Kottakkayal or North Paravur of the Ezharrappallikal or The Cherubim and Seraphim: Post XXVII – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012

Ayasofya Seraphim

Kottakkayal or North Paravur/Paravoor is another location where Saint Thomas founded a church. There are two churches here. The Roman Catholic Syro-Malabar Church holds the ‘historic site’ whilst the Jacobite Church (The West Syrians under he authority of the Patriarch of Antioch) is a 16th century church with the tomb of an important Syrian Saint.

 Kottakkavu

Outside of Larger Portuguese Church

The Syro-Malabar church, shown above, is another example of an Eastern Syrian church that isn’t. It is Portuguese Latin with, as usual, Western Saints many of whom are Counter-Reformation. I was so upset by this church’s claim to be ‘Syro-Malabar’ I refused to take any photographs. It looked like many rural churches I have seen in Portugal and there was nothing inside that would have made me think I was in India. The East Syrian priest I was with was unable, when I asked him, to find anything in the church that was either East or West Syrian or even Indian. Yet at least it was a proper older church. The smaller, ‘original church’, around the back, was the site of the church founded by Saint Thomas. It is brand new and, as I pointed out in a previous column, was still built in a Portuguese style!

Old new Church

Interior

Notice the angles outside the door and inside the building (you can double-click on any photograph to enlarge it). I wish I had enough time at the moment to render one of my Michaelmass sermons into a  proper column about the general trend in the church to reduce the nine Choirs (or Orders) of angels to vapid, insipid, powerless images. St Gregory the Great reminds us the angels are teleological. They are what they do and the church has identified them with the powers of creation. In other words the Orders of angels are the laws of nature – the church’s physics if you like.

Seraphim  by SamuraiX Hiko

More precisely the angels are the functions or patterns that ‘connect’ things together - including us. There is one pattern that holds the planetary bodies in motion (Newtonian Physics) and another that holds all things together at a base level (Quantum Mechanics) and another holds the various systems in the body together, another that connects us through thought and understanding or consciousness to the world around us, another that helps us discern how to properly interact  with one another and the created order, yet another connects us through love etc., etc. So when we understand something it is a connection or an angel the same way that the electro-magnetic forces in nature are, not the work of an angel, but actually an angel. I will not go on at length about which of the nine orders does what as you get the drift by now. I will, however, remind you roughly of what they are.

FIRST SPHERE -The first three are around the throne of God and are the primal forces of creation itself.

  • Seraphim (the Burning Ones) – The lovers of God
  • Cherubim – The knowers of God
  • Thrones/Ophanim – The seers of God and His Justice

SECOND SPHERE - The next three deal with the laws of nature and power.

  • Dominions – Laws of Nature
  • Virtues –  Balance
  • Powers/Authorities - Conscience

THIRD SPHERE - The last three deal with life and men, primarily as messengers.

  • Principalities – The pattern of life and Guiders of the nations
  • Archangels – The messengers and soldiers of the Great Will
  • Angels – Those that connect heart and mind to creation.

Doctor Dee

The Rev’d Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s court Astronomer called mathematics the language of the angels as did many of the other scientists/alchemists of his age. It is a way of talking about science that, by being poetic and emotive, captures the heart as well as the mind and thus can be discerned by those who are not professional scientists. The philosophical concept of the angles, especially in the understanding of the Church Fathers, was not sickly new-age sentiment.Yet it has been reduced to this. The Anglican Church of Canada’s book For All the Saints is even apologetic about the belief in Angels in its introduction to the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels and mentions believe if Angels as being similar to belief in unicorns! Arrrggg!

Angelic Choirs by Hildegaard of Bingen

Thus one of the most dynamic images or poetic languages the church has at her disposal to relate to the modern world is reduced to fat babies (cherubs or putto or putti plural come from Greek mythology as agents of Eros reinterpreted and distorted by Baroque and Rococo art and are profane images as opposed to the fierce awe-inspiring Cherubim of Ancient Near-Eastern mythology shared by the Jews, Christians and Muslims).  The one thing all our Angles have in common is that they are all terrible or awful in the proper use of these words. The manifestation of the Angel played by Emma Thompson in Angels in America is not a bad example. An angelic manifestation should be like the detonation of an atomic bomb.

I especially find the Syrian use of insipid angel imagery deeply depressing as they have the most powerful use of angelic imagery in the world. Both East and West Syrian worship have dynamic angelic themes as one of their main threads running through all their liturgies. For example here are a couple of the prayers used at services of Holy Qurbana in the East Syrian rite of Mar Addai and Mari.  

Cherubim-Blake

Prayer before the Chancel and Sanctuary for Sundays:

Before the glorious throne of your majesty, O My God, the high and exulted chair of your honour and the fearful judgement seat of your love’s severity and the absolving Altar which was established at your direction and the place of the habitation of your glory,  We your people, the sheep of your pasture, with thousands of Cherubim who glorify you and ten thousands of Seraphs, Seraphim, Archangels who minister to you,  bow down, worship, confess, and glorify you at every hour, O Lord of all Father, Son and Holy Spirit for ever. Amen.

Angels of Fire by Viviana Puello

The Beginning of the Anaphora of Mar Addai and Mari:

Worthy of praise from every mouth and confession from every tongue and adoration, exultation from every creature is the worshipful and glorious name of your glorious Trinity - O Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For you created the world in your grace and it’s inhabitants in your mercifulness, you saved men in your compassion, and shown great grace unto mortals. Thousand upon thousands of those on high bow down and worship your majesty, O My Lord, and ten thousand times ten thousand holy angels and spiritual hosts, the ministers of fire and spirit glorify your name and with holy Cherubim and spiritual Seraphim offer worship to your lordship.

