Syro-Malabar Liturgy

Dr Antony Nariculam


My aim in this paper is to give a general picture of the Syro-Malabar Liturgy under its various aspects, such as its history, theology, celebratory dimension, the various liturgical texts published so far etc. As is well known, the Syro-Malabar liturgy has been a subject of ‘controversy’ since at least early 1950s due to various concerns of the persons involved. It is a fact that consequent upon divergent opinions with regard to the liturgical issues, there arose at least two ‘camps’ in the Church. But a close examination will reveal that both camps wanted to make liturgy more meaningful, experiential and relevant to life. At the same time, their understanding and approach towards the issues were diverse, resulting in apparent contradictions. Fortunately, since the Church became a Major Archiepiscopal Church, things have begun to take a new turn and today there is greater convergence on most of the issues though this spirit of newly-found convergence has not permeated down to the grass root level. It is hoped that the constant and concerted efforts of the Liturgical Research Centre and the findings of its research would eventually lead to a happy conclusion and the Syro-Malabar Church would rediscover her lost vitality and regain her glorious past.

    1. Fivefold Historical Division

The two- thousand-year-old history of the Syro-Malabar liturgy may be divided into five  stages.

First Stage                   : The St Thomas Period (AD 52-4th Century)

Second Stage              : The East Syrian Period (4th -16th Century)

Third Stage                 : The Portuguese Period (16th Century-1896)

Fourth Stage               : The Syro-Malabar Period (1896-1992)

Fifth Stage                  : The Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Period (1992-    )

(1) First Stage: The St Thomas Period (AD 52-4th Century)

According to the living tradition of the Syro-Malabar Church, St Thomas, one of the apostles of Christ, came to India in AD 52 and died in AD 72. This is an uncontested fact as far as the Syro-Malabarians are concerned. It is to be assumed that wherever the apostles went to preach the Good News, Christian communities were established and the sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, were celebrated. Naturally, St Thomas too must have celebrated these sacraments in the seven communities he founded in Kerala.

What was the ‘shape’ of the ‘breaking of the Bread’ he practised? What was the language he used? No ‘proof’ is available to answer these questions when we apply the historiographical rigorous methods of today. However, we can arrive at certain possible conclusions from circumstantial evidence. This is a very slippery area where opinions vary. What we can guess with quasi-certainty is that the liturgical celebrations during that period had no definite shape and that St Thomas introduced some fluid form on the basis of what he learned from Jesus at the Last Supper. It is to be assumed also that the Eucharistic Bread and Wine were some indigenous product rather than bread of wheat and wine. Thus, the first stage – the St Thomas Period – is one of uncertainties and hence one has to be satisfied with some plausible conjectures.

(2) Second Stage: The East Syrian Period (4th -16th Century)

The origin of the East Syrian liturgy in Malabar may be traced back to the arrival of Thomas of Knai in the fourth century or so. It is known that Thomas belonged to the East Syrian Church. And from history we know that the Syrian Church was one of the most flourishing Christian communities in the early centuries with the two famous ecclesiastical centres of Edessa and Nisibis. Famous theologians like St Ephrem and liturgical interpreters like Narsai were eminent scholars of these centres. Hence, it is probable that the East Syrian Church had a developed liturgy and Thomas of Knai had brought this liturgy to Malabar.

According to some authors, the Syrian liturgy was  ‘naturally’ adopted by the St.Thomas Christians in Malabar. They point to the apostolic, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, spiritual and hierarchical relationship between the East Syrians and the Malabarians for its acceptance. But some others dispute this claim. Without entering into the merits or demerits of their arguments, it is to be presumed that the Syriac liturgy was used in Malabar since fourth century or so. As Cardinal Eugene Tisserant states, “The Indian Christianity was definitely connected with the See of Selucia- Ctesiphon only about AD 450, at a time when the Mesopotamian, also called Persian, Church was itself being strongly established and was a well-knit unit”.[1] It appears that the contact of the Syro-Malabar Church with the Persian Church, which was only a friendly one among sister Churches in the beginning, later developed into hierarchical dependence of the former on the latter.[2]

(3) Third Stage: The Portuguese Period (16th Century-1896)      

During the third stage – the Portuguese Period of almost four centuries – there were attempts on the part of the Latin missionaries to meddle with the affairs of the Syro-Malabar Church, including her liturgy. They tried to introduce Western liturgical elements sidestepping, even mutilating, the longstanding Syriac tradition. They even suspected the St Thomas Christians of ‘Nestorianism’ as the Malabar Christians were using the Syriac liturgical texts.

