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.


JOB said...

Very good rebuttal. Individual families have undertaken the task of tracing their genealogies which sometimes do contain legends of conversion, but I guess these would be more of tales than facts.

More importantly, what matters is not what stock SyrChrs have come from, but the fact that they are (mostly atleast) able to blend the culture of Kerala (and therefore of India) with the Christian Faith without any identity crisis.

Anonymous said...

Dude I've heard that long back there was a christian kingdom somewhere in Kerala or may be south India. Could you please enlighten me on that?

FlipFlop said...

If you are referring to the Vilarvattom dynasty then yes I too have read about it in some books. Seems like there was a Christian rajah in Cochin whose family line died out or something. Check any of those SyrChr history books.

Anonymous said...

this jagveer is one bigot..and bigots like him spoil the air..

Anonymous said...

Good rebuttal and all...

But d article seemed to somehow suggest "we" were predominantly "immgirants" from somewhere post Anno Domini.

We are INDIAN, more Indian than Indians.

We have so many Hindu customs and traditions, many brahmin names etc in our fold.

The Synod of Diamper, if u check its decrees, most of em were aimed at suppressing HINDU ways of life, rather than "jewish/semitic".

In aiming to counter sanghparivar propaganda, we mustnt excape to foreign identities and seek to separate us from our ancestors....who were predominantly Hindu.

Anonymous said...


Donutshop said...

That last comment was absolutely idiotic. You obvious have no concept of historical data in the region if you reference the 17th century to talk about Syrian Christian origins. The rebuttal was very good and on the lines of what most historians (who have actually read and studied these thing, unlike most of the people making comments) believe.

There's nothing wrong with having an ancestry, that centuries ago, migrated into India. Several other Indian communities also share that status. And it doesn't make someone more or less "Indian" than other Indian people. Phrases like that indicate statements are driven by emotion than reality.

Donutshop said...

Noting that Syrian Christians today live more in high ranges than port areas, meaning that they can't have descended from Jews, is like saying that they also have high numbers in the Gulf so they must be descendants of sheiks. Not only is the statement inaccurate (Syrian Christians have large populations in non-high range areas), it's also driven by illogical and ignorant thinking. If someone writes a column and provides historical data in line with what most historians believe (and they've studied and researched the data, unlike most of the people leaving comments), how is it that you think an equivalent disputing argument is that some Syrian Christians bought a house in a high range area in the 19th and 20th centuries?

I thought the rebuttal was good (although unnecessary considering the quality of the offending argument). There's nothing wrong with suspecting that Syrian Christian may have immigrant roots stemming from outside of India. The fact is that they are very much a part of India. And no, they're not "more Indian than Indians", what facts are there to prove a statement like that, aside from being driven by emotion and lack of reasoning?

Siju George said...

That was a nice answer. However, the major reason for our proud should be Jesus Christ. Everything else is nothing in front of him.

Kattackal Tomsan said...

I am 54 as of April 2015. I was born in 1960. While I was a kid our church services were in Syriac, of course, transliterated in Malayalam. I can still remember a few Syriac hymns and prayers (in part).