This article takes a brief look into the history of conversions to Christianity in Kerala. The Christians of the State can be broadly categorized into three: Syrian Christians who are believed to have been converted from the upper castes (whether such distinction existed at that time is not clear) by Apostle St. Thomas in 1c, Latin Christians who were converted mostly from lower classes by St. Francis Xavier in the 16c and Dalit Christians who were converted in the 19c by the Anglicans and in the 20c by the Catholic denomination of the Syrians. The labels Syrian and Latin came about because of the respective languages that were used in liturgy. (See: Jewish names among Syrian Christians.)
The Syrian Christian community is referred to by historians as
and St. Thomas Christians. This congregation was, till the intrusion by the Western Christianity with the arrival of the Portuguese, a distinctive Eastern Church with the Pope of Rome as a hazy father figure at the far end of a thin long line. Malabar Church
Being a Syrian Christian is a matter of birth and inherited religious convictions. Therefore, conversion to that community is an anomaly. In all its known history till the 20c, the
never undertook any missionary work. The theology of the community was that every human being achieved salvation through his own religion; a conclusion that modern Christian theology is increasingly accepting. Spreading the Word of Christ and induced or forced conversions to Christianity are two totally different things. As a result, the Syrian Christians remained an exclusive community to which outsiders had no entry. Malabar Church
Two questions arise here: why then did
It is possible that
The Portuguese arrived in Kerala at the end of the 15c. They initiated a campaign to convert the local Christians (who followed Syriac liturgy) to the Latin Rite. This met with incessant resistance. The net result in the long run was that the
The arrival of St. Francis Xavier in the middle of the 16c saw a flourish in missionary activity. This great saint of the Catholic Church converted many people of the lower castes to Christianity. He had the patronage of the Portuguese and the maharajas of Travancore and
But there were protests against these conversions from the upper classes not on religious grounds but for social and economic reasons. Accepting Christianity released the converts from their obligations under the fine tuned caste system. This led to several problems. To give an example: the coconut pickers who became Christians were no longer under any compulsion to carry out their traditional duty.
This new congregation came to be known as Latin Christians. Whereas the Syrian Christians always enjoyed upper class status, the Latin Christians were treated as lower caste and there were hardly any social interaction between the two. After
The next round of conversions to Christianity in Kerala was in the 19c by the Anglicans, now known as Church of South India (CSI), who came to Kerala in the wake of the British in the first quarter of the 19c. This episode covered both Syrian Christians and members of some lower castes. The Anglicans championed major causes of the Dalits, like the right of Channar women to cover their breasts in public, and the abolition of slavery. This attracted lower castes to the new edition of Christianity in Kerala.
Then, in the early 1930s, the Syrian Catholic Church suddenly went on a conversion spree against all traditions of the St. Thomas Christians, focusing specifically on the Pulayas who were among the untouchables. They were bonded labor attached to landlords, both Hindu and Christian. Anizham Thirunal Maharaja abolished slavery in Travancore in the mid -19c, but the practice continued in one form or the other till the World War II. The Pulayas were totally at the mercy of their lords. The prospect of joining Christianity appealed to many of them.
Whether all these conversions were genuine, arising out of conviction is debatable. The details about the activities of
The present scenario in Kerala is that the label ‘Christians’ covers diverse groups without meaningful homogeneity or integration.
Vedas, Syrian Christians