3 June 2019

On history’s twists and influences

Translated transcript of my interview with Rev. Fr. Dr. Joseph Cheeran. This retired professor of UC College, Aluva, currently stays at his son’s residence at Mookkannur but restricted to his room due to glaucoma.

Popularly known as ‘Cheeranachen’, this Malayalam vidwan later turned out to become a prominent church-historian and writer.

His blindness hasn’t reduced his passion on history. Like a fount of knowledge, Achen spewed forth information, connections, dates and arguments when I touched upon these topics.

What were the Saint Thomas Christians here generally referred to as, in those earlier centuries? Was it like 'Nazarani' or 'Suriyani'?
Nazaranis was a term used by the Muslims for the Christians, in fact sometimes in a derogatory way like the Syro-Malabars (Catholics) once called the Orthodox-faction Puthenkootkar (New-party).

Historically I think we were mostly referred to as Suriyanikaar (The Syrians), as Suryoye too in some other historical materials.

Let me put some warning [smiles] about my views - You should understand that our questions on history comes arises from the conflict of a new information against the notions that we were already fed with. The latter are mostly WRONG!

So sometimes my views can be radical and eccentric [smiles]

For example, we were told to believe is that we, Syrian Christians, are direct-descendants of Namboothiris (Kerala Brahmins). Another story is the Persian church connection through the Knai Thommen immigration. Another is our ecclesial connection with the Church of Antioch. These are all just stories we have been fed. As we study, a new morsel of information may clash with our current view and thats when we have questions.
[Laughs] That's Ok, I can handle that.
I do not believe the Namboothiri-descendance of the Suriyanis. If the Apostle (Thomas) came here in the first century, then there would be no Namboothiris here then! This would create some heartburn for certain people but it’s the truth I believe.

The Malayalam work Keralolpathi shows the legitimacy of Brahmin-ownership of Kerala, that Kerala was created by Parasuraman and was 'given' to them.

The smart Suriyanikaars may have made up a descendancy story for themselves to highlight their antiquity. But I hear now they are being cross-questioned on this claim [smiles]
Hmm. Now let me come to one topic I always wanted to ask someone: the Arthattu church in Kunnamkulam, Thrissur. I heard some claims on this being the church that Thomas first built. Is there any evidence to this?
You have heard of that song sung by Yesudas on the Ezharapalligal (the seven and a half churches) that goes like "Niranam, Palayur, Nilackal ... ". I have been to this Palayur church, the supposedly first of the seven and half churches that St. Thomas established.
The church-members seem very active in promoting this church. I saw some of their hand-outs, but in these it states that the church was established in the name of St Kuriakos. Wasn’t this Saint of the 4th century?  They also point out a lake where the Namboothiris were evangelized. Their museums suggest they are trying hard to connect it also to the Namboothiri-conversion story.
With the little bit of geography in us we can see that Palayur is a place that came up as the sea receded in the past and is currently all flat lands.
I did notice something artificial there myself when I visited too.
I feel their activeness in promoting it as a Thomasine spot was a little too stretched. This made me think and investigate.

The Namboothiri-settlements proximity cannot be wholly discounted, as per "Aryanmarude Kudiyettom" series by Kannipayyoor Shankaran Namboothiripad says that they, the Namboothiri Brahmins, arrived and settled at the Ponnani coast. Which is very near Palayur & Arthattu, but now in Malappuram district. By near I meant walkable in the 5th or 6th century [smiles], in those days it is far only if it takes more than a day to reach.

We were taught that the Chera kingdom capital was Kodungallur. However, what we fail to see is that there were multiple dynasties, and that an earlier Chera kingdom had Ponnani as the port & capital. Elamkulam Kunjan stated that there were at least two Chera kingdoms/dynasties.

The current Palayur church apparently has enough Namboothiri or rather Hindu-like associations - the pond, some architectures, items found around etc. So, we cannot fully negate that story.

On their fixation with the Namboothiris, I could then theorize that Palayur was a chapel or church after this 5th/6th century migration. There is also a possibility that it was established by a latter-day figure in Suriyanikaar history, like say Knai Thommen. Note that this too is a Thomas! Over time history can forget the accuracies.
Some of our resources says that Knai Thommen arrived here in the 4th century, but then it doesn’t coincide with the arrival of the Namboothiris.

