Palayur and the Story of Syrian Christians

On one cool morning last year, we some of the members of Marthoma Church, Karimba, gathered at the Parsonage. After coffee at 6 am we started for Palayur (an important pilgrimage center of Syrian Christians) in a hired Bus. Shortly before 8 am we reached, as planned, at the Ravi Varma orphanage at Trichur run by our church. We had free breakfast with the inmates, wash our plates ourselves and gave donations to the institution. And go around and saw the institution and talked to some of the inmates.

Ravivarma Orphanage

How to reach Palayur?
Palayur is a part of Trichur District and is located on the west Cost of Kerala. By road it takes 28 Km to reach Palayur from Trichur. It is on Trichur – Chavakkad route, via Pavaratty. To travel by train catch Trichur – Guruvayur train (24 Km). From Guruvayur to Palayur take a bus or a taxi/auto rickshaw (2 Km). Nedumbasserry International Airport is only 80 Km from Palayur.

We then started to see many ancient churches on our way to Guruvayur where we had Lunch at another old age home run by our Church. Here I had talked to some of the inmates who expressed their anguish at their children leaving them to this old age home, while they long to be with their children and grand children as it was in their younger days. (Money is not what they expect from their Children). I then decided that it will be better to be in the jungle of concrete in Delhi along with my children than in the God’s own Country. Soon Kerala will become a geriatric asylum as the youngsters will leave Kerala.

Old age home

Ancient Church

Kananaya Kaldian church

Well maintained Ancient cemetery

Before I Go to Palayur let me tell the story of Syrian Christians of Kerala.

Definition of Syrian Christian

Syrian Christians are not a particular Christian Denomination. It is a high cast name for all Christians now found in many Kerala denominations who claim their origin to Brahmins converted by St. Thomas and later intermarried with the Christian families migrated from Palestine etc. They were known as Nazraneys (ey pronounced like money) to the local people, and to the out side world as St. Thomas Christians. Only after the arrival of Portuguese they are known as Syrian Christians.

Throughout Kerala, one can find Christian families that claim their descent from Brahmin ancestors who were baptized by Apostle Thomas. St. Thomas Christians were classified into the caste system according to their professions, in accordance with the Hindu tradition, with special privileges for trade granted by the benevolent kings who ruled the area. Syrian Christians had a king of their own. After the eighth century when Hindu Kingdoms came to sway, Christians were expected to strictly abide by stringent rules pertaining to caste and religion. This became a matter of survival. This is why St. Thomas Christians had such a strong sense of caste and tradition. Local rulers had given them 172 special privileges including right to own Slaves; right to have special architecture for their houses, right to use 2 Plantain leaves at public feast, use of Palanquin etc.

Thus, Most of the Kerala Churches are Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, and Judeo-Syro-Oriental in worship.

Even before Christian era, Arabs had trade with Kerala for spices mainly Pepper, Ivory and sandal wood. Even King Solomon got wood from Kerala for making the first Jewish temple. Many Jews settled in Kochi and Palayur before St. Thomas came to Kerala in AD 52.

It is believed that St. Thomas came in one of the boats with the trading Jews.

Christianity in India
It was one of the early eastward movements that first brought Christianity to India. According to tradition it was brought in the first century by one of the twelve apostles, St. Thomas. This has been the constant tradition of the Syrian Christians of Malabar, and it has been widely believed in the West also that this apostle’s sphere of work was in India.

