The Syrian Christians Were Great Beneficiaries of the Caste System

Light of truth

Dr P.K. Michael Tharakan
(Former Vice Chancellor of
Kannur University and
Chairperson
Kerala Council for
Historical Research)

I am honoured by the invitation to participate in such an interview by Rev. Dr Paul Thelakat, reputed serial actionist and thinker. Let me also state at the very outset that my actions are influenced by the moral of the following of the repeated story: A person was asked whether he was a practicing Catholic? His answer was that he is a practicing historian; therefore he has no time to practise anything else.

How do you evaluate the influence of Christianity in distribution of wealth and progress among poor and less privileged in Kerala and in the social change in India? How do you look at Christ and His view of wealth and social ordering?
It is impossible to answer the first part of the question. There are Christians who argue and work for a fair distribution of wealth and support social change based on equal development opportunities for all, in Keralam. There are also Christians and even organization of Christian origins, who argue and work contrary to this. As far as I know there is no organization which can claim to represent all Christian factions/denominations in Keralam. The second part is easy to answer. The historical Jesus was the son of a carpenter who was tortured, killed and hung on a Cross by the Priesthood, Civil and Military authorities, the wealth and the privileged of His times, primarily because He promised ordinary people a New World without wealth accumulation privileges and oppression.

By contrast poor sections of the Syrian Christians had strong landed roots. Why the Syrian Catholics were became agrarian people including that of ‘cash crops’ cultivation in by the early 1930s when land was mainly owned by Devaswam or Brhamaswam?
I do not understand who the poor sections of the Syrian Christians are contrasted with. The section generally called the Syrians [a total misnomer because no ordinary Syrian could speak any version of the Syriac language or had a memory of a specific migratory origin from Syria; it could have originated from liturgical language used about which I remember Rev.Dr Samuel Ryan S.J, the famous theologian making a jock that till 1960s even God did not understand any language other than Syriac and Latin] are in comparison with other social groups or communities of the society of Keralam, predominantly a land holding group. Their origins need not have been as land holders or agriculturists. My reading of the historical evidences and indicators do show that this group might have originated from West Asian traders and navigators setlling in primarly, two coastal ‘urban’ settlements of Kodungallur (Muchiri or Mahadevar Pattanam) and Kurakeni Kollam. Their population might have increased over time by adaptation of others who dealt with coastal trade related occupations like salt makers, oil pressers, dealers of fish, textiles and middlemen. As the demand for spices including black pepper, ivory, timber and other forest produces increased, this group which was restricted to the coast would have found it necessary to move to the hinterland and deal directly with the actual producers. Eventually this resulted; it seems, in actual supervision or control. Their arrival was welcomed by local notables, landed barons Naduvazhis etc. because they could bring along much needed, salt fish, textiles and oil into hinterland village economies which used to produce every other necessity by themselves. The Brahmasoms, Devasoms, Kovilakoms and other land owners gave them land and money to build churches and angadies [Bazaars]. As a result, when the Portuguese came they found a significant number of Christians in serra or up-land. These Christians were difficult to control because the Portuguese power concentrated mainly in the coast around their factories, forts and Kovilakoms like Kochi, which they controlled. There could be one or two exceptions of Christians moving across the Ghates to interior areas of Kerala. The supervisory role that the Christians established over production and transaction of spices led them into widespread cash-crop production for which land in highland and midland were eminently suited. Since they were involved in trade and transactions they were never categorized as untouchables or backward in the caste-ridden society. On the other hand the upper castes welcomed the mediating role of a “middle caste.”- the Syrian Christians in transactions of commodities including those like oil, rice and red silk used for Puja in temples. Thus they could without any major social disturbance make enough surplus income from trade and cash-crop production to pay in money terms for ‘kanom’; a superior tenancy in highland and even midland rice cultivation. 17th century onward and particularly in 18th and 19th centuries they were granted several kinds of inducements to expand agriculture into cleared forests and shallow backwaters in highland, midland and coastal land  by the ruling powers who needed money to meet several obligations including tribute to the new colonial powers. This expansion was in Pandaravaka and Chrikkal lands and with the Pandaravaka Pattam Regulation and later with the Jenmie-Kudiyan Regulation in Thiruvithamkoor (soon in Kochi too) many Syrian Christians became “immovable tenants” or peasant proprietors with large holdings all over central and southern Kerala. Om the 1930s with the scrapping of Matrilineal Joint Family inheritance there were several Nair-owned plots of land, up for sale which were bought up by the Syrian Christians. With the world Economic Depression those who had entered commercial cultivation (mainly rubber and coconut) had to face wide fluctuations in prices. They could overcome it by migrating to Malabar and thus establishing the same kind of economy as in the south of Keralam, there too with the Kerala Land Reforms [Amendment] Act.1963 which was initially passed by the first Communist Ministry, the Syrian Christians became “actual” landowners in an extensive manner.

