25 December 2007

Pariahs and Pride

This post is primarily a response to a comment from someone who's signed off "Jagveer" to my post on the likely origins of the Syrian Christians. I'll overlook the obvious sarcasm in the comment and try to address the common misconceptions that underlies the thinking reflected in this comment. I received pretty much the same response when I posted this on a wikipedia discussion board.
"Ah yes. All you Keralain christians are descend from Yavanas becos some ancient text alludes to contacts with Muziris."
The first mistake is ofcourse conflating all Christians in Kerala into one. This blog deals with one group of them -- the Syrian Christians.
Second, its not "some ancient" text. Its every ancient text of the era that describe the Malabar coast. And it is hardly just an allusion. The texts write in quite some detail about Muziris and the trade with it and the region. In fact, there is hardly any doubt that there was significant and continuous contact between West Asia and the Malabar coast from at least that early back.
"SO, how can you trace descent to them. 2 cohorts of Romans at Muzirs created 2 million christians in Kerala! It does not even sound credible."
The above quote from "Jagveer" captures in a nutshell the total lack of understanding and ignorance of those who dismiss what I've written about.
I'll write out my points in sequence:
To start with the cohorts are soldiers. I mentioned them to merely show how important trade with the Malabar coast was to powerful merchants/politicians in the Roman Empire -- men powerful enough to hire two cohorts of mercenaries to be stationed at their "factories" on the coast. No one claims or implies that these cohorts some how begat the Syrian Christian population of the Malabar coast. I'm essentially trying to show that the Malabar region wasn't some exotic little known place that someone ship wrecked on or discovered by chance around that time.
The above leads directly to what I mentioned in the previous section -- that by the advent of the Christian era the Malabar region was well known to the world as the gateway to the produce and industry of the South Indian region. The book from Oxford Univ Press which I quoted mentions Muziris on the Malabar coast as the largest trading port on India's West coast by that time. There were foreigner/mleccha/yavana traders constantly streaming through this place, buying the textiles, dyes, beads, gems, gold, wootz steel (eventually famous in the West for the Damascene swords made from them) , spices and timber of places in the interior of present day Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala.
Further it is well known that the Malabar coast has always been known as the gateway to S.India right down to colonial times:
  • Was it any surprise that Vasco Da Gama landed there of all places? He didn't stumble across it. He asked along the eastern coast of Africa for the route, finally finding a navigator who knew the monsoons and landing on the Malabar Coast
  • Before the Europeans there were the Arabs and Jews attested to in tonnes of records and correspondence from the last 2000 years
  • Marco Polo's account of the region from 200 years before Europeans discovered the sea route that started their domination of the world, mentions the Syrian Christians and their St.Thomas legend.
Perhaps the best way to understand this is to imagine a migrant community of Arabs, Persians, Jews, Armenians and Ethiopians whose presence is attested to on the Malabar coast well before the Christian era. Within a few centuries of the beginning of the Christian Era there was a significant Christian sub-community within them -- significant enough to send an emissary to amongst the first meeting of Asian Churches. Significant enough that the Knana legend mentions Christians already on the Malabar Coast.
When the advent of Islam changed the demographic of Arabia and much of Persia and the Eastern portion of the Roman Empire, there was a corresponding change in the demographic makeup of the West Asian derived communities along the Malabar coast.
These West Asian derived communities are generally called Mappilas and that's how I'll refer to them here.
"Face the facts, You are from the lower castes of Pariahs, etc. The Britsh, Portugeses and other Europeans needed a loyal support base. The Namputhris and Nayars are acste Hindus with special privileges, so they would not bother. Not so for the pariah etc. So it made sense to convert. Nothing wrong in being of indigenous Dravidian stock."

