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?’