Ethnocultural Transformation of Social Identity. Syrian Christians in Kerala

Thesis (M.A.), 2018

56 Pages, Grade: 2.1


Table of Contents




Chapter 1 Historical Overview

Chapter 2 Cultural Identity of Syrian Christians

Chapter 3 Casteism in Kerala

Chapter 4 Semiotic Cultural Elements in Syrian Christians at Kerala

Chapter 5 Transformation of Identity

Chapter 6 Research Methodology






This dissertation is a discursive analysis approach of the concept of transformation of social identity contribution into the study of caste, class and religion in South Asia. Understanding the class segregation, gender, upholding system of sovereignty in India.

I argue that identity is transformational but even though the surface level artefacts (embodied clothing practices) vary in degree and deep ethics and beliefs will remain unaffected. Particularly focusing on the Syrian Christian community in Kerala. From examining the clothing practise of wearing a chatt a in colonial India by the women in the Syrian Christian community, to how women of all race, religion and embraced churidar.


After spending two months in to research, I would like to thank everyone who has made this journey possible. Firstly, I would like to thank my dissertation supervisor Chindu Sreedharan.

for inspiring me to pursue a subject which is very important to me and helping with ideas and in depth chats to help me make most out of this study.

My family for providing me all the support to achieve a Master’s degree abroad and especially my mother for not giving up on me. Stories about my forebears has always been fascinating and the fanning cloth chatta mundu arose great curiosity in me. Thanks to Varapuzha, the magical place where my childhood vacation stories slid in to an immersive cultural experience. My wonderful cohort, who has been supportive when I was stuck in the rut. People from Twitter for listening to my rants and being supportive and Sri Lankan shop for providing me home food when I was struggling for nostalgia.

Thank you, you all made it possible.


Syrian Christians, a religious minority community in India originated from the apostolic teachings of Saint Thomas and number up to 5 million in a 30 million population in the south west coat of India, Kerala (Varghese 2004). Syrian Christians formed their autonomous social identity through the way and tradition of Thomas (Varghese 2017).

The term community is derived from the Latin word communis which means “public, general common and shared by all or many. (MacQueen et al. 2001) explains communities as a set of people with diverse attributes sharing common outlook and engage in joint action linked by social ties. According to Ferdinand Tonnies (1887) communities are groups in which the relationships between members are derived from strong codes and conventions based on emotions, sentiments and beliefs in a pre-ordained order.

Societies can be depicted as highly structured dynamic multiplex intricate networks. They are organised in organically shifting patterns that emerge from the social action of individuals. They arrange an array of different types of social relationships to forms groups, organisations and each of this relationship is a social network in itself. These social networks tend to form communities (Klimek et al. 2016). Socio cultural evolution or the transformation of a community happens in stages. It could be described in a manner where organisms could develop over a period of time with regard to deterministic laws and societies could also progress with time (Spencer 1851).

This paper focuses on the ethno cultural social identity evolution for Syrian Christians, a religious group in the southern state of India, Kerala. This paper analyses the development of the current discourse on the cultural transformation within a century and attempt to identify the extent to which organically how the community evolved from its hegemonic representation. Mukherjee (1979) suggests that a person is most fully transformed into a personality through the community. In this modern age human goals, values and ethics are largely socially conditioned and canalized. Considering the fact, that this community underwent several transformations regarding fashion, cultural etiquette and food the researcher would like to argue that these are surface level artefacts have transformed; however, the more entrenched and meta level markers such as ethics, beliefs, customs, practices and rituals have remained far less unaffected than typically considered.

This research aims to fill the gap in current scholarship, with respect to transformation of Syrian Christian social Identity and aims to fill it. This paper explores social identity with respect to Kerala’s assumed exceptionalism, contending that such idea is a recent social construct and historically the state held rigorous caste based distinction. And with respect to the community’s transformation, the paper analyses cultural changes within the Kerala society as well. Here by, considering that culture is not identified as static system, but dynamic and changes with the people in the system (Ting-Toomey 1998)

This dissertation seeks to answer how social identity is preserved and how a society is intact despite socio cultural revolution. Choosing social identity theory as the basic framework, the researcher explores the historical analysis of the community. This research paper is divided into six chapters. First, discusses the historical overview; second it analyses the cultural identity of Syrian Christians, third it analyses about Casteism in Kerala, fourth it will discuss semiotic elements in the culture, fifth it analyse about the transformation of the community pertaining to permutation in embodiment of clothing practises and lastly, it explains about the research methodologies used in this project. The paper ends with a conclusion to summarize the key findings as well some limitations with respect to this research paper.

The researcher intends to demonstrate that the community underwent several transformations in matters of fashion, cultural etiquette and food; but these were superficial artefacts that transformed and the ethics, beliefs, customs and rituals have remained unaffected.

Chapter 1 Historical Overview

Kerala is one of the smallest states in Kerala in India, geographically isolated from the rest of India by the mountainous range of Western Ghats. The region exhibits subtropical climate and is covered with dense mountainous forests on one side and an ocean on the other. The region welcomed traders from all around the world from 1st century itself and there is proof that Roman vessels frequently traded with the region (Dalrymple 2000). It was the foremost destination for pepper trade, which was termed as black gold in those days. A. Sreedhara Menon (1979), an eminent Kerala historian notes, that trading in the second and third century brought cardamom and cinnamon towards Babylonia. Afterwards, a strong trade relationships were then followed with Middle East, China and Europe.

Religion also flourished at this time. Jainism and Buddhism were spread around 300 BC- 500 AD. During the 6th century, Byzantine empire crumbled under attacks and most Mediterranean cities were decaying. Jewish people emigrated and reached the shores of Cranganore, and a possibility of a sea route from the Red sea towards Cranganore in 40 days was found (Dalrymple 2000). In relation to this, Scholars have examined St. Thomas Texts, where the apostle has been seen summoned to India by King Gondophares. Archaeologists have identified King Gondophares as a ruler from AD19 to AD45 and India and Roman empire shared extensive relations (Dalrymple 2000).

Syrian Christians, a minority group from the secular state of Kerala is the focus group for this dissertation. The term Nasrani or Nasrani Mappila has been used by ancient Syrian Christians and it is said to have been derived from the place name Nazareth (Simonton 2012). It is believed that St. Thomas came to Kerala through Palestine in a boat in 52 AD (Cheriyan 1973). However, no historical underpinning has been available and this origin story is regarded as a tradition by modern St Thomas Christians (Dalrymple 2000).

Nevertheless, there has been evidence recorded by French monastic chronicler Gregory of Tours stating that he had met a Greek monk who told him about St. Thomas’s missionary journey towards India in 594 AD. Kerala has been a recipient of the coalescent culture where it had trade relations from the west and China. And every western scribe from Marco polo to Portuguese invaders reported that they had seen the tomb of St. Thomas (Dalrymple 2000).

Another folklore story about the community is that Thomas of Cana, a merchant from Assyria, came to Kerala. The descendants of the family are known as Knanaya Christians. They are the only community in Kerala who practices endogamous marriage (marrying within the community itself). Even though they follow the pope and religious liturgy of Syrian Christians they have a separate ecclesiastical hierarchy (Zacharia 1994).

