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Christianity Older than Hinduism in Kerala


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Christianity Older Than Hinduism in Kerala

Brahmins arrive in Kerala much later than Christianity

World Syriac Conference 2002 -SEERI - KOTTAYAM

Paper presented by Prof. George MENACHERY

Ph.: 91 487 352468 / 354398 9846033713

Christianity Older than Hinduism in Kerala

01.01 When it is suggested that, Christianity is older than Hinduism in Kerala it is quite likely that much may be argued in favour of the opposite view, as it has been argued, in place and out of place, by many, down the decades of the past century or two. Only there is something to be said against the stand often taken for granted that Hinduism was here in Kerala from time immemorial, and that Christianity here was the late-comer, and that is what, on the present occasion , I have to say.1 As Stevenson goes on to say, to state one argument is not necessarily to be deaf to all others.2 All the same the title Christianity Older than Hinduism in Kerala, even if it appears like an Irish Bull3 or ludicrous inconsistency in speech, in truth only states a fact, a fact often well understood by scholars of Kerala History, but generally not honestly admitted or boldly stated. It may even be that the Syriac script and liturgy - surely the pahlavi script - were in Kerala much before the Devanagari and the Vedas found their foothold here. In spite of the many statements in Keralolpathy most historians today believe that the Parasurama story is only a legend and Brahmins arrive in Kerala for all practical purposes only in the 4th century or later, and the Brahmins or Namboodiris establish dominance only around the end of the first millenium C.E. In the time available for this paper it will be possible merely to have a passing glance at some facets of the problem, and that too in a most cursory manner.

02.01 To commence with, it may be useful to examine a few definitions / descriptions of the terms Hindu and Hinduism.Hinduism is the religion of the Hindus, the people of Hindusthan. The land lying to the east of the river Sindhu was called Hindusthan by the Persians, the word Sindhu being pronounced by them Hindu. Thus the name Hinduism is geographical in origin.4 Even today the river Sindhu for the westerner is the Indus.In this sense Hinduism is a western term for religious beliefs and practices of most of the peoples in India5 referring to almost everything in the land or lands across the Indus sometimes even up to China.6 In this broad sense Kerala formed a part of India and thus could be considered Hindu from the first century onwa ds (cf.the first century B.C./A.D. writings of Roman authors like Pliny,7 which author calls Muziris primun emporium Indiae). It is possible that many Greek and Roman writers when they spoke of
had mainly Kerala in their mind.8 In this geographical sense of Hinduism, and only in that sense, was Kerala the abode of Hindus and Hinduism from the earliest centuries.

02.02 However there is another definition for Hinduism. It (i.e. Hindu) is not a very ancient name, for it is not found in any of the early literatures. The original name for it (Hinduism) was Sanatana- dharma, meaning the Eternal Religion. It is so named because it is based on certain eternal principles, beliefs and practices. Another name for it is Vaidika-dharma, the religion derived from the Vedas. In this sense it is also known as Brahmana-dharma, Brahma here standing for the Vedas.9 Vedic Hinduism, i.e. the religion now considered Hinduism, does not have a very long history in Kerala. In fact Vedic Hinduism in Kerala is not as old as Christianity in Kerala. ...2 -2-

02.03 Before proceeding further, for a clearer understanding of what is today understood by Hinduism, let us examine the rest of the modern description of Hinduism earlier quoted: [I RUSH THRU THIS PART] For the religious beliefs and practices of most of the people of India the Corresponding Indian term is dharma [law]. It has no fixed scriptural canon, but Veda, Brahmanas, and Bhagavad-Gita have elaborate theological commentary. Brahmanism substituted (c.550 B.C.) for Vedic religion a complex system of ritual and theosophy expounded in Brahmanas and Upanishads. Brahmanas regulate sacrifices to gods and personify moral qualities. Upanishads, foundation of modern Hindu philosophy, develop doctrine of a universal soul or being to which individual souls will be reunited after maya (illusion of time and space) is conquered. Buddhism and Jainism, which flourished from c.300 B.C. to A.D. c.400 in
India, attacked this complex ritual and theology. However, Brahmanism adopted features of those religions and codified its own ritual in Laws of Manu. Several schools of interpretation of Upanishads appeared and Yoga was developed. A later stage of Hinduism is represented byTantras and Puranas. Tantras are mainly prescriptions for securing divine favor; Puranas comprise poems addressed mainly to Siva (or Shiva) the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver. These and Brahma, a remote deity who created the universe and is equated with it, form triad at center of modern Hinduism.10

