actual Syriac word for church is "edta". So then should have been written as "Tharissa Etda" and not "Tharisapally".
Yeah, if a plate is written for Naanam Moonam why bring Syriac into it?
Exactly, as per Kesavan Veluthat "tharisa" comes from the syriac word "Tharsak” (meaning Orthodox/Nestorian Christians) [chuckles]
But William Logan (who authored the Malabar Manual) says that the word "Tharisaa" may be derived from "Dhariya" or "Dharisa". The script is such that it can be read like any of these. "VelkulaSundaran" can be read as "Velkulachundaren" also; "Su" is written as "Ch" in this old script; "Th" and "Dh" are read from the same letter.
As per Logan, the term "Dhariya" is suggestive of some community who have lost their right to use the community (tribe) icons or religious-symbols.
Hmmm, Interesting.
Now my interest into these plates came in with the mention of this term "Velkula..." (Vellalar kula). There is another set of plates, of later date, called the Paliyam Sasanam, where one "Venneer-Vellalan" is mentioned. It may be that "Venneer" is explicitly mentioned because there were Vellalars who could wear Venneer (religious indications/markings  like the Shiva-bhakts who wore Bhasmom). So, seems like there were Venneer-Vellalars and then there were other vellalars who were not allowed to wear.... my gatherings.

My opinion is that the author of the Kurakenikollam chepped is a Vellalar who was prohibited from wearing Venneer – a Dhariya?

Our Kesavan Veluthat says, in his book, that in AD 1758 one Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron studied the different cheppeds here - the one with the Jews, the one with the St Thomas Christians etc. If you read this book Veluthat highlights that Perron ignored one of the leaf with West Asian scripts. Why was this line explicitly mentioned by Veluthat? Sounds fishy ... It must have been that Perron never saw such a leaf OR such a leaf never existed as part of this copper plate-set then!
Do you think there is some sort of hide & seek?
It certainly looks like this was a deliberate attempt in misleading us to think that the leaves with the West-Asian scripts is part of the Kurakenikollam set. Logically it doesn’t looks like a part of the Kurakenikollam chepped set too.

If you consider the first set of leaves of, it is of one dimension. But the last is in another!
The first set is written in landscape mode and other in portrait view!
One set of leaves is blank on one-side and the last is double-faced!
Not uniform. Just doesn’t match.

The current set of (mis-matching) copper-leaves may have been packed together at some point in history and later considered as a set of privileges bestowed on their custodians (that is the Syrian Christians); the Persian and other West-Asian script on the particular mis-matching leaves supported the community's claims too.
And our historians need this leaf to emphasize on the West-Asian connection and receive patronage for their research. For the Church too, they opportunistically exhibited the leaf (and plate set) to extol their Syrian connection, privileges and antiquity.
And what is in the odd leaf(s)?
A list of Muslim or Persian names that has no connection with the preceding pages (leaves)!
Any other anomalies?
The first page (side of the leaf) is left blank, so logically the last page should also be blank - probably like covers of a book; Duperron confirms, in his record Zend Avesta, that this was the case when he examined the plates - That the last page was blank!

As per certain researchers each of the first few leaves may have been done at different times too (duplicated to discard an eroded one) but the matter is coherent among the uniform first set. The writing styles on these leaves differs and so they infer.

Secondly it may be copy, not an original.

Duperron says there is an elephant seal (of Ay dynasty) after the witness list, but it is not there currently
So, what is your theory?
That our historians shouldn't use these cheppeds to highlight on the West-Asian trade but rather for East-Asian trade! That is South India’s ancient trade with places like Malaya, Fiji & China.

You know that this region had trade with China then, resulting in the introduction of "Cheena vala", "Cheena Chatti" (Wok), "Cheena Bharani", "Cheena Mulakku"  why even Kollam-center is called Chinnakada ...which was earlier "Cheenakada".
Kollam's export was not pepper but rather Neelam (Indigo), there were a trading community (Chetti). There are historical mentions of such traders from Kollam who settled in China back in 800 CE during the Tang dynasty.

These Chettigals used to travel overseas to East-Asian trading posts, and so they were outcasted due to their sea voyage. My opinion is that "Dharisapally" is possibly the temple for such outcasted Dhariya-Chettigal!
The local kingdom needed these Chettigals for promoting commerce and so these plates were the privileges given to them and Dharisapally the (Jina/Jain?) worship-place provided for them. 

