A Nestorian Miscellanea II: Post XIX - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


This post is a further collection of images from my time with the Church of the East. You will see below an example of enculturation with the traditional South Indian flower decorating art, especially used at the Keralite festival of Puram, used by Christians to decorate graves on the anniversaries of the occupant’s death. The Church of the East keeps the traditional days of prayer for the dead: 3rd day, 8th day, 41st day, and one year I believe.

Grave Decoration

The following two ivory carvings of the Metropolitans are in the Palace’s upstairs sitting room and I forgot to include them when I discussed the history of the Church of the East in Thrissur.

Mar Timotheus Ivory

Mar Thoma Darmo Ivory

I also did not include the exceptionally strange music that would wake me at 5:30am coming from the Latin Rite Catholic Church across the road. For your edification here is an example:

RC Priest's Voice and Strain of Eerie Music 

A great deal of what I did with Mar Aprem was to accompany him wherever he went. Sometimes these trips were for religious services but often they were more civic occasions or even, like the one shown below, celebrations of ecclesiastical institutions. This was the Prize Day of one of the local Church of the East’s schools. The man on the Metropolitan’s right is the Mayor of Thrissur whilst on his left is the local member of the State Parliament.

School Annual Day

When we arrived Mar Aprem swooshed away into a crowd of dignitaries and I was left sitting with one of the bishops. I thought I would sit in the front row. But no, after a lengthy introduction I was placed to the right of the mayor as a dignitary.

School Assembly

Oh well. At least I was able to get a few shots of the opening dance before being placed on the dais.

Can anyone guess what animal this dance represents? I wonder?

On the Sunday we went to the best run of all the Nestorian churches I had seen. It was newly built, the liturgy was well done and there was an excellent choir. I had a sense that someone had been paying very close attention whilst it was being built and decorated not to mention the way the services were organised. It turns out there was. Unfortunately, although this particular priest offered to meet with me several times (he was a retired professional who was then ordained) time was not made available for this to occur regardless of my expressed desire to make time. I never discovered why. However, as I was not encouraged to speak with anyone other than the Metropolitan and, upon my request, the two bishops and as nothing was facilitated I do not think that this priest had been specifically discouraged from making contact. 

Mar Aprem Parish Church

Mar Aprem Church

Another church I had attended the previous week was the only one that had a professional ‘traditional’ choir with instruments. It was my only experience of hearing this type of music and Syrian sung.

Syrian Opening Tune

Syrian Liturgical Song 

They even requested the Metropolitan sing a Gospel sequence in Syriac. Then again it was because they knew he was one of the few who could. Although the Church of the East (including the Church in India) continually emphasises that their liturgical language is that of Christ and it was pointed out that the seminarians study Syriac, it turns out that one you ask a couple of questions the whole story falls apart. They have not used Syriac in fifty years and the few students in the seminary do not do very much language work. The entire liturgy in an Malayalam.

Below is an example of the ‘walk aboot’, as I call it, that occurs two or three times during Holy Qurbana. I have never seen anything like it and the West Syrians do not do it. I also could find no description of it in the liturgical books I studied. When I asked about it I was given a vague answer that it was about reverencing different ‘holy’ areas of the sanctuary. When I pressed further I discovered that only the Indian Church does this and not the rest of the Church of the East. This seemed to be the position with a lot of the customs I asked about, but it was definitely not ‘on’  to suggest that the Indian Liturgy was different from the rest of the church although it certainly seemed to be. One session that I asked for specifically to explore liturgical queries I had, seemed to consist of only one answer: “We don’t do that in India” or “It is only done that way in India”. My obvious question as to whether the considerable differences in the Indian Rite could be considered a separate ‘Malabar Rite’ of the Church of the East was met with almost apoplectic back peddling. I got the distinct impression that I had stumbled across an issue that was a sore point between the Catholicos-Patriarch and the Church in India.  I can only guess at the tension produced by Assyrians trying to get Indians to conform rigidly to liturgical norms.

After Mass

After the morning festival the same day we went to Fr Jacks' small rural church for their festival. His mother had died earlier in the week  and he had to arrange for the transport of her body, her funeral, bury her (usually done within 24 hours) and then prepare for his annual parish festival. I really felt for him. He was expected back at work at the Palace on Monday morning, less than a week after her death and the day after the parish feast. When I asked about compassionate leave I realised that the concept was completely foreign. 

St Joseph's

Fr Jacks at St Joseph's

St Joseph's Processional Cross

In the parish hall afterwards a small boy sung an exceptionally long hymn in Syriac for the Metropolitan and congregation which he had, presumably, spent ages memorising.

We ate in the sacristy and here you can see a typical traditional south Indian breakfast of idli (served on a banana leaf), sambar, vada and small sweet bananas.

Breakfast in the Sacristy