A typical Syrian Christian family history will forcefully trace its roots to the to the 31 Brahmin families supposed to have been converted to Christianity by St Thomas, one among Jesus’ 12 disciples or to Pakalomattom family, even though no documentary evidence exists to prove the connection.
While all ten disciples moved Westward to spread the message of Christ and establish churches, only St Thomas was sent Eastward (East must be a punishment posting then also). This could be because St Thomas was known as the Doubting Thomas who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the ten other disciples (Judas had committed suicide by then), until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross (from this originated the English idiom of “Doubting Thomas” as a skeptic who refuses to believe without direct personal experience).
In the earlier days, the Syrian Christian priests could only be ordained from the Pakalomattom family (an effect of the Hindu caste system prevalent then). The Portuguese after landing in Kerala realised that the princely priesthood of the Pakalomattom family had to be broken to have a hold on the local Christians and so ordained priests from other rival families.
Vasco da Gama landed in Kerala in 1498 and was surprised to find local Christians, involved in spice trade. In those days the Christians followed most customs of the local Hindus (some of it even continues today) and used Syriac as the liturgical language because of the association with Persia due to the spice trade. Hence the Portuguese called the local Christians as Syrian Christians and the Christians they converted as Latin Christians as they used Latin as their liturgical language. By 1660 they weaned away 84 of the 116 churches who aligned with Rome and became the Syro Malabar Catholic Church and the rest thirty-two churches and their congregations formed the Syrian Orthodox Church. The purported aim of the Portuguese was to wean away the local traders, mainly Christians, away from the Muslim Arab traders.
It would be foolish on my part to do the same mistake others did and hence would limit to the details I had obtained by way of many discussions I had with our grandfather (he lived to the age of 104 and died in 2002). Surely some of these would have been his figment of imagination and he also must have added enough spice to make it interesting for a hyper-active young boy.
In the nineteenth century Koduvath Easo (in those days the family name preceded the christen name) came with his daughter Eli and occupied Malamelkavu (in Malayalam meaning hillock with a temple on top), in Kolladu village, about eight kilometers from Kottayam and settled there. Nothing is known about the other family members and from where Koduvath Easo came. Thomas married Eli and moved into Koduvath family as the Adopted Son (Jamai जमाई) (DathuPuthran ദത്തുപുത്രൻ). From then on it is said that the ladies of the family have been more dominating and I can see it in today’s generation in form of our daughter and her cousin sisters. Thomas and Eli had nine sons and two daughters with our grandfather being the eleventh. The nine sons and their further generations continue to live in and around Malamelkavu and some moved out in search of better jobs and opportunities.
The family belongs to the parish of St George Syrian Orthodox Church, Puthuppally (current Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy’s family also belongs to the same church). Kolladu village is located West of Puthuppally village and is separated by a river. Crossing the river up to 70’s was by means of a ferry, now by a bridge. The annual festival of the church is celebrated in first week of May and is like the annual festivals of the Hindu temples in Kerala. Vechoottu (a ceremonial feast), adya choroonu (a ritual in which children get their first rice feeding by priests) etc. are some of the rituals associated with the festival. Later Raza, the grand festival procession taken out with the holy golden cross from the church, accompanied by “chenda melam” (drums of Kerala) and caparisoned elephants. The Raza is received by every household which falls on its route, irrespective of their religion, with a lighted lamp. In the evening the entire church is illuminated with lamps like any Hindu temples of Kerala.
The main offering to the church on the annual festival is fowl (preferably a rooster) as St George the patron saint of the church was a soldier and is believed to enjoy chicken. In the earlier days the fowls offered were slaughtered on the church premises and the chicken curry was served as “Prasad” to the devotees. This cruel practice was terminated by the 70’s being cruelty to animals.
I had heard a myth about the fowl slaughtering at the church from my grandfather. In the earlier days, there was a Kali (Hindu Goddess) temple situated atop the hill adjacent to the church. The fowls were offered there also on the annual festival day of the temple, which coincided with the festival day of the church. One day both St George and Kali came together in a dream of the village chieftain and they came to a compromise that the fowls are to be slaughtered at the church and meat prepared there (St George enjoyed the meat), but the blood had to be collected and offered to Kali in the evening (Kali seemed to be interested only in blood) and that way only a few birds had to be sacrificed.
The next day the Holy Mass is offered at the church. At the end of the festivity, the “chicken prasad” is distributed to the devotees at the East and West gates of the church. The chicken pieces are carried to the gates in bamboo baskets. The teenagers from the Koduvath family now come into action and they snatch the chicken baskets and run as a relay race handing over the basket from one to another and swim across the river. The prasad thus snatched is distributed among the family members. This practice continued for some years and all our family members, whether barristers, teachers, government officials of those days were all nicknamed ‘Irachi Kotta ഇറച്ചിക്കൊട്ട’ (in Malayalam meaning Meat Basket) and many of us still carry the same nickname, especially while studying in schools and colleges in Kottayam.