The arrival of Thomas of Cana is said to have strengthened the existing Christian community in Kerala as they were converts from St. Thomas to Chaldean Churches in Mesopotamia. Traditionally Syrian Christians were influenced by certain rituals and the (Syriac Aramaic) was used as the liturgical language (Varghese 2005).

The Syriac Aramaic was the only language in which the religious proceedings occurred for about 2000 years. It found its way to South India through Christian missionaries who set up the Church from the middle east. The language delved within the local language Malayalam and formed a dialect known as Karshoni or Suriyani Malayalam. Oral family histories and prayers are sung in this language and this is the main liturgical tradition for Nasranis in Kerala. Due to ecclesiastical allegiance formed after the 16th century, three main liturgical traditions in Kerala. The Syro Malabar and Church of East and the Syrian Orthodox Church- follow the same liturgical chants with minor variations (Palackal 2016).

Describing the lifestyle of Syrian Christians in the 19th century, Goudge (2012) noted that, they are called as Margavasis or followers of Margam (path). This was the most distinct aspect and thereby proclaimed their identity to the world. They consider themselves to be “St Thomas Christians,” in a heritage that is amalgamated with Malayali culture as well as enmeshed with Hebrew Jewish connections. They can be distinguished from the western world on the basis of this lifestyle. They confronted western Christians and described themselves Marthomayude margavum vaazhpattum, (The way and path of St. Thomas). They said “We pursue the teachings of Thomas and you pursue the path of Peter,” to establish a distinction between both communities. The Canon of Synod of Diamper that took place in 1599 declared this as a testimony for the members of the community (John 2014).

The colonization of the region by Portuguese led to Catholicism in the region. The Syrian Christians initially had friendly relations with the Portuguese and maintained trade relationships. But by around 16th century Portuguese started to Latinise the region. Due to ignorance by Portuguese several traditions held by Syrians were considered heretic and primitive. They believed Syrians followed Nestorianism and feared that they would join the Chaldean Church in Mesopotamia due to the similarity in traditions. This would also lead the Church to become schismatic from Catholicism (Houtart and Lemercinier 1981).

However, Arch Bishop Alexis De Menezes (Padroado of Goa) of 16th century struggled to attain complete control of the Kerala Churches. On June 20th, 1599, he held Synod at Udayamperoor (Synod of Diamper) that laid out decrees to be followed by St. Thomas Christians, and banning most traditions as they were similar to Hindu customs and considered heretic. This was primarily due to ignorance and entitlement of the Portuguese and resulted in upheaval of the Syrian Church; Syrian culture was violently squashed including destruction traditional archives that were burnt down. (Zacharia 1994).

Disoriented and filled to resentment, a group gathered in Mattanchery in 1653 to oppose Portuguese regulations imposed upon them. This group decided to choose an ecclesial different than of the Rome, and agreed to follow the Babylonian traditions. This incident is known as Koonan kurish Satyam (Coonan cross Oath) or otherwise named as “Crooked cross oath”. It is reportedly said that they tied a rope against a cross making it crooked while reciting these resolutions (Kollaparambil 1981).

This revolt split the Syrian Christians into two factions Puthankutukar (new Christians) and Pazhayakuttuka r (old Christians). The old Christians stayed with the Latin rite of papal authority. And the new Christians is now known as Jakoba. (Etherington 2009). And they follow Jacobite rite of Syrian Christianity. Until 1896, the Syrian Christians followed Catholicism. But in 1896, in Thrissur, a large population was still aligned to Babylonian bishops. Bishop Mar Elias Mellus converted many Chaldean Catholics back to Assyrian/Nestorian faith and built a new Church namely Chaldean Syrian Church. However, following this, a large population went back to Syrian Catholicism since the Nestorianism provided the newly believed Catholic traditions to be not supported (Priest Marriage, worshipping Saint Mary). This resulted in another split, where the Chaldean Syrians split themselves and joined Catholicism. They were subsequently followed by Saint Thomas Christians who were partly Nestorian and partly Catholic and formed the Syro Malabar Rite. This formation involved in the formation of Syro Malabar Church the highest in number in Kerala. (Aprem 1983).

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Figure 1 : History and Evolution of Saint Thomas Christians. Mathew (2016).

The Latinisation of rituals occurred but the liturgy in Syro Malabar Church was in Syriac language. In 1962, the Vatican council decided to make all regions practice the liturgy in vernacular language. From that time, Syriac changed to Malayalam (Podipara 1986).

The advent of Portuguese reflected in the conversion of many more locals. In exchange for protection under the Church, twenty thousand people from Parava community were baptised. In 1544 and 1549, Saint Francis Xavier converted ten thousand Mukkuvars (Fisher caste) to Catholicism (Subramanian 2009).

Ajantha Subramanian (2009), notes that this mass conversion was based on a desire to escape the oppression of being low-caste Hindus and also for protection via a Military agreement between the king of V enad and Portuguese. A similar line of conversion happened with the Nadar community in Thiruvithamkoor region by the end of 19th century fearing caste oppression. These conversions were believed to done to help them under the patronage of the Church (Anon 2016).

However, the converts were not considered equal despite their shared Catholic background. They were even ostracised from entering Syrian Churches. Syrian Christians considered them to be noble by blood which thereby caused unfortunate incidents to happen to those belonging to Latin rites. Latin Catholics were given separate seats and even separate cups for receiving communion and a separate burial ground (Webster 1994). Christianity in Kerala is not divided by Casteism, but it is indeed shown that a caste-related distinction was prevalent. For example: Thiruvathimkoor census in 1900 noted Latin Catholics as a separate caste group (Podipara 1986).

Chapter 2 Cultural Identity of Syrian Christians

This chapter analyses the culture and cultural identity of Syrian Christians. Culture addresses the totality of a group’s thought, experiences and behavioural patterns. The concepts, values and assumptions in a culture evolve with contact with others and thereby guide the behaviours. Group members sharing these identities, transmit these thoughts over the course of generations through their shared system of symbol and meanings (Jandt 1998).

For Syrian Christians, they passed down the traditions such as dowry system, the Hindu tradition of tying a thali (Pendant given at the time of wedding) (Appendix K), decorations with rice flower, mourning for 40 days followed by a death, feeding a child with powdered gold and honey, rice feeding (chorunnu), ceremonial bathing to distance death pollution (Pulakuli), feast followed funeral rites (Adiyanthiram), 7 to 40 day observation of death mourning, following vegetarianism during the time period, amulet tying (arannyanam kettal) celebration of Onam and Vishu (harvest and new year festivals) were related to Hindu customs. Customs related to purification after childbirth; Njana snanam (Bath of wisdom) in a baptismal font (Appendix L), covering the head during the mass, covering the alter in red curtain is related to Jewish customs (Rajan and James 2000).

In Kerala, the separate sex-segregated arrangement of seating for both men and women in public places is seen everywhere, from buses to social spaces, and the Church follows the same arrangement as well (Raulin and Menezes 1969).

