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Paper by Prof. George MENACHERY
Mt. St. Thomas, November 2001
Ecumenical Seminar on The Cultural Heritage
of the St. Thomas Christians - Our Efforts to Preserve It :
The Syro-Malabar Church

One might justly feel frightened standing before such an august assembly of the most distinguished ecclesiastical dignitaries and scholars of this calibre; but for discussing the particular topic of this seminar Kerala cannot offer any forum more appropriate than this one. Especially, to discuss the topic of this specific paper viz. The Cultural Heritage of the Syro-Malabar Church and Our Efforts to Preserve It there could be no group of people anywhere else, more competent or more earnest, than is present here.
The topic of this seminar, one feels, has been wisely chosen since on the one hand there can be no two opinions about the invaluable nature of the cultural wealth of the St. Thomas Christians, and on the other hand such another topic does not exist with practically no scope for controversy or mutual suspicion or petty jealousy . There is to be found today considerable unanimity of opinion among all the Churches of the St. Thomas Christians and among the sub-groups thereof, both among scholars and the People of God in general, regarding the need to study, research, preserve, and propagate this unique heritage - everyone expressing the strongest desire to earnestly cooperate, actively collaborate, and determinedly work together towards that end without any reservations. As was discovered in the course of more than one seminar held here1 the cultural heritage of the community could be an effective binding force and one of the strongest rallying points - perhaps the chief one at the moment - that could unite all the groups and all the Churches that adhere to the St. Thomas tradition in a meaningful spirit of ecumenism.
What is Kerala culture? Who are the true inheritors of Kerala culture? When one looks at the near consensus among scholars2 that the Brahmins (Nampoothiris) arrive in Kerala only much later than the third century C.E., their dominance decernible only after the 9th-10th centuries, and that the Nairs appear on the scene only after the twelfth century and even then only as Sudras as they are till this date, one might reasonably surmise that Mar Thoma Nazranies were the most influencial community in Kerala in the first centuries. Perhaps upto the year 849 (24 M.E.) when Ayyanadikal confers3 once again the seventytwo aristocratic / royal privileges on the Palli (church) and the Palliyars (Christians) these Christians combined in
themselves all the attributes of the Brahmins (Purohitas), the Kshatriyas (soldiers and rulers), and the Vysyas (traders and entrepreuners)4.
Before proceeding any further let us take another look at this oft-used but much abused term culture. One uses the word culture in different contexts: When we say in English, Shes a very cultured woman, what we generally mean is Shes had a good education and knows a lot about art, music, painting etc. Similarly Shes a person of culture would mean She likes and knows a lot about literature, art, music, etc. But there is much more to culture than all this.
Other phrases come to mind: phrases like Culture Shock, Culture Gap, Cultural Stereotype, Cultural Cringe, and Culture Vulture.5 Culture has been defined in various ways, but the truth is, so far a universally accepted definiton of culture has not yet been found. Kroeber and Kluckhohn list in their book Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions6 about 250 definitions and even this list is not complete. Not to become too involved philosophically attention may simply be directed to the excellent article Culture at the Service of Evangelisation in India by Stephen Fuchs.7
In order to emphasise the point that in the phrase Cultural Heritage Culture means much more than art, architecture, sculpture, literature, music &c. a few more quotations one may be kindly permitted to be reproduce.
Culture is that complex whole which indudes knowledge, belief, art, morals, laws, customs and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.8
Culture is everything. Culture is the way we dress, the way we carry our heads, the way we walk, the way we tie our ties it is not only the fact of writing books or building houses.9
The Nature of Culture: Culture is based on the uniquely human capacity to classify experiences, encode such classifications symbolically, and teach such abstractions to others. It is usually acquired through enculturation, the process through which an older generation induces and compels a younger generation to reproduce the established lifestyle; consequently, culture is embedded in a persons way of life. Culture is difficult to quantify, because it frequently exists at an unconscious level, or at least tends to be so pervasive that it escapes everyday thought.
Thus the existence and use of culture depends upon an ability possessed by humans alone. It refers to behaviour peculiar to Homo sapiens, together with material objects used as an integral part of this behaviour. Hence culture includes language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, and ceremonies, among other elements.10
The rock edicts11 and copperplate grants12, various Granthavaries, the Ramban Song13, the Margam Kali Pattukal 14, the Pallippattukal 15, and other such songs, the letters and reports of the Portuguese and the Dutch, the Acts and Decrees of the Synod of Diamper16 contain much information for the various aspects of the culture of the St. Thomas Christians. But the most .....3
important source is the collective memory of the people, and the existing customs and traditions, in addition to the extant works of art, architecture etc.17 Works by Ferroli, Schurhammer, and Placid, and the efforts of the three Hs :Heras, Hosten, and Hambye have contributed greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the Thomas Christian cultual heritage.
To understand, appreciate, and conserve the cultural heritage of the Syro-Malabar Church one must study all the aspects mentioned above in detail vis-a-vis the cultural heritage of all the other Thomas Christians and the cultural heritage of Kerala.. These streams are generally quite similar and often identical with each other. In a short paper of this length justice cannot be done to even a single aspect of this heritage. However let us deal with some items at random, knowing full well that the selection is bound to be arbitrary, and the treatment haphazard.