Now the 17 names mentioned in the plates makes sense, they seem to be names of Vellalars:
Velkula Sundaran
Vijaya Narayanan
Ithirakshi Odiya Kannan Nandanen
Madineya Vinaya Dinan
Kannan Nandanen
Nalathirina Thiriyan
Kaamen Kannan
Chennen Kannan
Yakondayen
Kanavadi Adityenen
Murugan Chaathen
Murugan Kaamappen
Pulakudy Thanayen

Poonalakody Udayan Kannan
Poonalakoranaya Koumaran Kannan
Sambodi Virayan
Where is the exact location of this pally?
Possibly the Thevalakara Siva temple, which was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1544 and this is where the plates were possibly kept.
After that the French had custody of these plates. During the time of the English Resident Colonel John Munro, a bishop (an Angamaly bishop?) is supposed to have bought it from him claiming it as deed given to their Thriso-pally.
Does the Thevalakara church (Martha Mariam Orthodox Syrian Church
 & Mar Abo Pilgrim Centre) anything to do with this Dharisapally?
No, the Thevalakara Siva temple was.
Many Jain/Buddhist temples were rebuilt as Siva temples after the Brahmin resurgence in the 9th century; same should have been the fate of the Dhariyapally.
There are some sources referring a trading guild (and connected to these plates too). I remember reading some arguments between two Englishmen on this.
Yes, Manigramam. Or maybe Vanigrammam. As I said with this script the "Ma" and "Va" can be read with the same letter.
Yeah, I have heard that they still exist, and they are called Achan-veetukar because they are unlike the Nairs who are Amma-Veetukars (inferring matriarchal) [smiles]. They are supposed to be somewhere around Kollam, I haven’t met them, only read about them in a book.
You have done quite a bit of reading about the various such plates in Kerala, what is the Knanaya chepped?
They may have confused with Jewish plates itself. Possibly a Knanaya-pattayam (deed) doesn't even exist.

For me the interest is that there is this “Vellalar” mentioned in many of these contemporary plates and the many hidden aspects of these plates.
This Vellalar community seems to be ignored out of the whole Kerala story. If I read right I believe Duperron, while examining the plates, had asked someone then for the translation of the term "Vellalar". And it seems that this someone told him it meant Nayer (Nair)! [chuckles] Mislead from the beginning.
Nairs were the hereditary title given to those who completed their warrior trainings - like a graduation title along with the sword and shield; Back then, anyone else using that title undeservingly could even be beheaded then.
How does one Mar Sapir Isho so then figure in the Kollam plates?
See these two parts of the content: "...Kurakeni Kollathu Eshodathapirai Cheyveecha Tharisapallikku..." and "...Ayyanadkal Thiruvdiyekondu Maruvan Chaparich Neerveezthi"
Who are these “Eshodathapirai” and “Maruvan Chaparich“? To me, the former sounds like a Jain name, but the second? How about "Sabareesan"? We know it could be read this way too because of the script limitations.
Anyways now Mar Sapir Isho has become a Persian Bishop! It was Hermann Gundert who argued that there is a word "Maruvan" preceding Sapir Isho and this is a long-form for "Mar" [chuckles].
Actually the phrase here could be even be "…Attikudutha Amaruvan". Gundert had committed many such mistakes...which were never contested or corrected by the latter-day historians.

Another thing I ask is how come the plates got split between the two locations?
Ah! I have heard that it was carried-off by the outgoing (excommunicated) bishop & party from the Orthodoxies at Kottayam.
Ok possible.
There is also no mention of a church that was destroyed when this plate fell into the hands of the Portuguese. Also, I dont understand is how did the plates that were residing in Kollam end up in Angamaly? It is said to have moved then to Kochi and finally to Kottayam.
In short you are saying: the Tharisapally copper-plates are currently like a collection of pages from different books?
Manonmaniyam Sundaram Pillai once said that between edicts engraved in copper and stone, malpractices are likely in the former [smiles]

18 April 2018

On unknowns, half-truths and controversies



Bar Eto Briro Dr. Daniel Babu Paul IAS is one of Kerala’s eminent and awarded bureaucrats. He is one the most prominent member of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobite faction).

Scholar. Speaker. Straight.

Retirement doesn’t let Dr. Babu Paul rest, invitations for speeches keeps him active. He loves a good intellectual discussion and piquing on his vault of knowledge.

Google the odd title prefixing his name and the results say that he is the only one to receive the highest honorific-title from the Syrian Orthodox church for a non-clergy.

I wanted to discuss with you on your views on St. Thomas Christians’ history. I have read a lot but trying to link the dots.
You see, first what we should understand about our history is that there is no impartial unprejudiced version. By reading one of the so called “authentic” history books, anybody can easily identify the author's affiliations. Fr. Xavier Koodapuzha writings are good but while reading it one can easily deduce that it is on the side of the Syro-Malabar Catholic church.

