Posted by: cochinblogger | December 8, 2012

Syrian Christians as a Caste

I had known this for some time, but reading it in black and white is another matter. The Syrian Christians of Kerala, unlike Christians from other parts of India, have always occupied a position of pride in the social hierarchy. Louise Ouwerwerk puts it succinctly in No Elephants for the Maharaja:

The position of the Syrian Christians was of course completely different. They could be described as a caste which happened to have Christianity as their personal religion; they considered themselves to be a high caste, and were accepted as such by their Hindu neighbors. Like the high-caste Hindus, they accepted the whole caste structure — they kept the rules of untouchability and approachability. Their different sects resembled the sub-sects of the Nayars; there was no social intercourse or intermarriage between them. They regarded the Church as identical with the Syrian Christian community and made no attempt to preach the Gospel to the heathen around them. This socially exclusive casteism and lack of missionary zeal were mutually dependent. It was in a sense the condition of their survival among the far more numerous and powerful Hindus of Kerala.

And this is a fascinating tidbit from earlier in the book:

The high social position which they claimed was confirmed by the attitude of their Hindu neighbors; for instance until recently if a Hindu temple had been polluted by the presence of an untouchable, a Syrian Christian priest would be sent for to purify it.

All this is, of course, in sharp contrast to how Christians were viewed in other parts of India, especially in North India, where they were largely converted from the lower castes by European missionaries. In fact, North Indians were often puzzled by Syrian Christians, who are unlike any Christians they had come across before.

An anecdote by my father underscores this North Indian attitude. This is from the time when he was in the United States in the 1950s, pursuing a PhD in mathematics. A Punjabi Hindu whose wife was a French Catholic told an American girl that his children would not be brought up as Christians, because all Indian Christians are untouchables. This girl (who knew my father) then objected that my father was a Christian but did not look like an untouchable.

This contempt for Christians has always been less pronounced in South India. And it has always been wholly absent in Bengal, where the advent of Christianity stimulated reform movements within Hinduism and some prominent Brahmins converted to Christianity. A case in point is Dr. H. C. Mukherjee, governor of Bengal in the 1950s. He was both a Brahmin and a Christian.

Please bear in mind that I’m talking about the 1950s and 1960s. The position is different now; education, modernity, and meritocracy are potent prejudice killers.



  1. Fascinating…
    I am told that, somewhat to the embarrassment of my cousins, our Syrian Christian grandmother would not allow Dalit workers across the threshold – though I’m sure she regarded herself as a “good Christian”, and saw no contradiction between her attitude and beliefs.
    She died in the early 1960’s, and with her that particular prejudice. But I’ve read that there are still many Syrian Christian churches where Dalits are not exactly welcomed..

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