As the documentary video film screened earlier showed a number of examples of the various works of art in the Syro-Malabar churches it is not necessary to go into all that again here. Suffice it to say the works of art and architecture in wood, metal, ivory, stone, colours, plaster, shells, cloth, etc. in Thomas Christian churches and households form a considerable proportion of art objects in Kerala and their position qualitatively and quantitatively in the heirarchy of Keralas art tradition cannot be questioned. Among the objects in these churches which contribute much to the artistic superiority of Kerala may be counted the huge pillarless roofs and roof decorations, the belfrys, the altarpieces, the ceilings, the wooden rostra (Pushpakkoodu), the processional RoopaKkoodu, the wooden candlesticks, the open-air granite crosses, the copper-sheathed flagstaffs, the rock lampstands and the array of rock (chuttuvilakku) lamps on the huge Aanamathil, facades and their plaster images, baptismal fonts, bronze bells and vessels, wood and ivory statues, wooden boxes, gold and silver crosses, colourful processional umbrellas, multicoloured mural paintings, wooden panels, goldcoated woodcarvings, and a thousand and one other items. True some of these are of post-Portuguese origin. But typologically and from the point of view of the techniques used most of these are typically Keralite and often typically christian in origin and use.
One of Indias most celebrated festivals is the Pooram festival of Thrissur. This festival was planned, organised and established by Shaktan Tamburan of Cochin just two hundred years ago. Perhaps the most attractive item of this festival is the celebrated Thekkottirakkam with the heavenly sight of the changing of the colourful umbrellas. It is this changing of the umbrellas that brings to the Thekkinkad Maidan large numbers of visitors from India and abroad every year. Although even the smallest Syro-Malabar church has a dozen colourful Muthukkudas in its possession from the time of its establishment, it being an item of the 1500 years old 72 privileges of Kerala christians. These churches or their festivals are not very famous compared to the two centuries old Pooram. It is not having these art objects that matters, but using ones cultural wealth to the best advantage for the greater glory of God and man.
Adi Sankaracharya in his 64 so-called anacharams made white cloth compulsory for Brahmin men and women. He made nasal ornaments taboo for Kerala Brahmin womenfolk (i.e.the Antharjanams). Today the njori forms part of the costume of aristocratic Nampoothiri women. Brahmin women everywhere else use dark-coloured dresses. Elsewhere they always use nasal ornaments. In Kerala only Mar Thoma Nazraney women have these two customs. Did
Sankaracharya who lived in Kalady at the centre of christian communities in the 8th/9th century borrow these customs from the aristocratic Nazranies to promote Brahmin acceptability? In any case white dress has always been a part of christian culture in Kerala as also the taboo concerning the use of nasal ornaments. Here one might also make mention of the large number of similarities found between nampoothiri and nazraney customs regarding ornaments, marriage, birth, and death related ceremonies and observances, costumes, daily utensils and food items etc.
Kerala christians have their own customs and traditions regarding many other matters, as f.i. in the names chosen for their children or in the type of Palaharams they make for Holy days and festivals. There are even some Curries and side dishes which are peculiar to the christians of Kerala.
Institutions like Palliyogam and Pallikkoodam prospered under christian aegis.
Liturgy, liturgical art and architecture, music, musical instruments, vestments, gestures and celebrations all formed another important part of the cultural richness of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Down from the first century we find Kerala christians almost invariably open to all the sections of world christianity and willing to give a warm welcome to fellowchristians irrespective of their nationality or allegiance. For the Kerala christian Christianity was always the same whether it was of one brand or other. It was only much later that lack of unity and divisions become permanent features of Kerala Christianity.
Kerala perhaps is the part of India which has come into contact with the maximum number of different cultures from all parts of the world at least from the first centuries B.C.E. Kerala also came into contact with almost all world religions at an early stage. This exposure to world religions, and world cultures was maximum in the case of the christians of Kerala as they were having a monopoly of sea trade from time immemorial. Hence Kerala christians became world citizens before other parts of India became even aware of the existence of other cultures and other religions. This had had its positive and negative effects on the character and conduct of Keralites in general and Kerala christians in particular. This is well reflected in the cultural heritage of the Kerala christians. While this has helped the Thomas Christian to absorb some of the best things from all cultures, it has also led to their changing too fast and discarding the ways of their forefathers without much hesitation. This is best seen in their attitude to their cultural heritage.
In spite of Rome setting up various commissions and other bodies for promoting the .....5
protection and preservation of the cultural wealth of individual Churches and for the promotion of better methods in the preservation of old records very little progress has been made by the Syro-Malabar church in these matters. The writings and speeches of the Holy Father regarding these matters appears to have had little impact on the this Church. This negligence is visible in the attitude to all aspects of culture, although here and there one could see some solitary efforts being made to remedy matters. The leadership being given by the ecclesiastical dignitaries it may be hoped will bear fruit in the not too distant future.
Perhaps this is the place to sound a much needed warning to our own people to preserve their cultural and historical heritage. Anyone who has worked in the field knows the neglect and even vandalism of Kerala Christians towards their cultural heritage. Old churches and monuments are demolished and replaced with ugly concrete structures, ancient paintings are rubbed off, and copperplate grants are sold for metal value; valuable records perish without being copied. And the general outrage to history and antiquity borders on the criminal. And it is high time this is stopped.
We may conclude with Goethe:
Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. ...For this reason, one ought every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship. Bk. v, ch.1 (Carlyle, tr.) [source: Stevenson]
1. Cf., f. i., Questions 2 and 3 (p.226) on universally / commonly acceptable artistic / architectural features in the St. Thomas tradition and such features of the Palliyogam along with the answers (pp.226, 227) given during the Group Discussions and the general recommendations (p.229 et.sq.) of the seminar on The Life and Nature of the St. Thomas Christian Church in the Pre-Diamper Period, in Bosco Puthur (Ed.), LRC Publication No.1, LRC, Kochi, 2000. The different papers reproduced and responses thereto also may throw considerable light on this aspect.