Maybe somebody like MGS Narayanan should write an unprejudiced one. Or, if I had time, I would have written without being extra loyal to the faction that I belong. Actually, I do plan to in future - I would like to say such and such are the views and these are the counter-views. But the society keeps me busy, today itself I must make at least two speeches which is to be delivered in the next days. So, I hardly get time. If I had I would even like to write a book explaining my theological positions on various matter that may not agree with the official theological positions of neither the Catholic church nor the Orthodox church. I am currently on one of my theory that St Paul may have hijacked the simple Gospel of Love and imposed Greek philosophy into that ... long story and another thread of discussion, will not go into that.

In short, I was trying to say an impartial investigation even if made till now has not been recorded. So, you will have to check who writes what and who says what.


Off late I have been meeting some scholars and having conversations with them. Mar Aprem Thirumeni, of the Chaldean Syrian church, told me that you have some viewpoints on the early Nasranis’ affiliations. Can you say something about this?
We all agree that St. Thomas came here, but there is nothing available to prove it. But there is enough evidence to accept that he could have come. Like for example, the King mentioned in the Acts of Thomas was not known to the world till there was numismatic evidences. So, it corroborative.

St. Thomas' second trip here was said to be via Socotra. As per our legends, he came here in AD 52 and the trade-winds were discovered in AD 45 – so the dating could be right. Till the discovery of the trade-winds there were only land-routes and coastal-shipping.

Another reason we say our traditions should be true is because many prayers and church fathers acknowledge St. Thomas' connection with India. But as an intellectual we must question whether that reference of India is the current India. In the Book of Maccabees, if I remember rightly, there is a mention of elephants used in war - could this be from India or the North-west frontier areas like Kandahar.

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that what we know is very little with regards to early Kerala Christian history.

And in my view this statement that a Thomas of Cana was sent by the Bishop of Antioch in AD 345 is unacceptable. If say this loudly people will cry that I have left the church [scoffs] This affiliation is not plausible, as the office of the Patriarch of Antioch itself came in existence only from the Council of Nicaea. Dr. Alexander Jacob, former Director General of Police here and also a good scholar, has an interesting theory - he says this Knanaya (arrival)year is not AD 345 but 345 Hijra, in which case the AD year easily moves into the 10th century. Again, you see things are not so clear, history is hazy.

Kerala or even India as such don’t have too much historical records. We always say much of the Nasrani history were burnt at Udayamperoor. This may be true but I say we were not in the habit of recording history except when in the case of Kings, rulers and their activities. Like we know about Buddhism mostly because of Emperor Asoka. Therefore, because we don’t have such good records, we are working backwards in an investigative mode.

There were records of visitations to this Malayali coast quite early in Christian history like Pantaenus from Egypt way back in the 2nd century! There was a Catholic connection even, probably with the ships that berthed briefly at Quilon on their way to China - this in 11-12th century. There are writings of what these visitors saw here. The Catholics say one bishop John of Monte Corvino was appointed, though we don’t know if he ever came to Quilon. The Catholic diocese of Quilon claims that it is the first Catholic diocese east of Gibraltar! [smiles]

Travelers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta also stopped in India – one of them mentioned that the Christians here are rich people and exclusive monopoly on pepper trade. And also, that these Christians consider St. Thomas bigger than Christ - this statement in fact gives strength of the St. Thomas Tradition. There is also a statement by somebody else in history, I think one Joseph the Indian who said that the Christians here are not aware of the Pope -  I believe he was given a free trip to Rome because of this. [smiles]

What Mar Aprem says about the Chaldean/Nestorian connection has an element of truth, but I have two arguments: One he claims that right from the very beginning we were with the Chaldean or Nestorian church - and this is yet to be established. But it is true that when the Portuguese landed here we were largely Nestorian, probably for 300 to 400 years before Gama set foot here.

My second of difference with Mar Aprem is he says his church is the continuation of the early Nasrani traditions. There was no continuation with any of the Sabha (means church-group) strictly speaking. What they are is a carve-out from the Romo-Syrian faction which was those who went back on their oath at the Coonen Kurishu (means ‘Bent Cross’) Cross event.


The Coonen Kurishu revolt - Do you have anything more on this episode?
Portuguese came in and they tried to impose their versions of Christianity on us. They succeeded due to political power but our people reacted. The culminating event was this revolt.

