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Syrian Christians: Making sense of their business

It is said, in the grand tradition of apocrypha, that long, long before Christianity wore the vestments of Rome’s official state religion, the Gospel of Christ arrived in Kerala on a Syrian boat and seeped into its being like tea from a teabag (with due credit to Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things). Not entirely canonical legend has it that St Thomas the Apostle, a disciple of Iso Misiha (Jesus the Messiah), with a few Syrian families, docked on the shores of Kodungalloor, Kerala in 52 AD. And therefrom begins one of the most fantastic backstories ever devised by immigrants anywhere, which has—with devotedly persistent retelling—entered popular imagination and even crept into school textbooks. The story goes that St Thomas converted a few Brahmins and established seven churches along the Malabar Coast. Historians are not without doubts about this theory. They point out that Kerala’s Aryanisation probably happened much later: in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries AD. It follows that there may have been no Brahmins hanging about in an earlier time to be converted.

Interestingly though, if you examine any diligently upkept Syrian Christian family tree, you find its roots  are drawn from the Brahmin families of yore. The names are listed with pride, Kalli, Kallyamgal, Sankarapuri etc, and then proceed to articulate which branch they are descended from. Historian M. Gangadharan says, “The original Syrian Christians, like the Arabs and Jews, came to Kerala as traders. Perhaps a few Brahmins did convert to Christianity due to land disputes or other reasons. Kerala had abundant spices and oceanic trading played a crucial role in its economy. All trading was done in exchange for gold and the traders were immensely wealthy.” The secular kings welcomed foreign philosophies and allowed settlers to build places of worship. Syrian Christians were even accorded caste-restricted privileges like the use of the umbrella, the spread cloth to walk upon, or the banana leaf doubling as a plate.
At some point in time, Syrian Christians chose not to remain the ‘other’ and positioned themselves as high-caste converts and with great canniness inserted themselves into the deeply caste-embedded society. No small feat given the standing strictures on hierarchy. And having managed to meld into society, they weathered the upheavals that time wrought and tenaciously preserved their position. The conversion story was a handy aid to augment this process. A nativised form of worship evolved, which resembled a fusion of Hindu rites and ancient Syrian liturgy. Says Thiruvananthapuram MP and writer Shashi Tharoor, “Perhaps their greatest contribution has been in infusing the Christian tradition into the Indian socio-religious mosaic in a truly indigenous way, thereby reiterating India’s ability to achieve the highest form of pluralism within a single, holistic working system of human society and thought.”This high-caste positioning also had considerable influence on their conduct. Says Jose Dominic, MD and CEO of CGH Earth (a Syrian Catholic in the hospitality business), “Syrian Christians take great pride in coming from a ‘good family’ and their behaviour is governed by this. They behave very civilly in society and are good workmen as well.” 

The Syrians were largely a monolithic church with strong relations to the Oriental Churches of the East till the Portuguese came on the scene in the 16th century AD and with papal sanction tried to induct them into the Catholic fold. They succeeded: in splitting the Syrian Christian church into a number of splinters, some of which adopted Catholicism, but many retained their Oriental rites. Says Babu Paul, writer, orator and former IAS officer, “The Syrian Christians underwent different divisions and reunions and now are spread across the total spectrum of church theology from the Syro-Malabar at one end to the Pentecostal at the other.”
The caste ladder in Kerala did not have a native Vaishya rung and the Syrians filled the gap. Some took to paddy cultivation and became agriculturists. The introduction of rubber cultivation in the early 1900s had few takers among the Namboodiris and Nairs. In the pre-land reform days, they were sitting pretty. It needed an unfulfilled entrepreneurial streak to go into the forested hills. Today, the rubber belt of Kerala—Pala, Kottayam, Kanjirappally, Pathanamthitta, Koney—has a strong Syrian Christian presence. The larger companies are the A.V. George group and the Malankara plantations, both blessed with wide acreage. But, as Dominic says, “It is a well-known tale, the world over, that it is in its migrant state that a community excels. When the Syrian Christians became a landed community, the ownership gave them a sense of security and their sense of enterprise was reduced. They weren’t able to live up to their full capabilities during this time. However, the present generation has realised the need to do something besides owning property and are once again making forays in IT, hospitality and jewellery.”