The Synod of Diamper of 1599 is one of the milestones in the history of the Syro-Malabar Church and her liturgy. Another important event is the sad split of 1653 called the ‘Coonan Cross Oath’ which led to the introduction of Antiochian liturgical tradition among the St Thomas Christians. Despite the crisis, one group of Christians continued to be under the Latin rule with their fragmented Syriac liturgical tradition. Though the Western missionaries in their enthusiasm to make the Syro-Malabar Church ‘Catholic’ tried to introduce the Latin liturgy and Western theology and ecclesiastical discipline, it is an undeniable fact that the Syro-Malabar faithful also gained some spiritual benefits through their popular devotional practices like the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross and the Eucharistic devotion.

(4) Fourth Stage: The Syro-Malabar Period (1896-1992)

The Syro- Malabar Church got partial independence from the Latin rule in 1887 when the Vicariates of Trichur and Kottayam were established. She got greater independence in 1896 when the Vicariates of Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanacherry were erected with Syro-Malabarians themselves as their heads. That process came to a happy conclusion when the Syro-Malabar hierarchy was formally established in 1923.

After the establishment of the hierarchy there were attempts to reintroduce the Syriac tradition in its entirety. To this effect Rome appointed a liturgical Commission in 1934. For some reason the Commission could not take up its work seriously. Later, another Commission was set up in 1954 while Cardinal Tisserant was the Head of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

The primary aim of the Commission was to restore the ancient East Syrian tradition in Malabar. However, the then bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church were not in favour of a pure restoration of the Syriac tradition. This conflict of interest led to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Syro-Malabar bishops in implementing the decisions of Rome. Despite objections from the bishops, the Roman Commission restored the text of the Holy Qurbana (1957 in Latin; 1960 in Syriac; 1962 in Malayalam-Syriac), the variable prayers of the liturgical seasons and feasts (1960: Supplementum Mysteriorum), the Pontifical (1958) and the book of the rubrics (1959: Ordo celebrationis). As the year of publication of these texts reveal, all of them were texts prior to the renewal thrust of Vatican II. The texts were more ‘restored’ than ‘revised’ and ‘adapted’. This seems to be the reason why the bishops were rather reluctant to implement them. One should also add that due to long periods of use, the bishops were more familiar with the Latinized liturgical texts than the original Syriac texts.

In spite of reservations on the part of the bishops, the restored text of the Holy Qurbana was introduced for public use in 1962. Though the text was basically in Malayalam, some prayers were in Syriac. Besides, not all restored parts of the Qurbana (Three anaphoras, the variable prayers according to liturgical seasons etc.) were incorporated into it. It seems that not all sections of the Church were happy with the text. On the basis of complaints against this text from various quarters, Rome made some adjustments in it in 1963 by shortening the length of the readings and the Psalms and by avoiding of repetitions of certain prayers.

Dissatisfied with the state of affairs, the bishops prepared a thoroughly revised text of the Qurbana in Malayalam in 1968 and obtained temporary approval from Rome for its experimental use. However, one section of the Syro-Malabar Church could not savour the 1968 text and argued for the restored text of 1962. This led to the birth of two liturgical ‘camps’ in the Syro-Malabar Church.

In 1980 the Congregation for the Oriental Churches convened a meeting of the Syro-Malabar bishops in Rome on the occasion of their ad limina visit to discuss the liturgical issues. In the light of the decisions taken in the meeting, the bishops prepared a new text of the Qurbana in 1981 and sent it to Rome for their perusal. But in 1983 Rome replied rejecting the text and gave new directives to prepare another text. The text thus prepared (Raza text) was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II during the Beatification of Fr Chavara Kuriakose and Sr Alphonsa in February 1986.

Many expected that the ‘liturgical crisis’ would be over with the publication of the text of the Qurbana and its inauguration by the Pope. Instead, it aggravated the crisis which prompted the Cardinal Prefect of the Oriental Congregation to visit the Syro- Malabar dioceses in view of tackling the issue. Consequent upon the Cardinal’s visit, a new set of directives were given in order to prepare the text of the Qurbana in its Simple and Solemn Forms and it was introduced in 1989. This text allowed a few ‘dispensations’ and many ‘options’. The text now in use is this text of 1989.