The Tradition
Palayur was the stronghold of the Namboodiri Brahmins (the super class people in Indian communities). When St. Thomas arrived from Kodungallur, Israelites had a settlement at Palayur, two thousand years ago. Ruins of an ancient Jewish Synagogue are still seen outside of a Brahmin temple about a furlong away from the Church.
“When Thomas came to the great Brahmin centre of Palayur, a leading Brahmin Gramam (Village) among the 64, he came across some Brahmins doing the Pithru Yajna or Pooja to the manes or ghosts of deceased ancestors. They were throwing water into the air (Tharpan) while reciting manthras. The Apostle learned from them the meaning of this ritual and remarked: ‘If your performance is acceptable to the gods they could keep the water suspended in the air without allowing it to fall again and again’. “The Brahmins said that this was unthinkable as it was opposed to the laws of nature. Then Thomas asserted that the One true God he worshipped could do it, and he proceeded to perform a miracle on condition that the Brahmins accept his faith if he is successful. The Apostle, invoking the Holy Trinity, made the sign of the Cross and threw a handful of water up into the sky. After reaching a particular height the water stood still in the air, the particles glittering like diamonds. Looking down the Brahmins could see the cavity made by the removal of the water still there in the pond. Most of the witnesses were baptised on the spot. However those Brahmins who did not accept the faith called the place ‘Shapa Kadu’ or Cursed Place and left the place immediately promising to take the next bath only at Vembanattu, unpolluted by the new faith. Even today, true to the oath taken by their ancestors, the Brahmins do not eat or drink in the vicinity of Palayur or Chowghat (Shapa Kadu).” Palayur church is one of the seven churches established by St. Thomas in Kerala.
Subsequently a series of Migration took place by Christians of Palestine Syria etc. At first Nazraneys do not intermarry with tem, but later intermarried with them.

The following pictures are taken from the compound of Palayur Church depicting the Story of St. Thomas and his Martyrdom at Mylapore in madras. The church was a temple before St. Thomas Converted the Brahmins. The oil lamp used in the temple is still there. Tippu sultan burned down this church. But later it is reconstructed with the Persian cross established by St. Thomas and the oil lamps of the temple.

Kind of boat in which st. Thomas came to Kerala

This pond and statues at the Palayur church represent St. Thomas baptizing the Brahmins

Palayur Church

The Persian Cross planted by St. Thomas and the Oil lamps used in the Temple

The cave representing St. Thomas martyrdom at Mylapore, Madras

Till 16th century the Syrian Christians were not fully aware of the Bible and the Christian Theology. They were following the Mesopotamian liturgy (Worship order or Chanting) in Syriac language understood only to a few. Following some rituals of the Eastern Churches of Mesopotamia. (Not Roman Catholic rituals as in Rome)

They follow many Hindu rituals like Shaving head and keeping a tuft of hair in the middle, applying Sandal wood paste on Forehead and on arms and Chest like Brahmins. They also worship their own deity in the form of Idols. In marriage, they tie a mangal sutra by the groom to the brid’s neck.

When Portuguese came to Kerala they saw these strange Christians and wanted to make them civilized like the Catholics. By using Bribes to leaders, using force and frightening the local king, they succeeded in convening a Conference by all bishops and lay representatives and made to follow the Catholic rituals and Liturgy. In effect all were made Catholic for about 50 years. In the conference they burned most of our old liturgy and other historical records.

Their bishop who came from Mesopotamia was put to jail by Portugese. There was a big protest by many to release him. But Portugese turn their canon on them so they have to retreat and make a vow that they have nothing to do with Rome. So the new denomination came to be known as Jacobites. Later when British came and started printing Bible and started teaching bible, Marthoma Church also separated from them.

Present day Marthoma church had a broad outlook. Their metropolitan, Head of the Church, often use to say “I believe in one and only one God. There is no Hindu God, Muslim God or Catholic God. It may be that their understanding of God is Different. My mother’s understanding of my father and my brothers understanding & my understanding of my father may differ. But there is only one father. No wonder L.K Adwani and Aryasamaj leader Acharya Agnivesh have much to say in favor of the Marthoma church as true Indian Church.

Now in fact Hindus, Christians and Muslims in Kerala are culturally alike and so there is no communal trouble in Kerala. Each community influences the others. There are innumerable stories and traditions that this space is not sufficient to include all. Before I finish I am giving two more photos showing a Syrian Christian (or Nazraney) dance form called Margam Kali and elephants of Guruvayur.

Margam Kali Dance of Syrian Christians

Temple elephants

After visiting the Chavakkad beach nearby we returned home. While returning we saw the Elephant keeping yard of the Famous Guruvayur Temple where more than hundred Elephants are maintained for the temple. It was a very thrilling experience.