Dore-Angelic Host

You would think they would use images that the ones I have included from great Byzantine church of Haggai Sophia, Hildegard von Bingen, Dore, Blake or even modern artists like the two I have included in this column. Instead most of the angles in most of the churches here look like this (the East Syrians are, of course, free from this taint as they do not use images). I did not take that many photographs of them simply because they were unattractive and I do not as a rule take photos of unattractive things unless I find them amusing. The angels I have encountered here have just been depressing. To be more precise, many of the angels depicted in the churches here are not angels but putti and thus pagan sexual images and not Christian angelic ones. Somehow I do not think they understand this – but then again this also goes for churches throughout the world. Still, I find it a fascinating juxtaposition that the Syrian Christians can sing the great angelic hymns of St Ephraim of Edessa and use powerful, evocative angelic imagery daily and not see the disconnect between what they are singing or saying and the images they have decorated their churches with and thus see with their eyes.  

IMG_1922

Back to the point, at least the Syro-Malabar church had one old thing. A Persian cross. Then again no one was quite sure how old it was just that it was really, really old!

Old Persian Cross

I loved the juxtaposition of these schoolboys in uniforms leaving their private Roman Catholic school and wandering past a Theyyam poster advertising ritual possession by pre Hindu deities (see Post II). Ah, India.

School Boys with Theyyam Poster

The other church in North Paravur, Saint Thomas Cheriapally, was founded in 1566 and is a lovely church if a little dark and dingy inside.

North Paravur

The Back of the Church

Multi-tiered Oil Lamp

Jacobite Interior

The church contains the tomb of a historically very important man in the history of the Church in Kerala – the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem St.Gregorios Abdul' Galeel. This was the West Syrian bishop who came to India in after the Koonen Cross oath was taken. It is said he ‘regularised’ Archdeacon Thomas’s consecration as the first Mar Thoma Metropolitan. Regardless, one can date the continued influence of the West Syrians on the Nasrani Christians from his arrival in India. The strain of West Syrian Christianity associated with the Mar Thoma Metropolitans and the Mor Gregorios is usually referred to as ‘Malankara’, even though all Saint Thomas Christians are technically ‘Malankara’. Mor Gregorios died in 1681 and was declared a Saint by Patriarch Ignatius Zakka I on 4th April 2000.

Lamp next to Saint's Tomb 

Tomb of St Gregorious

Seraphim from Haggai Sophia

The Second Oldest Mosque in the World and a Temple Elephant Sanctuary: Post XXVI - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012

Cheraman Juma Masjid - Old Photo

A few kilometres away from the repulsive Christian site at Cranganore is the delightful Cheraman Juma Masjid Mosque. It was constructed by Malik Bin Deenar, a disciple of the Prophet, during Prophet’s lifetime. It is claimed (depending on how you make your list) to be the second oldest Mosque in the world being founded in the year 629AD. It is the oldest Mosque in India.

Arab traders settled in the area around the old port of Muzeris before the spread of Islam so one would expect that one of the earliest settlements of Muslims outside Arabia to be established here. This same trade route logic reinforces the earlier claims that the area saw settlements of Christians during the Apostolic Age and Jews during the Diaspora.

Mosque

There is a legend that a Chera King,  Rama Varma Kulashekhara, witnessed the miraculous splitting of the moon (the famous miracle of the Prophet). Upon enquiring about its meaning he was told of the coming of a new messenger of God from Arabia. He travelled to Mecca, converted to Islam and was given the name Thajudeen, and upon his deathbed at Salalah in the Sultanate of Oman requested that his homeland be evangelised. Malik Bin Deenar was supposedly one of those sent to India to carry out the dying king’s request.

The current building has an extension on the front that is going to be removed and an underground prayer area built so the entirety of the old building can be seen.

Model of the origional Design

I was given an extensive tour and I can only say that I was most impressed by both the site, the erudition of the Imam and the conservation efforts for the future. I might also mention that, although I was in cassock, I could not have been treated with more respect, even being taken into the very heart of the structure to the holiest area. This is where the thousand year old oil lamp is kept burning.

Inside the Oldest Section

Inside the Oldest Section II

Inside the Mosque

The Temple Elephant sanctuary down the road is delightful. This is where the Hindu temple keeps all of its elephants and where the old elephants go to retire. There are over a hundred elephants here and, I believe, they each have their own mahout who looks after them.

Elephant Sactuary  I

Elephant Sactuary II

One of the regular activities is getting a bath. I can’t say I really ever tried to imagine how you would bathe an elephant but now I know how. There were at least a dozen getting a bath whilst I was visiting. I am not sure I have ever seen an animal look so contented.

Elephant Sactuary IV

Elephant Sactuary V

I also learned something new about elephants. It turns out if you condition them strongly enough when they are young it really sticks. For example if you chain their legs so they can only take short strides, you can remove the chains after a couple of years and they will always take the same strides as if they were still chained. In the next two photographs you will notice that with both this male and female they have a iron rod placed behind their ear. When they were young they were conditioned (read severely scolded) to not let this rod or stick fall to the ground. Thus the mahouts do not need a fence to keep the elephants in with. All they need is a long stick or rod to place behind the elephants ear and it will not move from the spot where it has been left.

Elephant Sactuary VI

Elephant Sactuary VII

Some Sources for the Study of the Early Christian Communities on the Malabar Coast: Post XXV – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012

Ancient Nasrani Cross

The ancient Saint Thomas Christians of  Kerala are known as ‘Nasranis’ or ‘Nasrai Mappilla’. ‘Nasrani’ is a term meaning ‘Christian’ and appears to be derived from Nazareth. Mappilla is an honorific applied to members of non-Indian faiths, including Muslims. Some Christians of the former Kingdom of Travancore still continue to use this honorific title. The Saint Thomas Christians are often called Syrian Christians because of their ancient connection to the Church of the East and thus the use Syriac as their liturgical language. Syriac is a derivative of Aramaic, the language of Christ, and is, for my purposes, divided here between East Syriac and West Syriac (example pronunciation: East - mAr, West – mOr). This will become more important later in my travels when I go and live in a West Syriac community. Yet another term for them is Malabar or Malankara Mar Thoma Nasranis, as Kerala was also known as Malabar or Malankara. Their indigenous language is Malayalam.

