Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Nazrani Conundrum

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:;


  1. Hello!

    Very informative post and I enjoyed reading it.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Have a good day!

  2. Haaa thank God! I've reasons to welcome this post wholeheartedly, not because I have any interest in caste-related matters but for getting an opportunity to clarify my doubt. Please don't think that I'm preaching pseudosecularism or trying to be cosmopolitan. My aversion towards caste is because I had seen people reacting with flared up noses through which flames of passion coming out to engulf one. Actually I feel religion and caste make good topics of discussion if one gets sensible people around.

    Sorry for such a long intro, if it's called an intro, since it has not much to do with my doubt i really doubt.

    I'm reading 'The God of Small Things' in which Kochumaria, the servant insists to wear a 'kunukku' even after it teared her ear once and she had to go to the Surgeon. It's said that Kochumaria wears the kunukku since she belonged to upperclass ie Syrian Christain and then there's another remark about her being a marthomite. Is the two same?

  3. I walk out of the room, the moment this argument starts. I am least bothered whether I am a shudra or brahmin convert. My folks are the very fair type and marrying someone even a shade darker is unheard of. I am sure I will break that taboo :P Will be interesting to watch the family's faces at the wedding photo. Their collective jaws will be hitting the floor lol! Sorry, am not trying to belittle the post. :) But we the younger gen cannot understand the heat this subject generates. Very interesting post!

    Arun: I am catholic and my ammachi wore kunnukku. So I guess it is a general Syrian Xian thing.

  4. @ arun
    syrian chrisitans of kerala consists of marthomites, jacobites,syrian catholics, chaldeans of trichur, malakara rite & Knanaya. The last type insists that their ancestors came in a ship with canaan thomman from the Middle east. The syrians wore kunukku. i have see it on a few latin catholic women too also wore that. so am not sure if it is a typical syrian marker for the upper caste.

    @ silverine
    pl make sure u post a picture of the jaws hitting the floor-can well understand whaat u mean-

    @joseph pulikotil
    thanks. i enjoy reading your blogs- like the way you make the familiar look newsworthy.

  5. @kochuthresiamma: The kunnukku is an indication of Syrian lineage. Latins try to pass themselves off a Syrians by wearing kunnuku. There are people of Tamil fisherman caste origins from Nagercoil area in Kerala, who have married Malayalee Syrian women giving false information that they are Malayalee Latin Catholics. Many of our girls were lost this way. They don't ask dowry and parents in their eagerness to compromise on the 'caste' get trapped.

  6. KPJ:Thank you, thanks a lot for the clarification.

    Silverine: Is it? But in the novel it's attributed to KochuMaria's being a Syrian Christian, thanks.

  7. Arun: Syrian Christian are divided into Syrian Christian Catholics and Syrian Christian Jacobites etc. It is an indicator that you are an old Christian, i.e your ancestors were converted by St Thomas. Latin Catholics are new converts from the 1600's when St Antony came to India with the traders of Latin nations like the Portugal. Allegedly the early converts were Brahmins. Which is why there is a snobbishness attached to the "Syrian" tag :p

  8. Aryans were meat eaters. Sri Rama did the Shraaddha of his pop Dasaratha with venison, according to Valmiki.
    The vegetarianism came in after Buddha in an attempt to assimilate Buddhism and make it Aryan or Hinduist.
    It is similar to the successful making over of Buddha deities like Ayyappa, places like Kodungalloor; and Jain spots like Kallil temple of Perumbavoor.

  9. @ stoic
    'The vegetarianism came in after Buddha in an attempt to assimilate Buddhism and make it Aryan or Hinduist'
    i became subjected to a verbal attack stopping just short of physical for saying this - not here-back in mumbai , in a conversation with my educated peers. so mum's the word now - atleast on such issues.
    of course, i generously quote historians :-)

  10. I love this article.very informative.Makes me want to come back to your blog and read more stuff. Kudos kochuthresiamma !

  11. @ thomas
    million thanks. do do me the honour of visiting my blogs


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