In the meantime – in the 1970s – some other liturgical texts were also published. All were experimental ones. The texts of the Sacraments, Liturgical Calendar, the Divine Office, the Holy Week Liturgy etc. are some among them. Besides, Sacramentals like the Funeral Service, the Blessings, the Profession of the Religious, the Christmas Service etc. also were published for experimental use. As part of inculturation, an ‘Indian Mass’ was also experimented in some places for some time.

(5) Fifth Stage: The Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Period (1992-    )

In 1992 the Syro-Malabar Church was raised to the Major Archiepiscopal status. But the Pope reserved to himself the liturgical matters. The reservation was later lifted in 1998 and the Syro-Malabar Church was given the right to take decisions in liturgy, subject to ‘review’ by the Holy See.

The Pontifical delegate Archbishop Abraham Kattumana initiated a process to solve the liturgical issues by restoring, revising and adapting the liturgical texts. At that time the only liturgical texts formally approved for use was the text of the Holy Qurbana. After drafting and redrafting, the text of the Sacraments – Baptism, Chrismation, Penance, Marriage and Anointing of the Sick – was formally approved and was introduced in January 2005. Later the variable prayers of the liturgical Seasons and Feasts – the Propria – were given temporary approval by Rome and were introduced for common use in December 2005.

Some other texts are already approved by the Synod but not yet sent for ‘review’ to Rome. They are the ordination to Karoya, Hevpadyakna, M’samsana, Priesthood and Episcopate, installation of the Major Archbishop and the Bishops, Blessing of the Oil and the Penitential Service.

The texts under consideration by the Synod now are the Holy Week Liturgy, Christmas Liturgy and Vibhoothi Liturgy.

The texts already drafted by the Central Liturgical Committee, but not yet discussed in the Synod are Dedication of the Church, Profession of the Religious, Dedication of the Members of the Secular Institutes and Apostolic Life, Blessing of the Deppa, Rededication of the churches and Blessing of the sacred vessels etc.

The texts yet to be prepared by the Central Committee are the Revised texts of the Divine Office, Liturgical Calendar, Second and Third Anaphoras and Sacramentals.

  1. Syro-Malabar Liturgy: The Preparation of the Texts

The Syro-Malabar Synod has an Episcopal Commission for Liturgy, consisting of three bishops. This Commission is assisted by a Central Liturgical Committee which has members from all Syro-Malabar dioceses. The newly reconstituted Central Committee has also religious sisters and lay people. At present the Committee has 67 members divided as follows:

Bishops                       : 3

Diocesan Priests          : 38

Religious Priests          : 14

Religious Brothers      : 1

Religious Sisters          : 3

Lay Men                      : 7

Lay Women                : 1

The members are representatives of dioceses, Syro-Malabar Religious Conference, major seminaries, lay men and women. The members are experts in various fields like liturgy, theology, Bible, pastoral involvement etc.

Before a text is finally approved by Rome for public use, it undergoes the following process. The Central Liturgical Committee prepares the draft (if needed, also a second, third …draft) and it is sent to the dioceses for their study. The draft text comes back to the Central Committee and it is modified in the light of the suggestions from the dioceses. It then goes to the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy who presents it before the Synod. Once the Synod approves the text it is sent to Rome for their ‘review’. After obtaining the approval of the Holy See the Major Archbishop promulgates the text and it becomes the official liturgical text.

  1. Liturgical Research Centre

The Syro-Malabar Synod held in the Vatican in January 1996 decided to set up a Liturgical Research Centre under the auspices of the Synod to make deeper studies about the history, theology, pastoral practices etc. of the Syro-Malabar liturgy. The Centre has already conducted 27 seminars on various topics such as The Life and Nature of the St Thomas Christian Church in the Pre-Diamper Period; St Thomas Christians and Nambudiris, Jews and Sangam Culture: A Historic Perspective; Inculturation and the Syro-Malabar Church; Social Life of Kerala in the First Millennium; Liturgical Music of the Syro-Malabar Church; Kerala Christian Art and Architecture and The Cultural Heritage of St Thomas Christians.

Some of the findings of the research seminars have already been published. Although the studies have not yielded many new findings not known to us before, the seminars have definitely helped to create an atmosphere of serious dialogue towards easing tensions in the realm of liturgy.

  1. Liturgical Books

The following are the Liturgical Books of the Syro-Malabar Church.