Culture has a set of patterns both explicit and implicit in behaviour, which have been acquired and transmitted by symbols that constitute the achievements of human groups, thereby includes their embodiments in artefacts (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952). Syrian Christian Culture consist of traditional ideas which upheld to their Aryan upper caste Hindu views along with it. They followed many traditions followed by the Hindu counterparts. Historians noted that in 1558 when traveller visited Kerala they had kudumi (man bun) and palm umbrella (see Figure 9) and wore matching clothing to Namboodiris and Nairs. Palm Umbrella was also part of uniform representing aristocracy (Appendix M). However, they wore a cross around their neck to show their distinct nature (Malekandathil 2011). (Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952) say that these traditional elements could be historically derived and culture system is a product of action.

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Figure 2 : A man wearing kudumi (manbun), palm umbrella and the women wearing chatta mund with a traditional aranamula kannadi (mirror) (Archer 1830).

Syrian is a term given as an honorary title by Dutch when they distinguished between recently converted Latin liturgy followers and Syrians. This division is not based on their ethnicity, but more out of respect for following East Syriac traditions. Syrian Christians in Kerala are eminently “Malayali by ethnicity, Christian by faith and Syrian by tradition” (Podipara 1986).

Humans from time immemorial always subscribed to a group, while adapting with the ecological adaptations around them. It could be argued why humans need culture? What purpose does it serve? Ting-Toomey (1998) propounds that culture itself is an essential component of the effect of human beings to survive and thrive in a specialized environment. It serves as an identity meaning function and provides a fundamental framework of human existence. The beliefs and values and norms provide an anchoring point which directly attributes to a person’s identity. Identity meanings are acquired through the cultural process are maintained through everyday communication. Our sense of belonging and safety and inclusion and acceptance is satisfied by a group affiliation.

Cultural background has a direct influence on identity formation. Cross-cultural researchers point out that a person from a monochromic culture is considered inherently autonomous while in a polychromic culture like India where cultural premises are more social (Mukherjee 1979). People are regarded as inherently a part of the society, with relationships of hierarchical interdependence rather the autonomous individual is the basic unit (Miller 1991). The community practised endogamous marriages and practices like not to be buried in Church grounds if they marry outside the cast still exist to this day. This appears to be the rigid racial purity customs that they hold in case the lineage get disrupted (Kumar 2016).

Considering Syrian Christians are part of a polychromic culture their identity could be analysed by social identity theory. Tajfel and Turner (1979) posited Social identity theory, which considers that an Individual’s self-perception is affiliated with the group they identify with. These groups provide individuals with a sense of pride and social identity and a sense of belonging in a socio-cultural world. Adams and Hogg (1988) argue that Social identity theory distinguishes between self and identity, the self is defined in terms of attributes and calculated in terms of attributes shared with the group community.

Identity is a social construct; it is a set of rules that decides membership distinguished by characteristic attributes. However, Identity refers to both social categories as well as personal attributes. Nonetheless, some scholars reflect that social categories are bounded up with the basis of an individual’s self-respect (Fearon 1999).

A person could acquire membership in different identity groups (Personal, relational, Cultural, religious, Ethnic) which can be identified with shared characteristics, attributes, behaviours and labels to distinguish with other groups and to distinguish them from other groups who do not share similar characteristics. Culture serves intergroup boundaries that moulds our attitudes towards in-groups and out groups dealing with people who are culturally dissimilar (Ting-Tommey 1999). These groups can be characterized as part of cultures and they can be divided into two groups. In groups and outgroups. In groups: The group containing similar attributes to be associated with outgroups: The group which has dissimilar tastes with the group and is not associated with them (Triandis 1995).

When a person identifies them to be affiliated with a group membership, they do not identify with outward group memberships. This creates an in group/outgroup mentality. But won’t this segregation create much more complexity? (Brewer and Campbell 1976) explains, that these in groups is where our comfort zone lies. Stephan and Stephan (1992) further adds that the interaction between in groups is less anxious than compared to our outgroups. (Gudykunst 1995) favours this predicament and states that prediction of in-group behaviour tends to be more accurate than our outgroups.

Cultural Identity is achieved when all individuals attach emotional significance to a larger cultural membership. Where group obligations are always preferred than individual rights.

Individuals acquire their cultural group membership through parental guidance from their young age itself (Ting- Toomey 1999). As far as identity referring to a specialised culture is involved what difference does it make with Ethnic Identity. However, Cultural identity may not be ethnically inclined, it could be a group membership a member is proudly subscribed to. It needn’t be race, religion or corresponding to a geographical location. Ethnic identity on the other hand “matters to one’s own ancestry and origins about forebears” (Alba 1990). Ethnicity derives more than just belonging in a country of origin. It involves a sense of identifying and belonging to an ethnic group at a time (Ting- Toomey 1999).

Gudykunst (1998) argues that our cultural identity influence ways of perceiving, thinking and behaving in the everyday social setting. In contrast to this Moon (2002) argues that “Culture is a contested zone”. He points out that culture has an overlapping nature with other cultural realities in the same geographical space, while there could be a varied degree of difference between these cultural realities. In this regard, he perceives that not all groups have the equal rights to voice their concerns, ideas and everyday realities of their life.

This could be further analysed by Hofstede’s cultural dimension (1984). Each culture varies with respect to Power distance and the difference is inevitable if it is a collectivistic community. Syrian Christians in Kerala are a patrilineal collectivistic community (Mundadan 1970), where one is essentially conscious that they belong to the respect of others (Ting-Toomey 1998). There were status differences between everyone in the tharavadu (family) with respect to age and gender. The most aged person will be held as Karanavar and it will be a position reserved for the oldest male member of the group. This person will be responsible for every decision unless he decides to delegate it to the family. His word will hold primacy with respect to financial matters, food allowances and even matrimonial alliances. However, Syrian Christians were patrilineal along with Namboodiris in a largely matrilineal society (Panikkar 2002). Muslims adopted the matrilineal inheritance and Nairs and other castes decent through the female line. Matrilineal families lived together in a tharavadu (family) in a joint family system (Arunima 2003).

(Engels and Hunt 2010) posited an assumption that in the initial stages of human history, the matrilineal system was the common basis of inheritance and succession and the patrilineal system evolved later. Even though, Kerala was largely matrilineal when the religion evolved as pointed by (Pillai 2015) who further states the fact that when the north of India was burning through Sati/Jauhar (Jumping to fire pyre after the death of the husband) and acts that degraded women and took away their life, Kerala women were enjoying wealth and power over their male counterparts.

Many scholars propound that Kerala was mostly matrilineal, as well as matriarchal. The kingdom of Travancore was ruled by nieces of the king in the late nineteenth century and the power was transferred from uncles to nephews and nieces, not between the sons and daughters of the king. Hence proving that Kerala was largely matriarchal at the time (Pillai 2015).

In contrast to this, Kerala being a matriarchal society is considered a myth according to Aravamudan (2017). She further explains that, while it is true that certain communities in Kerala exercised the matrilineal share of inheritance and conjoined family traditions. Not all communities in Kerala followed this tradition and was inherently patrilineal from time immemorial. Females are expected to behave in a nurturing manner, with an effective primary caregiver role. Whereas men are to be acting as a primary supporter, emotionally reserved and expected to act in a competitive environment (Ting-Toomey 1999). Syrian Christian women are likely to remain close to her home, guarded in her contact with limited contact with non-members outside the family. The men are given more power and are encouraged to gather worldly knowledge. (George 2014).

