A Nestorian Miscellanea I: Post XVII - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

Mar Yohannan with Seminarian

Those of you who have been following this travel-blog will have realised by now that the posts are not happening in chronological order. I have had to post what I could when I could. I have now finished my time with the Chaldean Syrian Church and moved to the Old Seminary in Kottayam as a guest of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Yet before I can begin writing about the West Syrian tradition I need to finish covering my time with the East Syrians.

So in a rapid summary here are some of the things I have been up to. I went with one of the two Bishops of the Church of the East, Mar Yohannan Yoseph, to visit their seminary. Although the seminary had been founded by Mar Thoma Dharmo my understanding is that nothing had happened after his departure from India until quite recently when Mar Yohannan began the process of trying to make it functional again. In many ways it is similar to Rhondo seminary in Tanzania with its local reliance on food and cash crops grown on the seminary grounds. The seminary has also planted a rubber tree plantation which in two to three years should produce enough income to fund the ongoing work and to allow the seminary to become an accredited school. At the moment the seminary comprises one priest/ teacher and seven students that live there whilst commuting into school in Thrissur fifteen kilometres away.

Seminary of the Church of the East

Coconut Tree Planted by His Holiness mar Dinkha IV

I enjoyed my time there as it was nice and quiet after the noise of the city and I had my first taste of coconut water since being in India, and this from a coconut tree planted by the Catholicos-Patriarch himself!

The offering of Fresh Coconuts from the Patriarchal Tree

The student above, who will be ordained a deacon later this year, is going on nineteen years old. To me he looks about fourteen. I can never tell the ages of the men in Kerala. Most adults have the build of adolescents and it is only when you look at the head on that you realise they are in their fifties. However it is also awkward in that many of the teenagers in Kerala have full moustaches and so you assume they are in their mid twenties or older when actually they are only fifteen. Three local youths were killed in a car accident last weekend and when I saw their photos I though they were all in their thirties. It was only reading the captions underneath that I learned not one of them had made it out of their sixteenth year.

Seminary Fish Pond for Recreation

In the Seminary Forest

The following is a short clip from my first Sunday Qurbana (Qurbana is the Syrian word for the Holy Eucharist) at the Cathedral. Mar Aprem was celebrant but he allowed a younger priest to do the sursum corda and the prostrations before he went back to the altar to continue the consecration.

I thought I noticed from the very beginning a strong Anglican influence. It turns out I was correct. The Church of the East and the Anglicans have had a very close and very strange relationship that goes back to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s non proselytising Mission to the Assyrian Church. This mission built schools and seminaries for the Church of the East and provided theological, liturgical and most of all printing support to the beleaguered church. It was also the Anglicans that pushed the name ‘Assyrian’ which eventually was added to the name of the church by the Catholicos-Patriarch. The clergy wear Anglican style cassocks, sing the Querbana in the vernacular, have a typically Anglican church governance system, and they even employ the use of certain beloved Anglican hymns.

O Lord My God

The rest of their music is defiantly not Anglican.

Eucharistic Song

Blessing Liturgical Song


On Thursday evenings (both the East and West Syrians count every day as beginning with sunset the evening before – so Thursday evening is Friday Vespers whilst Friday evening Vespers is for Saturday) they hold an interesting service similar to a service for the Exultation of the Holy Cross. When I asked what its origins were I was informed that it was created recently to compete with the neighbouring Latin Roman Catholic parishes successful charismatic Tuesday services. It was not the romantic answer from antiquity I had expected. Still it was lovely to see the Nasrani Menorah all lit up and the cross decorated with flowers. The Church of England’s Common Worship has an evening service for Fridays for the Commemoration of the Holy Cross which is based on the same idea. 