The earliest known source connecting the Apostle to India is the apocryphal book The Acts of Thomas, written in Edessa in the 2nd century, a copy of which still survives in Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. The text describes Thomas's adventures evangelising India, a tradition later expanded upon in early Indian sources such as the ‘Thomma Parvam’ ("Song of Thomas"). The Acts of Thomas hints that Saint Thomas came to India with a Jewish trader. Scottish historian William Dalrymple travelled across the Arabian Sea to Kerala in a boat similar to those mentioned in Roman texts to show how the traders had travelled from the Middle East to Kodungulloor. He followed the same course as mentioned in The Acts of Thomas. At the time the area from Syria to Patria was under Roman rule and so traveling through this region was relatively easy. The Jew’s name is given as Haban and it is believed that they both reached Kodungalloor (Cranganore) in 52AD. Once in India Saint Thomas first stayed with the Jewish community where he is believed to have converted many of them to Christianity. 

These communities would have been multi-ethnic and included native Indians of Aryan, Dravidian and Naga ethnicity who could have been baptized by Saint Thomas as well as members of the different trading diasporas of Jews as well as Christian settlers who came later. They may also have included groups such as the Knanaya people (an early Jewish group of converts to Christianity who still retain their Jewish ethnicity and customs which I will write about at a later point).

The Life of Saint Pantaenus

In  190AD, Pantaenus from Alexandria visited these Christians and found that they were using the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew. Eusebius of Caesarea reports that Pantaenus, his teacher, had been told that this Gospel book had been brought to them by the Apostle Bartholomew. St Jerome reported that Demetrius of Alexandria had sent Pantaenus to India where he

“found that Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles, had preached the Advent of the Lord Jesus according to the Gospel of Mathew, and on his return to Alexandria he brought this with him written in Hebrew characters.”

The Tamil epic of Manimekkalai written between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD mentions the Saint Thomas Christian people by the name Essanis referring to one of the early Jewish-Christian sects within the Nasranis called Essenes. A number of 3rd- and 4th-century Roman writers mention Thomas's  trip to India including St Ambrose of Milan -

“When the Lord Jesus said to the Apostles, go and teach all nations, even the kingdoms that had been shut off by the barbaric mountains lay open to them as India to Thomas, as Persia to Mathew.”,

St Gregory of Nazianzus -

“What! were not the Apostles foreigners? Granting that Judea was the country of Peter, what had Saul to do with the Gentiles, Luke with Achaia, Andrew with Epirus, Thomas with India, Mark with Italy?,

St Jerome, and St Ephraim the Syrian -

“It was to a land of dark people he was sent, to clothe them by Baptism in white robes. His grateful dawn dispelled India's painful darkness. It was his mission to espouse India to the One-Begotten. The merchant is blessed for having so great a treasure. Edessa thus became the blessed city by possessing the greatest pearl India could yield. Thomas works miracles in India, and at Edessa Thomas is destined to baptize peoples perverse and steeped in darkness, and that in the land of India."

— Hymns of St. Ephraem, edited by Lamy (Ephr. Hymni et Sermones, IV).

St Ephraem the Syrian

These all demonstrate that the tradition of the evangelisation of India by Saint Thomas the Apostle was a well known.

According to the 7th century Chronicle of Seert Bishop David of Basra under Patriarch Mar Papa of Seleucia-Ctesiphon evangelised India in the tear 295. However we only have this one source for this information. So whatever its earlier origins, an organised Christian presence in India dates at least to the arrival of East Syrian settlers and missionaries from Edessa or Iraq under the leadership of Thomas of Cana, members of the Church of the East, in 345AD.  King Charaman Perumal gave permission for these Christians to settle in Kerala. Around AD 522, an Egyptian Monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes visited the Malabar Coast and mentions the Christians of Malabar in his book Christian Topography – Book Three.

“The Gospel has been preached throughout the world. This I state to be definite fact from what I have seen and heard in the many places i have visited…in the country called Male (Malabar) where pepper grows, there is also a church, and at another place called Kalliana (Kalyan, Mumbai) there is moreover a bishop, who is appointed from Persia.”

From Christian Topography Codex Sinaiticus graecus 1186

Saint Thomas Christians trace the further growth of their community to the arrival of more Nestorian traders from the Middle East in 825AD. They had their own bishops visiting them from Persia and these were welcomed by the Saint Thomas Christians as these bishops made no effort to subjugate them. The subgroup of the Saint Thomas Christians known as the Southists trace their lineage to Thomas of Cana’s Assyrian Christians, while the group known as the Northists claim descent from Saint Thomas the Apostle's indigenous converts.

As the community grew and immigration by East Syrians increased, the connection with the Church of the East, centred in the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, strengthened. From the early 4th century the Patriarch of the Church of the East provided India with clergy, holy texts, and an ecclesiastical infrastructure. It is documented that Mar John, the Bishop of Great India, attended the council of Nicaea in 325 and signed himself as ‘John the Persian presiding over the Churches in the whole of Persia and Great India.’ In 350AD Mar Aprem the Syrian wrote hymns about St Thomas’s evangelisation of India:

“Blessed art Thou, like unto the solar ray from the great orb; thy grateful dawn India's painful darkness doth dispel. Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the cross-replenished, India’s dark night flooded with light.

Blessed art Thou whom the great King has sent, that India is to his One-Begotten thou shouldest espouse; above snow and linen white, thou the dark bride didst make fair

Blessed art Thou, O thrice-blessed city; Thou hast acquired this pearl, none greater doth India yield

Blessed art Thou, worthy to possess the precious gem! Praise to Thee O gracious Son, Who does thee adore does enrich.”

