Traditions of Mar Thoma Nasranis
Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar
This article was extracted from "Elements of Syro-Malabar History" by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar.
Concept of the Church
St Thomas Christians held on to original, primitive, apostolic teachings of the pre-Nicene period. Church is the worshiping community keeping the Way of Jesus brought to India by Apostle Thomas. Church is called “Palli”, a Buddhist term for believing community. For St Thomas Christians Church is not at all a building or place of worship; instead it is an assembly of people. When they say St Thomas established seven Churches in Malabar Coast they do not primarily mean that he built seven buildings as places of worship; rather they intend that he gathered seven communities who were to come together to a spot symbolized by Sliva. The term Sliva in Syriac means the CRUCIFIED ONE. Victory of the Crucified one became symbol of Christianity every where. In the second and third century Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles erection of a Cross by the Apostle missionary is a common item. Naturally St Thomas too erected Seven Crosses so that community could come together to it for worship. Later on the worshiping assembly (Palli or Church) itself got identified with the place or building. Buddhism and Jainism were the most popular religions of South India when Thomas came here. Sometimes we find the appellation of Buddha for Christ and St Thomas; also Mar Thoma Nazranis were termed Buddhists. These we find in the post-Sankara period. Until the Southists got separated from the Northists, sometime between 8th and 10th century the Christian community was only one. The Northists joined the St Thomas Christians and the latter too began to be called Northists because of polarization of some bitter division within one and the same community. The caste system developed by the time of Sankaracharya influenced this separation. Those who broke the rule went out as outcastes.
Those who became the followers of the Way (Margam) of Jesus Christ through the Way (Margam) of St Thomas the Apostle (Mar Thoma Shliha) used to say to their children: “We are the children of St Thomas the Apostle” (Njangal mar thoma shlihayude makkal aakunnu). Traditionally they were called Mar Thoma Nazranis. The name Nazranis is a very popular name for those who follow Jesus the Nazarene. In the pre-sixth century Syriac literature we find it, for example in the writings of Ephrem (c.306-373). It stood for Christians with a Judeo-Aramaic background. With the arrival of Islam on the scene it became rather derogatory in the Mesopotamian milieu. But the term remained very popular and acceptable in India. It is the European travellers who came across these Malankara Mar Thoma Nazranis, who began to call them St Thomas Christians of Malabar. With the arrival of European Latin missionaries the term Syrian Christians came to everyday use to distinguish the Nazranis from Latin Christians.
The Church or Palli was ruled by Palliyogam, a democratic group of elders on the local, regional and national level. It was a decision making body of elders presided over by the eldest priest. On the national level it was called Malankara Yogam which was presided over by the Arkadiacon of All India who enjoyed the status of a Christian prince and ruler. His voice was final for the Christians. The bishop remained a pastoral and spiritual head who usually left the administration of the Church to the Arkadiacon and Palliyogam. Church was more congregational than Episcopal. Bishops came from Persia and Mesopotamia and they did not interfere in the day to day worldly administration of the Church. Local leaders were efficient and happy to play such a role. All important matters of individual members, priests and community were discussed and decided by Palliyogam. Some European travellers describe this system as “a Christian Republic”. It was local apostolic tradition that grew up into the rule of Palliyogam. Participation and co-operation of the laity was paramount in Palliyogam. But during the Latinization period (1498-1896) this self-governing system got very weakened and redundant among Catholic groups. Among non-catholic groups it became a platform of battle between laity and clergy. At present the Palliyogam of the Syro-Malabar Church is an advisory rather than a decision making body. The role of the Arkadiacon has disappeared among the Catholic and non-Catholic groups.
Priests were ordained for a community with the written permission of Palliyogam. The community gave financial contributions and gifts to support their clergy. Though most of the clergy were married some priests remained celibate monks who were respected as Rambans and Malpans. The wedge between laity and clergy was unheard of; in and through Palliyogam they were equal partners. Future priests were trained in the pastoral and liturgical context of important parishes by select Malpans. Kammiz was the clerical dress worn only on official and liturgical occasions. Otherwise the married priests dressed like the laity and lived in their own families. But celibate Rambans and Malpans used to put on black dress. Usually priests earned their living by personal labour like the laity though they received contributions from the community they served. Celibacy and seminary system were introduced only in the 16th century by European missionaries.
Local native customs and cultural elements were harmoniously blended together with Christian faith. Agape of Apostolic times is kept up even today to some extent. Different food items (eg. Food nerchas like razakanji, thamuku, kozhukkatta, kallappam, neyyappam, unniyappam, aval, kanji, rice, pachor, puzhuku, etc.), were offered and distributed in the Church. All are eager to participate in this kind of sacred meal in or around the Church in connection with worship. Both rich and poor, young and old offer and share this nercha agape. One tenth (passaram) of wealth was offered to the common needs of the Church. Muthiyutt and Kal kazhukiyutt were also widely practised at homes. In Muthiyutt a little boy, an old lady and an old man (representing child Jesus, Mary and Joseph) were given a sumptuous meal. Kal kazhukiyutt involves feeding twelve boys and a priest (representing the twelve Apostles and Jesus). In some villages we observe these even today.