I think one Prof Antony and one Prof K.S.I. Balakrishnan had studied the Knai Thommen Chepped (grants on copper leaves that have disappeared) and they say it’s in a 9th century language. So now if we connect all these together into the 9th century - then there were Namboothiris here, there is a ‘Thomas’ arrival and then we could assume some evangelization. Then our traditional stories fit.
...and going back to the original Thomasine church topic then?
Yes. The nearest kunnu (Hill) is the Arthattu kunnu. I think this is the Judah kunnu (Jew Hill) of yore. Even today The Arthattu-kunnu is geographically the nearest high-point. St Thomas (as with all the disciples of Jesus) probably came here to spread the news to the Jews. Probably there was a synagogue here, which was later converted. I say this because the Arthattu Pally (Arthat St Mary's Orthodox Cathedral) still retain some Jewish touches, in my view, in its layouts and inner most sanctum. Different from almost all churches in Kerala.
Can you elaborate on these differences?
As in the Old testament in the temple there is a place for the laity, then a place for the purohitanmar (priests) and then there is a space for the mahapurohitanmar (high-priests), that which is entered only once in a year.
Even though the Arthattu pally was renovated or rebuilt multiple times, they happened to maintain this layout. There is a second thiraseela (curtain to the altar) of the inner-most sanctum exist for this pally, though nowadays it’s mostly decorative and kept always open.

Secondly, it is well known about the mercantile-culture of the Kunnamkulam people. Writings by many attests people to a Jewish character. In the 1800s one Dr. Francis Buchanan visited Kerala & Mangalore to assess the damages by Tipu. Dr. Buchanan had met the local Kunnamkulam 'Papa’ and records that he had a ‘Jewish appearance’.
Hmmm. And is the name of the place Arthattu or Palur or Palayaur?
Arthattu is the location of the Valiyapally (Mother Church). Original name of the area was Palur. As per records, there did exist another church or chapel or cross at Chavakkad. Chattukulangara is another earlier name of Arthattu. Along history different names will be in vogue.

Dr. Francis Buchanan's travelogue says he left 'Palur church’ and then went to ‘Chavakkad church’. As late as in 1800s, there was no ‘Palayur church’ at Chavakkad!
And Chavakkad Papa & Kunnamkulam Papa is mentioned to be under the same bishop (sixth Marthoma?) residing in Travancore then - so that means whatever existed at Chavakkad not with the Catholics even then.

But from certain records it seems there brewed a dispute between two camps (originating since the Synod of Diamper in the 16th century). As per Pukadiyil Ittoop Writer, two churches didn’t participate in the call for the above Synod - Thiruvithamcode Arappally and Chattukulangara pally. My assumption is that - Chattukulangara church and Thiruvithamkode church were outside the influence of the Travancore-Cochin kingdom alliance and so didn’t have to pay heed to Archbishop Menezes’s invite. These churches were in Zamorin land and in Tamil land. But the Chavakkad church did go and signed in as 'Palur' church – maybe because they belonged then catholic splinter camp. These questions got me thinking - were the two churches of the same diocese, one being a chapel of the other?

There is a song-book called Arthattu pallypattu, wherein it says that in 1829 there was a situation when these two churches were closed and only their cemeteries were used for funerals. And that there was a plea for settlement, from the two camps, to Shaktan Thampuran. While assessing and rebuilding the damages from Tipu’s Padayottam (Incursion into Kerala in late 18th century), he came to Kunnamkulam - Kunnamkulam was under 4 chieftains Thalapally, Chiralayam… and two other that I cannot recollect the names. Thampuram consolidated the 4 regions and even told to vacate a rarely used Kavu and one of kshetram to be let-off to the Kunnumkulam people of that area in between. This Anthimalankavu is now Amballapally (Literally means Temple-Church).

He called the two parties to hear their cries, went back to Thrissur saying he will provide a judgement shortly. He told his minister (I suspect this to be the then Paliath Achen) to draw lots to decide of which church goes to which camp. The result as per the song-book is that, Suriyanis got Arthattu pally. The kurishupally (Cross housing) at Chavakkad, was by 1806 a chapel that the Catholics party had to be satisfied with.
But how is it that Palayur claims to be the first church of St Thomas now?
Propaganda. Since the time the Catholics had to reconcile with what they got, the Chavakkad chapel or kurishupally. They were of the same edavakka (diocese) and so can claim their descendancy from the ancient traditions.
I assume they introduced a name 'Palayur' to sound similar to 'Palur'. There was no hill around that chapel, so they may have added one hill name for authenticity [smiles]. They have been quite active in promoting this for a long time now - I think many of the items in their museum are to exhibit or highlight the antiquity. I won’t be surprised if many of those artefacts were just collected or bought over time. Any single-minded missions work in the long run [smiles]