Around 650 Patriarch Ishoyahb III solidified the Church of the East's jurisdiction over the Saint Thomas Christian community. In the 8th century Patriarch Timothy I organised the community as the Ecclesiastical Province of India, one of the church’s ‘illustrious Provinces of the Exterior’. After this point the Province of India was headed by a metropolitan bishop, provided from Persia, the "Metropolitan-Bishop of the Seat of Saint Thomas and the Whole Christian Church of India". His Metropolitical see was probably in Cranganore, or (perhaps nominally) in Mylapore, the traditional place of Saint Thomas’s martyrdom and where his shrine was located. Under him were a varying number of Assyrian bishops, as well as a native hereditary Archdeacon, who not only had authority over the clergy and who wielded a great amount of secular power but also acted as the indigenous cultural ‘head’ of the church as far as the caste system went.

Tharisappalli Copper Plates

The Rulers of Kerala gave the Nasranis various rights and privileges written on copper plates. These are known as Cheppeds, Royal Grants, or Sasanam. There are a number of such documents: Thazhekad Sasanam; The Quilon Plates (Tharisappalli Cheppeds); Mampally Sasanam; and Iraviikothan Chepped (Copper Plate). Some of these plates date to 774 AD.  The language used is Tamil in Tamil letters with some Grantha script intermingled . The Quilon Copper Plates which were given to Mar Sapor and Mar Prodh, brothers (referred to as Kaddisangal or Saints by the Church of the East) who immigrated to Quilon from Persia in 823 AD, also include some Pahlavi, Kufic and Hebrew signatures. The plates show that the ruler of Venad (Travancore) granted Syrian Christians seventy two rights and privileges usually granted only to high dignitaries, including exemption from import duties, sales tax and the slave tax. Yet another copper plate from 1225 further enhanced the rights and privileges of the Nasranis. These copper plates are considered some of the most important historical legal documents in Kerala.

There are many accounts of foreign visitors from the West and Western missionary activity in India before the arrival of Portuguese. In 883AD, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex reportedly sent gifts to Mar Thoma Christians of India through Sighelm, Bishop of Sherborne. Around 1292AD, Marco Polo on his return journey from China visited Kerala, mentions that, "The people are idolaters, though there are some Christians and Jews among them". John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan sent to China and became prelate of Peking in 1307. From Persia he travelled by sea to south India, or ‘The Country of St. Thomas’, in 1291. He stayed to preach and baptise for thirteen months. Monte Corvino wrote home in December 1291 (or 1292) leaving us one of the earliest noteworthy accounts of the Malabar coast written by a Western European.

Odoric of Pordenone arrived in India in 1321. He visited Malabar landing at Pandarani, Cranganore, and Quilon before sailing to Ceylon and then onto the shrine of Saint Thomas at Mailapur. He exitededly reported that he had found the place where Saint Thomas was buried. Father Jordanus, a Dominican, followed in 1321–22. He reported to Rome, apparently from somewhere on the west coast of India, that he had given a Christian burial to four martyred monks. Between 1324 and 1328 he seems to have visited Quilon and selected it as his ecclesiastical centre. He was appointed a bishop in 1328 and nominated by Pope John XXII in his bull Venerabili Fratri Jordano to the see of Columbum or Quilon on 21 August 1329. This was the first Roman Catholic diocese  in the whole of the Indies, with jurisdiction over modern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Either before going out to Malabar as bishop, or during a later visit to the west, Jordanus probably wrote his Mirabilia. This work is the best  account of the regions of India and its: products; climate; manners; customs; and fauna and flora given by any European in the Middle Ages – surpassing even Marco Polo's.

In 1347, Giovanni de' Marignolli visited the shrine of St Thomas in South India, and then proceeded to what he calls the kingdom of Saba, which he identifies with the Sheba of Scripture, but which actually seems to have been Java. Another prominent Indian traveler was Joseph, a priest from Cranganore. He journeyed to Babylon in 1490 and then sailed to Europe and visited Portugal, Rome, and Venice before returning to India. He helped to write a book about his travels titled The Travels of Joseph the Indian which was widely disseminated across Europe.

Travels of an Indian Priest,  Gorgias Press LLC,  Page 304, India in 1500AD.

ROUGH TIMELINE

1st CENTURY
•  40 Apostle Thomas in the service of King Gondophares in
Takshasila in Pakistan.
• 52 Apostle Thomas landed at Muziris near Paravur, an ancient port city of Malabar (Present-day Kerala).
• 52–72 The Apostle founded the 7 churches.

• 72 Apostle Thomas martyred at St. Thomas Mount in
Chennai and is buried on the site of San Thome Cathedral. 

2nd CENTURY
• 190 Pantaenus, the founder of the famous Catechetical School of
Alexandria, visited India and the Nasrani. He found that the
local people were using the Gospel according to Matthew in
Hebrew language. He took this Hebrew text back to his library at
the School in Alexandria.

4th CENTURY 
• 325 Archbishop John of Persia and Great India at the first
Ecumenical Council of Nicaea.
• 345 First migration from Persia – Thomas of Cana landed at
Cranganore with 72 families.
• 340–360 Thazhekad Sasanam written in Pali the language
the canonical language of Buddhists, the Nasrani granted special rights and privileges.
• 345 Kuravilangad Church (Now Martha Mariam Catholic church) built by the first settlers who came from Kodungalloor.
• Arrival of Mar Joseph of Edessa.

5th CENTURY
• 510 Udayamperoor (Diamper) church built by St.Thomas
Christians.
• 522 Cosmas Indicopleustes visited South India.

8th CENTURY
• 774 Emperor Veera Raghava gives copperplate to Iravikorthan.

9th CENTURY
• 824 Beginning of Kollavarsham (Malayalam Era). First Tharissapalli sasanam (Copper plate) by Stanu Ravi Gupta Perumaal to Nazranies.
• 824 Mar Sabor and Mar Afroth from Persia at Quilon.
• 849 Deed given by King Ayann Adikal Thiruvadikal of Venad, to
Easow-data-veeran (Tharisapalli plates) that grants 72 royal
privileges of the Nazranies in which the Nasranis signed in three
languages: Hebrew Pahlavi and Kufic.

11th CENTURY
• 1123 Arakuzha church founded, now known as St
Mary's Forane Church.