On fasting days of Lent and advent Nazranis used to take only a single meal after the evening prayers. All those who were staying near the Church came for evening and morning prayers. Some came even for the midnight prayers. Those who were far away made these three prayers at home. Even children were woken up for midnight prayers. Many pious Nazranis ate only a few pieces of “indari” and “kozhukatta” from Maundy Thursday (Pesaha) until the following Saturday evening. Many kept silent vigil during these days. Even children were to keep silence; if at all they speak only in a very small voice. Some used to sit in the Church (bhajanamirickal) on these days and other important days of fasting. There were some who did not eat anything for Three Days Lent. Fasting and abstinence on Fridays and Wednesdays (as prescribed in the first century work Didache) were a common apostolic practise among Nazranis. 50 Days Fast of Lent, 25 Days Fast of Advent, 50 Days Fast of the Apostles, 15 Days Fast, Fast of 12 Fridays after Christmas, 3 Days Fast of Ninevites, 8 Days Fast, Fast of the Virgins, Fast of Elijah, Fast of Transfiguration and other vigil fasts are an indication towards the intense ascetic orientation of Nazranis. Once we avoid overlapping days, the total fasting days come 225 per year! Fasting meant total abstinence from meat, fish, egg, milk and milk products, alcohol, sexual life, smoking, chewing betel, etc. 
Nazranis were fond of making pilgrimages to places associated with Apostle Thomas’ mission work in South India. Mylapur being the spot of his martyrdom and tomb was one of the most prominent locations. St Thomas Christians from the Malabar Coast used to walk all the way to pray there. Usually it took twenty five days for pilgrimage to Mylapur. They went for this only after at least 21 days of spiritual preparations, fasting, abstinence, etc. All the seven Churches started by Thomas were also favourite places for pilgrimage. On Dukrana (July 3rd), many used to visit Paravur Church for participating in the Chatham of Apostle Thomas. It seems that Paravur inherited this legacy after 1341. In the past all the churches and even families used to conduct the Chatham of Thomas for those unable to go to Paravur. Another regular pilgrimage to Paravur was on November 21st, the day on which Thomas landed at Maliamkara. Malayatur was another important pilgrim centre. Most of the ancient Churches were dedicated to St Mary and St Thomas. But Kuravilangad remained the most famous place because of the first Marian apparitions in history. Even today all the above mentioned pilgrim centres are very popular among Nazranis and members of other religions.
In the middle of the night of Denha (Epiphany) all St Thomas Christians used to take a public bath in nearby river or pond before entering the Church. This ritual bath is a reminder of the Baptism of Jesus in Jordan. On the same day at homes they celebrated “pindikuthiperunnal”. Oil lamps were arranged on the stem of plantain or banana trees and Nazranis went around it shouting repeatedly, EL PAYYA (meaning God is Light). In some places both these celebrations exist even today.
St Thomas Christians celebrate the Pesaha in a Christianized manner. On Maundy Thursday evening they “break the bread” and “drink milk”. This unleavened bread is called “kurishappam”. It is to be broken and distributed by the senior most male member of the family. Only Christians will be given a piece of this bread. So too they share a special thick drink made from coconut-milk. This bread and milk they make only for Pesaha. If a death has occurred in the family it will not make “kurishappam” that year. But relatives or neighbour bake two loaves of bread, one for itself and the extra one for this family.
Most of the St Thomas Christian names were borrowed from Old Testament and New Testament. Names of early saints from the patristic period were also popular. The eldest boy is named after paternal grandfather; the eldest girl receives the name of paternal grandmother; the second boy and girl get the names of maternal grandfather and maternal grandmother respectively. Thus four names were always inherited in the family with great pride and joy. One could choose the name of the fifth child, though the choice was often that of an uncle, aunt, parent, etc. Thus we can say that most of the names among St Thomas Christians are inherited from generation to generation. Even in modern times they rarely break this naming tradition. Often pet names are developed from baptismal names, but need not necessarily. All St Thomas Christians have their own family names which are always meaningful; this could be a historical, professional, geographical term which describes something about that family. These family names could be changed by emigration or some other reason. Nowadays these family or house names are termed as surnames because of European influence.
