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]

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