Chapter 3 Casteism in Kerala

This chapter discusses the rigid caste-based rules existed in the pre-colonialist Kerala. According to Kurien (2004), the caste system in Kerala progressed with a degree of elaboration and severity which couldn’t be found anywhere in the country. Kerala, over five hundred divisions of caste segregation led to practices like untouchability (Mohan 2005). A person belonging to lower caste was not allowed within sixty feet of a person from a higher caste. Casteism was extensively practised and so was Untouchability. A person who belongs to a lower caste shouldn’t look up to those in upper caste and shouldn’t touch them. In this scenario, where touching someone from lower caste is considered pollution, Syrian Christians acted as neutralists. This occurred when a lower caste person touched a Syrian Christian while gifting temple gifts or goods and then transferred touch to an upper caste person, it wasn’t considered polluted. If a person from lower caste had to hand over an object directly towards an upper caste person, latter will be polluted according to their strict caste-based analogy. Thus, if a person from a lower caste handed an object to a Syrian Christian who then passed it to an Upper Caste Hindu then the latter won’t suffer from any sort of pollution. Thereafter, the Syrian has earthed the pollution and pollution drains away with their touch (Fuller 1976).

In accordance with Hindu tradition Syrian Christians were classified into a categorical system. They were primarily traders with special privileges granted by Kings and were considered as par as upper caste Hindus in nobility. They were classified as par with Nairs even thou they community claim Brahmin ancestry (Bayly 1984).

Regardless of religious faith, Syrian Christians followed many Hindu traditions (Rajan and James 2000). Historian Leslie Brown (1956) notes that Syrian Christians led parallel lives. In the Church, they served up to the principles of St. Thomas, while as a community outside the Church they behaved like their upper caste Hindu neighbours. They believed in omens and horoscope and held importance to propitious days.

In ancient days Casteism was prominent and the subjects behaved by abiding rules pertaining to each section of the society. This is adhered to all castes regardless of the religion they practised. Caste is a labelled birth right in Hindu tradition that compartmentalises people (Mohan 2005). The classification of caste is decided due to a social precedence, and by practices observed with regard to intermarriage and social intercourse. Endogamous marriages are practised and status of the caste is determined by inter messing and pollution by touch or approach. The women may only marry with equals or superiors, while men were allowed to have sambandam (marrying for sexual relations only) with someone from a lower caste. (This is limited to younger sons of a Brahmin community who were not allowed to marry within their own caste) (Panikkar 2002)

According to the text, Keralopatti, Kerala emerged as a fertile land when Parasuram threw his axe across the sea up to where the axe has landed up to Kanyakumari. Parasuram invited Brahmins as masters for this land in sixty-four villages. This story is to justify Brahmin migration from outside Kerala and subsequent placement of Dravidians and tribals into the lower rungs of the caste system. Scholars rule a possible Aryan migration in Kerala, but argue over the dates. It is unclear whether caste division existed at the time of Syrian conversion in Kerala. Despite this, the Church historians insist on their upper caste status through myth and oral family histories.

Over the centuries Syrian claims Brahmin roots to help them attest to upper caste status. The ancient Hindu kings gave Syrian Christians rights and privileges written on copper plates.

Some of these rights were the ability to walk on public roads and exemption from untouchability status (Rajan and James 2000). From the 8th century the decrees of certain privileges and rights were stamped into these copper plates (chepped) along with the documentation of forward caste status . These rights included freedom from certain taxes, rights to trade and rights to own slaves and granting land to the Church. (Narayanan 1972). These edicts or decrees date to 774 AD, and some of the notable ones are the Quilon plates, Mampally sasanam, Iraviikothan Chepped and tharisampally chepped (Rajangurukkal and Raghavavariyar 1999). These copper plates were inscribed in Tamil language with intermingled Grantha script and granted seventy-two rights and privileges including exemption from import duties, sales tax and slave tax (Simonton 2012). Syrian Christians were patrilineal like Namboodiris and controlled slaves like upper caste Hindus with their own private armies . (Mundadan 1970).

Hierarchy and the feudal system

The ritual hierarchy of caste reflects upon the traditional relationship of each caste to the land, which was a fundamental determinant of wealth, power, and social status in traditional Kerala. Kathleen Gough (1954) distinguished this traditional system as the “relationships of servitude”. The economic function was fulfilled by a particular caste and superior caste possessed judicial authority over the inferior. And in return for this arrangement, the inferior caste provided economic and ritual favours to the superior. It is a system involving reciprocity and redistribution and not justice and equality.

Gough (1954) explains that this system shows close similarity with Jajmani system prevailed in the north of India. Castes were characterised by hereditary occupation. (Hardgrave Jr 1964) describes this as a “feudalistic system of prescribed, hereditary obligation of payment and occupational and ceremonial duties performed by specific families in the same locality”. The traditional economic system in Kerala prescribed rigid patterns of behaviour. The vertical system of rights and provided hypergamy between those in upper castes. The horizontal extension of caste position was thus geographically limited and communication was based on caste position. Ezhava and pulaya were coterminous with the village, Nair caste was limited to the village or subsequent adjacent four or five villages. Only Namboodiris transcended and exercised horizontal interaction with the whole of Kerala. Eric Miller (1949) suggests this as “Territorial segmentation” and this inhibited the development of internal solidarity within a wide region.

Caste was a hierarchical system based on race. In Kerala, Brahmin migration is considered the same as Aryan racial migration. Kerala Brahmins sanskrtised the region and enforced the implementation of the caste system. (Hardgrave Jr 1964). During the middle ages, Devaswam (temple conglomerate) lands were exempted by all the taxes and haven’t gone into any sort of dispute issues. In medieval Kerala, landowners signed their lands for protection and in course of time temples dominated most of the land. Thus, Devaswam became powerful and richest in Kerala. The power to handle temple proceedings and knowledge in Vedas (sacred text) allowed Brahmins to act as priests in a temple. As a result, Brahmin priests consolidated these lands and become highest landowners and most powerful in Kerala. Local chiefs bestowed favours upon them and fuelled a system making Brahmin hegemony to be at the top of a hierarchical ladder and this brought rigid caste boundaries. The Dravidians of Kerala were dependent on temples and the Aryan Temple priests. And hence Namboodiris held control over judicial system (Thomas 2011).

According to George Woodcock (1967), Nairs become tenants to Namboodiris and Nairs used to sublet their land to Ezhavas and Ezhavas sublet their land to Paravas. Paravas were the lowest in the hierarchical system and they were considered slave labourers. Within the caste social order existed in Kerala, the Syrian Christians followed the social practises of Hindu upper castes and the social environment was not very different from the latter (Mohan 2005). One of those origin stories states that, only certain castes could partition their banana leaf after eating. Syrian Christians used to bend the left end of the banana leaf to represent a double leaf to show off an authoritarian signature (John 2014).

