They are among the oldest Christian community in India, going as far back as 52 CE when St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ, came to India. TheOrthodox Syrian Christians are different. They have many rituals which are common to Hindus too.
Though there are over 252 Christian denominations in India, the Orthodox Syrian Christians are perhaps the most inclusive. Their rituals hark back 2,000 years and their liturgy, which used to be completely in Syriac, still has vestiges of it with Syrian words such as Barikamore meaning bless me Lord. In seminaries, the liturgical language is still Syriac.
Christianity, in fact, can be divided into western and eastern churches. The Orthodox Church in India is part of eastern churches like those in Armenia, Russia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Syria. Most have the same tunes in their liturgy and it’s not uncommon to see Ethiopian students studying in India visiting Orthodox churches and feeling quite at home with the awe-inspiring and stunning rituals, despite not knowing the language.
An inclusive lot
Are the Orthodox Syrian Christians any different from Syrian Christians? “No, Syrian Christians are a large group and include Orthodox Syrians, Canaanites, Marthomites from Kerala and Malankara Catholics,” says Yuhanon Mar Demetrois, assistant metropolitan of the Delhi Diocese. “They comprise some 10 groups,” he adds.
The Orthodox Syrians, too, are divided into two groups – the Malankara Syrians (Jacobites) who owe their allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch in Syria and the Malankara Orthodox Syrians, headquartered in Kottayam.
Unlike Catholics whose supreme head is the Pope in Vatican, the head of the Orthodox Syrians is His Holiness Baselios Mar Thoma Didymus I, the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan. He is helped by 30 Metropolitans, each of whom has a set area of the world under his jurisdiction.
“The term ‘orthodox’ comes from ortho or straight and doxo or glory and means one who glorifies God with a straight face,” says father M C Poulose of St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Hauz Khas, Delhi. He says the community is conservative about its rituals. But it’s also one of the more innovative communities, opening up education to its women and working for the upliftment of dalits much before it caught social attention.
Jigi Thomson, special DG, Organising Committee of the Commonwealth Games 2010, and a fervent Orthodox Syrian Christian himself, adds, “We are supposed to have been part of the Hindu nobility before St Thomas converted us, so many consider themselves a cut above the rest.” The royal family of Travancore would also bestow certain privileges on them.
Hindu elements in rituals
Many of their rituals have a Hindu influence. For instance, take marriage. Just like the mangalsutra, which is tied around the bride’s neck, this community has the min, a small piece of gold with the cross embossed on it. Before any auspicious occasion, a lamp is lit, just like it is among Hindus. “You won’t find this among Catholics or Protestants,” says Thomson. “All our churches also have the kurshumoodh (cross) opposite the altar, quite like a flagstaff opposite the sanctum sanctorum in temples.” It is the only church where the East is all-important. All churches and cemeteries have to face the East; all prayers should be recited facing the East. Why? The Book of Revelations has said the second coming of Christ will be from the East.
Also, all bishops have to wear a red cassock. Red, says Thomson, symbolises death and was the colour of the garment worn by Jesus when he was being taken to Calvary to be crucified. “It means our bishops are destined to die for the sake of Christ,” he explains.
The Orthodox Syrians have a very ceremonial form of liturgy, says Demetrios. “We try to convey the image of Christ in all his glory and resplendence like a king. The colour, adornments and grandeur inspire awe and reverence.” The penitent’s olfactory and visual senses are also subsumed by the fragrance of the kunduri or incense, satin and silk vestments and intricately stitched velvet half shoes of the priest, jingle of bells, the wavering flame of numerous candles and the gold and silver threads woven into curtains. “Colours have significance – red is associated with martyrs, gold with Christ, blue with Mother Mary and so on,” says Demetrois.
They’re hard-working; many are in top echelons of government and include the likes of P CAlexander, principal secretary of Indira Gandhi and Oommen Chandy, ex-chief minister of Kerala. But even as the community is proud of its religiosity, many say it has to move with the times if it has to survive. It is important to make the liturgy and songs intelligible to its parishioners, many of whom have studied outside Kerala and may not be familiar with Malayalam.
Another grouse is the timings of Christmas and Easter celebrations which start at 2 am, in keeping with olden times. Also, many of its churches have removed benches from inside, making prayers a truly tiring exercise for the elderly. But no matter who they are or what they do, on Sundays, the Orthodox Syrian heart will always be in the gothic environs of his beautiful church. The beauty of Kerala, in fact, is incomplete without the white church spires reaching out to the azure skies against the background of the backwaters and green paddy fields.