2. The views of Dr. M. G. S. Narayanan and Dr. Veluthattu Kesavan who have exhaustively studied the question of the arrival of Nampoothiri Brahmins in Kerala and their early settlements in Kerala may be read in their papers for the LRC Seminar on some of the Historical Questions related to 1.the Nampoothiris, 2.the Jews, and 3. the Samgham Literature held here in September 2000. Prof. Rajan Gurukkal and Prof. Scaria Zacharia gave prepared responses to the paper on the Early History of Nampoodiris in Kerala.

3. It is especially stated [in the copper plates] that Vijayaragadeva the kings representative, Ayyan Atikal the governor, Rama Thiruvatikal the governors heir apparent, Prakriti (chief citizens), Adhikarar (officers), Arunnurruvar (The Six Hundred), and the Patis (local chiefs) of Punnaittalai and Polaikkuti were present on the occasion of this gift and this in itself conveys its importance. - M. G. S. Narayanan, Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala, Kerala Historical Society, Trivandrum, 1972, p.36.

4. Because the 72 privileges have more rights and freedoms and authority incorporated into them than enjoyed even by Azhvancheri Thamprakkal, both a ruler and top Nampoothiri. (Read the Tharisappalli plates along with the Jewish plates for some eleven of these privileges or Viduperus: Earth and water on elephant-back, day lamp, spreading cloth, palanquin, umbrella, northern drum, bugle, locked gate, arch, arch-decoration, and arrow.) Vide M. G. S. Narayanan, op. cit., ibid.

5. Cambridge International Dictionary of English, p.334.

6. A. L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions - Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Cambridge, Mass., 1952, Vol.XLVII, No.1.

7. The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, Vol.I, Ed. G.Menachery, Trichur, 1982, pp.198 ff.

8. Sir E. B. Tylor
9. Aime Cesair .....7
10. Encyclopaedia Brittanica

11. Like the Thazhekkat rock inscription and the later foundation stones and tomb inscriptions of many churches.

12. Like the Tharisappalli plates and the Palayur plates.

13. An English translation of the Song of Thomas Ramban sent by T.K.Joseph dated 6-7/3/1926 to Fr. Hosten s.j. may be seen in the Indian Church History Classics, Vol.I - The Nazranies,Ed. G.Menachery, Ollur, Jan. 1998, pp.520-525.

14. P.U.Lucas, Kottayam, 1910. A reprint, Ed. J. Vellian, is available (1980). In his Anthropology of the Syrian Christians L. K. Anatha Krishna Ayyar has given English translations of many songs (which is available in the ICHC, Vol.I, The Nazranies, pp.500-506.

15. Vide supra f.n.14.

16. Gouvea, Antonio de, O.E.S.A, Jornada do Arcebispo de Goa Dom Freyn Aleixo de Menezes, Coimbra,1606. In English: Geddes, Michael, The History of the Church of Malabar...Together with the Synod od Diamper...London: 1694 (fully reproduced in Hough II and in The Nazranies). In Malayalam: Scaria Zacharia, Edamattam, 1998.

17. See the separate articles in the ecumenical St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, Ed. G. Menachery, Vol.II, Trichur, 1973. Vols.I (1984), and II (1982) of the History of Christianity in India (CHAI - Ed. A. M. Mundadan) and the Malayalam Kraisthava Vijnana Kosham (Alleppy, 1976) also have much useful material. The STCEI and The Nazranies together have nearly one thousand photographs dealing with the cultural heritage of the Thomas Christians. A collection of articles by this writer entitled Pallikkalakalum Mattum in Malayalam (Trichur, 1984) has given as appendices a number of rather exhaustive lists of objects of art of the St. Thomas Christians gathered from churches and households for the various exhibitions organised by the STCEI from 1971 onwards and for the Christian Cultural Museum of Trichur (1980).

18. Yet when the local churches brought forth all their Muthukkudas in 1983 for the Holy Year cultual rally it was a wonderful sight indeed that left the onlookers dumbfounded with joy. From that time onwards more and more processions in the State and even abroad are displaying the Muthukkudas and Historico-cultural floats to advantage.

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