I think it may have been mostly an impulsive revolt by the Ernakulam side Nasranis. Because of the communication difficulties and modes of transportation available then, it would have been very difficult to summon a Southerner Christian from say Thumpamon or Chengannur and to get them to react so quickly. This revolt was an immediate reaction to a rumor – and that fervor is what the Jacobites faction are still showing [snickers]


I have read that the missing bishop, of that event, Mar Ahattalah's origins are also obscure.
Yes, that is also controversial. The Orthodoxies, both sides, claim that the Bishop who went missing (allegedly drowned by the Portuguese) and leading to the revolt, was from Antioch.  But there is no evidence for that.

After the event, the Nasranis shot-off letters to different Oriental and Eastern Patriarchates.


Let me interrupt please: How did the Nasranis who were supposedly isolated most part of history know of such bishoprics in Jerusalem and Alexandria?
Well we have had this Persian/Chaldean connection was there for over 400 years. The Eastern church circle had the connections among them. The bishops may have been aware of those details. Moreover, our mercantile contacts to Malankara helped more. Note that Pantaenus visited us in the 2nd century – so we are not all that isolated.

So the first official Jacobite connection was with Mor Gregorios in AD 1665. As intellectuals, we cannot claim before that the church here was under Antioch before that. The Antioch system was brought in here and it reached the present dimensions of Antiochian influence only by late 18th or early 19th centuries. The Niranam Grandhveris and Kandanad Grandhveris, these books indicate how the foreign bishops taught and corrected the ritual practices in our churches.


How did the Syro Malabar Catholics end up becoming a larger group?
After the Coonen Kurishu event the Archdeacon was given four advisors. The Portuguese and the Catholic faction had won over 2 of these advisors. And they were both from the same geographical region - between Ettumanur & Vaikom. Even now we see no other Syrian faction even today in the triangular region of Ettaumanur - Vaikom - Pala except Syrian Catholics.

These two major leaders' families crossed over to the Catholic side. And one of them was even made bishop - his name they changed to Alexander de Campo, which is Parambil Chandy in Malayalam.

The Archdeacon and the remaining two advisors remained with the Antiochian faction. So, we can argue that the tradition that was established at the Coonen Kurishu event is with the Orthodoxies even now.


I read about your Kuruppampady church in one of your blog and some interesting happening there during the major split time.

Kuruppampady was an old parish, probably geography-wise it should have been a spin-off from the Edappally church though it is said to be originating from the Kanjoor church. And it stood firmly with the Archdeacon.

There were a small group with a rich Tharakan (name of a Syrian Christian, originally a title) who wanted the church to be on the Catholic side. Strong dispute enraged. There were 3 altars in the church - the Jacobite loyalist held steadfast onto 2 of those altars and the Catholics held onto the 3rd as their place of worship absolute pandemonium! When a ritual starts, one groups used to try drowning the sounds of the other party – much like what we saw with the Orthodox-Jacobite disputes in recent times at the Kolencherry church. [smiles] So back at Kuruppampady almost all Sundays were fight days. Finally, the Tahsildar of the area interfered and mediated to settle the dispute - the agreement was whichever party deposits 3000 gold coins first can take over the church. The Catholic Tharakan was in fact very rich and could have put it up front, but he decided to play the waiting cat & mouse game which proved costly for his side. The Jacobite side saw this as a life or death scenario and raised this amount really fast (faster than what the Tharakan thought possible) remitted and took over the church.

The Catholic group had to leave and they built a new church in the name of St Peter & St Paul. But the elders of that time, and even nowadays, they used to stop at the old church to pay respects to Mother (Virgin Mary). At All Souls day, they used come to pray at our cemetery for their forefathers.



I was wondering: Wasn’t this change to Antiochian traditions a really big change for the community?
Yes, it was. That is way even though Mor Gregorios introduced West-Syriac rituals and script in AD 1665, it is only with the arrival of Mor Baselios Shakralla in AD 1751 and Mor Ivanios Hidayatullah did these changes become mainstream.

I can tell of even bigger changes effected: When the Archbishop Menezes, with the Portuguese, forced our then priests to divorce and put their children in orphanages! And with the Antiochian introduction, the then priest were asked to marry! Because as per the new tradition, only a married priest can hear the confessions of women. Though marriage was traditionally allowed before priesthood, because of the emergency many priests were asked get married.

Is that so strict a rule that is followed? Of celibate priest not allowed to hear confessions.

Was unheard of in the Antiochian tradition, but although now it is allowed here also.