02.04 Even much before the nineteen-seventies historians were fully convinced that Vedic Hinduism and the Brahmins must have arrived in Kerala only much later than the first centuries B.C./ A.D. The extensive studies made by Dr. M. G.S. Narayanan, the then head of the department of history at the
University of Calicut, and at present the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) together with Dr. Veluthat Kesavan, now in the department of history, Mangalore University, shed much light on the beginnings of the Brahmin community in Kerala. Here it is important to note what Dr. Narayanan says concerning the new trends in Kerala Historical studies, Historicalresearch had a delayed start in Kerala in the absence of History Departments in the University until the sixties of the last century. This gave the opportunity for interest groups to popularize their pet ideas and pass them on as authentic hiistory. They had come to associate these myths with their own status and privileges. Once the community leaders and political leaders published their theories about ancient history, their followers developed a frame of mind that resisted interpretations based on evidence. With the establishment of History Departments in the Universities it was ...3 -3- possible for the present writer and his colleagues to build upon the foundations laid by Professor Elamkulam, sometimes extending and modifying the conclusions, sometimes demolishing and re-building too. This introduction becomes necessary because it is often found even today that the discussion of problems in ancient history are cluttered and obstructed or vitiated by earlier legendary notions which have been thrown out and exposed long ago with the availability of contemporary evidence.11

02.05 To understand the origin and spread of Brahmins or Namboodiris in Kerala let us go through the words of Dr. Kesavan Veluthat in some detail:The Brahmans of Kerala are known as Nambudiris. Historical evidences as well as their own traditions suggest that they came from
North India and settled down in Kerala, migrating along the West Coast. It is clear that they constitute links in a long chain of migration along the West Coast of India, carrying with them the tradition that Parasurama created their land and donated it to them. In fact, one sees this tradition all along the West Coast from Sourashtra on; and the Brahmanical tradition in the Canarese and Malabar Coasts is nearly identical to one another. According to that tradition, Parasurama created the land between Gokarna and Kanyakumari and settled Brahmans there in sixty-four gramas or villages. As a result, the Brahmans of Kerala share several common features with the Brahmans of the Canarese coast; this also distinguishes them from their counterparts in the rest of South India. In a historical inquiry, this is extremely important. What is necessary is not to look for the place of their origin or the identity and date of Parasurama but to ascertain the social function of such a tradition and examine the extent of linkages between the two regions and their cultures. It is stated that thirty-two out of the sixty-four gramas are in the Tulu speaking region and the remaining thirty-two in the Malayalam speaking region in Kerala. Recent historical research has identified these settlements on either side of the border. Those in Kerala proper are listed in the Keralopatti, the narrative of Kerala history.

They are:

a) Between rivers Perumpuzha and Karumanpuzha:

1. Payyannur, 2. Perumchellur, 3. Alattiyur, 4. Karantola, 5. Cokiram, 6. Panniyur, 7. Karikkatu, 8. Isanamangalam, 9. Trissivaperur, 10. Peruvanam.

b) Between rivers Karumanpuzha and Churni:

11. Chamunda, 12. Irungatikkutal, 13. Avattiputtur, 14. Paravur, 15. Airanikkalam, 16. Muzhikkalam, 17. Kuzhavur, 18. Atavur, 19. Chenganatu, 20. Ilibhyam, 21. Uliyannur, 22. Kazhutanatu.

c) Between river Churni and Kanya Kumari:

23. Errumanur, 24. Kumaranallur, 25. Katamaruku, 26. Aranmula, 27. Tiruvalla, 28. Kitangur, 29.Chengannur, 30. Kaviyur, 31. Venmani and 32. Nirmanna

