Social Involvement of Syro-Malabar Church: A Historical-Critical Analysis

Social Involvement of Syro-Malabar Church

(A Historical-Critical Analysis)

Kundukulam Vincent


All religious segments play a significant role in shaping the vision and character of the national civilization. They influence the national life through spirituality, ethics, culture and social involvement. The Syrian Christians, though a minority, have been playing a pertinent role in shaping the social life of Kerala from the early days. Jawaharlal Nehru has rightly mentioned it in 1946 by saying: ‘Indian Christians are part and parcel of the Indian people. Their traditions go back 1500 years and more and they form one of the many enriching elements in the country’s cultural and spiritual life’. On the occasion of the Silver Jubilee Celebration of Paurastya Vidyapitham, an Institute renowned for its commitment to the Oriental studies, it is quite opportune to look into the Syro-Malabar Church’s social involvement, an essential factor for her theological reflection.

The study on the social involvement of Syrian Catholics is challenging mainly for three reasons. Primarily the majority of sources at our disposal do not enable us to reconstruct concretely the particular story of the Syro-Malabar Church’s social involvement. There is ample literature on the contribution of Kerala Christians to the nation building but few documents directly deal with Syrian Catholics’ unique role in this process. Secondly, we lack reliable sources about their social involvement. Much literature exists regarding their history. There are only a few authors who sociologically analyzed their involvement in the society. Hence our search is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Yet, we can glean some data that suggest trends of social impact of Syrians from what is generally told about the Christians in Kerala.

 Thirdly, when we go through the literature concerning the Christian involvement in the society we come across people belonging to different denominations in Christianity including Latin Catholics, Non-Catholic Churches and others. By the very fact that some Syrian Catholics were involved in a social intervention will it be considered as a Syrian intervention? On what basis we determine the Syrian aspect in a social involvement? In the same way the community based identity is practically insignificant with regard to some areas of life. For example what does it mean in saying that Syrian Christians have made outstanding contribution to politics on account of the fact that A.K. Antony is by birth a Syrian? Above all, will it not be communal to identify an involvement on the basis of race or rite? This problem cannot be solved here as it is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore for the time being we will avoid mentioning the contribution by way of individuals and movements where the Syrian identity does not have any special emphasis.

Let me briefly explain the limits of the following exposition:  (1): We are trying to engage with the role and history of Syrian Catholics living only in Kerala. As we know, at present, thousands of Syrians live outside Kerala and a good number of them are settled abroad. Unfortunately we don’t have records about the social roles played by them in their respective regions. (2). Again we are constrained to focus our attention only to certain periods in the history of the Syrian Christians. Their history is crowded with incidents of various genres, protracting through twenty centuries, which we can in no way expound in this short paper. Therefore we concentrate on two periods of their life: a) from the early beginnings of Christian era to the arrival of Portuguese missionaries; b) from the end of 19th century to the formation of Kerala state in 1956.  (3). We have to precise also the types of social involvement of the Syrians we deal with. The role played by a community is determined in terms of several factors: culture, economy, politics, education, literature, media, etc.  Since the faith experience of Syrian Catholics in their cultural context is already studied in another paper we would like to concentrate more on their economic, political and social involvement.

This paper has a critical function. Our intention is not merely to assemble some data regarding the social involvement of Syrians. If not assessed with scientific tools history becomes a decayed story. In the academic world social involvement is the concern of social sciences and hence we will examine our corpus with the instruments of social sciences. Thus, this paper is a search into the political and social involvement of Syrians Catholics in ancient and modern periods of their history in Kerala and a critical assessment of their contribution in the light of theories of nationalism and communalism.

The procedure of the study is as follows. There will be three parts in the paper. At first, we will investigate the social stature the Syrians enjoyed until the arrival of the Portuguese. The second part will be about the social and political interferences done by the Syrians at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, a period marked by growing political consciousness in Kerala. Finally we will put in perspective the findings of the first two parts and interpret the nature of Syrian social involvement.

Part 1:  From the Early centuries to the arrival of Portuguese

Christianity was introduced in Kerala three centuries before it became the established religion in Rome. The Syrian Christian population, comprised of immigrants from Asia Minor and the inhabitants of the land developed into a powerful community because of their investment in the field of trade and commerce. What helps us to pinpoint their position in the early centuries of Christian era are four Copper Plates, which deal with the privileges granted by the Hindu monarchs to the Christians settled in Quilon and Cranganore. The earlier document is a grant given to Thomas Cana in 372; the second dated 774 offered to Iravan Kortan, chief of the Christians of Cranganore; the third and fourth both dated 849 and addressed as Teresapalli to the local Church at Quilon by Ayyan Atikal Tiruvatikal[1].