  • Thaksa of the Holy Qurbana
  • Thaksa of the Sacraments (Child Baptism, Adult Baptism, Chrismation, Penance, Marriage and Anointing of the Sick)
  • Divine Office
  • Liturgical Calendar and Lectionary
  • Variable Prayers according to Seasons and Feasts (Propria)
  • Pontifical (Ordination to Karoya, Hevpadyakna, M’samsana, Priesthood and Episcopate, Installation of the Major Archbishop and the Bishops, Blessing of the Oil, Consecration of the Churches)
  • Funeral Services and various Prayers for the Dead
  • Sacramentals (Profession of the Religious, Dedication of the Members of the Secular Institutes and Apostolic Life, House Blessings, Betrothal, Laying of Foundation Stone, Blessing of various institutions, objects etc.)
  • Blessing of the deppa, sacred vessels etc.
  1. Syro-Malabar ‘Liturgical Controversy’

This presentation will be incomplete if I do not mention a word about the so-called Syro-Malabar ‘liturgical controversy’. I do not intend to go into the details of it. Rather, I would prefer to give a broad outline of the ‘crisis’ and the underlying reasons.

Robert Taft, a renowned Oriental theologian, well-versed with the Syro-Malabar liturgy and the controversy surrounding it, points out the following factors which led to the crisis:[3]

(i)                 The Syro-Malabar liturgical movement was caught up in the collapse of the historical process. The normal historical process of liturgical renewal had traditionally been the work of generations. In the Syro-Malabar Church it took place within a span of 30 years or so.

(ii)               The first step to be taken was the restoration phase, which consists of deep studies, lively debates, propagation of ideas through Journals etc. in view of a slow step-by-step renewal. This did not happen with the Syro-Malabar Church.[4]

(iii)             There was the need to cope with the desires of the common people, especially in the context of the democratic societies. Vernacularisation, inculturation etc. are products of this new awareness. Without going through a restoration process in all its details, the Syro-Malabar Church got the Malayalam text of the Holy Qurbana in 1962.

(iv)             The Syro-Malabar Church was not exempt from the universal cultural turbulence of 1960s and consequently changes in liturgical rites were introduced with a certain spontaneity bypassing the normal procedures for liturgical change and adaptation.

I personally feel that Robert Taft has made a correct assessment of the situation. To his observations I would like to add one thing more. The Syro-Malabar Church found it hard to break with the longstanding  Latin liturgical and devotional practices which, in some cases, however, were beneficial to their spiritual life. In addition to this, we have to take into consideration the overall mentality of our people which is the result of greater secular education, exposure to other traditions and cultures and the fast tempo of life in the context of an industrialised society.

Vatican II has clearly directed the Eastern Churches “to preserve their own legitimate liturgical rites and ways of life” and if they have fallen away from them due to historical reasons, they are “to strive to return to their ancestral traditions”.[5] Therefore, the Syro-Malabar Church is duty-bound to search for her liturgical roots. This search will lead mainly to the East Syrian tradition. However, as Robert Taft has remarked, “To consider the Syro-Malabar tradition as simply the East Syrian Rite without taking any account of its evolution during more than a millennium of its existence in Southwest India, flies in the face of history. That would be like ignoring 50% of the vocabulary of English because it entered the English language from Norman French after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. No tradition can realistically pretend to ignore 497 years of its history. That is not to say that what happened in those years was always positive…It does mean that it cannot be ignored, (…) and  be dealt with realistically”.[6] As a matter of fact, all liturgical traditions are to a certain extent ‘hybrid’ as all have borrowed elements from others. As Taft notes, his own liturgy – the Byzantine Rite – is only half-Byzantine. The Armenians have borrowed even Latin elements during Crusades.[7]

If an Individual Church wants to exist, undoubtedly, it should have its liturgical identity because a Church is identified, among other things, also by her liturgy. Therefore, the Syro-Malabar Church needs to rediscover her liturgical identity in the light of her two-millennium-old history enriched by various sources. True, we need traditions. But, as Pope John Paul II once remarked, ‘tradition is never pure nostalgia for things or forms past, but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful by the Love that dwells within her’.[8] According to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), the criterion of liturgical renewal is not ‘What was it like then’, but ‘What ought to be done today’ because the Church is living and hence her liturgy cannot be frozen at a stage in history.[9]

  1. Syro-Malabar Church Today

Today the Syro-Malabar faithful find themselves in a number of life-situations due to their history, evangelization and emigration. One may identify the following situations:

  • Traditional parishes and their agricultural background
  • Rapidly growing urban situations
  • ‘Oriental regions’ without much contact with the Latin Church
  • Inter-ritual situations where Syro-Malabar communities live intermingled with the Latin faithful
  • Developing areas of the mission territories of North India
  • Migrants in the industrialized cities and towns of North India
  • Migrants in Europe, America and the Gulf countries

The SMC needs to have an open mind to cope with these realities when she plans out the future course of action in the realm of liturgy.