Additionally, I came across another piece of information - I used to teach at UC College, had some Catholic priests as my students. I once got a chance to visit one of their seminaries, at Manannam, with them. There is a huge manuscript archive from which I chanced upon a notebook (I had noticed the words word 'Chattukulangara' or 'Arthattu' in it).  Borrowed, read it and found that it is written by one of the then priests from the Catholic Palayur/Chavakkad church – the content sounded like a call to promote the church as one with the ancient historical pasts.
So it is now my conviction that the Arthattu church was earlier churches (first church of St Thomas, if this particular aspect can be proved!) and not the one at Chavakkad.
I had read in a story of Kadamattathu Achen (The Priest of Kadamattam in book Aithihyamala) leaving to a Ponnani church. I was wondering if there is such an ancient church at the present day Ponnani. Is this the Arthattu/Chattukulangara being referred to? Cause that seems the nearest & oldest around Ponnani?
Possible. Names change in history.
You see there was once a place called Machaad - now there is no such place but an area of places like Thiruvanikavu, Punnaparambu, Thekkumkara etc. Similarly, Palur may have been a name of the area.

During the ‘Aryan’ (Brahmin) immigration, the Brahmins named their illoms (House) with the corresponding place names of the times - like Deshamangalom Mana. Similarly, there is a Paalur Mana, which is near Pazhanji (a place close to Arthattu) my native place.

Since Arthattu church was the original apostolic church of the area, the place was also once called Thalapally (Head Church). Even when the area was divided into taluks, this taluk was named Thallapally taluk. When there was a chieftain over here they were called thallapally rajavamshom.
Nice Info. Going to another topic - Do you think we (Suriyanis) have any Assyrian backgrounds also? Other than the obvious Jewish that you are coming to with the story so far.
Yes. You must have heard of the place Ninevah in Iraq - there are some historians who say there were migrations from this place to the western coasts of India even during BC times! The ancient Babylonians is said to have migrated to different parts of the world, some would have come here to a long time ago.
Some say that our Maveli (Mahabali, a legendary, famed ruler of this land) is an Asur as in Asurbanipal [smiles]. NV Krishna Warrier, if I remember correctly, even wrote an article wherein he wonders whether our Onam is an imported festival. He tries to connect the earthen squares mounds, used in Onam festival times representing Onathappan (Onam Deity), to the mounds found in Ninevah! Note that such an idol is unique in Hinduism.

Oh!? Is it?
If NV Krishna Warrier wrote this, we have don’t need any salt to digest it [smiles]. He is ten Sukumar Azhikodes! He was an authority in his works.
Interesting. That was something new for me to dig into. And why was everyone flocking into this land (Malankara/Malabar/Kerala) in the past.
There was a thriving commerce here, predating Christianity with the Mediterranean region. Notably Alexandria.
One of our earliest literary-period is called Sanga-kaalam (Sangam period). Resources from this period mentions the foreign trade we have had here.
The Jews flock wherever in the world there is a chance of making money. The Arabs controlled most of the commerce in the Arabian Sea area. The Arabs were settled in the Malabar region much earlier too...notably around Ponnani. Jews were the conduits to the Arabs. There were Jews settled in and around Chattukulangara.
Much of the destination of the charakks (Consignment) from our land ended up at Alexandria.
Alexandria? I always thought it was through the Gulf route.
Even before the Suez Canal there was a route through the Red Sea to reach Alexandria. From there the cargo was distributed to Rome and other ports within the Mediterranean Sea.
There is a research thesis by one P.K. Gopalakrishnan, published by Kerala Sahithya Academy. It describes of the trade route from Ponnani to Alexandria. Goods were stored and wholesaled by the Jews here and passed onto the Arabs for the shipping towards Alexandria.
Because of the Arab's frequent on this sea, it was termed as Arabian Sea. Before this period, it was called in other names such as Erythraean Sea.
So, St Thomas could have come here to meet up with his brethren here ...one of the Jewish diasporas?
Good, seems you have read a bit [smiles] That word 'diaspora', yes, he may have come here to meetup with a then well-known Jewish settlement of that time and spread the good news of the Lord. All the apostles did the same – went out to broadcast the message to the Jewish diaspora. Only St Paul went to a different crowd - the Gentiles.
And they spoke to them in their language (whatever the form of Aramaic /Syriac). They could not have known the local languages.