13th CENTURY
• 1225 North Pudukkad church founded.
• 1293 Marco Polo visited the tomb of St.
Thomas (at Mylapore).

14th CENTURY
• 1305 St. Hormis church, Angamaly founded.
• 1325 Enammavu church founded.
• 1328 St. George church, Edappally founded.

15th CENTURY
• 1490 Two Nestorian bishops Mars John and Thomas in Kerala.
• 1494 June 7 - Treaty of Tordesillas. Division of the world and
mission lands between Spain and Portugal.
• 1498 May 20 - Vasco de Gama lands at Kappad near Kozhikode.
• 1499 Cabral’s fleet carried a vicar, eight secular priests, and eight Franciscans to Kozhikode.
• 1499. In Calicut, the friars reputedly converted a Brahman and some leading Nayars.

The Low Down: Post XXIV – Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT 2012
Frustrated
My experience in India thus far has been either of the sublime of the ridiculous. Thus far I have mostly written about the sublime. Now lets try the  ridiculous. This is all pure venting but my experience nevertheless.

India is without a doubt the most frustrating place I have ever been. Perhaps the way I should put this is that I find it the most frustrating place I have ever been. It is almost as though everything has been setup just to push me over the edge. Funnily enough, I am thankful for this.  If I can stay calm here I do not think there is anything I can not handle serenely (except family dynamics but that is always a given exception).

To begin with there is noise almost all the time. A great deal of work seems to be done by ‘day labourers’ who, contrary to name, work through the night. At the Old Seminary in Kottayam workers were cutting tiles with power tools all through the night right outside the guesthouse doors. One evening painters even painted the outside of my door. Even the nuns are noisy, staying up late laughing, laughing, laughing. I am pleased they are enjoying themselves, but still. Religious services tend to start blaring their music at about half past five every morning and you get to hear the nuns again.

I have lived by myself for almost seventeen years and for most of that period I have lived in silence with no background noise of any kind. The last thirteen years have been in quiet rural settings where often the only sound was that of the wind, the crackling of the fire, or my fat cat plopping down from the bed or a chair and padding along to the kitchen to stuff herself again. For excitement there is a fur ball episode every couple of months that lasts for a few minutes. I often drive in silence as well and spend the travelling time thinking. I avoid restaurants with piped music and complain like an old man when I go to the cinema once a year because it is “too loud”. I have become addicted to silence. I even spend at least two weeks a year on silent retreat with the Anglican Benedictines at Holy Cross Monastery because where I live is not 'silent enough’.

Then this! The indigenous population seem to be oblivious to it. The constant blare of the church and temple loud speaker systems, the trucks driving around town announcing upcoming political or social events on loudspeaker systems, the constant non-stop beeping and blaring seems to have no affect on them. At the Maramon Convention I could hardly slept a wink for at least two days because the watchdog at the retreat house would not stop its high pitched, high volume barking through the night. The first morning at breakfast I asked the bishops how they slept with the barking going on all night right outside their windows. They all said “What barking?”. I could only stammer “That barking!” and have them stop talking and listen to the self same barking echoing though the refectory from, you guessed it, the dog sitting just outside the window! “Oh!” they said. I could have sworn that until I pointed out the deafening presence of the noise they were truly oblivious. I could write volumes about the constant screaming at excruciating volume of people into their cell-phones. Still, surprisingly, I seem to be adapting fairly quickly and have even started sleeping some nights all the way through without earplugs.

Little seems to work here (or at least not in my budget range) or is so complicated that by the time you get it to work the will to use it has been sucked right out of your soul. Yet there is nothing so complicated that it cannot be made more complicated by five people trying to get something to work at the same time. Really you have to experience it to believe it. I feel bad pointing this out primarily because the issues are often caused by people trying to be helpful. Yet I have learned that to be ‘travel wise’ in India is to expect whatever it is to not work. I found myself smiling to myself over breakfast whilst listening to a French woman trying to explain to the manager that the electricity was not working on her side of the building. The manger just kept repeating “It IS working”. It wasn’t. What I was thinking was “newbie, how naive to expect the electricity to be working!”

One group of West Syrian monks tried so hard to be hospitable it made me want to flee the monastery. At one meal I casually glanced at the ceiling which produced the effect of a monk literally dashing over to turn on the ceiling fan. When I looked at anything on the table some monk would jump up and refill the dish, move it two inches closer to me, or try and put some of it on my plate. When I asked, trying to make conversation, whether the pepper on the table came from the pepper vines I had seen outside on all the trees this produced a flutter of activity and the promise that the monastery would provide me with pepper to take home with me and to give to the Oratory Superior.  I felt like Queen Mary on one of here almost clepto-maniacal royal visitations. I did have one genuine request and made the mistake of asking one of the priests if I could be shown the library sometime that afternoon. This resulted in the librarian being sent for immediately who, as he had been milking the cows, was just sitting down for his meal. No matter how I tried they insisted I be shown the library then and there. So the poor brother librarian had no lunch.

To make matters worse, when I asked if there were any books on West Syrian liturgy in the library, he almost manically told me to “please wait” at which point he literally took off running down the corridor, the steps, and I could here him running at full speed across the monastery courtyard and a few minutes later back again. Anglicans should get a kick out of this – he arrived back dripping with sweat and panting “here Father, an excellent book on our liturgy” at which point he handed me a familiar looking thick green bound tome. Thus in a West Syrian monastery in an isolated part of the foothills of the Western Ghats I found myself holding in my hands the life work of that great Anglican Benedictine liturgical master Dom Gregory Dix OSB

Dom Gregory Dix OSB at Nashdom Abbey
Dom Gregory Dix OSB

The Shape of the Liturgy!