Genevieve Lemercinier and Francois Houtart in their work on the ‘Genesis and Institutionalization of Indian Catholicism’ after analyzing the rights conferred to the Syrians make a few important conclusions. The social position of Syrians was largely determined by their function in the mercantile economy. They had monopoly over commercial transactions: foreign trade in spices, salt, sugar and oil. By the title of manigranam the group had the right to deal in all kinds of trade goods. In addition, they could collect the customs duties on commercial transactions[2].

The Syrians were also predominant in the areas of agriculture and warfare. They excelled in the production of pepper, a coveted commodity in the pre-industrial European markets. ‘Thomas Christians maintained a high standard in the art of war’ testifies historian Edward Gibbon. They were finest soldiers and this persuaded the kings to respect them and to protect their rights and privileges[3]. The greater the number of Christians a king had in the army, the more his neighbors respected him. Hindu monarchs constructed churches for Christians and endowed them with tax free lands in order to secure their military service.[4]

The kings accorded three types of grants to the Syrians: a) symbols of the integration of the group into the cosmic universe:  the right to erect a pandal on the occasion of wedding and setting up a pillar before their houses; b) symbols recognizing the status of the leader of the group: right to speak in the assemblies, to use a carpet and a palanquin and to employ sandalwood paste; c) symbols carrying privileges to the whole group: the right to wear festal attire, the right to build a wall around their houses, etc[5].

The mercantile economy gained for the Syrian group an enviable stature because it was central to the social structure of Kerala of that age. It was the mercantile money, which enabled the whole system to function without any danger to the interests of the various dominant groups of the society. Due to the lack of experience in the trade and the inability to engage commercial transactions with the foreigners the Hindus failed to play role of intermediaries between the foreigners and the Kings[6]. What made it easy for Christians to step into such a privileges position might be also the absence of a vaishya caste in the Kerala society of the time.

Needless to affirm that the Syrians were well integrated into the culture of mainstream castes in Kerala. There were a number of ceremonies derived from the local social practices like the Yogam or Church assembly at the local as well as general level. They had close ties with the aristocrat class namely Nayars. Until 16th century marriages took place between them. The lower casts had to keep rules of untouchability towards Christians[7]. The chiefs of Christians enjoyed the same privileges as were enjoyed by Hindu feudal landlords[8]. The Christians were noted for their courteous manners. They kept high morality in business dealings. Unlike the Hindu women, the Christian women were fully dressed, covering the upper part of their body. The Syrians wore practically the same ornaments as the Hindus. The vast majority among them were vegetarians and as a class was not addicted to drink during this period. The fact that the rulers of the time like the Cochin Raja and the chiefs of Vadakkumkur, Thekkumkur and Ambalapuzha helped the progress of Christianity in their kingdoms by donating lands for the erection of churches shows that they had an esteem position in the state[9]. It is said that at that epoch a word by a Christian was as good as signing an official stamped paper[10].

The Syrians seems to have played an impressive role also in the field of education. Hindu educational institutions were the guarded preserve of a few elite Hindus, but Christians opened them to all. At the close of the 15th century when the Portuguese arrived in Kerala there were schools conducted both by Hindus and Christians. Children irrespective of religious affiliations attended these schools. This is evident from relevant decrees adopted by the Synod of Diamper requiring the removal of shrines kept in schools run by Christian teachers for the worship of Hindu children and according permission to Christian children to attend schools run by Hindu teachers without showing any religious reverence to idols[11].

The Syrians accepted the caste system as they were reckoned among the high castes, on par with the Nairs, writes Cardinal Tisserant, in the light of decrees of the Diamper Synod. This Synod forbids the Syrians from the practices like purification of vessels, touched by the members of the low castes (decree 3), piercing the ears like the Nairs (decree 17), etc. The Council blames the women for omitting to attend any service during the forty days (Session IX, decree 5)[12] Mathias Mundadan interprets the oneness of Syrians with their social-cultural milieu as an expression of implicit way of living the incarnational approach of inculturation, in the model of Christ who assumed everything human and redeemed all social and cultural values[13].