During the first couple of centuries AD ethnic migrants and Syrian Christians, Jews and Muslims put forward as powerful traders. They refrained from evangelization and lived in accordance with the rulers. Land possession complimented in power (Jeffrey 1976). Syrian Christians possessed land over some centuries. The Political position of Syrian Christians deteriorated in the late nineteenth century due to the arrival of newly formed socio-economic forces. Perception of caste structure and notions of purity, pollution and caste hierarchy remain the same even today. Landowners owned many untouchable slave owners. And this social milieu didn’t favour the development of an anti-caste movement. And the unfortunate lived their life in the fear of impending (Mohan 2005).

Chapter 4 Semiotic Cultural Elements in Syrian Christians at Kerala

This chapter discusses the cultural elements in Syrian Christianity of Kerala. This is analysed by visual cultural analysis of the photographs taken as a documentary evidence.

Syrian Christians are a group of people who are Indian by origin, Christians by faith and Syrian by tradition. Christians constitute about only 1.0 percent in India, but in Kerala, they are about 19% and Syrian Christians are the largest religious group of Christians (Thomas 2011).

Since Syrian Christians are believed to be converts of upper caste Hindus, and the Churches that were built in early centuries represented Kerala Hindu Architecture (John 2014).

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Figure 3: Ancient Syrian Christian Church (Menachery n.d)

Following Hindu traditions, the Churches were built with a porch in front of the Church with a compound wall and a gateway. There was a separate building next to the Church for serving meals and a music hall (Thomas 2011) (Mannooranparampil 1997). Centuries later, there has been a significant change in how they were built. The insides of the Church were in accordance with Hindu traditions and the outside represented a Jewish synagogue (Appendix C). The Syro Malabar cross (Appendix A) is the indistinguishable with Assyrian Church (Appendix B) and less similar with Roman catholic version. Thus, it is understood that, an existing tradition was following Eastern Syriac rites.

Formation of Chatta

Acculturation held a major involvement in each culture. It is a process of cultural and psychological changes that involve various forms of mutual accommodation, leading to some longer-term psychological and sociocultural adaptations between both groups. Sometimes mutual accommodation happens without much effort (Berry 1997).

· At the group level, it involves changes in social structures and institutions in a cultural spectrum. It doesn’t happen in a small period of time; it might take centuries to adapt and change behaviours.
· If culturally different groups are intact, in long term communication, this often entails in learning each other’s language and sharing each other’s food preferences. Adopting dress and social interactions that are characteristic of each group.

For Syrian Christians, they developed a new culture with respect to acculturation. Their clothing practice is a good example of this new culture. They replicated the jacket from Jewish cultures and added mundu, which was locally worn by men and women. Jewish influence resulted in the formation of a typical Nasrani staple of Appam (Rice pancakes), Avalosupodi (Roasted rice with coconut), Achappam (fried rice string hopper) (Malekandathil 2010).

Ancient Clothing practices of Syrian Christians

The attire widely used by Nasranis seems to reflect cultural inter mix between those trading nations. The similarity in clothing with the ancient middle-eastern people of Assyria, Persia is inevitable. It seems that the Syrian Christians adopted the clothing practices (as seen in Figure 4) and assimilated it as their own.

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Figure 4 : Picture of the Cochin Jews showing women wearing a Chatta-Mundu -like dress and the Mekkamothiram ( Jewish encyclopedia 1906).

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Figure 5 : A 19th century Syrian Christian Bride (Thurston and Rangachari 1909).

As seen in (Figure 5) the bride is sporting an earlier version of chatta mund with a kavani and she is seen wearing mekka mothiram (hoops in ear lobe) as well. A long necklace with a cross as a pendent is seen as well.

Christian women wore Chatta Mundu (Jacket and Waist Cloth) in the white/cream colour aligning them with high caste Hindus who only wore white. Men wore mundu (waist cloth) and a cross to identify themselves as a “Nasrani”. The mundu njori (frill) draping is seemed to coming from Iyengar clothing and Chatta is identical to what the Jewish traders in Kochi wore at that time. So, acculturation resulted in changing and blending two different cultures together. In this scenario, it wasn’t a recent change (Malekandathil 2010). Chatta Mund signified respect and only elder people or those who were married could only wear it. So just after they finish school, they will be off married and wear Chatta Mundu. (Thomas 2011).

Visual ethnographic analysis of evidence suggests that prior to the 19th century and in late 19th century women weren’t allowed to cover their bosom or upper body (Appendix I). Early Christians were also subjected to this rule. However, Christians and Muslims adapted the Chatta clothing and wore this specific dress code representing the community. However, the Muslim variant (Appendix H) was a stitched coloured blouse and a Christian chatta is an unstitched v shaped jacket (Appendix E). A picture from the 1900s (Figure 6) shows that the kids wore a skirt and top and married woman wore Chatta Mundu (Appendix F).

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Figure 6 : Young girls wearing Chatta Mundu (Basel Mission 1912).

Dressing Etiquette

A women’s dress and ornamentation are distinctly binding to perceptions of community identity. Donning a specialized dress indicated a distinction from other communities and identification with one’s own community (Arthur 1999). The traditional dress for a woman is a jacket and mundu which is called “Chattayum mundum”. Another piece of clothing a rendam mundu (second cloth) is also put over the shoulder. The Chatta is essentially a jacket used to cover the upper part of the body. Mundu is a seven-yard-long cloth and a quarter yard fringed fan decoration. Traditionally they wore white, this could be due to an influence of upper caste clothing in Kerala or people predominantly wore white in the hot humid weather. The chatta is not inspired by Keralan style and this has a disputed foreign influence to this. It is west Asian in origin and similar vest has been worn by Muslim woman in Kerala. The chatta could be a modified version of what Jewish traders and west Asian Muslim wore at that time. However, Syrian Christian women only wore white whereas other communities wore coloured costumes (John 2014).

Chatta mund signified respect and only elder people or those who were married could only wear it. It was indicated as a passage to womanhood. (Thomas 2011). The top part of the costume is a loose jacket with fairly half sleeves. (half sleeves were brought in trend in early the 20th century). It’s always has a V shape in front and a semi-circle at its back.

Mundu is an ordinary cloth and kachamuri is a more elaborate version where a fan like frills half spread out are tucked at the lower back. The clothing doesn’t have any decorations. Kavani (as seen in Figure 7) is a second cloth worn over the chatta, when they go out or visit Church with embroidery on the edges of the cloth. (Deepa 2013).

This type of clothing also denoted racial identity. Since Casteism was severely prevalent in the pre-colonist era, wearing white was an upper caste privilege and due to strict rigid boundaries regarding caste pollution wearing white embodies a sort of racial purity (Thomas 2011).

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Figure 7: A girl wearing a kavani with chatta (Photo with permission keeping anonymity 2017).

Mekkamothiram and its origin

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Figure 8: An old lady wearing Mekkamotiram (NSC Network 2014).

Mekkamothiram also known as kunukku in the literal sense is known as the Big ring. It is a hoop like ornament that is worn over the upper earlobes. The earring is inspired by Hebrew women who wore moon/sun shaped circular earrings. This was borrowed from pagan cultures. These circular ear rings are presumed to be images of sun and moon in pagan cultures in the Hebrew speaking region. A similar ornament was wearing by Cochin Jewish women (see Figure 4) and these traditions have been eminently passed to Syrian Christians (John 2014).