The Shape of the Liturgy

I was also offered a smaller book on liturgical theology by that other famous Anglo-Catholic Anglican monk Father Frere CR (who received the first professions of the Father Founders of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd). It turns out that, once again, the Anglican church has had a huge impact of the West Syrian Church here although not as much as the East Syrians. The founder of the monastery of Bethany, HG Alexious Mar Theodosius OIC, lived with the Cowley Fathers in Oxford and founded the first Indian orthodox order, The Order of the Imitation of Christ, based on the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. The second Superior had been a student at Mirfield and made some changes based on his experience with the Community of the Resurrection. So, as far as I can tell, the impetus for the order is Anglo-Catholic and stems from the Cowley Fathers and the Mirfield Fathers. They also used the office book of translated Syriac produced by the English Benedictine monk Dom Bede Griffith OSB, who was a convert from Anglicanism. To top it all off, the first convent of the West Syrian church in India, The Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, did not come from Antioch, Alexandria, Armenia, or even an Eastern Orthodox church. Rather it came through the auspices of our own Sisters of  Saint Margaret (whom I remember with fondness from my years in Scotland) in Sri Lanka.

Anyway, to return to the original thread, I find the ‘honorary’ treatment excruciating. I do not blame them, I am sure that it has been drummed into them that I am a guest of His Holiness. But still I had hoped that at least in a monastery I could at least try to ‘blend in’. No such luck, they even displaced the Abbott from the high table so that I could sit there resplendent in isolation at the head of the refectory. Everyone else eats from buffet style while I alone am surrounded by dishes and even, as I noticed only today, given some foods that no one else is given. Luckily it is Lent so I am only eating one meal a day and only have to endure this treatment at lunchtime and the brothers do not have to faff about when they eat dinner after a long days work.

Unfortunately, as far as I can see and as I have been told numerous times, this fawning behaviour is expected by many of the Bishops in Kerala and the lack of it would be interpreted as rudeness by them. The prevalence of the class (read ‘caste’) and rank system in the church here seems to my post colonial Western eyes dehumanising. There is no questions of egalitarianism and it brings out a fairly radical socialist streak in me.

I must also say that I had not realised how controlling this treatment is for the person of the receiving end. It effectively isolates you from others, and takes away your freedom of movement and autonomy by making you reliant on others all the time. The perfect example of this was when I asked the senior monk where the refectory was so that I would know where to go for the first meal. He refused to tell me but simply insisted that junior monks would come to escort me. I tried to wrestle the information out of him but it only resulted in him escorting me immediately, leading me to the head table and tried to get start eating before the dinner bell and thus before any of the other brothers or even the Abbot had arrived. I really liked this older monk and felt awful refusing to start eating until everyone had come. I know he only wanted to make me happy and he almost pleaded with me to not be worried about anything. Yet at the same time I only needed to wait about five minutes more for the bell to ring and for the other brothers to come to eat.The point is asking where the refectory was turned into a major drama (you had to be there) that involved at least six people. I had hoped someone would just point to which of the four buildings it had to have been and say “lunch is served there when the bell rings”.

I can hear you now, wondering why I am whining about not being treated the way I want to be. I am where I am why not just go with it? Well, there is wisdom in that and for shorter stays it is probably the best option. However there is also an ethical and religious principle at work here. I do not believe that any Christian should expect to be ‘served’ in the way that exists here. As the Baptised there is an equality that even if it does not extend to function, does extend to human dignity. No one, including the most junior monk, should feel he has to run flat out for anyone unless it is an emergency. I know that the concept of western autonomy is somewhat alien and can be taken too far yet there still needs to be a line. Do the monks here really want me to feel this uncomfortable? Of course not. Yet as far as I know there is no simple way to tell people that what you want is for them to just be themselves, to act normally and get a result. Just ask a photographer. Do not get me wrong I like the brothers here and have enjoyed the recreation hour with them in the evening. Interestingly it is here that some of the very first questions about Canada, the Canadian Church or Anglicanism have been asked.

The next thing that I feel I must say (and one younger priest begged me to put in print), but that may be slightly undiplomatic, is that way too many of the Bishops I have met thus far have displayed an aloofness that is remarkable to a modern westerner (or at least to me). Although there have been many exceptions, they do not seem particularly friendly and seem to actually try to not seem interested in anything happening around them. I think it is something cultural I have yet to grasp. Yet their dress, mode of transport, decorum, and treatment of those not of the same rank for the most part has left me nonplussed. I have on more than one occasion heard casual episcopal talk about poverty stricken priests and their families that would lead many people to suspect there may be a strand of sadism lurking underneath their apparent lack of compassion. I tried to hint at this extraordinary behaviour with some of the younger priests and deacons to see what sort of reaction I would get. I did not have to try very hard as many opened up to me immediately and shared their deeply jaded view of the Keralite episcopal culture as a whole. The fact that everyone I spoke to thought the typical Episcopal behaviour was profoundly out of sync with the Christian values of humility makes me wonder if a small reformation is coming.

Then again I doubt it. The British tried to stamp out the caste system and the Government of India has followed the British ruling and kept it illegal. Yet my reaction 150 years on is the same as the first British missionaries. For those of you who find it ironic that the British, with a class system that includes aristocracy and nobles as well as a Monarch, would react so badly to another rigid caste system I ask you to take one step back. Although Britain has a class system it has always been the most fluid of all the European systems and has allowed much more freedom of movement through its ranks than other countries. It also has a noted stand of democracy that has run through it since the Magna Carta. I also wonder if seeing the caste system so starkly in India made the Raj see itself in the mirror in a typically Jungian way.