There is interesting story in this regard: Vattasseril thirumeni (Geevarghese Mar Dionysius) came to know that Mar Ivanios heard the confession of one woman. This is while Mar Ivanios (later founder of the Malankara Syrian Catholic Church) was still with the Orthodox church. Vattaseril Thirumeni challenged him and asked why he went against the tradition. Ivanios argued that it was not an issue as he is beyond all these temptations. Vattasseril thirumeni, a very senior and saintly person, replied "Even at this age I don’t have any control over my temptation, what makes you think you are beyond all of this?" [laughs]

... Anyways back to one of your previous question on how the Catholics gained in numbers. So, in the days after the Coonen Kurishu event there were a count of some 88 churches - 22 of them were with the Catholics and 66 with Jacobites. But with the defection of the two prominent persons and with economic & political pressures from the Latin groups the Catholic faction become stronger.

BTW even among the Catholics, did you know there is one small group that stayed with the Latin missionaries - some 300 families or so. They were led by a priest called Palluruthy Yakob Kathanar. They act like the ‘Brahmins’ of the Latin rite [chuckles] - they don’t intermarry with the other Latin Catholics! They are in the Varapuzha & Kottapuram diocese. The names are like Pyli, Itty, Ittiavirah, Kariakutty ... they are Syrians in disguise.

Oh, that’s new to me.
They have their own church in Alapuzha even though there are numerous Latin churches there. Typical Syrian Christian behavior, right? [smiles] Similar thing with the ‘Christ church’ - though it’s part of the Church of South India (CSI) - they won’t allow local CSI bishop to enter that church! It is with one Thomas Oommen of Kottayam.

When it comes to exclusivity, wealth protection and caste purity - then all of Christ's teaching can be set aside [smiles]

Even this upper-caste claim of Syrian Christians I have a theory, just my guess: there were no Nambudiri's here in the first century, it was mostly Buddhist and Jains. But by the time Portuguese came in Nambudiris and Nairs had established at the highest levels of society. So, when our forefathers felt taunted by the Portuguese, they may have admonished the foreigners saying that we are not like the heathens they encountered at their colonies and like those baptized at the beaches of the world, and that us Nasranis are the upper-caste like the Nambudiris. That is probably where this reference started...just my theory.

The Catholics so became powerful because of their superior organizational structure and they remained firm despite the internal problems.

While Portuguese tried to suppress us, the Britishers later tried to infiltrate us and act like a cancer. The Mavelikara padiyola (means agreement) as a response to this. A small group of Syrians stayed with the Britishers - they are the CSI central Kerala diocese.

After that the Marthoma Sabha was formed. One Vidhwankutty, a Tamil Brahmin convert, evangelized his own version of Christianity here. Roughly the same time this reformation movement happened in the Orthodox church, loosely inspired by Vidhwankutty. The remnants of this evangelist's followers joined the Marthoma church after his demise. They had outright protestant views. One Kovoor Iype Thoma Kathanar brought all these protestant factions together into the Marthoma church.

Formally the first Patriarch to came to Malankara was only in 1876 as the Sabha took a stand that for a bishop to become and feel like a proper bishop needs to have ordained by a Patriarch himself.

What has become of the Orthodox-Jacobite feud?
The Supreme court finally said that the Patriarch has a spiritual position above the Catholicos but he has no temporal power.

Do you know if the early St Thomas Christians were like the Gnostic or say Manichean?
I do not have too much information on that. Only we could understand that socially and culturally the Christians here were not distinct from the Hindu community. That distinctions were impressed after the Portuguese came.


What is your view on the Orthodox-Jacobite feud?
Totally unnecessary hatred and arrogance. In 1995 supreme court said the Patriarch has a place in Malankara but with no temporal power. They use the word 'vanishing point' … that is he is like the setting sun as seen from Shanghumugham beach. At the same time the Patriarch is allowed to have Simhasana churches. The then Bava thirumeni (Catholicos Baselios Paulose II) had issued a bull agreeing to that verdict, but preceding his death in 1996 it was suppressed by the succeeding Bava (Catholicos Baselios Thomas I).  And so the flame of argument is kept alive.

If you ask me nowadays it looks like this feud is like drama played out by both the factions – though even the Patriarch wants to settle this.



Is the West-Syriac spoken still?
Only as a liturgical language. The only people left speaking this is in some village called Maaloula, near Damascus, and they are now all Muslims.


Do you know of any families with actual Syrian or rather foreign origins?
One Tholanikunnel family, the details you could see in their website. The originator came from Edessa where many there have this name Adai. Many of their descendants also are named Adai. In fact, I myself should had been named Adai because my great-grandfather married the daughter of one of the Tholanikunnel Adai Kathanar. My grandfather was so named Addai.

