The origin of Syrian Christians or the Nasranis, the Saint Thomas Christians can be traced down to the 1st century. They have been residing in Kerala since centuries now. These Brahmins of Kerala converted themselves to Christianity long back in 52 AD by one of the 12 apostles of Christ; Saint Thomas. The Syrian Christians of Kerala are limited to Kerala only and claim to be the oldest Christians in the world. Though a minority, the Christians in Kerala are counted more than the Christians residing countrywide. These Syrian Christians are commonly known as Nasranis, derived from the Arabic word Nazraya, which means Christians. In this article we will discuss about the traditions, beliefs and lifestyle of Nasranis.
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Traditions, Cultural Beliefs And The Lifestyle The Syrian Christians were united in the past, though now the church is divided into various denominations. Those who accept allegiance to the Roman Catholic pope are known as Syrian Roman Catholics.
The rest are Non-Catholic Syrian Christians who follow other orthodox churches like Syrian church, Jacobite, etc. these churches use the old Syriac Language for their liturgy, as a means of maintaining contact with churches in the Middle East that provided bishops for a long time.
Jacobite Syrians still consider the Patriarch of Antioch to be the head of their church. There are some parishes mostly of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Syrians, or Jacobite Syrians where some saints have special importance.
Every religion follows their own set of Traditions and customs; this is what the traditions of Nasranis comprise of :
- Syrian Christians attend Sunday church prayers of Syriac Liturgy (ritual services).
- The symbol of the Nasranis is the Persian cross, also called as Mar Thoma Sleeba in Malayalam.
- The entire Nasrani community covers their heads while attending a prayer. This custom is followed by the descendants of the Abrahimic religion.
- There is a separate sitting arrangement for men and women in the churches.
- One can notice a blend of jewish and kerala style in the architecture of their churches.
- When a child is born, a priest or male relative would shout in the child’s ear ‘Maron Yesu Mishiha’ (Jesus Christ is Lord) and then the child is fed with three drops of honey in which a little gold had been rubbed.
- Nasranis still use biblical names like Jews, Syrians, Armenians and Greeks; they add prefix and suffix to their Kerala names.
- However, the Nasranis and Hindus have maintained their individuality in Kerala being aware of and accepting similarities & differences. Boundaries between Christians and Hindus are blurred in some cultural sphere such us house building, astrology, birth and marriage ( use of sandalwood paste, milk, rice and areca nut).
Marriage : The marriages of Syrian Christians are monogamous and maintain a strict community endogamy. They still practice Arranged marriages, although prospective spouses are consulted before finalizing the marriage. Nowadays, Syrian Christians are also open to love marriages where the families simply go through the formalities of arranging the marriage. Since, residence is patrilocal, soon after the marriage the wife starts living in the husband's house. They may move out to a different house, if they want to; but, if there is only one son in the family, parents may continue to reside with the couple.
Syrian Christians follow a tradition of permanent marriage in Kerala, because of which divorce is very rare in their case. However, there are a few cases in which women assert their individuality to be different from that of the husband’s, especially if she is independent and is not willing to accept a role of a housewife. Still, the divorce rate in Syrian Christian marriage is quite low.
Festivals : The Syrian Christians in Kerala follow the usual list of Christian festivals. However, the orthodox Christians maintain lent for twenty-five days prior to Christmas and fifty days prior to Easter. The orthodox Christians eat only vegetarian meals and do not consume alcohol during this period.
The week of Easter is of utter importance to them. It is celebrated with special church services on Palm Sunday and also every evening including Good Friday. On Pesaha (Maundy) Thursday there is a special church service with Holy Communion. Family members get together for Easter breakfast and break the Lenten fast by eating meat and special bread made for the occasion.
Hope this article helped you gain an insight of the traditional and cultural value of the Syrian Christians in Kerala. Aramaic, the language spoken by the Syrian Christians is the third most spoken language in Kerala. They are skilled people who hold the 19% population of Kerala.