I'll address the issues in this backwards just to point out how out of touch with terminology Jagveer is:
  • For starters the "Pariahs" are not "Dravidians": By Pariahs I take it Jagveer means the untouchable communities present in every part of India that are expected to do those tasks considered polluting to caste communities.
  • The term Dravidian is a cultural term that refers to the language and religious practises of a peoples once prevalent across much of South Asia but now confined to the Southern regions of India and pockets of tribals in North India and elsewhere. There is nothing indigenous about the Dravidian culture -- rather its as indigenous as the Aryan one -- they are both considered to have spread into India along with migrants who were from these cultures.
  • So the Pariahs -- which is really a term for a caste cannot be conflated with "Dravidians" who can be anything from Brahmins to Christians to Muslims to ofcourse Shudras and Pariahs who speak the Dravidian language.

So back to the topic at hand -- fact facing:
  • If the Syrian Christians were created by Europeans who landed on the Malabar Coast how come there are clear uncontested records of their existence all the way from Rome, through Arabia to Persia?

  • How do you explain the large Muslim population in Kerala? Did we have an Arab invasion of Kerala that somehow converted all those Pariahs into Muslims? If you total up the numbers, Mappilas (Nasrani & Muslim) makeup 45% of Kerala's population. Thats an amazing number of conversions -- assuming ofcourse that conversions are the only way communities form.
  • Perhaps you have forgotten the Muslim Mappila Uprising of 1921 -- I was taught it as an important part of our Freedom struggle. Now the key element of the Uprising as any BJP fan will tell you is the large scale slaughter of landed Hindus (Nairs and Namboothiris) by Muslim mobs. Now why was this slaughter taught as one of the hallowed moments of the Freedom struggle in Kerala? Because the Brits loved the Malabar landed communities and they were loved by these communities in return. There are again plenty of records to show the Brits and the landed communities of the Malabar coast got along splendidly. The Brits didn't dismantle the feudal system -- far from it. They simply placed themselves on top of the chain, replacing kings/chieftains or reducing them to puppets with a pension.
  • So if the Brits needed a "loyal support base" they didn't have to look beyond the landed communities of India. Read any account of the civil and armed forces of British India for how many from these communities joined them. The Hindu feudal communities loved the Brits because the latter created stability and legitimized the formers positions in the hierarchy. I suppose some have stars in their eyes over how valiantly these communities fought the Brits. Sorry to burst their bubble. The Hindu landed looked up to the Brits as their savior from the yoke of Muslim rule.
  • There are no records of the Brits elevating any Christian convert to landed status as far as I know. And yet there were extremely powerful Syrian Christian landed families spread across the states of Travancore and Cochin. So how were these families elevated?
  • There are plenty of records to show Hindu kings and chieftians elevating Christian families to landed status before the arrival of the Europeans.
  •  There are plenty of records to show that certain trades and the labourers of these trades to be the monopoly of & under the protection of certain Christian families. So for example the working of gold was the monopoly of the Syrian Christians in Thrissur. The goldsmiths who performed this labour were under the protection of certain select Syrian Christian families. Perhaps that can explain the preponderance of Syrian Christians of that region to be in the gold business to this date.
Next the term Syrian Christians.
  • If we were indeed converted by Europeans how come the Syrian Catholic liturgy was in Syriac until the 1960s? How come the non-Catholic Syrians still use Aramaic? How come one never hears any of the masses of these rites sung in any European language?
  • What about the Syriac derived terms in the liturgy or the Syriac first names used amongst the Syrian Christians until the 1970s? Why honor West-Asian and Middle-Eastern Churches if the Syrian Christians are converts by Europeans
Finally the quote above opens with "Face the facts", when in reality we are not given any facts but reasoning based on knowledge limited to Jagveer's knowledge -- or rather Jagveer's ignorance. Ignorance aptly demonstrated by his conflating of the terms Pariahs and Dravidian. If thats as much as he knows about what are essentially Indian terms, what can he be expected to know about such a niche subject as the Syrian Christians?

"Take pride in your Indian origins rather than attempting to validate with legends."