Another such line is through one who came along with one of our bishops Euyakim Mar Coorilos, that person stayed back and who married into the Chalakuzhy family. The Marthoma sabha has one bishop from that line who is also with the same name. I had suggest to the Alexander Marthoma Thirumeni to use the same name for the bishop and that it’s an opportunity for Marthoma Sabha to show the connection to the apostolic delegate of 19th century.

The Muthalaly families of Chathanur & Kundara are supposedly foreigners but they may have surely been mixed by now.


Any history on your own Cheerathottam family? Is it part of any other known family names?
No. It was called Cheerakathottam, my father happened to use the Cheerathottam form. As per our passed-on history, this family became Christian only in the last quarter of the 18th century - so relatively new. It is said this was a Nambudiri convert from the Cheerakattu Mana in Karingachira - one Cheerakattu Narayanan Nambudiri. Then to survive they moved eastwards to Perumbavoor. The Mana's remnants now exist somewhere near Changanassery.

My brother & I and at least a couple of people in a generation of our family are born vegetarian [smiles]

13 March 2018

On the Golden Oldies



Chevalier Prof. George Menachery is a respected figure among many different groups: historians, archaeologist among others. He is best known for his many tomes on the St. Thomas Christians.

A warm host and spends his time between conferences and talks. He is also with my opinion that more of the new-generation Malayali diaspora should be aware of their history and take pride in our heritage.

The title prefixing his name was conferred on him by Pope Benedict XVI as the ‘Membership of the Equistrian Order of St. Gregory the Great’




How did you start writing on this subject of Nasranis or Saint Thomas Christians? Were there any resources available at your time?

There were very few books on the subject. At Thrissur Public Library, there was an archaeology museum I used to visit there. BTW I am interested in Hinduism and related archaeology. I used to buy books from one of the shops there…then a bunch of them would cost just a few Annas (Old Indian money) [smiles]. Among these publications, I would rarely stumble on any St Thomas Christian writeups. Once I read an article on an Elephant Lamp in an old (Kanjoor) church. This interested me to dig further into old churches and the art within. That is when I realized what I had ignored before. I now say that the oldest rock sculptures should be from the ancient churches in Kerala!



Also, I was on one Catholic conference in New Delhi a long-long time ago. All throughout the conference there wasn’t a proper representation of the Syrian Catholicism prevalent in Kerala. When I got a chance to highlight this in one session I found that many of them (bishops) were clearly ignorant of any such history or this branch of Catholicism! I thought if this is the state of awareness in learned leaders of the Indian churches then what would be the level of awareness in the common people – this prompted me to then write first on the subject.

When did the Syro-Malabar Catholic Sabha (Church Group) formalize?

In 1887, Trichur (Thrissur) and Kottayam Vicariate Apostolates were formed. They were not dioceses, as only the Latins were given that privilege. There was a congregation called “Propaganda”, they had a technique that made us call their bishops 'Vicar Apostolic'.

You mentioned something about the oldest rock sculptures. Wasn’t many of our churches rebuilt many times in the past?

These old churches may have been relocated, rebuilt or renovated. But many of the structures in them they reused and maintained – take for example the baptismal fonts, altar pieces among others. These were reused.

Most ancient churches had three tier roofing – the highest for the Madbaha (altar area), second-highest for the Hykalla (Nave) and lowest for the Mukhamadapam (entry).

All old Syrian Christian churches had altar towards the east, Jesus is considered the rising sun - inspired by Egyptians’ Sun God Horus. You see all beliefs are built on something previous [smiles]

And every Egyptian temple had an obelisk in front of it, symbolizing the ray of the sun. Our open-air rock cross in front of the church are almost like this obelisk – inspired by it.

Are you saying there weren’t such crosses elsewhere in the Christian world?
No. Well there are now - the Portuguese has tried this out in Latin America - Brazil and around.

The biggest ones among ours are in Kuravilangadu (St. Mary’s Forane) and Kaduthuruty (St. Mary’s Valiya Palli) churches

An interesting aspect of our rock crosses: every cross here seems to sprout out from a lotus flower. With an historian background, from my observations, this lotus art seems to appear first in churches in Kerala! Also, you must have seen peacocks in our churches, as in Cheriapally (in Kottayam). Lotus, the nation flower and Peacock, the national bird ... seems to show up first here from churches and not from temples!

The Nasranis were mostly concentrated between the Bharatha and Pamba rivers (Quilon). Where is your native place?

