Who are these Syrian Christians of Kerala. also known as Nazranis? Where did they come from? Who converted them?
A sudden identity crisis, it’d appear. But no. No crisis or loss of identity as far as I am concerned. It hardly matters to me whether my ancestors were Namboodiris, or Arabs or Red Indians or apes. I care two hoots about who converted my ancestors 20 centuries ago. It has no relevance to my existence today. And I think this holds true for most Nazranis.
Then why these queries?
I was casually going thru a book on Kerala history. A chapter titled “Kerala Polity and Life of the 16th & 17th Centuries” has a section on the Syrian Christians of Kerala, where it is stated that Christians were - - -well, read for yourself: 'The vast majority among them were vegetarians; rice, curry and milk being their main items of food. Beef eating had not come into vogue !!!!!!!!! (Exclamation marks mine).The Christians as a class were also not addicted to drinks during this period' !!!!!???? (Exclamation and question marks mine). You could have knocked me down with a feather! It is not just a common joke but also a practice that the Nazrani rushes to the meat shop after the Sunday mass. There is also some truth in the saying that he chooses the church which has a meat shop in the vicinity. And to think that he descended from vegetarian stock!
Ok. This bit of information drove me to the net to find out more about the “vegetarian” Syrian Christian. And there I came across a riot of contradictory opinions, views, theories. Most of them were presented with intense heat. The controversy revolves round the questions of the original caste of the Syrian Christians and about St. Thomas, the apostle having come to Kerala at all. The meat eating habit of the Syrian Christians was used as evidence for both groups to prove their points. I shall, for convenience, call these warring netizen groups the Naboothiri Origin Group (NOG) and the Non Namboothiri Origin Group (NNOG).
The NOG were less vociferous- either they did not feel the need to prove anything to anybody or they didn’t have evidence that’d hold water.
The NNOG -they go livid a t the very suggestions that Nazranis have Namboothiri (Kerala Brahmins) origins. Their proofs:
Brahmins migrated to Kerala only after the 4 century AD. How then could St. Thomas convert them in 1st century AD? How can a nonexistent group be converted? Mmmm. They have a point there.
The NOG counter this argument with a quote from A. Sreedara Menon that ‘the first batch of Brahmin immigrants came to Kerala in the 3rd century BC itself, immediately following the advent of the Jains and the Buddhists. It may be recalled that the period coincided with the Mauryan age in the history of North India when a conscious policy of acculturation or dissemination of “the superior material culture of the Gangetic basin” was pursued by the Mauryan State’. Well, there the NOG has a walking stick to lean on. When ST. Thomas came, the Brahmins were around to be converted.
But the NNOG swear that the Christians were beef eaters and Namboodiris, the Brahmins of Kerala who came from North India where the cow was worshipped did not eat beef. In fact, they claim, the beef eating communities in Kerala were ostracized by the Namboothris. Pre-empting the theory of western influence after the Portuguese efforts at latinization of Syrian Church in Kerala, NNOG vow that a centuries old cultural habit of beef abstinence cannot be changed overnight by laitinization.
Now, the NOG won’t take this lying down. Again they quote A. Sreedhara Menon that ‘The advent of the Aryan immigrants (post 4th century) brought about other significant social changes as well. There was a change in the dietary habits of the people. The use of beef and liquor which was common even among the Brahmins in the early Sangam Age now came to be looked upon as taboo. Those who used beef had now some social stigma attached to their class. The continued use of beef by the panes was perhaps one of the factors which brought about the decline of their social status’. So the NOG aver that the Brahmins too ate beef before the second wave of Brahmin migration, after which they gave it up while the Nazranis continued, as they were already Christians and there was no taboo attached to beef eating in the Christian way of life.
But NNOG insists that this is the clearest proof that the Nazranis are Panas converted and not Brahmin (Namboothiri)converts.
And thus the controversy rages on - --
While the Nazrani continues to eat beef. After all pedigree is no substitute for beef.
And so back to the questions: Who are these Syrian Christians? Where did they come from? Who converted them?
A humble simble group whose paternity cannot be traced?
Some of them, particularly from certain parts of Kerala, are a shade lighter in complexion than the average Malayalee. And so the plot thickens and adds substance to the theory or (oral tradition?) that the Nazranis have decended from the by blows of the Christian traders from Middle East or Rome or Greece.
If that is true, what a fall is there my dear fellow Nazranis. You and I and all of us fall down while theories and theories flourish over us!
My posts on Nazrani: