Posted by: cochinblogger | January 3, 2011

An Unbeliever Goes to Church

When I was a schoolboy in Calcutta, we made the occasional foray to the Orthodox Syrian Christian church on Smith Lane. As the service was conducted in an amalgam of Aramaic (the language Christ used) and Malayalam, I couldn’t follow anything. It is only a hundred years ago or even later that Malayalam began creeping into the service; before that, the service was conducted almost entirely in Aramaic. Even as a boy I was impressed by the color and drama of the ritual, but of course, I could not understand a word.

Thus it was that when an English service was announced in our Orthodox Syrian Christian church, I attended out of curiosity. It was a mind-blowing experience! The liturgy was printed in English, and for the first time, I could follow the service. The translation was excellent, and the cadence of the original service was maintained.

The service was well attended, and I wonder if we are witnessing the birth pangs of yet another transition, similar to the earlier transition from Aramaic to Malayalam: a transition from Malayalam to English this time. Many schoolchildren today are more comfortable in English, having only a shaky grip on Malayalam, as the craze for English-medium schools has taken strong root in Kerala.

During the chanting of one hymn, which I found particularly moving, I, an unbeliever, found myself in tears. I’ve had this experience once before in church: during my brother’s wedding service, when a priest read out the love passage of the Bible (The Love Passage). It was his mode of delivery, a sing-song cadence, that made the words all the more moving.

Religious chants tap a common stream that belongs to all humanity. I have been similarly moved by early-morning chanting in Sanskrit in Madurai, and by the muezzin’s call to the faithful. There is something universal in these chants that touches a chord in all of us, signifying a fleeting glimpse of illumination into the mystery that is our existence, or an apprehension of a higher power, a grand design, an organizing principle if you will, to which we are subordinate.

I dislike the trappings of conventional religion and can never surrender my independence to any so-called holy book — and yet, the mystique of religion, its hold over much of humanity, is undeniable.

And — as I’m finding out — I’m not wholly immune to its pull.

The hymn that moved me to tears (turn on the speakers): Hearken Gracious

The photo shows a traditional lamp (nilavalakku) occupying pride of place in a Jacobite church built in the 16th century in Parur.

Also see Syrian Christian Church Baptism


  1. rituals are just that, i and i think where you have moved is to one of those corners in the foundations of what we as humans call religion. As much of a believer as you are, i find this corner very elusive, given the ritualistic design of modern day ‘religion’ …which i see based on a foundation of fear and constructed morality and ethics that in general belies the very notion of celebration and humanity …..this is a notion that may be an endless search for any answer…..end of the day, to be happy to be alive and to celebrate probably is what is important- thank you for this

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