My parents are from near Chengannur.
Chengannur has an ancient church and a beautiful open-air cross. It had with Adam and Eve carved into it.

Well there is a Hanuman on it too :)
Yes [smiles] and so are many more characters and animals.
There are six rock lamp-stands at that church.

Have you been to Kallooppara (St. Mary's Orthodox church near Thiruvalla)?
Of course, one of my favorites [bright smile] Beautiful and well preserved.

I don’t normally photograph the facades of these churches as all these facades (on our ancient churches) are Portuguese additions. This was done to erase the temple look.

Remove the facade and the Kallooppara church was almost a temple. Both these communities, Hindus & Christians, lived and prayed side by side. And their constructions inspired each other.

I’ve heard of this similarity between temples and churches of the past. One of my very-old relatives told me that the Niranam church was rebuilt a few times since he was born and before that it was like a kshetrom (Hindu temple). Even in history, I’ve read of somebody who went into a temple mistaking it for a Nasrani church.
Yes. It was Vasco da Gama in AD 1498, when he landed at Kappad. One his way to the Zamorin's palace he stopped to pray at a place where he saw people joining their hands.  He had thought many Indians were Christians – after all they were in search of the legendary Prester John.

He may have not noticed initially but after his thanksgiving-prayers to the Virgin he noticed some peculiarities of the Virgin Mary [chuckles] - Her teeth were protruding out some two inches and the tongue hung down abnormally and were stained red. Kali! 
When he realized, this was not the place he wanted to be – he said a prayer to withdraw it [chuckles]

Anyways the important thing, for us, with these historical records is to pick on the other things they mention – say like the observations of the Portuguese of the temple and/or church interiors. 
They mention of a fat pillar - Bali kallu (Sacrificial Altar); there is this in all our churches too, as the base of the rock cross! And the cross represents Sacrifice.
They mention of a tall pillar with Kite on top (Garuda) – flagstaff; again, there in our churches.
They mention of murals on the walls in temple - Images though came into our church only after Portuguese.

So, when did murals be introduced in Nasrani country?
Murals probably came into our church only in 14th century. One Bishop Marignolli from Florence introduced this art. Florence as you know is the land of the brilliants like Da Vinci, Michelangelo & Raphael. The bishop arrived through probably Kollam and says he stayed in one of the church ... most probably in Cheppad (St. George Orthodox Church). The murals in Kayamkulam, Cheriapally, Kanjoor, Akaparambu, Paliakara etc. maybe were later inspired.

BTW What were we called at those times? Nasranis?
Arabs used to call us Nasrenes. Other traders may have used the same when interacting with us. Elsewhere in the Christendom, we were mostly referred to as ‘Thomas Christians’.

What are the meaning of the stuccoes on the outside of some of our churches?
As per me, art depicts the life of the times.

At one of churches in Akaparambu (Mor Sabor and Afroth Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Cathedral) there is one plaster image of a nude woman hung upside down. I could see it as depiction of punishments like one of the art inspired by Dante's works.

Just a little away from Akaparambu there is another ancient church at Angamali (St. Mary's Soonoro Cathedral), where also hell is depicted. Angamali (church) has one of the such largest mural art.

How do react to some of the far Right-wing allegations on Christianity in India? They are out to prove that there were never any Christians in India before the Portuguese.
Absolute idiots I say!

There are also some historians to support them too, who are in denial because they cannot accept the evidences or chose not to accept. Why, even Marco Polo has written about the Thomas Christians back in AD 1293!
Want to go back further? 4th century - Mar Aprem (St. Ephrem), one of the early bishops of Christianity mentions of India, the translation bones of St. Thomas from India to Edessa. See how many times he mentions India in a praise to St. Thomas:

‘Blessed art thou, O Light, like the lamp, the sun amidst darkness
hath placed; the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate.
‘A land of people dark fell to thy lot that these in white robes
thou shouldest clothe and cleanse by baptism: a tainted land Thomas has purified.

the solar ray from the great orb; thy
grateful dawn India’s painful darkness doth dispel.
‘Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the
Cross replenished, India’s dark night floodest with light.


This Right-wing trolling army are abusive and their only job is to negate every other opinion. No point in discussion with them.

But how do we know that the India St. Ephrem speak of is the same India now? It could be mistaken for Persia or some place in Central Asia or islands near Africa?
There is nothing so unclear of where India was, at least for the last 1500 years. In the earlier extract from St Ephrem, he says “the earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes” – Should have been about homams (Yagna or Pooja); “A land of people dark” – Most people are clear of the other dark people, the Africans, and this reference is not about Africans.