  • Are you implying that there is something shameful about a non-Indian origin of a community?
  • Or are you implying that Syrian Christians are somehow ashamed of their primarily Indian blood?
  • Why should we be ashamed of a land that has given our peoples refuge, always allowed us to practice our beliefs and allowed us to thrive when in every other place in the world Christians have been persecuted?
  • In my opinion we'd be less proud of our Indianess if we were descendants of enslaved "Pariahs" than if we were descendants of a thriving community with privileges.

"Finally, Gondophernous is now clearly established as having ruled the area of Brahmanabad in Pakistan. So there goes the weak St Thomas link.
 Oh right, St.Thomas' visa allowed him to visit only one place in British India! :7
We didn't have proof for Gondophores independent of Syriac literature until those coins of his were discovered. If anything they lend credibility to the Syriac literature!
The St.Thomas legend will remain open ended until we have proof one way or the other. And has anything I've said depended on St.Thomas landing on the Malabar Coast? It would seem to me the St.Thomas legend follows from what I've written more than being the proof to what I've written.

13 December 2007

On the Syrian Christians (Nasrani Mappilas) and their origins

I would like to weigh in with my take on the origin of the Syrian Christians aka Nasrani Mappilas. Some of it is theoretical, some of it is based on folklore, some on known trends in Kerala&India. Some of the theory is mine, some of it is others. I will try to separate out each of these as I present my take on the history of the Syrian Christians(SyrChrs).

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is that it is well known and documented that the SyrChrs are not homogeneous - not culturally, not genetically nor in terms of social status.

Culturally the SyrChrs have practises that differ across localities as well as across families. Some SyrChrs families are considered "high" born while others are not considered so.

It is well known that SyrChrs practised polygyny (and in some cases polyandry) where the subsequent wives would be from socially lower (usually Hindu)communities. Further, many families and whole communities claim descent from Jewish settlers. Others claim Brahmin descent.

The differences in claimed descent meant that SyrChr communities were accorded different social statuses in different regions. In many areas they were perpetually in conflict with Nairs for patronage and the granting of privileges from the local kings or chieftains.

West Asian Identity
A key element that separates out the Mappila communities from the others in India and Kerala is the obvious West Asian influence. It is generally believed that this points to a West Asian origin for the communities. It is documented that around the beginning of the Christian era Muziris on Kerala's coast was the largest trading port on India's Western coast known for its West Asian settlements.
Trade in Early India, Oxford University Press says the following on page 66: "Thanks to a graphic description left behind by Pliny, historians are able to trace the development of the sea-route to the west coast of India in four-stages. The most developed route, which was also the shortest and safest,began from the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos and /or Berenice and reached the famous Malabar port of Muziris (Muciri of the Tamil Sangam texts) in forty days by following the Hippalus (i.e. the south-western monsoon) wind. Pliny states that the earliest point of maritime contacts between India and the West was Patalene in the Indus delta; the subsequent point was the port of Barbaricum on the middle mouth of the Indus. The third stage made Sigerius or Jaigarh on the Konkan coast the convenient harbour and finally, Muziris became the most important port of call." Essentially by the time Pliny wrote things down Muziris was well established as a major port of call for Roman shipping. Note that the term Roman refers in general to the peoples ruled by the Romans - which included portions of Arabia and regions around the Mediterranean - i.e. present day Palestine/Israel, Armenia and Africa.