Therefore, I say our sabha has a Judeo-Christian origin. It was latter that we had cross-pollinated with other ethnics and traditions such as Alexandrian, Assyrian, and even Antiochian.
According to you, since When did we have the Eastern Christian affiliation. Specifically, the Church of the East?
Before that I must highlight one more thing ...

In the early times, our connection was with Alexandria more than other ports as the historical trade routes suggest. Note that an early theologian Pantaneus, from Alexandria, visited here in AD 190! If he travelled all the way here in such a time in the past, this place cannot have been an insignificant place or have an insignificant Christian population. It seems he was invited here to represent the Saint Thomas Christians for some theological debates with the local philosophers.

I think it is from here (Alexandria) that we got introduced to certain priestly traditions – such our ecclesial organization. Each of our churches has a Kassissa (Priest), twelve Kassissa form a council and elect/anoints a first among equals (referred sometimes as Moopen, Elder, later to be known as Bishop). Then another kassisa is added to make it the 12 again.

Fr. Dr. V.C. Samuel Achen (one of our well known learned priests) had studied the Alexandrian Christianity & it’s history well and also mentions this connection I mentioned. Platonic Academy of Alexandria also elaborates on the above system of appointment.

That is why we here dared to do something similar in AD 1653 - ordaining the first Marthoma by laying hands of twelve priests at Alengad.

This Alexandrian styled tradition, I think, prevailed here till even around 4th or 5th century. After this the Vanchinad-Chera dynasty was destroyed by the Pandya & Chola kingdoms. after this the second Chera dynasty came up and was established with Kodungalloor as port – then onwards we start seeing the Persian intercourse arrivals and intercourse. Since the 9th century at least some six or seven visitations, from around Persia, have been recorded. But note that even then the Babylon Patriarch were the same for both West and East Arameans. Only after they adopted Nestorian it split and became two different churches. Delegates from both these camps have visited at different times and there may have been belts of the two camps here too. Even the catholic spin-off from the Assyrian church had sent emissaries here. We accepted anybody who came in Christian vestments or in the name of Jesus, we hadn’t been aware of all the splits and differences happening globally.

We even accepted the Portuguese version of Christianity from AD 1498 to AD 1599 – but this time we became uncomfortable with the many limitations that were imposed. Took us about 100 years to see the difference. But I say we were also made to align with the Assyrian ways for an even longer time. I say, the Assyrian church of the East in Thrissur cannot be claimed as the ancient church of Kerala. They are nothing but the Romo-Syrians (Catholics) who shed their Catholic clothes and aligned back with their most-familiar earlier avatar – the Nestorian church of the East.
So, what you are sayings is that we Saint Thomas Christians were always a hybrid (heterodox, I can call that) cross-pollinated by the various influences we have had since the beginning of the community? That we may be even a mixture of communities.
We existed and survived. I doubt the early Saint Thomas Christian (that we now refer to as Suriyanikkar) even labelled themselves ‘Catholic’, ‘Suryoye’, ‘Orthodox’, ‘Assyrian’ etc. then.
We were a simple community with very few and concise rituals. Occasionally a visitor, in a Shepard’s clothes, added spice to our ways of life and contributed to the community culture.
Coming to conciseness, why is our (orthodox) rituals so elaborate and lengthy?
I have read a book by Pope Clement of Rome in which there was just 1 paragraph for the whole Chrism consecration ritual ! - so simple, but now all these rituals have grown in length. Even the Qurbana (Holy Mass) of those time were extremely short

What I am trying to suggest also is what you see now is not exactly how it was before - the community, the rituals, the affiliations have all gone through some churn, evolution, some sophistication and now some polarization.
Tell me - Mar Sabor, Afroth, Knai Thoma are these real persons or just myths. To me Knai Thoma seems to be with the weakest evidence.
According to Kesari Balakrishnan our mythical Perumthachen (Master Carpenter figure from the book Aithihyamala ) and Knai Thoma maybe the same person [smiles] No evidences then its very difficult to prove anything.
The West Syriacs (script and the rites) that the Orthodoxies here use, this is but of course a later influence, right?
I once found some East-Syriac (Chaldeac script) scribblings in a page within a West-Syrian (Serto) language Taksha (Liturgy). There was a mention of the place Angamaly in it. I sent it to Dr. Sebastian Brock requesting for translation. He reverted very sincerely, and it seems this was letter of request, to one of the patriarchates, from the Angamaly church for a bishop.