See I am not trying to prove of St. Thomas’ arrival but definitely there are enough and more remarks of early Christians in the India. The trade between Malabar coast and Middle East were also supportive to this, giving the chances of ancient Christianity arriving here quite early.

Pliny the Elder says it’s easy to reach Muziris (ancient seaport on Malabar coast): get on a boat, set the sail and if monsoons are on the way the boat will be there in 40 days. To return use the reverse monsoon season.

Ok. Now another topic. Does the Syro-Malabar Catholics use the Catholicized Chaldean rite?
The name sounds funny, right? Some of our younger people jokes – is having a Zero (pun for Syro) for our Sabha so bad [chuckles]

All the early Thomas Christians followed Chaldean rite. The 1599 Synod of Diamper they tried to Latinize us - they removed the mentioning of our Patriarchs in the Diptychs reading during the mass, this was replaced with the Pope names; some other edits on the liturgy was done. This infuriated the Nasranis. Over time the pent-up anger exploded in 1653 in the Coonen Cross episode. But even after 50 years of this event, the Latinized versions were loosely followed. Its only when one bishop Gregorios arrived that the West Syriac St. James liturgy was introduced into the Nasrani crowd. We (the Syro-Malabar Catholics) continued with the earlier sort-of Latinized Chaldean liturgy.

Dutch was anti-Catholic and so this enabled the visitation of the orthodox bishop Gregorios. However, this bishop still didn’t allow any native to be ordained.

Have you heard of the Palayur vs Arthattu camps’ arguments on which is the oldest church in Kerala? Some say Tipu Sultan’s army attacked the Arthattu curch because it was the ancient one.
Palayur is where we all hear that of the first church that St. Thomas established. Whether it is exactly in Palayur or slightly away, there is no evidence of any of this. But at least there is a strong tradition that it is in this region. The two places are quite close also.

Tipu had also burnt the Ollur church roof and our people ran helter-skelter. Many didn’t even come back even when Tipu retreated [smiles]. I don’t think he selected any ancient church to be destroyed. He was on an invasion and any resistance would have been met with appropriately, that’s all.

How old is the Ollur church?
Only some 300 years – it’s my parish. The colorful Raphael feast is only 200 years old. This church is however a pretty decorative and ornate.

I have a hypothesis – maybe there was Christianity throughout the Western Indian coast. Over time many parts of this reduced because of migration, forced inclusion into local-religions or transformations like in the Goan Inquisition. Now the remnant of the St Thomas Christians of yore survives only on the Malabar coast. It is so possible that this St. Thomas landing and seven church story may have been adapted later to suit the surviving crowd. Expand the scope of the land and the scenes must have acted out elsewhere. What do you think?
A plausibility and St. Thomas’ acts [smiles] elsewhere are also clearly mentioned in the Acts of Thomas. This says that Thomas came to India twice - first somewhere in North-West India and second to the South. This Acts of Thomas was considered fictitious till some historians found evidences of the King Gudnaphar, who is mentioned in this Acts, at Taxila in Pakistan. Therefore one part of the Acts seems to match with the dates and location.


Now consider this: The Ollur (St. Antony's Syro-Malabar Catholic) church has close to 5000 families, a very rich church. These parishioners say they are descendants of those who used are from the Pazhuvil (St. Antony's Syro-Malabar Catholic) church. Pazhuvil church is old, from AD 960. However, even the Pazhuvil parishioners don’t claim to be the oldest just to gain fame; they could - they have seashore nearby too to justify the Thomas story. However, they chose to claim to be descendants of those from the Enammavu (St. Mary’s) church, which is even older AD 510 or so. And the Enammavu parishioners say they were originally from the Palayur church where Thoma-Sleeha (Apostle Thomas) arrived.

And all of the Malayali St. Thomas Christian diaspora trace back, undisputedly, to one of the seven churches that St. Thomas built. Most of these seven churches are near the Sangam-age ports. All these are significant facts, too valuable to disregard.

Are the Knanayas the pure-descendants of the arrival. Or this is a recent re-group?
Well they seem to maintain the endogamy. They have large congregations at Chingavanom, Kottayam, Kallisery etc. By and large I think they are following some tradition.

And they still have very good interest in commerce now as when the same grants were conferred through their Copper-plates (Thomas of Cana plates of privileges)

But the Knanaya plates (of grants) are said to be missing, right?
Yes, but a translation of this plates (in Portuguese) are preserved in the British Museum. It should be there in one of my papers online, in my second book – Thomapedia.