The Indian Christians of St Thomas, Leslie Brown adds the following on page 60:"At first(from about 90 B.C.) ships went from Aden and other Arabian ports direct to Bombay and finally discovered how to sail direct, diagonally across to Muziris, the port of Malabar, instead of tacking laboriously down the coast. Malabar was in any case the end of the voyage. for it was from there that pepper, spices and precious stones were exported." He goes on to say on page 61 "We know something about the extent of this trade from references in Latin writers and from coins discovered in south India. Arikamedu was an established Roman trading station and the Peutinger Tables show a temple of Augustus near Muziris, and it is said that two Roman cohorts were stationed there to guard the warehouses. Pliny speaks with some dismay of a trade which cost the empire about one and a half million sesterces a year, chiefly for luxuries like pepper, ginger and precious stones, with no reciprocal export trade to compensate". On page 62 he says "Some Tamil classics(Silapadhigaaram, Manimekalai) also speak of this trade. One poem speaks of Muziris, where `agitating the white foam of the Periyar river, the beautifully built ships of the Yavanas(Westerners) came with gold and returned with pepper, and Muziris resounded with the noise'; and in another poem we read of the Pandya king drinking `the cool and fragrant wine brought by the Yavanas in their good ships'. We also read that some Indian rajas employed bodyguards of Western soldiers --`the valiant-eyed Yavanas whose bodies were strong and of terrible aspect'; who were `excellent guardians of the gates of the fort walls'."

Now nothing is mentioned of the ethnic makeup of these West Asians, but to me it seems to be primarily Semitic (Arabs and Jews), Persian, Armenian, Abyssinan, Egyptian and of course the Graeco-Roman elites themselves. It should also be noted that Muziris was famous before a direct sea-route to it was found.

These settlers would have been entire families/communities or simply male traders who setup factories on Kerala's shores. Many would have taken Indian wives. Over generations they would have formed a distinct community. It has been suggested that this could be the reason for the term Mappila(groom) being used to refer to them - a community formed by foreign grooms setting up families on Kerala's shores.

Many Jewish refugee communities found their way down to Kerala, typically travelling down the trading routes and settling in the relatively cosmopolitan trading locations on the Malabar Coast. J.N.Farquhar in "The Apostle Thomas in North India" (available in The Nazranies, edited by Prof. George Menachery) theorizes that the Jews were dispersed all the way from Syria to Parthia, many were engaged in trade and that for the Apostle Thomas "his kinsmen the Jews would be the chief objective". Essentially, he believes that any visit by the Apostle to Malabar would have been to proselytize amongst the thriving Jewish community "dispersed" as he puts it from Syria to Parthia with their communities extending all the way down to the Malabar coast. The Apostle's visit though very plausible will remain categorized as folklore until we can find definite proof of his visit to the Malabar region.

As Christianity began to catch on in West Asia (both Arabia and Persia) and later the Roman Empire, the religious make up of the Yavanas to Kerala's shores began to become more Christian. Their persecution in the early centures probably only added to their increased settlement on Kerala's shores. These Christian communities would eventually be called Nasrani Mappilas.

Another major development in West Asian Christianity mirrored in Kerala is the (East)Roman vs Parthian empire hostility that resulted in the East and West Syrian Churches. Today this is represented by the Syro-Malankara and Jacobite&Orthodox denominations following a West Syriac liturgy (centered around present day Syria & Lebanon) while the Syro-Malabar, Chaldean and Church of the East following an East Syriac derived liturgy (centered around present day Iraq & Iran). It is very likely that both Churches had communities in Kerala in obedience to them within years of the split.

With the advent of Islam the demographic of the Mappilas would have started changing again. There might have been a brief increase in settlements from those escaping persecution, following which the number of Muslims amongst the West Asians would have increased - especially amongst the Arabs.

As documented by Leslie Brown(page 81) the Muslim settlers would eventually push the Christian ones into the hinterland. Contact with West Asians would now be primarily Muslim, but Christian and Jewish traders would continue to visit Kerala's shores.

Unions with Indian communities and social integration

With the decrease in overseas Christian contacts, the Nasrani Mappila communities would have become more Indianized.

The Mappilas were patronized for the money they brought in to the coffers of the various kings and chieftains under whose suzerainty they traded. As their numbers increased they would have provided soldiers and weapons to their chieftains which in turn would have been rewarded with grants of land and social privileges. Some communites like the Knanaya community were granted land on immigration. This coupled with the loss of control of the trading ports to the Muslims would have resulted in the Nasranis becoming a landed community growing the spices and timber they historically traded.