  1. Looking Ahead

It is an undeniable historical fact that the Syro-Malabar Church was hierarchically dependent on the East Syrian Church. It is also true that the East Syrian contact led to the introduction of their liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Church. However, as Placid Podipara notes, the Thomas Christians were ‘not an integral part, nor an output’ of the East Syrian Church.[10] It is true that the East Syrian tradition is an important source of the Syro-Malabar liturgy. To this one needs to add the ‘original’ source of St Thomas period. The ‘original shape’ of the breaking of the Bread may be found in the New Testament to which the apostle was a witness. The search for the sources of ‘auricular confession’, the anointing of the sick, the present bread and wine for the Eucharistic celebration etc. will take one to the Latin tradition. The custom of tying the Thali, giving of the Manthrakodi etc. in marriage undoubtedly leads one to the Indian sources. Therefore one can rightly conclude that the Syro-Malabar liturgy is shaped by various influences, two among them being the East Syrian and the Indian.

Being aware of this historical reality, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches suggested in 1980 that the Syro-Malabar liturgy requires a ‘double integration’, namely an ‘Eastern-Christian direction’ through a deeper contact with the Syriac liturgical, theological and spiritual traditions and an ‘Indian direction’ by favouring serious study of the Indian reality.[11] In the context of this Syro-Malabar Global Meet, I am compelled to add that we need yet a third direction, namely a ‘catholic’ or ‘universal’ direction by promoting inculturation according to the needs of the times and places.[12]


As Archbishop Joseph Powathil has rightly observed, the question of identity of an Individual Church is of vital importance since it has far-reaching implications and consequences for the life and activities of that Church.[13] It includes ecclesial identity, liturgical identity, theological identity, spiritual identity and so on and so forth. The specific question here is: What is the Syro-Malabar liturgical identity? An answer to this question can be found in a patient and thorough search of the 2000 year old history of the Syro-Malabar Church. In this soul-searching process two principles – one of St Augustine and the other an American colloquial aphorism – may be helpful. According to St Augustine’s principle, we should strive for ‘Unity in essential things, Freedom in doubtful things and Charity in everything’. The American aphorism – ‘you cannot put the tooth-paste back into the tube’ – reminds us that when something is practiced and lived for a long time, it may be very difficult to reverse it regardless of the merits of the issue.


Fr.Antony Nariculam

Pontifical Seminary

Alwaye 683102


[1] E. Tisserant, Eastern Christianity in India: History of the Syro-Malabar Church from the Earliest Time to the Present Day, Authorised Adaptation from the French by E. R. Hambye, London, New York, Toronto 1957, p.10

[2] Cf. Jacob Thoomkuzhy, Liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, in Jose Porunnedom (ed.), Acts of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, Kochi 1996, p. 91

[3] Robert Taft, The Syro-Malabar Liturgical Controversy in Jose Porunnedom (ed.), Acts of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, pp. 124-127

[4] In the Latin Church about a century-old study of this type took place which eventually led to the liturgical reform of Vatican II.

[5] Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, No. 6

[6] Robert Taft, The Syro-Malabar Liturgical Controversy, p. 132

[7] Ibid. Cf. also, Elena Velkova Velkovska, Blessings in the East, in Anscar  J. Chupungco, Handbook for Liturgical Studies IV, Collegeville 2000, p. 388

[8] Cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Orientale Lumen, 1995 No. 8

[9] Cf. Joseph Ratzinger-Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, San Francisco 1985, pp. 131-132

[10] Cf. P.J. Podipara, The Hierarchy of the Syro-Malabar Church, Alleppey 1976, p.35

[11] Cf. Report on the State of Liturgical Reforms in the Syro-Malabar Church, Rome 1980

[12] Cf. Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 4; Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, No. 2

[13] Joseph Powathil, Identity and Dignity of the Syro-Malabar Church, in Jose Porunnedom (ed.), Acts of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, p. 61

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