Thursday Evening Holy Cross Service

Cross Decorated with Flowers

Holy Cross Stone Votive Lamp

Holy Cross Chant

Holy Cross Litany

Priest and Deacon Litany

It was interesting to see the cultural interaction of the Metropolitan. After forty-three years as the Archbishop it was clear he was seen as a part of the city’s makeup – a cultural fixture that was not based on his particular denomination or even, it seems, religion. One morning he was asked by a group of Brahmin Hindu scholars to bless them in preparation for leading a gathering at the Hindu Temple. They came by the Metropolitical Palace, crushed a coconut and some other auspicious nut/gourd thing and received His Beatitude's blessing for their work. If only all religions everywhere worked together like this.

Mar Aprem waiting to Bless Hindu Scholars

Hindu Blessing II

On a few occasions I was brought along to weddings or engagement parties. Often I was forced to sit right in the middle of the front row where the bride’s parents were sitting. It did not seem to bother them (everyone seems to take clerical privilege here for granted – especially the clergy) but I certainly felt awkward.

Church Decorated with Wedding Arch

Sacristy before Wedding

Wedding Gathering

The Bride

Mar Aprem surrounded by Photographers

Tying the Wedding String

This Keralite couple actually now lives in New York City and came home to get married. It was quite unusual for the bride to wear a western style bridal gown. This is one of the few photographs in the church that did not have me plonked right in the middle. I had never even met the couple (and never was introduced) but for the rest of their lives they will have to look at their wedding photographs with me standing to one side of them whilst His Beatitude stands on the other. I can here their children now:

“Mummy who is that strange looking white man in all the wedding photos?’.

Unknown Married Couple with His Beatitude

Another Anglican hymn made an appearance as the opening music. Somehow I do not think that anyone understood that it is usually associated with the ending of things (i.e. DEATH) and not the beginning of things. Rather surreal to hear this at the beginning of their happy day.

Wedding - Abide with Me

Wedding Weird

This wedding marks the first time I had to eat with my fingers. Eating with your fingers is one of the four or five ‘hurdles’ that one must overcome before one feels comfortable in India. You know it is coming but when they arrive you are never ready. So it was here. For some reason the Grace and then the eating of the first food by the priests seems to hold some significance at weddings here. So when I went to eat and realised I would have to use my fingers I just braced myself and hoped for the best. This would have been mildly embarrassing at the best of times as I was in the middle of a crown and surrounded by other clergy. Yet this was much worse as the significance of the moment meant that about six big video cameras were trained on me the entire time I was trying to eat. I tried to watch what other were doing and mimic them. Still it was a bit of a disaster.

“Mummy, what is that strange white man doing to his food in all your wedding videos?’

A Day out in Munnar: Post XVI - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


After having written many ‘long’ articles I will now need to post in rapid succession some brief overviews of a large number of activities so that I can catch up to the present moment. You will have realised by now that my posts are not happening in chronological order. This post was started the day after my first post on Munnar a few weeks back. Here is part two.

I had dinner with another guest of the High Range Club, Nicholas Drayson, last evening. It turns out Nicholas is a noted naturalist author (not naturist)and novelist. I would like to add my own commendation to what i have read but I have only just begun one of his earlier novels he gifted me and thus cannot comment yet. He is currently living on a houseboat in the UK and has decided to do some of the writing for his new novel in India during the English winter. I invited him for a day out further up the mountains which he accepted. 


Our morning goal was Top Station on the Kerala/ Tamil Nadu border. It is the highest point, 1600m, on the interstate road. The road up to Top Point switchbacks and winds its way through extraordinarily beautiful scenery,  lakes, temples, forests, and the the every present tea bushes. The very rare Neelakurunji flower grows here. When it flowers it covers the mountain slopes with violet blossoms. Unfortunately it only flowers every twelve years and the next time is not until 2018.

Munnar Day Out I

Munnar Day Out II

Munnar Day Out III

Munnar Day Out IV

Munnar Day Out V

The high mountains are sparsely populated being mostly covered by the tea plantation itself. I imagine most of the small hamlets are composed of tea  pickers and their families. There are a few small Hindu temples and the occasional tiny church along the way, usually seen off in the distance. Yet there exists in profusion small roadside Hindu shrines. I love these. Every one we visited turned out to be Shivite (worshippers of the god Shiva). Shiva is a pre Vedic god of the Dravidians who became associated with Rudra of the Rig-Veda to become the great Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer God of India. The Shiva lingam (phallic symbol of fertility and creation)as well as his son, Lord Ganesha, were found in a number of shrines. Lord Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles and the god of Wisdom. In the photograph below you can just see the nose of his rat mount Mooshika poking out from the bottom frame.