As traders, they amassed considerable amounts of wealth. This lent itself quite naturally to money-lending activities and later to banking practices. “A story goes,” says P.J. Alexander, a former DGP of Kerala, “a Syrian Christian woman enters her husband’s house with 20 eggs and a hen. Her survival instincts are so strong that the eggs will hatch and the hens will soon multiply and she will have a roaring business.” Chicken-egg analogies aside, there are real-life evincements of such success in the finance sector; in particular, they have consistently enjoyed a foothold in the gold loan business.
In the mid-20th century, Syrian Christian-owned banks—like Palai Central Bank, Kottayam Orient Bank, or Quilon Bank—undertook rapid expansion. One banker says, “You could say they were pioneers in agricultural financing. If you look at the old audit books of the State Bank of India (SBI), there are notes from the RBI that attest to agricultural financing being a non-banking activity. Today, they have reversed that policy.” These banks were liquidated in the early 1960s and merged with national banks like SBI, State Bank of Travancore, Indian Bank among others. But banks like Federal Bank and South Indian Bank flourish. Companies like Muthoot Finance and Muthoot Fincorp have carved out a solid presence in the gold loan sector.Forbes Asia magazine had Muthoot Finance chairman M.G. George Muthoot and his three brothers listed among the hundred richest Indians.
Malayala Manorama, the third largest circulated newspaper in the country, is run by the Kandathil Mappilai Syrian Christian family and has shaped Malayalee public opinion since its first edition rolled off the press in 1890. Says veteran journalist and writer Kurian Pampadi, “Varghese Mappilai, the founding editor, was a visionary who wrote his first editorial pleading for the upliftment of the untouchable Pulayas. Business acumen, vision and practical wisdom helped the Mappilais build up Malayala Manorama into one of India’s largest media powerhouses. Kerala being divided into Centre-right and Left in political affiliation, the MM gives due coverage to the Left while staying steadfast to its more right-leaning stance.” The daily has a circulation of over two million with 18 units in Kerala, India and the Gulf. The group brings out about a dozen titles from its stable, forays  into English, Hindi, Tamil and Bengali and even traverses mediums with radio and television broadcasts.

Admittance into the upper echelons of power came early post-Independence, with John Mathai becoming India’s first railway minister and later taking over, yes, the finance portfolio. He presented two budgets. Defence minister and former chief minister of Kerala A.K. Antony is a Syrian Christian. As is the state’s current CM, Oommen Chandy. Interestingly, all the PMs from the Gandhi family have had Syrian Christian personal assistants or secretaries. Though dutiful in service, there have been visionaries too like Dr Verghese Kurien, the spearhead of India’s white revolution. And John Mathai’s son Ravi J. Mathai was the founder member of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad).

An unsung hero in the Indian sports arena is the late Ravi Mammen of MRF (owned by the Kandathil family), who created the Pace Foundation in 1987 to train and develop young fast bowlers. With out-of-the box strategising in the 1980s—its sponsorship of motorsports in particular—MRF was able to establish itself as a market leader. Yes, as Dominic says, “They have excelled in every sphere. They have even done excellent work as teachers in the field of education.”

Not that there aren’t areas for improvement. Dominic laments, “In the field of arts, theatre, music and letters, we don’t find too many. To do that, perhaps one needs to have rich cultural resources from an ancient environment. But who here now knows the Syriac culture? No Syrian Christian speaks Syriac.” A grievance many in the community acknowledge. The willingness to sacrifice bits of self-identity in order to better assimilate into the whole. As an anti-scriptural pithyism perhaps purports to illustrate: a Syrian will marry a tribal princess and readily shed his clothes to become the chief when she inherits the throne.

.First published by Outlook magazine:


Anonymous said…
Rude, but good language.

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