Why do you think the land reforms an important legislation for social change, seems to have failed in fully satisfying the basic needs of the lowest castes and communities?
The fact that the first Communist Ministry which successfully piloted the original comprehensive land reform Agrarian Relations Bill got dismissed from power undemocratically. When they had majority in the Assembly blocked implementation of the provisions of the Bill. The communists could not get back to power for nearly a decade and during that period the Communist Movement got split and only through a coalition could they come back and implement the Bill/Act. In the mean-time some important original provisions were watered down or got deleted. Most disastrous among them was the deletion of the provision that the Land Board/Land Tribunal, the actual implementation agencies should have elected representatives. The landholders who had to declare excess land and to transfer tenancy land, opposed it, fearing that if elected members are allowed to take the decision then it will go against their interests. They ultimately won. I would look at Land Reforms in Keralam as legislation in spite of heavy reversals, still managed to ensure at least to some extent social justice in agrarian relations, land distribution and basic human rights.

Why were the Syrians Christians trying to get into the upper caste system, why they never thought of overcoming the caste system?
The Syrian Christians were great beneficiaries of the caste system. They were tolerated as an inevitable middle caste by the system. So they were never denied benefits arising from the economy. They could use their position within the caste system toward off all groups considered “lower,” including fellow Christians from sharing the same benefits, many Syrian Christian families claim to be converted Nambudiries and increasing number of ‘family histories’ from among them proclaim the same. Even with the money that some of them could earn from commercial farming, cash –crop cultivation, kayalkrishi and coconut growing could not climb up to the top most level of society. But by resorting to education and government jobs they could eventually be like ‘upper castes.’

What made outstanding leaders like Chavara Kurikose (1805-1871), Nidhirickal Mani Kathanar [1842-1904], play a major role in making education  a means of social advancement. How do you see the role of the Catholic Church and its leaders in the development of education and cultural development  in Kerala?
My understanding is that Chavara Kuriakose Elias was a bit early to play a major role in the ‘development of modern’ literacy and primary education. The main thrust in these areas was carried out by Sir T.Madhav Rao as Dewan of Thiruvithamkoor who with money generated from pricing of ‘imported’ tobacco provided a steady investment in vernacular primary schools. An equal contribution was given by grant-in-aid schools in which the Protestant Missions played a major role. By late 19th century the then census commissioner of Thiruvithamkoor, Nagam Aiyah writes that there is no use in trying to teach Romo-Syrians and Mussalman, they will not learn because their Kathanars and Mullahs are against English [modern] education. This situation seems to have been removed in the case of ‘Romo-Syrians’ by the initiative taken in education by them who had found ‘wealth’ in cash-crop forming and was desirous of catching up with the “upper castes” and Jacobites. Nidhirckal Mani Kathanar played a major role in that. His efforts were spread all over Thiruvithamkoor and Kochi. In 20th century the Catholic Church and its leaders played major role in educational expansion numerically, in number of institutions and students. Whether they were able to contribute equally to qualitative development of education is doubtful.

Why do you think Buddhism which questioned caste system and Hindu ritualism was expelled from Kerala?
I do not know whether Buddhism was a widespread factor in social life of Keralam. Definitely strong Buddhist presence must have been here as various indicators like Sreemolavasam show. But how and what way this presence (partly at least as part of merchant caravans from the North) could have influenced the society of Keralam could be ascertained only after further research is done. It is a hopeful sign that many young scholars are working on this subject. If the question regarding Hindu ritualism is related to the Hindu Revival under Sree Sankaracharya, I am not an expert in this specific subject.

How important was the reading of Bible in Kerala Christian development and progress?
The role of Bible reading and Christian development and progress are not subjects which I have any special knowledge about. All I can say as a student of history is that like in almost everywhere else, in Keralam too, the Catholics were very late entrants to Bible reading and studies while Protestant Churches had reading and understanding of Bible-hence also literacy – a must in salvation.

How do you read as a historian the future of Christianity in Kerala and India? How  do you see  the winter of Christianity in Europe?
I wish that the Christian message survives long and strong in Keralam and India. If the question is with regard to institutionalized Christian religion with its strengths and weaknesses, it will require massive readjustments in changing world, India and Keralam situation. A more empathetic, sincere, decentralized, friendly nature and secular approach may be considered. In Europe, Christianity might have entered winter, but I still see many Europeans holding on strongly to values which are not contradictory to “Christian Values.”

After the fall of Communism in the West how do you see the future of communism in a democratic system?
Communism has thrown up a vision which is not yet forgotten. It can provide a thinking person an effective platform from which the society can be critically viewed.

I am chairperson of Kerala council for Historical Research [KCHR]. The opinions expressed here are all personal and not of the KCHR.

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