One Bishop, a CSI (Church of South India) one this time and thus part of the Anglican Communion, when I stooped by to give my card to his secretary to ‘pay my respects’ happened to be in. He chatted away nicely in English for awhile and spoke about his visits from Canadian bishops and Archbishops before inviting me to join him the next day at a gathering of Christian leaders at an ecumenical centre a couple of hours to the north east. I agreed and his Chaplin picked me up the next morning at 7:20am to take me to the Bishop’s Palace to leave from there. The Bishop was not ready and so to kill half an hour I wondered around his beautiful garden. I was standing about fourteen feet from the car when I became aware of someone calling out rapidly “hey! hey! hey! hey! hey!” I though someone was calling a dog until I realised it was the Bishop and he was trying to get my attention! It all went downhill from there. Somehow overnight he had almost completely lost the ability to speak English, or at least the will. He insisted I sit next to the driver in the front seat, and proceeded to pick up another priest with whom he spoke with loudly (when he was not screaming into his cell phone) the entire way there. No one spoke to me, told me where we were going or even what the meeting was about. I was asked if I had had breakfast and when I replied that they did not serve it at the seminary during Lent this resulted in a long drawn out conversation in Malayalam by the rest of the passengers. Finally I was dropped off for breakfast  (even though I did not want breakfast) although the Bishop had already eaten, presumably what he was doing while I was wandering around waiting for him,  and so spoke on his cell phone outside the restaurant. When we did arrive at our destination I was taken to the meeting room where the Bishop promptly told me that it was a private meeting and I could not be there and asked me to leave immediately after I was introduced. Another Christian leader in Kerala (who I happened to have shared several meals with earlier in my trip and was also in communion with Anglicans) decided he wanted to be the one to introduce me. So this Archbishop struggled to his feet and announced to the assembled heads of the churches in Kerala that a distinguished guest “Canon Slymal from Sweden” was visiting. Yep, I had made a big impression. What made it worse was that my card was sitting right in front of him on the table. Oh well, I only wish I had those Swedish looks. I might be able to pull off blond.

I then had to head out for a couple of hours to entertain myself. As the centre was in the middle of the jungle with nothing at all around it the only option was to wander the jungle roads until lunch was served. This I did and, although blistering hot in the middle of the day, it was lovely. At the meal they placed me at the head table but at the far end with at least two empty places between me and the Bishop on my left. No one spoke to me the entire meal. Finally before getting into the car I told a few priests what I had been up to and they were horrified. Supposedly there are herds of wild elephant in that area of the jungle that are not only a nuisance but also very dangerous. More frightening was the panther that had been attacking people in the area. This turned out to be ok though because they had, after months of trying, finally shot it that morning. So I narrowly avoided wandering exiled by a CSI bishop into a jungle inhabited by a man eating panther by only a few hours! All I can say is at least it was not a tiger.  For the two hour trip back to Kottayam no one said a word to me. Upon arriving at the Bishop’s Palace he got out opened my door to say to me “You’ll have enjoyed yourself then and I hope to see you again” or something to that effect before disappearing inside. I really do not think he will do.

Sooo, the gist is either way, way too much attention, or none at all. Feast or famine and through it all - noise. What is clear is that neither church really knew what to do with me. I do not mean this as a complaint or a criticism but as an observation. It may even be that one or both churches really did not have the resources or understanding of the purpose of the scholarship to make a plan for someone staying any length of time. In both cases I have had to figure a huge amount out on my own and take much more initiative than I ever expected.  In the end this has turned out to be quite difficult but has provided me with a quick learning curve that has got me into the swing of things much more quickly than would have otherwise been the case. A veteran Indian traveler of many years from England said to me last week “Is this really your first visit to India? It seems as if you know the place awfully well.” I would not necessarily agree, but certainly more than would have been the case if the churches had provided a more comprehensive or integrated approach to my ecumenical visit.

What has also been made clear is that most of the bishops have little interest in the Anglican Communion or the Anglican Church of Canada (to be fair most Canadian bishops probably would not be interested in Kerelite Christianity but I expect they would at least pretend). Or at least no one asked about it and when I volunteered information they showed little enthusiasm. One Bishop actually fell asleep when a deacon asked me a question about the Canadian church in his presence and it was not because I had spoken too long, I had barley got one sentence out of my mouth before he closed his eyes and let his head fall to his chest. I have done most of all the question asking and it has all been about the host churches. The bishop responsibly for the ecumenical affairs office of one of the churches asked me no relevant questions at all. It was also fairly clear from the prompting of his secretary that he only had a vague clue as to who I was or why I was there. When I asked him questions about his approach to ecumenism and his particular ecclesiological views he seemed totally nonplussed. When I asked more general things like how he became interested in other churches I received the same response. At times he seemed almost comatose, although he seemed to perk up when his cell phone would go off and he went outside to speak on it. It turns out, as I later found out, that he had been given the post because he had worked as a registrar at an institution that accepted students from other denominations and so had had some limited exposure to other types of Christians. He did offer one bit of fascinating insight into the workings of the Anglican Communion when he said that the 1998 Lambeth Conference (at which I worked and was assigned to the group that drafted Motion 110 on Human Sexuality as so was there for most of the meetings) had something to do with Lesbian Bishops! I though we only just got that with Bishop Glasspoole less than a year ago. Who knew!

What is also clear is that, even if the bishops are not, many of the younger clergy and especially the seminarians and novices ARE interested in learning about us. Or at least they ask questions when you get them into a relaxed atmosphere. They do not seem willing to do so around senior priests or bishops. They also seem more willing to answer my questions honestly instead of giving pat answers. So that is where I must put my efforts.

Everyone talks about the extraordinary amount of trash and waste in India, the dirt and the smells. All I will add is that I have found this perfectly true. I have never seen so much litter in my life – and it seems to be everywhere. The air quality is bad and thus there is a great deal of throat clearing and  spitting. Or at least that is why I think people seem to spit constantly. Body functions are simply not treated with any sort of modesty here. How could you with such a vast population. It is all rather new to me, belching, passing gas, spitting and urinating all seem to be perfectly acceptable activities just about anywhere. I must admit it took me a while to get used to seeing people publically defecating next to road or railway tracks or even just off the pavement (sidewalk). I think I am used to it now. What I have not been able to adapt to is the knowledge that, although people use their left hand with water to wipe themselves after defecation, it is obvious that there is no set up for most people to use any sort of sanitary measures as there are almost no public conveniences and people do not seem to carry water bottles or ‘wipe’ rags with them. The conclusion which I have reached, which makes me very very uneasy, is that many of the people around have one part of them that is unclean. It may make me prudish that this disturbs me but I have not adjusted to it yet. What has become abundantly clear is why Indians never touch food or make contact with other people with their left hand. I am not sure I will ever see the left hand the same way again. I am not joking, but seriously indicating the impression this basic difference in hygiene has made in me.