Of these,most survive today with the continuing Brahmanical traditions and the structural temples known as gramakshetras. Many find mention in the epigraphical ...4 -4- records dating from the ninth century and a few are mentioned in literature. Moreover, every Nambudiri house claims to belong to one or the other of these thirty-two settlements in Kerala. The historicity of the grama affiliation of the Nambudiris, therefore, cannot be doubted. It is possible that these (Brahman) settlements came up between the third and ninth centuries of the Christian era, i.e., the close of the early historical period in the history of
South India, which historians describe as the Sangam Age, and the establishment of the Chera kingdom of Mahodayapuram.12

02.06 And Dr. M. G. S. Narayanan concurs: This situation helps us to confirm that the ancestors of present day Nambudiris established their temple-centred Gramas in the span of the 8th-9th centuries. As the Brahmins in the historical epochs have always been clan-conscious and conservative, they must have been Brahmins by birth only. They are found to have followed the laws of Dharmasastra texts according to the internal epigraphic evidence. There is no question of conversion of non-Brahmins or therecruitment of non-Brahmins as Brahmins into the Brahmin fold, as these practices are foreign to Dharmasastra literature. As we know from the contemporary records that these Brahmins had brought all the paraphernalia of the Vedic-Sastric-Puranic Brahminism of the Gangetic valley, they could not have been indigenous to Kerala.15

02.07 The above authorities incontrovertibly establish the fact that Brahmins and Brahminism along with Vedic Hinduism arrive in Kerala only many centuries later than the commencement of the Christian era. The Nairs, who belong to the Chaturvarna or four castes, though they form the lowest rung of the caste system as they are Sudras, appear on the scene even much later than the Brahmins, perhaps as late as the 12th century C.E. Centuries before there is any trace of Vedic Hinduism in Kerala there are many well established evidences for the existence of Christians in Kerala. Christianity would appear to be the oldest existing religion in Kerala, much older than any other organised religion including Islam.

03.01 Vigrahas or images of vedic Hindu gods and goddesses appear in Kerala only after the 11th century, much later than the rock crosses.14 Even at the Salem, Erode portions of the Chera Kingdom and the Venad, Kanyakumari sector they appear only mostly after the 9th century. In fact all the Vigrahas or images of Hindu gods and goddesses appearing anywhere in Kerala are datable to a period much later than the time of the Pahlavi crosses of St. Thomas Mount, Kottayam, Kadamattam, Muttuchira, and Alangad.

03.02 For example, according to the studies published by K.P.Soundrarajan, Directoe, Archaeology Survey of India, 1978 the Vigraha of 1.Aja Eka Pada first appears in Thondamandalam in the 8thC, in Cholamandalam in the 11thC, in Pandimandalam in the 13thC. (2) ArdhaNareeswara appears in S.India only after the 7thC and in Kerala only after the 9thC. (3) AnanthaShayi S.I. 6thC and Kerala 8thC. (4) DakshinaMoorthy Kerala 8thC. (5) Ganesha Kerala 8thC. (6) Harihara Kerala 1 1thC. (7) Jvarahareshvara 13thC. (8) Jeshta 11thC. (9) Lingothbhava post-11thC. (10) SapthaMatha 14thC. (11) TriMoorthy 8thC.15 Oldest Hindu idols of Kerala are found in areas outside our present Kerala, beyond the ghats in Kongunadu from Salem- Dharmapuri or beyond
Trivandrum. Thins would mean that in central Kerala the homeland of most of the ancient christians Hindu images appear even later. The oldest Hindu and even Buddhist statues of Kerala are attributed to the 9thC or later by Dr. M.G. S. Narayanan also.16 Hence of all the rock images in existence in Kerala the Pahlavi crosses are much older than any Hindu Vigraha.

03.03 One might here genuinely ask about the existence of innumerable old temples in Kerala, and temple festivals. Most of these temples are Kavus dedicated to Bhagavathy or an ancient mother-goddess. The well-known Trichur Pooram festival, for example, is only a get-together of a dozen Bhagavathies, and Shiva or Vadakkumnathan has nothing whatsoever to do with it, although the festivities rtake place around the Vadakkunnathan or Shiva temple. The Thidambu or image in gold or silver carried by the elephants depict only or chiefly the Bhagavathy of Paramekkavu, Thiruvambady etc. and there is no proper Hindu god or goddess honoured during these festivals.