Lord Ganesha

Munnar Day Out VI

Roadside Hindu Shrine

At the Roadside Shrine

Munnar Day Out VII

Lord Ganesha Again

Next to this image of Lord Ganesha are two Nagakal, images of the snake gods the Naga.

Nicholas Drayson and Lord Ganesha

Of course at the end of the morning after reaching Top Point the clouds rolled in spoiling any chance of a view. The driver was thrilled, as he had never seen the clouds that thick. I was not so excited. I must admit, however, that it was rather eerie wandering past huddled groups of Indians selling coconuts or snacks or simply resting in the mists while listening to the wind and exotic bird song.

Munnar Day Out VIII 

For our afternoon trip we had to come back to Munnar and take another range up the mountains. This range is much less used and much therefore had fewer people, cars, or dwellings. Our goal this time was Eravikulum National Park, the last stronghold of the world's rarest goat – the Nilgiri tahr. Their natural friendliness to humans brought them to the brink of extinction during the colonial era when everyone went crazy about hunting everything that moved. The future Duke of Wellington, when on leave from fighting Tipu Sultan, remarked on the pathetic nature of the creature’s self preservation instinct. They continued to gormlessly wander through the British camp even though the soldiers would shoot them, often without even having to leave their tents. Since Independence they have been brought back from the brink of extinction and there are herds of them here. This was accomplished partially through the extensive conservation work of the American biologist Clifford Rice.

Nilgiri Tahr

Of course when we got there we found the park was closed for six weeks as it was breeding season for the goats. The fact that we has asked several officials in Munnar about the park and were given instruction on how to get there not a one mentioned it was closed. I have begun to get used to this remarkable trait of only responding to what is asked and not entering into the ‘spirit’ of why the question is being asked in the first place. I am consistently being reminded of the Inspector Clouseau scene about the dog: “Does your dog Bite?”.

Nicholas and I then agreed to drive even further up the mountain to try our luck at the remote Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.



Along the way we passed more and more roadside shrines that had increasing numbers of Nagakals (Naga Idols). The Nagas  (snake gods) of Kerala were the original rulers who were made to give up the land to the Brahmins by Parasurama One of the Avataras of the god Vishnu). As a result Brahmins (and Nairs) are supposed to keep Sarppakkavu, serpent groves, for the snakes to live in. If a family cannot maintain their grove it is a dishonour and they must atone for it and pass maintenance over to the temple.

It is odd to see an increasing number of shrines to cobra gods as we get further and further away from an urban center. Of course, if you think about it, it makes perfect sense even if it does give you an uneasy felling that you must keep suppressed until back in a town with an ample supply of anti-venom.

Naga Lingum I Think

Munnar Day Out IX

Munnar Day Out X

Another Roadside Shrine

Along the way we passed through the famous sandalwood grove outside of the bazaar town of Marayoor, the only town between Munnar and the Tamil Nadu border. It is the only sandalwood forest in Kerala and covers almost 92 square kilometres and contains 60,000 trees. The forest is fenced off and has constant survelance by guards but still the trees get felled by poachers on a regular basis.

Sandlewood Tree in Marayoor

When we finally reached the wildlife sanctuary we were told that it had stopped its walks some two hours ago and because of panthers, wild elephants and the possible tiger we could not get out of the car a walk anywhere at all. So back we went without even the chance of a glimpse of the almost mythical White Bison of Manjampatti (probably an albino Indian gaur). Although there were two forlorn looking monkeys sitting on the wall somehow channelling my feelings with their drooped depressed faces. This monkey, for those really paying attention, you have already seen.