All Nazranis were dressed white. This is only a symbol of the white garment of baptism. Even at funeral the dead is wrapped in white clothes. The crown of baptism, crown of marriage and crown of life (at funeral) are other meaningful symbols of religious identity. Nazranis like all other oriental Christians used to pray facing the east. It was a reminder of Paradise, Christ’s second coming and the morning of resurrection. At death bed a dying person’s head is to face east and the bed is arranged accordingly. Laity is buried with their head westwards so that their face ever ready to look at resurrection. But the clergy is buried just the opposite way as they are to come with Christ to welcome or judge their flock. Nazranis dwelling far away from the Church used to bury their dead near their house. They used to erect a burial stone with oil lamps. Every evening they used to pour oil and light these lamps. Occasionally priests used to visit and pray at these private family tombs. This was known as ‘kuzhimaada sewa’ (service of the tomb). Those who lived closer to the Church buried their dead in the south, west and north sides of its courtyard, but never at the east side. Cemetery burial is a Portuguese introduction. Many private family tombs marked by tomb stones and lamps could easily be seen even in the twentieth century near Kuravilangad area. Recent cultivation of rubber plantations have destroyed practically most of them. Neither the political nor ecclesiastical authorities took any care in preserving these religious and historical monuments of St Thomas Christians. Most of them were pre-Portuguese.
No food is prepared or eaten in the house before the funeral. But children are fed by neighbours. A simple vegetarian meal called ‘pattinikanji’ is served after the funeral.
All the close relatives take an ascetical vow for abstinence. They take only vegetarian meals until the death anniversary. This is very notable in the case of one or more adult sons (usually unmarried) of the deceased. He begins to grow beard for an year. He will not marry until the death anniversary. Eleven days after death there were special prayers at the tomb and a vegetarian meal at home. These were repeated at various intervals until death anniversary. Year after year the death anniversary was celebrated with special prayers, in the Church, at the tomb and home, culminated by ‘aanduchatham’, a sumptuous meal. This meal starts with an antique custom. First of all two plantains are served to every participant. All eat them as the very first item. This symbolizes the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They fell pray to death by plucking and eating the forbidden fruit. As the second item everyone is given three ‘neyyappams’ or three ‘unniyappams’ each. All eat these small delicious, sweet cake-like pieces of bread, symbolizing Eucharist, baptism, Christ and Trinity – life and resurrection. In this connection the Nazranis used to say: “That which came through eating of the fruit is gone by eating of the bread.” (Pazhathale wannathu appathale poyi). After observing this unique and ancient custom St Thomas Christians proceed to the death anniversary meal. It is the privilege of married daughters of the family to bring ‘neyyappams’ or ‘unniyappams’ for this occasion.
Growth and Education
Even before official baptism the new born is considered to be a member of the community by the very birth from Nazrani parents. Forty days after the birth of a boy (but eighty days for a girl) the mother will not go the Church. Afterwards she goes to the Church with her child. Baptism was sometimes postponed for the sake of convenience. Soon after birth the name of Jesus Christ is whispered into the ear of the child. It is interesting to note that the name of Jesus Christ is whispered into the ear of any dying member of the Nazrani community. “Isho Msihayku sthuthi ayirikkatte” (Praise be to Jesus Christ) is the phrase with which the members greeted their parents, clergy, teachers, respectable elders, etc. With this greeting they used to kiss the hand as a sign of welcome and respect. Everyday after family prayers children used to practise this ritual before parents and elder members present there. The greeting was accepted by the recipients with a reply “Eppozhum stuthi ayirikkatte” (Praise be for ever).
The newborn baby is fed with a few drops of honey mixed with milk, gold powder and a herb vayampu. In the 11th month after birth the parents bring the child to ‘chorutt’ or first feeding with sweet rice. The priest feeds the child with a little sweet rice three times. Some years later the child undergoes “Ezhuthinu iruthu” (sitting for writing/learning). The child is seated in the lap of a teacher who, reciting some prayers, makes the child to write the letters of the alphabet. There begins a lifelong relationship between the child as disciple and the teacher as guide. On all important occasions the disciple is visited and blessed by the teacher. The disciple gives presents to his teacher on every such occasion. On the day before marriage this was very common sight in the past. The students used to treat their teachers like their parents with great respect.
Marriages were well planned and arranged between two families according to their social, economic, cultural, educational, political status. Individuals were less important than the family and community. Betrothal was in the family; but the crowning took place in the Church. The elaborate rituals and functions in the houses of both bride and bridegroom are worth exploring and this we have to skip here. In one word they imply the socio-cultural status of St Thomas Christians in the past. Many native customs were adopted after Christianizing them. “Thalikettu” is a typical example. A golden leaf (in shape of ‘aalila’) containing a cross made of twenty one gold globes is the ‘thali’ of Nazrani bride. Three or seven threads are taken from ‘manthrakodi’ (bridal vestment) in order to form one thread to tie the ‘thali’ around the neck of the bride. As long as the married woman is alive she will not part with the ‘thali’. When she dies it is deposited in the coffer of the Church; often the portion with twenty one crosses is broken for this offering in the Church. The thread and the ‘kozha’ (hole or handle) are buried with her. This symbolizes the sacredness and indissolubility of Nazrani marriage. Divorce and adultery were unheard of among traditional St Thomas Christians. So too the evils like murder, alcoholism, theft, etc. were frowned upon.
 Cf.J. Aerthayil, The Spiritual Heritage of the St Thomas Christians (Bangalore 1982, repr.2001).
This article was extracted from "Elements of Syro-Malabar History" by Koonammakkal Thoma Kathanar.
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