04.01 Any discussion of Hindu origins and development, especially w.r.t. Kerala, would be quite inadequate without reference to Adi Sankara, the great reformer, teacher, scholar, and author. Sankaracharya flourished ca. 8th C C.E. or in the first century before or after the commencement of the Malayalam or Kollam Era in 825 C.E. The great sage was born at Kalady or at Veliyanadu on the opposite shore of the river in his mothers house. In either case he was born in the midst of a great christian population affiliated to churches established many centuries before his birth at nearby places like Malayattoor, Angamaly, Parur, Edappally &c. on the river banks or Churni or the Periyar. How far his life and thoughts have been influenced by this strong christian presence around him remains to be explored in full.

04.02 Sankara in his 64 Anacharams or code of conduct for Namboodiris or Malayalee Brahamins specify that only white dress must be worn by members of the community. Now it is well known that Brahmin women in
S. India in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu or Andhra wear only dark coloured Chelas from Kancheepuram or elsewhere. The christian women of Kerala are well known for their white dress with the beautiful fan-like arrangement at the back called njori which adds to their beauty and testify their admirable modesty. By adopting the white dress and the njori the Brahmins of Kerala were trying to ensure their aristocracy.

04.03 Sankara further enjoins his community to eschew all nasal ornaments: Nasabharanam Nishidham, although Brahmin women elsewhere in
India are addicted to nasal ornaments. It is for the christian community of Kerala alone that Nasabharanam is Nishiddham and nasal ornaments still remain taboo to ancient christian women of Kerala and to the Antharjanams.

04.04 Into the similarity of many other customs of Brahmins and christians it is not necessary to enter here. Although the similarities in the birth ceremonies, marriage ceremonies, and funeral ceremonies of these two communities are quite striking, often indicating that, the Brahmins when they arrived in Kerala borrowed the customs of the then ruling community of Kerala viz. the christians.

05.01 Although many of the matters mentioned in this paper must have been well understood by the Brahmin and upper caste scholars, somehow efforts to make these matters common knowledge were never made or suppressed. One theory that helped keep things hidden was the Lacuna theory or Dark Chapters theory. Those who wrote history said that the second half of the first millennium in Kerala history was a dark age and a lacuna existed in our knowledge of this period. These 500 years between 500 C.E. and 1000 C.E. were precisely the centuries when age-old christian dominance in Kerala declined giving way to Bramin asendency.However there are many documents dealing with this period which are ignored or deliberately overlooked by such historians.

05.02 Many of the earliest existing documents in Kerala history deal with the Christians or Mar Thoma Nazranies of Kerala often called the Syrian Christians. The half a dozen Pahlavi crosses are one set of such records. The kinayi Thoman copper plates, the Thazhekkad Rock inscription, the Tharisappalli copper plates, are another set of records. All these belong, certainly, to the first millennium C.E.

05.03 The oldest places in Kerala are connected with the encient christian community of kerala. Palayoor, Parur,and Kodungalloor are instances of this. It may be remembered that these three places, which occupy a place of pry in the St.Thomas Apostolic stroy are all on the oldest and bigest geoliliogical plate underground, so that generally these places were never affected by earthquekes.

05.04 By the reverse projection of Keralas population we may arrive at a figure like 300,000 for the population of Kerala in the Ist century.If the stories of convertion of people by St.Thomas has anycredibility the majority of people in Kerala, mostly inhabitting the 7 places where the apostle worked, must have become Christians-and the types of political and social systems and institutions of the Sangham age were perhaps very much influence by this huge and powerful Christian Community.

05.05 The large of Ist century BC/AC Roman Gold coins of Agustus, Tiberius and Nero discovered from the Palayoor and Parur belts indicate the close contact these areas had with conuntries and cultures on the western side of the
Arabian Sea.