On last gripe, it is extraordinarily wearing on me  to know that so many people are trying to charge me more than they should. Anywhere that does not have posted prices is dangerous for someone who looks like me. They do not even try to hide it. You ask the price, for example for a auto rickshaw trip somewhere they go several times a day, and they sit looking at you in silence while thinking how much extra they think they can charge you. Mind you it is not the cost, often it is nothing, it is the fact that you know they are trying to cheat you and by a great deal. usually an extra third is added or the price is even doubled. There are meters that are supposed to be used but no one does and most have not worked for years if they ever did. I tried an experiment a few days ago. I went down to hire a taxi and after gathering around and laughing and jostling me the gang of taxi drivers insisted that 2000 rupees was the set fare. I haggled it down to 1500 which they whined (I mean the word) was a hardship to them, then left without hiring a driver. Half an hour later I asked one of the Indians working at the small hotel I was staying at to go and hire me a taxi without saying it was for a ferengi (foreigner). He came back with one of the same cars and a price of 600 rupees for the trip. When you know people are lying straight to your face and trying to cheat you, regardless of if it is because they think  all westerners are millionaires and thus fair game, it makes you feel threatened, untrusting and angry. I find that it just makes me quite resentful and the gleeful way it is handled has left a sour taste in my mouth.

Enough griping and lets hope it is now out of my system. I just want to be on record that this is not just a bed of roses and that for all of the sublime there has been a fair share of ridiculous.

POST SCRIPT: The Photograph of the ape has nothing to do with anything except how I have felt at times. I just like it.

Really Frustrated

Palayoor of the Ezharrappallikal: Post XXIII - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India

SCHOLARSHIP OF SAINT BASIL THE GREAT

Parish Church

The church at Palayoor, or Palayur, is also in the hands of the Roman Catholic Syro-Malabar Church, yet this church is at least an older church of Portuguese design. The inside is pure Latin but there is a hole in the floor through which you can see an earlier foundation. It is said that there was an Altar dedicated by Saint Thomas kept at the original church and subsequently in each additional church built on the site. However in the 18th century, it and everything else, was destroyed when Tipu Sultan torched the place.

As far as I can discern through the mist of legend and pseudo-history, this site, North Parvur and Niranam all seem to be original ancient  Christian sites with historical continuity if not the same buildings. As with Cranganore, this Syro-Malabar church has not one trace of East Syrian influence only Western European Latin (and Iberian at that).

Palayoor Interior Altar

Palayoor Interior Ceiling 

The church possesses one of the ancient crosses that they claim was placed here by Saint Thomas. One West Syrian monk , in a conspiratorial whisper, confided in me one day that he did not believe in the ancient crosses of Saint Thomas because the cross did not become a Christian symbol until the post Apostolic age. He believes it was the 5th century East Syrians who brought the first crosses. Of course he is right, just make sure you do not point out this historical buzz-killing insight in anything above a whisper.

Stone Cross in Extended Narthex

There is another legend here associated with Saint Thomas confronting a group of Brahmin. The Apostle, on his way to convert the local Jews on ‘Jew Hill’, saw the local Brahmins throwing water in the air whilst saying mantras after their morning ablutions in the temple tank.  Saint Thomas goaded and mocked them by claiming that their God (the god of the sun) did not accept their offerings. He claims that his god will accept his water (a version of my god is bigger than your god game). He makes a deal with them, and some of the local Jews, that if he can do this they must be Baptised (I allow people’s agreement to be Baptised as real tender in high stake poker games - but how I make converts is another story). Of course, the water miraculously stays in the air when tossed there by the Apostle. The Brahmin, suitably impressed (and legally bound), were Baptised. Yeah! The other Brahmins, cursed the place, and ran away leaving their temple, temple tanks, and lands abandoned for the new converts to take over. Yeah!

You must admit however, that it is a bit cheeky. If I could make water magically whirl around in the air as long as I wanted I bet I could get a lot, and I mean a lot, more people Baptised. Instead I have the hard work of having to talk to them, and get to know them to bring them to the faith. How tedious. I could really get things done much more quickly with magic powers. Perhaps that will be what I will ask Saint Nicholas to bring me next 6th of December.

Anyway, this is the place of the magic flying water and the Brahmetical baptism.

Baptismal Pool

This is a nice touch. I do not know if this image, which I have seen elsewhere, is called Our Lady of the Elephants but it should be.

Our Lady of the Elephants

Outside the church are many small statues extolling the virtues and powers of the Apostle.

More ferocious than a wild tiger!

Saint Thomas is Stronger than a Tiger

Stronger than a rampaging elephant!

St Thomas is also Stronger than an Elephant

Stone nasrani Menorah

On the other side of the compound there is a tank that acts as a reminder that Saint Thomas arrived at Paravoor by boat. You are certainly reminded. Yet of what I am not exactly sure. I get the boat on the water bit, but the giant angry Apostle thing?

At the Boat Jetty

And I mean really angry, and with a spear! Before anyone accuses me of ignorance, I know that the spear is the sign of his Martyrdom. Still, with that look on his face, I would prefer him to be holding a kitten.

Big Saint Thomas

The museum was interesting. It was all Portuguese of course but lovely old Portuguese artefacts, well mostly. There was that one giant armed Saviour thing……..

Lovely old carved doors with biblical scenes,

Door of Museum

an carved Agnus Dei with seals,

Portuguese Agnus Dei

a statue of  the Good Shepherd,

Portuguese Good Shepherd

An Ivory Crucifix and original copper plates giving the local Christians privileges from the king,

Origional Copper Plates

and…. dear me, a Saviour who has been doing way, way too much blessing. The other arm grew so heavy from over blessing I guess it just fell off.

I Will I Will BLESS YOU