Part 2. The closing decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century

The Syrian Christians, though a petit minority, played vigorous role in the struggle for freedom at the national level. In the historic Salt March to Dandi on the sea set out on 12 March 1930, 78 members of the Sabarmati Ashram accompanied Mahatma Gandhi. Among these disciples of Gandhi was Thevarthundiyil Titus, a member of a Thomas Christian Family in Travancore. He was taking care of the Ashram diary[14].

Coming to Kerala, at the end of the 19th century there was widespread resentment among the educated classes against the Government’s policy of importing Tamil Brahmins to hold the most important posts in the public service even when persons with similar qualifications were available inside the State. Their resentment found expression in the ‘Malayali Memorial’ submitted to the Maharaja on 1 January 1891. Among the 10, 028 petitioners who called the attention of Maharaja to the exclusion of the educated natives from higher grades of the public service and asked to provide fair quota of government appointments, there was considerable number of Christians[15]. Nidhirikkal Manikathanar and Cyriac Nidhiri played a leading role along with C.V. Raman Pillai and K.P. Kesava Menon[16].

The Christians actively participated in the Nivarthana (abstention) movement, which was a joint venture against the Nairs by the Ezhavas, Muslims and a section of the Christian community claiming representation in the Legislature in proportion to their numerical strength. They formed an organization known as Samyukta Rashtriya Samiti (Joint Political Congress) of which at the top was Syrian Christians like T. M. Varghese, N. V. Joseph, Joseph Chazhikkatu, A.C. Kuriakose, A.O. Joseph, etc.[17] The Travancore government was entrusted to the people as the result of the deliberations made by the then Congress leaders including Syrians like T. M. Varghese, A. J. John,  P.T. Chacko, Thariathu Kunjithomman and K.M. Chandy. The resolution on Responsible Government presented by T. M. Varghese in the Sri Moolam Assembly is described as historic. As E.M. Kovoor notes, T.M. Varghese, one of the leading heads of Travancore state Congress from its inception on February 23, 1938 was a person who sacrificed most and struggled most for establishing Responsible Government in the State. The women who joined the agitation for the freedom of Travancore came mainly from Thomas Christian community.  The heroic resistance of the Catholic Bishop Mar James Kalassery of Changanachery Diocese against the attempt of Travancore government (1945) to bring Christian Primary school system under its control is another hallmark in the fight of the Christians for the freedom in education[18].

In the field of education, the Syrian schools and colleges have been expression of social justice and equality. Quality and discipline remained always as the hallmarks of their institutions. Among the Syrian pioneers of education Fr. Chavara Kuriakose Elias, the co-founder of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) deserves special mention. He started religious houses, seminaries and institutes for secular education, printing and publication[19].  He popularized the idea that there should be a school along with the church. With a revolutionary insight he started pallikuudams for pulayas when only high caste people had the right to study. He founded a Sanskrit school at Mannanam and taught lower caste students along with the Brahmin students. He introduced Uchakanji (midday meal) in schools so that students were attracted to schools. For that he popularized the custom of pidiyari (a handful of rice set apart every day for the poor)[20]. Thus the Syrian educational institutions, as others in this field, worked untiringly for the eradication of injustices, social evils and taboos.

In the field of media, Nazarani Deepika, which was launched on 15th April 1887, deserves our special attention. It was begun to represent the atrocities, injustices and cruelties meted out to the poor folk before the court of rulers and ministers, and to voice the grievances of the mass like a faithful messenger. It has succeeded to pass on to the 21st century making it the oldest existing Malayalam Newspaper.  Deepika provided chance to many leader-writers and columnists of the different religious sections in Kerala. Deepika fought from the very beginning against social evils like caste system and untouchability and gave impetus to the social movements like Malayalee Memorial and Nivarthana movement and freedom struggle of Travancore. It took up causes of opening the temples to all Hindus[21].

The service of the Syrians in the field of agriculture cannot be left unstated. Land has always remained a weakness for the Syrian Christians. They proved a thrill of their own in tilling the soil and sowing the seeds and reaping the harvest. They demonstrated an inimitable sense of adventure in going the mountains and forests, fighting the wild animals, resisting the hostile weather and climate and taking to their strides all hardships on the way. The health care services rendered by the Syrians, as it can be said about other Christian institutions alike, is the embodiment of preferential option for the poor. Hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, mental health care centers, leprosy cure centers, orphanages, destitute homes and care centers for HIV patients are to be mentioned in this respect. Among the veteran leaders of the Syrian community we don’t ignore the first woman High court Judge Anna Chandy, first woman Chief Engineer P.K. Thressia, Chevaliar Joseph Thaliath, Kattakkayam Cherian Mappila, Sr. Mary Baninja, all eminent personalities[22] in the public life of Kerala.