05.06 They are recods from practically every century, every civilisation, every church, and in every language, not only about Kerala and her products but also about the begainings and developments of christianity in Kerala and India.All that can be done here is to give a short list of these writings:

06.01 Just two more paragrphs: One about the status and social possition of the christians in the early centuries. Only hundred and fifty years back when women in Kerala tried to cover the upper part of their body there was a huge commotion which resulted in the Channar Lahala or the mutiny of the Channar caste. But then 1500 years back christians in Kerala were wearing silk gowns, silk turbans, gold ornaments above their head and on their body. Even today the gold business in Kerala is mostly in the hands of Nazranies: Alappatt, Palathingal, Josco, Thottan, Alukkas..etc. The 72 privileges enjoyed by christians even before the different copper plate grants reassured their right to continue to enjoy those privileges indicate that the christians were the predominant and ruling community of Kerala before the Brahmins gained dominance towards the end of the first millennium. The marriage customs of the christians described here yesterday will throw considerable light on the royal privileges and aristocratic status of the christian community in Kerala during the past well-nigh 1900 years.

06.02 The art and architecture of these christians - with their rock work, metal work, wood work, ivory work and artistic creations in every known medium - and with their deepastamba or lampstand, dwajasthamba, or flagstaff, rock crosses inside and ooutside the churches, their baptismal fonts-bear ample testimony to their place in society in bygone centuries. The base or pedestal of the open-air crosses are like the balikkallu or Sacrificial altar stone of the temples. But the bali on the balikkallu in the rock crosses is the supreme bali of jesus symbolises by the cross - the MahaBali. Also it is interesting to note that all the crosses rise up from the lotus. In fact the national flower lotus, the national bird peacock, and perhaps even the nationall an,mal the tiger first appear in kerala art on the rock crosses.Some of these you must have seen yesterday when you visited the Valiyapalli.

07.01 All these facts indicate that Brahmins and Brahminism and Vedic Hinduism arrive in Kerala at a very late date and become powerful only by the end of the first millennium, while christianity was here many centuries prior to that, and was here perhaps a strong presence even in the first centuries.

07.02 These facts are presented here to elicit your valuable opinions and comments. Thank you.


1.&2.R. L. Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers in Virginibus Puerisque.

3. But see: G.K.Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw, Bodley Head Library, 1937, chapter one, third paragraph.

4. Swami Siddinadananda, Hinduism, in the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of
India, Vol.III (in the press), Ed. Prof. George Menachery.

5.The Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia, Dell, 1964, p.803.

6.Here is an early 20th century definition of Hinduism (The New Standard Encyclopaedia, 1936, p.641): Social and religious organisation in
India. It is a development of Brahmanism and is divided into a number of groups. There were in 1931 altogether 239,195,140 Hindus in India, and they are thus the dominant people in the land. Early Brahmanism was affected by Buddhism and both existed down to about A.D. 800, when the latter disappeared from the peninsula, leaving a new Brahmanism, the product of both philosophies. This modern Hinduism, based on the Puranas, gives less prominence to Brahma than to his associates Vishnu, the preserver, and Siva, the destroyer and reproducer. They are worshipped in innumerable forms, both in their male and female aspects, the latter being emphasised by Saktiism, which derives its teaching from the Tantras.

7.Pliny described Cranganore (Muziris) in Kerala as primum emporium indiae

8.For a scientific but short discussion and proofs of early Greek and Roman knowledge of India and Kerala nothing better can be suggested than The Apostles in India, Fact or Fiction ? by A.C.Perumalil S.J. first published in 1952 (Patna). Also cf. Pliny, 6.23 (26); Schoff, H. Wilfred, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Longmans, 1912, p.232; McCrindle J.W, Ancient India as described in Classical Literature, Westminister, 1901,p.111.

9.Swami Siddinadananda, op. cit.

Columbia Viking Desk Encyclopedia, id.,pp.803,804

11. M.G.S. Narayanan, Namboodiris - Background and Early Settlements in Kerala, paper presented at LIREC,
Mt. St. Thomas, 4th Sept., 2000.

12.Kesavan Veluthat, The Nambudiri Community: A History, paper for the LIREC seminar,
Mt. St. Thomas, 2000.

13. Emphais by the present writer.

14. Kesavan Veluthat, op. cit.

15. M.G.S. Narayanan, op.cit.

16.Prof.George Menachery, Social Life And Customs Of The St.Thomas Christians In The Pre-Diamper Period, in The Life and Nature of the St.Thomas Christian Church in the Pre-diamper period, Ed. Bosco Puthur, Kochi, 2000, p.197.

Id., Ibid, p. 202, f.n. 27!

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