Customs that changed and retained

Syrian Christians greet a guest by putting a mark on the forehead, which is a 1000-year-old tradition and greet further by giving flower garlands. This is a sign of Indian hospitality and is borrowed from Hindu traditions. However, this custom is not practised anymore. If they meet an honourable member of the Church, the greeting will also add a kissing of hands to show respect which is borrowed from Jewish/middle eastern traditions. They were given prominence in society and had military rankings. However, after the Dutch and Portuguese invasion, this special priority was taken away. The primary jobs in those days were merchants and warriors.

Similarity with other cultures

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Figure 9 : Sri Lankan Christian Wedding (De Silva 2016).

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Figure 10 : A Syrian Christian bride and groom (Kerala Wedding Trends 2016).

The figures above show a traditional bride and groom with bridesmaid and groomsmen in Sri Lanka in 1944. The picture below is a Syrian Christian couple in 2016. The similarity between these two-wedding costume is indistinguishable. Sri Lanka and Kerala were under Dutch domination and there was a train service from Egmore to Colombo, where workers went to work in tea and rubber estates in Sri Lanka (Ayyappan 2014). And this created a type of inculturation, or this is due to identical cultural alignment between Sri Lanka and Kerala. Another possibility could be due to the evangelisation of both the regions by same missionaries from the west, this might have led to parallel cultural accomplishments.

Naming conventions

Syrian Christians are often baptized in traditional names. They are often biblical Aramaic names (Varghese 2005). Some of the names have Armenian/Greek roots as well. Thus, the naming convention is entirely distinctive in nature. Women’s names are often expressed by Achy/Amma as a term of endearment and used at suffix. For ex: (Mariyamma = Mary’s mom). They followed a naming convention indistinguishable from Sephardic Jews. Also in recent times, Indianised Hindu names are also used.

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Figure 11: Suriyani Malayalam Names and English Translations


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Figure 12: 17th century Syriac writing in Kerala (The Hindu 2008).

Karshoni (Suriyani Malayalam) was the lead dialect of the community. They considered the Syrian words and wrote that in Malayalam. However, this language is diminishing, even the official language of the clergy is replaced by Malayalam, the local language. Now days only a handful of few know how to speak, and write in this language. The Syrian dialect is connected to the Aramaic dialect of Syriac (Varghese 2005). It was the liturgical language for the Christian community up until half a century according to Mar Aprem, archbishop of Chaldean Syrian Church (Assyrian Church of the East) (Aprem 1983).

Syriac lost its momentum after the Portuguese invasion in Kerala. The Portuguese tried to ignore the practices considering them to be primitive and imposed Latin rites on the community and introduced Latin as the liturgical language. The Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor Sunnahados) ordered in burning the sacred texts containing Syriac language. This act led to the loss of many ancient texts and scrolls. Due to this, the Christian community was segregated and some renounced their faith in 1653 as Coonan Cross Oath. They revolted and regained their Syriac liturgy. Syriac was not available to common man to read and learn daily and this was restricted within those in priestly class. This is comparable to Sanskrit to Brahmins and Arabic to Muslims. In those days, only priests could understand the meaning of Syriac prayers. But after second Vatican council in 1962, it encouraged Catholic faith to be translated in local language. And laymen could finally understand the prayers and they liked it. Karshoni is spoken only by a handful of people these days and is soon to be vanished from the state due to the lack of speakers (Basheer 2008).

Even though Karshoni or Suriyani Malayalam is almost diminished there are certain words that have been transferred to the local language of Malayalam.

Misiha (Christ), Eesho (Jesus), Mar (Holy), Sleeba (cross), Qurbana (Holy mass), Koodasha (Sacrament), Mamodisa (Baptism), Skaasa (Chalice), Sleeha (Apostle), Mad’baha (Sanctuary), Ashaan (Teacher), Malakha (Angel). The Syriac language tunes are parallel to middles eastern tunes and orthodox Jewish chants. The Syriac (Aramaic) liturgical chant originated in Middle east found the way to Kerala through merchants and immigrant settlers prior to fifth century. These chant traditions are how folklore and prayers and oral histories were passed on. The descendants continued their contact with their parent Church and thus kept the chant tradition in the following centuries (Palackal 2016). Historian expert (John 2014) notes that the early Nasranis has been aware of Gospel of Mathew in Hebrew and those days Malayalam was not a fully developed language, so these forefathers noted down the scrolls and prayers in Tamil in about 1000 AD.

However, with the advent of Portuguese, western Christian philosophies were promoted and this caused in degrading their original semitic customs and scholars believe that what’s remaining today is just a few remnants of the original heritage. This caused a shift in the social-cultural formation, and this induced Syrian Christians to alter their habits and behaviours (John 2014).

Chapter 5 Transformation of Identity

This chapter discusses how societies and culture change over time and how social-cultural evolution affects all. Culture is holistic, it is learned in a dynamic manner and grants ecological adaptation. It serves adaptation process among self, cultural community and within the larger community (Ting-Toomey 1998). All the communities in Kerala underwent drastic changes with the arrival of modernity. Modernity sanctions structural preconditions that permit people to interact differently than their traditional practices. This provided them with new social possibilities.

A radical reconstitution occurred in indigenous societies after colonialism and European imperialism. This transnational expansion of capitalism tended to homogenise communities. Globalization in its imperialist phase introduced India and other western societies exposed to nationalism, new forms of economic and social organisation with notions of equality justice and progress. This helped in the transformation of Dalit castes such as Pulayas and Parayas and their reorganisation to the public sphere is in this background. In the changing circumstances, critical resources were made available for the lower castes to refashion their social identity (Mohan 2005) (Appendix J).

This could be better understood with the aid of social cognitive theory. Social cognition is a thought focused on human interaction (Anon 2018). This theory explains how people acquire and maintain certain behavioural patterns due to intervention from external factors (Bandura, 1997). These factors could be an environment, people and behaviour. People are motivated to understand their environment. Communication constitutes a significant behaviour represented in these thoughts (Glanz et al. 1991). Environment refers to social and physical environments. Physical environment refers to the physical setting and social environment includes family members and people surrounding the person’s life. In this regard, a person performs a behaviour with respect to the environment and people surrounding him.

The early twentieth century embarked on rapid changes in the public spaces pertaining to intersections caste, religion and gender bias in Kerala (Chandramohan 1987). Literacy was swiftly increasing, the caste based distinctions were lessened than the pre-colonist era. Culture won’t evolve around anything that’s reinforcing its change, instead (Ting-Toomey 1998) points out that it works around a clear reward and punishment system that sanctions certain adaptive behaviours. It is to be noted that, when people alter their needs and specialised ways of living in response to a changing habitat, culture also changes in accordance to that.

The socio-cultural reforms by Ayyankali and Sri Narayana guru created rapid changes within the social strata. Since the amelioration started with the individual, people in Kerala were more aware of social injustice and fought for it. This resulted in economic gains in a newly formed capitalist society (Chandramohan 1987). Culture is not identified as a static system. It is wholly dynamic and changed with the people in the system. Triandis (1994) stated that surface level artefacts such as fashion or popular culture changes at a faster pace than in-depth cultural practices, beliefs and norms and ethics.