Leslie Brown notes(pages 169-171) that in a lot of areas SyrChrs and Nairs were considered equals and were constantly in competition for royal patronage and privilege. The SyrChrs took wives and very likely accepted grooms after the Marumakkathayam fashion from amongst the Nairs.
Excerpts from The Indian Christians of St Thomas, Leslie Brown page 169:"They were given charge of the collection of revenue for the rajas in certain places and in the fourteenth century Marignolli found that they were in charge of the public weighing office in the Quilon customs. Associated with concessions in the pepper and other trades was the grant of service from certain castes and the responsibility of protecting them." On page 171 he writes: "The Christians shared many other things besides names with the Nayars. They occasionally took wives from that community, and their children often went to school with Nayar children...Many families still have certain privileges in the temples which are believed to have been granted in recognition of some service given or some present made in former times. For example at the Arat festival in Parappatattu temple the oldest member of the Pulikkamarrattil family of Syrians (who bore the title of Panikkar or Menon)had the right to go before the image of the deity and received rice and other presents". On page 170 he says: "The other privileges granted by the rajas were of use in establishing the position of the Christians in society and as such were most jealously guarded. In the sixteenth century the raja of Paravur tried to give similar privileges to the Nayaras of his State but the Christians rose in armed revolt and forced him to change his mind"

It is likely that in places where Nairs and Christians were on par socially, or the latter higher (as in Paravur above), it is my belief that the increasing social clout of the SyrChrs would have resulted in some of these families being able to participate in the practice of Marumakkathayam with scions of Namboothiri families.
[Briefly Marumakkathayam amongst Namboothiris involved only the oldest son in a family taking a Namboothiri bride. Other sons would essentially move into households of non-Namboothiri landed communities and father children by the women in these households in a relationship called Sambandhams, living off the household(s) until their death. The children from these unions would not be considered Namboothiris. This allowed the patrilineal Namboothiris to not have to divide up their ancestral property. It also allowed the non-Namboothiri household to increase their social standing and build blood ties with this powerful land owning community at the apex of the caste structure along the Malabar coast]

The children born to these marriages would claim Namboothiri descent on the male side (the SyrChrs were patrilineal) and the families of today that claim Brahmin blood very likely are descended from these unions. In my opinion the commonly repeated folklore of Namboothiri conversions by the Apostle Thomas could be an attempt at hoariness by these families in the vein of Aryanization common to communities in the Indian sub-continent.

Various sources including Leslie Brown and such documents as the Synod of Diamper mention the practice of cohabition with Indian slave women - i.e. women from the oppressed labour communities of Kerala. This would have resulted in the children from these marriages becoming part of the SyrChr communities.
The Synod of Diamper has a "Decree XI" in it's "Action IX. Of the Reformation of Manners." section that reads: "Whereas there are great numbers of Christians who for want of having the Fear of God and the Church before their Eyes, do cohabit publickly with Concubines, to the great scandal of Christianity; the Vicars shall therefore with great Charity admonish all such Offenders, three times declaring to them, That if they do not reform, they must declare them Excommunicate, and if after so many Admonitions they do not turn away their Concubines, they must be Excommunicated until they are effectually parted, and be punished with other Penalties at the pleasure of the Prelate, according to the time that they have lived in that Sin, and when it shall so happen that their Concubines are their Slaves, they shall constrain them not only to turn them out of their Houses, but to send them out of the Country where they live, that there may be no more danger of their relapsing, which shall be likewise observed as to all other Women where there is the same danger."

The SyrChr communities continued to be churned as the fortunes of the kings & chieftains they owed allegiance to changed over time. The strange bubble like nature of the caste system prevalent in Kerala allowed the SyrChr communities to retain their West Asian customs and practices to a significant degree.

--Veliath (originally posted to a discussion board on wikipedia.org at 12:45, 20 May 2006 UTC)