I think West-Syriac was fully-introduced here, by 1685, with the Kothamangalam Bava (Eldho Mar Baselios (now Saint Baselios Yeldo of the Jacobites).
I heard many of the so-called visiting bishops, of that time, were not exactly who they seemed they were.
[smiles] Yes. Many of these bishops were not of true Antiochian affiliation, in fact neither of the Church of East origin. That includes the Kothamangalam Bava! He was an East Syrian (Persian) but of the Antiochian tradition [smiles]. Confused? Just like we are not Antiochians, we are but Indians currently using the Antiochian rites; Kothamangalam Bava was from Persia (Iraq), used East Syriac but belonged to the Antiochian Orthodox church.

One from the real Antiochian camp was Yuyakim Koorilos.

Some of these visiting bishops also had Armenian connections. I had requested for the examination of some of the items Eldho Mar Baselios brought with him, to examine any insignias, affiliations etc. The Jacobites didn’t share this with me. Seems at that time the church he belonged to had multiple influences - Armenian, Antiochian, Alexandrian. There are lots of splinter or spin-off hybrid-churches we aren’t aware of.

It is pure curiosity that led me to all these interesting findings – also chancing upon that letter in book, being able to recognize East Syrian, having good connects to Dr. Brock, etc.
To study history, we need an open mind and lots of curiosity. I don’t think anyone in our Sabha has this and so nobody bothered to go beyond what were fed to them. But some on the Catholic side were curious and they have managed to collect some good resources, but they chose to interpret or exhibit it as per their agenda.

I had written a book on Kothamangalam Bava - the known story is that one team left here to meet the Patriarch (of Antioch). When the petition was read the Patriarch asked his council who was ready to go to Malankara. Seems Eldho Mar Baselios Bava volunteered. But … this is the wrong story. The real story is that some merchants from Angamali sent a letter to the Patriarch. The materials available suggest like a written contract appointing Eldho Mar Baselios for a three-year term to support the trade between the two places - more like a trade deed!

Same with Paravur Bava (Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel interred in the North Paravur church). I got some resources from the Thozhiyur church - these documents were the sthathikons  (authorization for appointing bishop). Here Mar Aprem thirumeni helped me get this translated from Dr. Sebastian Brock (that is before I had any direct connect with Dr. Brock). I had some difficulty reading it because it seems it was Syriac-Arabic Garshuni. I could only recognize the name of Abdul Jaleel in the documents. It mentions ‘Metropolitan’ in many places, seems he was under the Episcopacy of Caesarea. The Jacobites, when retrospectively wanted to strengthen the Antiochian connection after the local Orthodox-Jacobite feud, tried to show Mar Abdul Jaleel as a Jerusalem Patriarch who is in relationship with Antiochian Patriarch. From my studies he seems to be a ‘Chaldeo-Catholic’ Metropolitan. My book had concluded this - got some resistance (expectantly) from the Jacobites. My articles was pushed aside because the Jacobite camp is strong here, newspaper get full-page ad coverages from their churches [smiles]

What I am saying is that this Antiochian connection is only of 18th century.

During one of their exhibitions, I requested the Jacobites to allow me to examine the bishop’s Kappa (Cope) to derive his affiliations- they didn’t allow it.
You see till the sixth Marthoma’s time, we didn’t use that pumpkin-shaped cope. It was Pulikottil thirumeni who used this the first time. Till then it was like what the Thozhiyur and Marthoma sabha thirumenis used - a three-pointed cope, they call it Mothalavaa-en (Crocodile-mouthed) cope
Yes! I remember this in one of the images of a Marthoma in Angamali church walls.
Rev. Claudius Buchchan was handed over one ancient bible written in Peshitta Syriac. I hear that this bible was from the 9th century! So, doesn’t that suggest we were exposed to West Syriac and West-Syriac rites since at least those times?
Who said it was here since the 9th century? It was here yes at the time Buchanan came, true. Around 1800s, the rites and traditions of West Syria was imported, the bible could have come during this time along with one of the bishops. My suspicion is that this was brought here by Shakrallah Bava.
Can one recognize the mixed influences in one of the old churches here?
Architecturally difficult, as most are redone already. Most of our church have had multiple influences as I elaborated.
It may be that none of the church were totally immune to influences of history. In my edavakka, the famous Pazhanji church, has some old records. In it I have seem one book with East Syriac script of Catholic rites! [smiles] Probably from the Catholic days of our history, this liturgy was followed in Pazhanji church. And possibly at Angamali & Arthattu churches too once.

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