Forlorn Monkey

They were right about the wild elephants. I saw them first and told the driver calmly to slow down as there were wild elephants on the road up ahead. He ignored me while listening to his Michael Jackson Thriller CD for the 23rd time. I tried again with no luck so I had to resort to yelling “Elephants! Stop!”. That worked but resulted in the slamming on of the breaks and him being momentarily overcome by his shock of seeing them (although we had been warned there were wild elephants along the roadside). Wild elephants can be very dangerous especially if you meet a lone bull elephant on the road. These were females. I thought we would wait until they moved off the road. Instead it was like we were in Scotland with a herd of sheep we kind of drove 'through' them.

Nicholas at a Waterfall

So although technically, none of the things we tried to do ended up working out it was a wonderful day out. Nicholas was a delightful conversationalists and we talked in depth about life, the universe and everything in the way that strangers are often able to do much more easily than friends. He also taught me an important grammatical lesson: poisonous is the word used when something you eat poisons you, while venomous describes a creature that has poison in its bite or claws (or any character played by Betty Davis).

The landscape was beautiful and we had the leisure to see it. We stopped and saw idols of snake gods, drank fresh coconut water straight from the coconut, went for walks, talked and basked in the coolness and the beauty of this delightful piece of India.It was a treat for me to spend some time with a well educated, friendly, and down to earth man for a few hours in the midst of this whirlwind of a trip. I often find this is the case when travelling - sometimes you overlap with someone for a day or two and it somehow acts as a point of focus that allows new pattern or directions for thoughts and feelings to meander allong. 

I especially loved coming across this football (soccer) field in the middle of nowhere and watching the boys from God knows where playing away the late afternoon light.

Boys Playing Football (soccer)

Munnar Day Out XII

Did you notice the waterfall is the photograph above?

The Swarm of Humongous Pteropus giganteus! oh, and the 117th Annual Maramon Convention: Post XV - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


Maramon Convention I

I have arrived at Maramon in Pathanamthitta for the 117th annual Maramon Convention held, as usual, on the vast sand bed of the Pampa River near the Kozhencherry Bridge. The Convention is held each year on the eight days before Lent.

Maramon Side of the River

The convention is run by the missionary arm of the Malankara Mar Thoma Church Syrian Church, the Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association. It has been held here since 1895 and its origins can be traced back to the vision of Mar Abraham Malpan the great reformer of the Mar Thoma West Syrian tradition in Kerala. It is based on the idea of the great evangelical tent revival meetings I think.

Main Panthal 

This convention is known for being one of the largest gatherings of Christians in the world. The main panthal (tent enclosure made from bamboo and thatched with palm leaves) holds over 160,000. Usually the daily attendance is over 1/4 million people with an average attendance over the course of the week of over two million. When you stand at one side of the panthal it is difficult to even see the people at the other end.  

Maramon II

Maramon III (2)

The convention draws international speakers of the very highest quality, usually from Episcopal traditions. The Archbishop of Canterbury usually comes to Maramon once during his incumbency. The main speakers besides the Mar Thoma Metropolitan and other Mar Thoma Bishops are the Malaysian born Chinese Missiologist of the CMS (Church Missionary Society) based in Oxford UK, Doctor Kang San Tan, the Tamil-Nadu born US Methodist Minster the Rev’d Martin Alphons, and the Anglican South African Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana. There are days devoted to ecumenism, evangelism, as well as social issues that effect the peoples of Kerala and the world.

Inside main Panthal - Three Bishops of Three Denominations Anglican, Mar Thoma, Church of the East

The Day begins with Bible study with children, youth, women and men each having their own sections. Then there are three main gatherings at 10am, 2pm, and 7pm. Half an hour before each section as well as interspersed throughout the day there is live music performed by a huge choir. They sing hymns and have a custom of introducing sixteen new hymns every year that they sing throughout the week so that people get used to them. 

Here are three of the more popular hymns this year. The first one is my favourite.