  • Devaprathap Raja says:

    The first missionary who understood this social value of this mobility and anonymity was Joseph Peet who always for the safety of his converts from slave caste sent them to other places where they could make new claims and build up a better image for names like..”alumootil,painammootil,thengummootil,etc are these neo-converted who settled in new place and started a new life,

    olden families like “vadakkethalakkal,thekkethalakkal etc are migrated before..

  • Devaprathap Raja says:

    The Syrian Christian’s specialty to beef is a very popular phenomenon. A large-scale cow slaughter is taking place in Central Keralam and the chief consumers of it are Syrian Christians (both Kananaya and Saint Thomas). The ancient beef eating community, prior to the arrival of Christianity, was Parayas (Candalas) of Keralam. Tradition says that the Parayas were a noble class of ancient Keralam. Legend says that they were sons of Saint Vasista. Their craze for beef led to the ostracism by the rest jatis in the deluge of time. Above all, because of their beef eating habit, the later arrived Nambootiries (Brahmins) did a lot to seclude them from the Hindu main stream. Even though these stories bear no historicity, it can give some hints on the process of societal polarization.

    Hindus in general and Brahmins in particular since the days of Vedas are worshippers of cows. Nairs took oath when they awarded the Nair title from the lord after completing their Kalari training that they will protect the Brahmins and cows. It is difficult to believe that a simple alteration of religion/faith can effect changes in the food habits of a social group. Christianity or Islam in its true experience only produced regional variations instead of universal models. Even in the case of Indian Christians the regional variations are more reflecting, for instance, generally Indian Christians are more Hindu than Christian. It is because of the reason that usually the aborigine cultures override the alien faith. Hence it is difficult to believe that the change of food habits of the caste Hindus of the first century CE is simply by a change of faith. Hence the argument of savarna/Nambootiri conversion behind the birth of Syrian Christian faith in Keralam has no standing.

    The high priests of the traditional Parayas are called “Kaikaran”. It is interesting to see that the trustee/prasuventi of Syrian church is still known/identified in the land as “Kaikaran”. Why did a savarna origin Syrian Christian not go for a savarna term like ‘Kalakakaran’ or ‘Adhikari’ instead of a subaltern terminology? No doubt, this trustee of the Syrian church (kaikaran) is always hailing from aristocratic Syrian Christian family circle of the respective parish.

    The popular mythical story of the “Parayi Petta Pantirukulam” (Vararuchi’s marriage to a paraya/candala lady and their twelve extra-genius sons) is a symbolic one that reminds the evolution and polarization of jati (caste) system/culture in Keralam. One of the twelve sons of Vaararuchi, a Brahmin scholar, in a scholarly candala/paraya lady is one ‘Uppukottan’ (salt trader) who is believed to be Mar Joseph, the first bishop of the Kananaya Syrian Christians. This is only a legendary story. Stories usually imbibe the reflections of the contemporary societies. If so, no doubt, this story may be a cursor to the marital relations between Kananaya Syrian Christians and Parayas (Candalas), which was practiced, in the long-gone days. Above all this story justifies the natives’ matrimonial alliance with alien societies.

  • Xavier Vakayil says:

    The name of the place you have mentioned in the text in respect of the next bath at Vembanattu is incorrect as the correct name of the place called Venmenad which is about 4 or 5 km away from Palayur and very close to famous Christian area called Pavaratty. One of the ancient Brahmin’s Mahadeva Khetram also situates Venmenad which is an oldest temple than the temple at Guruvayur. I have seen the usage of Vembanattu by many without realizing the actual place’s name and used those who are especially from southern Kerala called Vembanattu, their well known place’s name instead of realizing the actual name of the place called Venmenad. There are many other mistakes also seen in the writing of people about the history of Christianity. Some mistakes when said long time ago becomes a history. Actually, there are disputes about the origin of Christianity in India which also has some difference of opinion that as when St Thomas Apostle came in India in the first century, which religion was dominated in India especially in Kerala? St Thomas came to Kerala by following the Jewish merchants who were living in Kerala and he preached and worked with Jewish Indian community most probably converted those people into Christianity.

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