Therefore, after a struggle to maintain bodily difference from other castes, women of all castes and religions abandoned religious clothing and opted for the sari. In less than a generation chatta, rouka (Muslim Clothing) and nayar breast cloth (Appendix J) all vanished from the public sphere (Thomas 2011).

Chatta Mundu fell into oblivion with eminent changes in the society. With regard to women stepping out from the family home in saree has been considered more elegant and nowadays young people have successfully transitioned to a churidar (Appendix O). This clothing is worn regardless of age, religion, social class and caste (Thomas 2011). Chatta mund has more become a showpiece or ancient artefact. (Gaorge 2014).

So, the researcher of this paper holds the argument that the embodiment of clothing changed with respect to socio-political landscape and transformed the identity at a surface level.

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Figure 13: (Generational Changes. Picture courtesy with permission “Powathil family” 1970).

Communities in Kerala impelled from competition with the arrival of modernity. This was a result of educational reforms and land reforms by the Christian missionaries and introduction of communism within the state. In Kerala communism, had a local flavour where people could follow their deities and still follow socialist ideals (Jaffe and Doshi 2017). Cultural transformation is developed in the late nineteenth century as a projected end of Darwinian evolution. This process is affected by time producing a new structural form which is conditionally different from the ancestral form (Tivel 2012). This new structure endorsed capitalism, but overall helped in the enlightenment of various communities. In a time when the state was going through a revival in the education sector, Syrian Christian benefitted the most to capitalize benefits of western education. During the mid-nineteenth century, pallikoodams or schools accompanied Churches in every village. They were quick to allow women to receive education before any other counterparts. In the early twentieth century, state began adopting to egalitarian policies for the increased demand for education from the lower sections of society. The schools reserved for the lower class were shut down and allowed them to attend classes side along with all religions and castes.

While modern societies are much superior to primitive societies (the lifespan and medical conditions) In Kerala Infant mortality rate is equivalent to the United States beating Russia and China. In Kerala as the lifespan over a 100 years ago was less than 40 years. But more recently Kerala has the lifespan and infant mortality rate and highest life expectancy which is as par as any European nation (Kapur 1998).

Interestingly, in the post colonialist era religion and Malayalee ethnicity identities did not wipe out each other. Increasingly, it was this class identities that became the social organising system of Kerala (Arunima 2003).

Dowry system

Syrian Christians were Namboodiri converts and the inheritance was passed on from father to son and women had only a meagre dowry and no rights over father’s share of wealth (Aravumudan 2017). Up until 1962, women weren’t allowed to even inherit father’s side of the wealth. This was challenged by Mary Roy, Writer Activist Arundhati Roy’s mother who changed the norms and challenged her family for equal rights for inheritance (George 2014)

Even though Mary Roy case was passed ensuring an equal inheritance for women in the state of Kerala, Law specialist George (2014) says that this is still in paper, and women across Kerala don’t necessarily go to their patrilineal family asking for a share in the wealth. The gender roles for men and women were different and women weren’t allowed to study further and do jobs. However, times have changed and while a significant number of women were allowed to study, migrate and do their jobs but their emotional roles haven’t changed since. Thus, the deep ethical treatment of Syrian Christians being patriarchal is still ensured even after adapting to many changes. Transposition occurred only at a surface level. George (2014) explains that transformation in fashion didn’t result in much to change regarding women, and hence their identity is still decided by a patriarchal system.

Identity changes with respect to the surroundings. Now a day only a handful of women and old ladies preserve this clothing, And Chatta Mundu is a more iconic fashion costume more at the disposal of cosplay purposes.

Identity crisis in the community

Syrian Christians constitute the largest community of migrants from Kerala to the USA, Around, 85 % of Keralite in the US are Christian (Zachariah 2006). Identity crisis is hard when Syrian Christians migrated but carried a piece of home within them. Second generation American Teresa Mathew (2016) writes, that this divided perspective creating confusion among the millennials. The young people requested for an English Mass, for an evolving new Church but the elders were unconvinced. She further points out that, it’s not about faith it’s about being part of a community, where they belong to a group. She further adds that Mampilly a first-generation Indian American found a roman Catholic Church which was predominantly Irish but never felt at ease, and found some people reluctant to hold her hands during the peace offering ceremony. She found a Syrian Christian Church and drove there an hour every week, to immerse in a cultural experience that felt more at home.

“We are the product of our past. We start each day where we left off the day before. Changing the way we dress, where we work and live, or even changing a name does not alter our basic constitution.”

― (Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls 2015, p.4)

Here Oldster rightly narrates on how identity is preserved, even though embellishments regarding it is constantly changed. Mathew explains further by stating that home is a complicated subject for immigrants. And they find a home in a small community with the language, clothing and comfort that they had left behind (Mathew 2016). This identity is passed on to next generation as well, and young and old generations grapple with the culture to retain and leave its honour behind (Appendix G).

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Figure 14: Crisp parallel of American, Indian And Vatican flags are flown together in a parish march (Mathew 2016).

Chapter 6 Research Methodology

Regarding the topic and its historical influence, the research drew on secondary data to understand the transformation through the embodiment of clothing. The research methods for this discursive approach are archival literature, visual culture analysis. This project has looked upon literature dating from 1851 and onwards.

The research methodology analysis has been done with the aid of emic approach in the ethnographical analysis. Emic approach studies behaviour within the system and examining only one culture with a structure and criteria are discovered by the analyst. Geertz (2000) addresses ethnographic accounts to be both descriptive and interpretive because the detail is critical and interpretive because the ethnographer must determine the significance of observations.

The researcher provided contextual information interpreting these images. Everything should be arranged contextually and grouped in a temporal and spatial subject matter that they reflect.

Researcher also started a blog to collect all research materials in temporal and spatial order (Appendix N). Leeuwen and Jewitt (2001) says that the communication between visual record opens to broad level questions. When we are openly immersed, we hope that the cultural circumstances will speak to us from the pictures.

To analyse this, the Visual analysis could be based on what’s visible and what the researcher tries to interpret. Interpretation of image in a semiotic manner, where the qualitative content is analysed rather than the quantitative content. The discussion should assume that the pattern of human experience is limited within the visual context of a frame. Some visual imagery could provide an intense emotional statement of identity to the researcher. They also play out to be carriers of information. Other than surface level, there could be hidden meanings are acquired a picture (Barthes 1977). They have denotation signifier which could be understood by signs and symbols worn and analysing the background in the picture.

This kind of denotation signifiers helps to provide more depth to any visual data-based research. They could give out connotations. Another limitation could be potential responsible data might be less and they lack sufficient analytical connotation. Image created could be marked by the perspective of its makers.