Maramon Hymn I

Maramon Hymn II

Maramon Hymn III

His Beatitude and Bishop Maulsi

Two of the things that are bragged about by those associated with the convention is the fact that the main enclosure and all the other buildings as well as the music is donated and supplied by the local parishes.  The other is that the members police themselves as no security is present and the police are not allowed into the gathering. The discipline and decent behaviour of the participants is legendary.

His Beatitude off to the Convention for the 49th year in a Row

His Beatitude brought me as he came just for one evening and one day. He has been coming every year for forty-nine years. I hope they remember his Golden Jubilee of attendance next year.

His Grace The Most Rev Dr Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan

I will remember several things about this week. One is meeting His Grace The Most Rev’d Doctor Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan. What an extraordinary man. He has a presence that few prelates I have met can match. During one of the speeches he somehow spotted in the crowd of a quarter of a million people a solitary man selling some sort of publication – perhaps a political tract or a newspaper. Using his stick, he somehow clambered up onto the podium before his Secretary could realise what was happening and help him. He politely stopped the speaker, pointed to the man who seemed about half a mile away and addressed him in a voice that immediately silenced the whole valley. He forbad the selling or distribution of anything at the convention and tersely told everyone that they were not to encourage this parasitic behaviours by purchasing anything. There was no question in his mind, or theirs I am sure, that anyone would. What an extraordinary power to command the allegiance of so many with just the power of your voice.

Mar Thoma Metropolitan

I felt privileged to share several meals with him during my time there. Although I must admit to feeling rather odd about the way I just arrive places and am immediately placed at the head table, the main platform or in some other position of prestige. In the case of Maramon I arrived just before a meal and found myself placed at the head table of the Mar Thoma Metropolitan where I remained for every meal until I left. At first I was not even sure anyone knew who I was but it turns out the Metropolitan had not only received my e-mail saying I was coming but seems to have read it himself, remembered the contents, and informed everyone. All this in the middle of one of the busiest weeks of the year.

The Mar Thoma Metropolitan II

The other thing that will remain with me is the experience of being the only white person here.  The speakers are Indian, African and Chinese. No westerners this year. I have not seen another white face for over a week. When I walk along the river bed I am stared at by literally tens of thousands of people. It is not my comely physique or my episcopal fuchsia sash they are looking at either. I am a foreigner, the lone member of my race here. I stand out, or I should say I stand out more than usual. Children especially are fascinated by me. They come around the corner or emerge from a crowd holding a parents hand, see me, and sort of go into paralysis as their mouth drop open and they stare googly eyed at me while their parents drag their rigid bodies away bumping along in the dust.

It is a fascinating experience that helps put humanity into its proper global perspective. I wish everyone could, at least once in their life, know what it fells like to be a clear and visible minority lost in a vest sea of another culture and race.

Maramon at Dusk

However there is one experience which will mark Maramon as a turning point in my life. I stood outside the main tent this evening at dusk listening to the music and watching the cattle egrets fly down the river to roost, the men bathe in the river, and the first stars begin to come out.

Cattle Egrets Flying Home to Roost

Then I began to realise that the white cattle egrets that I had been watching just a minute before had been replaced by a couple of much bigger, black birds lazily flapping their huge wings as they also flew downriver presumably to roost. The couple then became four or five. Then ten then twenty. The numbers just kept growing. I knew they were too big to be crows, way too big as their wings were about five feet across. I was wracking my mind trying to remember what kind of gigantic black birds were indigenous to the area. Then as a cloud of them flapped over my head it suddenly hit me like an electric shock – BATS!

ARKive image GES021994 - Black flying fox

Enormous, mind confusingly giant bats -  Greater Indian Fruit Bats or Indian Flying Foxes to be precise, Pteropus giganteus to be even more precise (please note the second Latin word in the scientific name). I was transfixed, something I had seen on nature documentaries a hundred times was happening right above my head and no one around even bothered to look up.

Indian Flying Fox

Indian Flying Fox II

Maramon marks a line in the sand for me. Before Maramon I lived in a world where such things existed only on television. After Maramon I live in a world inhabited by wonderful, hauntingly beautiful, gigantic bats!  

Flying Fox I