Part 3 Critical Appraisal of Social Involvement of the Syrians

We have briefly stated the contributions of Syrian Catholics in the economic, social and political fields.  Our remaining task is to study critically the Syrian interactions in Kerala applying scientific tools of research.  The two ideologies with which we can analyse the impact of social involvement of the Syrians in our state are nationalism and communalism. Let us see now whether their involvements go par with either nationalism or communalism?

Hans Khon defines nationalism as the state of mind in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation-state. The essential element of nationalism is the living and active corporate will[23]. A.D. Smith distinguishes two types of nationalism: ethnocentric and polycentric. The advocates of ethnocentric nationalism are very adamant in preserving the cultural and religious heritage of their own group and in imposing them on other ethnic groups. On the other hand, polycentric nationalists recognize that other groups do have noble ideas and structures and they assimilate them for the common good of the society. There are three essential elements in the polycentric nationalism. They are collective autonomy, collective individuality and pluralism. According to Smith the polycentric nationalism only merits the title of nationalism for it only stands for the common well being of a nation[24].

In India, the equivalent of ethnocentric nationalism is communalism.  In our political scenario communalism is a negative concept. One becomes communal when he or she discriminates others on account of immoderate attachment to one’s own community. As Rasheedhudin Khan has rightly observed, religious communalism has taken the shape of narrow and blind devotion to one’s own religious community for acquiring political and economic benefits. In that sense communalism is opposed to secularism and nationalism.[25] Though communalists play with religion, in fact, religion is not the fundamental cause of communal conflicts. As Louis Dumont, a French sociologist, remarks religion becomes here a mere appearance. People are not really concerned about the substance of religion. Religious communalism is the affirmation of the religious community as a political group. What appears to be clash of religions is really clash of interests of a small group. [26]

The political and economic undercurrents of religious communalism are thoroughly examined by the Indian sociologist Asghar Ali Engineer. One of the macro-factors promoting communal tension in the society is the uneven development of the economy. The upper classes of the less-developed community feel a strong sense of rivalry vis-à-vis their counterparts in the developed community.  In such a situation, in order to win the support of masses of one’s community, the grievances are formulated in terms of the ethos, including religious ethos[27]. A recent example for economic basis of religious communalism is the joint venture done by the leaders of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) and the Nair Service Society (NSS) to form a grand political Hindu alliance against minorities in Kerala. There is a widely held perception that Muslims and Christians possess more political and economic clout than their numbers would warrant.  A study on the economic scenario of Kerala shows that the 82.5 per cent of Non Resident Keralites (NRK) during the period 1998-2002 are in the Gulf countries. Out of these, 49.5 per cent were Muslims and 31.5 percent Christians. The Hindu share is only 19 %.[28] “The accumulated money amongst the minorities is mostly invested in land. A little over sixty percent of available cultivable land in Kerala is in the possession of Christians and the Muslims are fast acquiring the urban land and properties to the envy and dismay of other communities. In the field of education, the Muslim and Christian communities together manage 223 arts and science colleges, whereas Hindu jatis all together possess only 42 colleges.[29]

In the light of above analysis we have to examine whether the social interactions of the Syrian Catholics project nationalist or communalist tendencies? I would say that they were rather communalist in the economic and political spheres whereas nationalist in the field of education and social service. The behaviour pattern of Syrians towards the lower casts until the coming of Portuguese was certainly guided by communal spirit and not by any Christian principle. I seriously doubt whether the Syrian insertion into the higher castes can be interpreted as an incarnational model of inculturation? Likewise, to my mind, many a struggle that the Syrian elites led in the beginning of the 20th century to compute the number of posts their members held in the government cannot be whitewashed as freedom struggles[30].  In saying so I don’t put the whole blame on the Syrian Christians. They performed exactly as other communities of the age. The history of modern Kerala became partially the history of communalism because the political parties in their turn used also the ideology of communalism to divide the community affiliations and gain electoral support from the different groups within the same religious community[31].