To analyse this, the Visual analysis is being based on what’s visible and what the researcher tried to interpret. Interpretation of image in a semiotic manner, where the qualitative content is analysed rather than the quantitative content

A basic model of analysis went like this

1)Observe the data in its totality. Listen to overtones and subtleties and discover contrasting patterns
2)Make an inventory log of all the pictures
3)Structure the analysis with data retrieved from the pictures
4)Re-establishing context and searching for significance in the photographs

Photography is a message without a code as well as Images evoke action and emotion (Barthes 1977). Leeuwen and Jewitt (2008) point out that Image is produced to serve as records for reality, as a documentary evidence of people, places, things, actions, and events they depict. Images can be regarded as factual evidence and carry connotations and invite individual reminiscence. They may convey a sense of duration of nostalgia through codes of colour, framing and through public context. An image can engage a user, a compelling urge to look at again and analyse and possibly own the image. Photographs are images from the real (Kress and Leeuwen 2010).

(Kress and Leeuwen 2010) propose that narrative representation of lead participants in pictorial fashion leads to unfolding of actions in the past. Identifying a pattern with respect to these images is a key part of visual anthropology. Visual anthropology is keenly connected with social semiotics, ‘the science and life of signs in society’ (Saussure 1974).

Visual records for the description of present and past wary of life of a specific community can be found through visual anthropology Leeuwen and Jewitt (2008). The discussion assume that the pattern of human experience is limited within the visual context of a frame. Some visual imagery could provide an intense emotional statement of identity to the user. They also play out to be carriers of information. Other than surface level, there could be hidden meanings inside a picture (Barthes 1977).

A sample is discussed below and a lot of samples are discussed in the Appendix section as well.


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Figure 15 : Syrian Christian Women in Malabar (Basel Mission 1902).

This picture shows a family of Syrian Christian women wearing jewellery and bangles denoting their wealthy stature. One of the woman is sitting indicating her authoritarian nature. Saree was introduced in the early 1900s, after the up rise to wear breast cloth, so they might have adapted this from their chatta wearing stature. The picture is provided from the archives of Basel mission, and Basel mission is a missionary group that worked in Kerala in early 20th century. And a text from Basel mission suggested that these women also worked along with the charity missionary group.


This paper discussed in detail about the historical transformation and ethno cultural socio-cultural evolution of Syrian Christians in Kerala. Syrian Christians are a collective and a personal group who built a sense of social companionship over the centuries. They adapted and changed germane to ever-evolving society and assimilated and acculturated towards the traditional and cultural etiquette. Casteism evolved, and as modernity approached Kerala most of the communities dismissed the rigid caste based distinctions. Caste-based practises don't vanish in its totality modern era, but the degree of severity is far less than pre-colonialist period. This paper found that Chatta thuni is a result of acculturation and the process is never ending, and changed the vogue of the community thereafter. This paper analysed similarity in fashion statements of Christians between Sri Lanka and Kerala. This paper discovered the similarity between Assyrian cross and Syrian Christian Cross indicating the early Syriac tradition of the Church. The paper also discussed class segregation, gender bias, upholding system of sovereignty in India. Considering Identity is represented as a social construct and transformation of Identity is inevitable.

It concludes that Syrian Christians preserved both the Jewish culture and Hindu traditions and their deep level ethics remain unaffected, even though surface level artefacts like fashion changed over the years. The core ideas and beliefs are intact strong and this is the reason for a strong foundation for the community. The paper examined the clothing practice of wearing a Chatta in colonial India by the women in the Syrian Christian community, to how women of all race, religion and embraced churidar.

Limitation s

Conducted in a two-period has its limitations with respect to this research. The data has been accumulated by virtual visual cultural analysis only. It would have been even more helpful to conduct the study in Kerala and conduct interviews. Visual anthropology is an excellent technique to understand how people lived in a particular period, but a limitation could be that the potential responsible data might be less and they lack sufficient analytical connotation. Image created could be staged or marks the perspective of its makers. Future recommendation will be to consider a deeper level research in terms of economic, artistic and demographics of the community and widen the aspects of a future research.


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Appendix A

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Figure 16 : Cross of the Syrian Christians (Marthoma Margam 2012).

The figure depicts a saint Thomas cross, which is almost identical to Assyrian cross shown in Appendix B

Appendix B

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Figure 17: A priest holding Assyrian cross

Comparing these two images denote the representation of Syriac Tradition shared between these two churches.

Appendix C

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Figure 18 : Syrian Christian Church (Champakulam Church 2018).

Ancient Syrian Christian churches was identical to a Jewish synagogue from outside and was similar to a hindu temple inside. Jewish tradition of red curtain and separate seating for men and women are seen. The picure shows a shaala, which is more like a rest house for people visiting the church where wedding receptions, Sunday school and Sunday lunch is prepared for the people in church community.

Appendix D

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Figure 19: Ancient Malabar Bride and Groom (Cochin Government Royal War Efforts Souvenier 1938).

Though difficult to analyse in the pictorial format. The woman is seen wearing a veil over the head and an older version of chatta mundu. And the groom is also seen covering his head

Appendix E

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Figure 20: Chatta Mundu (Sam John 2016).

An old lady wearing Chatta Mundu with fan like frills on the back. It should be noted that other than the sleeves it is unstitched. It has a Vshape opening on front and a circular opening on the back. Note that there are no decorative elements or colours or even embroidery present in this clothing.

Appendix F

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Figure 21: (Archive of kadavil achan, 1900)

A 1900 portrait of a Syrian Christian family in south Kerala. The person in the middle is a preist and is seen holding a bible. He is wearing a cape much like the preists from Mesopotamia. The kids are wearing jacket, but not chatta mundu and only the mother is seen wearing Chatta mundu representing her married status. With the adornment of Jewellery, the family is affluent.

Appendix G

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Figure 22: Mother and child wearing chatta mundu seen at a Church, Mathew 2016).

Chatta mundu is an iconic fashion dress but this picture shows that people wear it for special occasions feeding the nostalgia.

Appendix H

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Figure 23: Early twentieth century Muslim women clothing in Kerala (Basel mission 1902).

Muslim women wore coloured clothing and stitched blouses.

Appendix I

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Figure 23 : (Nair Woman early twentieth century Basel Mission).

Women weren’t allowed to cover their breasts till 1896. This picture shows a very rich girl (possibly a bride). A lot of gold is seen here as well as the head is covered with a gold band as well as the hair.

Appendix J

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Figure 24 :Nair women wearing breast cloth after the channar revolt.

Women of all statures started to wear breast cloth, and resulted in new traditions.

Appendix K

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Fig 25 : Thali

Thali is a locket with 21 beads representing a cross.

Appendix L

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Fig 26: Baptismal font

Appendix M

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Figure 27: Nair girl Basel mission.

Here the palm umbrella is also a sign of aristocracy and not everyone was allowed to wear it.

Appendix N:

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Figure 28: Website to store research progress and also arrangement of Images in a spatial order (Mary Antony Pallan 2018).


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University students in Kerala all donning churidar regardless of caste and religion and social segregation.

Excerpt out of 56 pages


Ethnocultural Transformation of Social Identity. Syrian Christians in Kerala
Bournemouth University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Culture, syrian christians, kerala, identity, Anthropology
Quote paper
Mary Pallan (Author), 2018, Ethnocultural Transformation of Social Identity. Syrian Christians in Kerala, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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