When we joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Thamizh Nadu) in Grade 5 in June 1971, there were many vegetarians amongst us. Most Brahmin Cadets up until then had never ever eaten anything non-vegetarian in life. As the school years went by, many shed their herbivorous status (other than the real hardcore ones) in favour of an omnivorous one.
We were served ground pork curry with bread for dinner on the first Friday of every month. The meat came from the Yorkshire Pigs that the school farm reared. Many cadets on joining the school were reluctant to eat pork due to religious reasons and also because they had never tasted it before. Nowadays the very same pork curry, with all its flavours intact, is very fondly served to the members of the Alumni and their families during the Alumni meet. Everyone, including little children of the Alumni look forward to this dinner.
Like a true Syrian Orthodox Christian, I too had never tasted pork. Our family tradition was based on Deuteronomy Chapter 14: Verses 3 to 8 which says “Do not eat any detestable thing. These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep. You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud. However, of those that chew the cud or that have a divided hoof you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the hyrax. Although they chew the cud, they do not have a divided hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you. The pig is also unclean; although it has a divided hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.”
This was the rule the Jews followed a thousand years before Christ in accordance with the Torah passages in Leviticus that lists the animals people are permitted to consume. It first notes what qualifies an animal that is absolutely permitted. Muslims also follow a similar rule. Chapter 6 Verse 146 of Quran says “ We prohibited every animal of uncloven hoof; and of the cattle and the sheep We prohibited to them their fat, except what adheres to their backs or the entrails or what is joined with bone.”
Although Christianity is also an Abrahamic religion, most of its adherents are permitted to consume pork. Since Christianity lost most of its roots from Judaism, Christians are not bound to most of the restrictions of Mosaic Law. However, Seventh day Adventists consider pork taboo, along with other foods forbidden by Jewish law. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also do not permit pork consumption. The Syrian Christians of Kerala belong to this lineage of pork taboo. For many Scottish highlanders too, pork is taboo although the reasons are quite unclear.
It is believed that St Thomas, an Apostle of Christ came to Kerala in 52 AD and converted local Hindus and some Jews to Christianity. Cochin Jews (also known as Malabar Jews or Yehudey Kochin,) are the oldest group of Jews in India, with roots that are claimed to date back to the time of King Solomon (970 – 931 BCE). St Thomas did not impose any changes to the pattern of worship, rituals and traditions of the locals. This resulted in Malayali Syrian Christians with the Jews following Mosaic law.
It changed when the Portuguese colonised Kerala in the 16th Century. Their concept of ‘the cross preceding the sword‘ resulted in forcible conversion of Malayali Syrian Christians to Catholicism. Portuguese Inquisition used consumption of pork to distinguish between Jews and Catholics and accused the Malayali Syrian Christians of being Jews. Those Malayali Syrian Christians who refused to convert to Catholicism had to flee away from the coastal areas controlled by Portuguese to the hills in the interior of Kottayam. They today are further divided into Marthoma, Jacobite and Orthodox factions.
The first Friday of July 1971, we were served pork for dinner. There were separate tables for all those who did not want to partake the ground pork, where they were served potato and peas curry. I too joined this vegetarian section. So our taboos were at home. We learned about tolerance to eat what we eat, together, may be at separate tables though, but without hate and rancour.
Cadet Sunil Kumar, our batch mate, a Namboodiri (a hard core Kerala Brahmin) erroneously joined the wrong queue and ended up eating pork. After eating it, he said it was so tasty that he even went for a second helping. This motivated me to go for the forbidden pork on the first Friday of August 1971. I sacrificed a family tradition of not eating pork in exchange for a mouth-watering dish on that day and from then on I never missed it on any first Friday of the month.
So, now I follow the New Testament of Bible (As do most Christians world wide) where in as per Gospel According to St Matthew 15:10, Jesus calls the people to him and says, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Minor mercies that religions do offer some flexible options!!
Despite the many health warnings that come with red meat in general and processed pork in particular, to this day I remain a happy and avid pork eater, thanks to Sainik School Amravathinagar and Sunil Kumar.