As a concluding note I would like to make the following suggestions. 1) The Syrian Christians couldn’t be accused of communalism in the field of education and social service until the formation of Kerala state. 2) What we said about the past cannot be applied uncritically for our times. We may need to do a sole searching criticism to deliver us from both falling into self-absolution and self-pitying. 3) The threat of communalism whether on the basis of religion or caste is eroding the social fabric of society in many overt and covert conflicts. How efficient are our institutions to fight out this evil? 4) This paper is limited by reading the past from a sociological perspective. Biblical and theological evaluation can throw further light on these comments, which is beyond the scope of present exposition. Let this exercise become an eye-opener in the pursuit of Syro-Malabar Church to carry out her mission in the third millennium on the basis of gospel.

Mangalapuzha Seminary

P.B. No:1, Alwaye 683102


[1] Fancois  Houtart & Genvieve Lemercinier, Genesis and Institutionalization of the Indian Catholicism, Universite Catholique de Louvain, 1981, Chapter 1

[2] Ibid.,

[3] George Thomas, Christianity and the Modern Indian Civilization, Indian Christian Directory, Rashtradeepika, Kottayam, 2000, p. 70.

[4] C.V. Cherian, Kerala-Empowerment through Enlightenment, Indian Christian Directory, p. 132.

[5] Fancois  Houtart & Genvieve Lemercinier, Genesis and Institutionalization of the Indian Catholicism, Universite Catholique de Louvain, 1981, Chapter 1

[6] Ibid.,

[7] R. Deliege, Inde, Dictionnaire d’Histoire et de Geographie Ecclesiastiques, Paris, p. 990.

[8] A. Sreedhara Menon, Social and Cultural History of Kerala, pp. 49-51.

[9] A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History, Madras, 1991, p. 228-229

[10] Cyriac Thomas, Christian Involvement in the Building up of the Nation, Christian Contribution to Nation Building, S. Ponnumuthan (ed.), POC, 2004, p. 67.

[11] C.V. Cherian, Kerala-Empowerment through Enlightenment, Indian Christian Directory, p. 130.

[12] Cardinal E. Tisserant, Eastern Christianity, pp. 164-165.

[13] A.M. Mundadan, St. Thomas and St. Thomas Christians, Indian Christian Directory, p. 55.

[14] George Thomas, The Christians and the Freedom Movement, Indian Christian Directory, p. 65.

[15] A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History, pp. 300-301.

[16] Pala K. M. Mathew, The Role of Christians in India’s Freedom Struggle, Christian Contribution to Nation Building, p. 30.

[17] A. Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History,  pp. 302-303

[18] George Thomas, The Christians and the Freedom Movement, Indian Christian Directory, p. 67; Pala K. M. Mathew, The Role of Christians in India’s Freedom Struggle, Christian Contribution to Nation Building, p. 32.

[19] G. Menacherry, Christian Saints and Sages of India, Indian Christian Directory, p. 76.

[20] Antony Kalliath, Paths of Contextualizing Indian Spirituality, Christian Contribution to Nation Building, p. 206.

[21] Thomas A. Aykara, The Deepika, Indian Christian Directory, pp. 90-92.

[22] Cyriac Thomas, Christian Involvement in the Building up of the Nation, Christian Contribution to Nation Building, p. 68.

[23] H. Khon, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, Florida, 1982, pp. 9-10.

[24] A.D. Smith, Theories of Nationalism, London, 1971, pp. 158-163; 170-171.

[25] R. Khan, South Asian Portents, India Nation-State and Communalism, G.S. Balla [ed.], 1989, 40-42

[26] L. Dumont, Nationalism and Communalism, Contribution to Indian Sociology, VII, 1964, 45-47.

[27] A.A. Engineer, A theory of communal riots, Seminar, November 1983, 15

[28] Economic Times, May 19, 2003.

[29] Organizer, September 26, 2004

[30] For a detailed study of the subject refer George Mathew,  Communal Road to A Secular Kerala, New Delhi, 1989, chapter three.

[31] For a detailed study read P.M. Mammen, Communalism VS Communism, Minerva Associates, Calcutta, 1981, pp. 183-190


2 thoughts on “Social Involvement of Syro-Malabar Church: A Historical-Critical Analysis

  1. amal mathew April 8, 2017 / 12:49 PM

    fr does its malayalam version avaliable……..


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