Do historical narratives create social norms? The case of Syrian Christians and Jewish jugglers in Kerala

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Inbreeding is simply the practice of marrying within a social group generally to maintain purity within the family (Koenig and Thornhill 1994). The rigor of the endogamous norms of Syrian Christians and Jewish jugglers can be seen through the following examples, although the results of the cases are different. The first example deals with the marriage of Leelamma and Dilip Kumar. Leelamma belonged to the Syrian Christian community and married Dilip Kumar in the belief that he was also a Syrian Christian. However, it was later found that she belonged to the Hindu community of Ezhava and that she simply converted to Christianity for the purpose of marrying her. The woman then filed for marriage annulment on the grounds that “converts are considered socially inferior in status and that members of former families do not marry converts” (Leelamma v. Dilip Kumar 1993). He also stated that one who is not born a Christian cannot be considered a true Christian. The possible reason for the woman’s dispute could be the severe punishment imposed by her community in case of disobeying the rule of inbreeding. Another example of the Syrian Christian community is that of Mary John, a Syrian Christian who had been baptized at St John’s Church in Attamangalam, near Kumarakom. At age 94, she expressed her last wish to be buried in the church where she was baptized (Kumar 2016). However, as she had married a Hindu, she was denied this final wish. These church orders are not uncommon.[1] A spokesman for St. John’s Church said:

“He had broken ties with the church after his marriage to a Hindu and lived as a Hindu. One automatically renounces the church in these circumstances” (Prakash 2017)

The third example is that of the marriage of Balfour Salem and Seema Koder in 1950. Salem belonged to the Malabari Jewish community while Koder belonged to the Paradesi Jewish community (Katz and Goldberg 1993). In this case, both sides were aware of the religion and status of the others, but faced persecution from the rest of the Jewish communities in Kerala. The couple was forced to celebrate their marriage in Mumbai as they were forbidden to do so in a synagogue in Kerala. In the eyes of the “white” Jewish paradise, Koder had lost her status as a “white” Jew and would not be allowed to circumcise her son in a synagogue (Fernandes 2008).

Historical narrative

Narratives have been recurring elements in the story, sometimes even seen as a necessity.

“It has been considered that narratives can be explanatory in a special way; or that narratives are in themselves a form of explanation, if not that they are self-explanatory ”. (Dray 1971)

A historical narrative can, however, distort certain facts and facts to fit a desirable story. All religions have fabricated some kind of story to give it soul and legitimacy among its followers. This is completely understandable if you want to survive the age of skepticism and modernity. However, some have created a historical narrative for the sole purpose of becoming “heraldic manifestos that declare the supposed assumption of the family according to a set of imaginary and interpreted norms” (Varghese 2004). When a narrative is conceived in such a way, we are asked to ask ourselves whether the narrative itself has led to the creation of a social hierarchy within a religion and whether it is the main reason for endogamous practices.

Syrian Christians

There are many stories about how the Syrian Christian community emerged. The most popular claim is that its history begins around 52 AD when St. Thomas, the disciple of Jesus Christ, landed at Maliankara, near Cranganore, and spread Christianity. He is believed to have converted a good number of locals to present-day Kerala, mainly the upper caste of the Nambudiri Brahmins and also established seven churches in Kerala (Brown 1956). The “Syrian” label has nothing to do with Syria, the country. It is actually a reference to the “Syriac” language that the group spoke fluently, but when that language was incorporated as a liturgical language by the Christians of Kerala in the 17th century, it was erroneously pronounced as “Syrian”. (Varghese 2004). The Syrian Christian community prospered economically and politically due to the benevolence and tolerance of the rulers of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar who donated land and financed the construction of their churches (Encyclopedia.com 1996).

When the lower caste Hindus were converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese in the 17th century and to Protestantism by the British, Syrian Christians of the so-called “upper caste” never saw them as equals. Christians who joined the Catholic retreat were known as Latin Christians and those who joined the Protestant retreat became the new Christians. Latin Christians and new Christians were considered inferior to Syrian Christians. What the Syrian Christian community rarely mentions is that there is an internal division within the same community into northerners and southerners (Varghese 2004). Within the Syrian Christian community, there are several stories that are used to explain its origin. These other accounts are as creative as the one used to trace the origin of Syrian Christians from the arrival of St. Thomas (he was one of the twelve apostles of Christ) to present-day Kerala. These other accounts still remain true to the goal of the story of St. Thomas, which is to portray Syrian Christians as the “first Christians” of India. The second legend is that the Syrians are descendants of families brought to Kerala by a Syrian merchant, Thomas of Cana (unrelated to St. Thomas), in the 4th century (Brown 1956). It is believed that Cheraman Perumal, the ruler of Cranganore, received them and conferred privileges on Thomas of Cana and the Syrians with whom he came. Beyond that, the second legend has several versions of why there is a southern and northern division (Pothen, 1963). One version simply states that the native Christians of the region lived on the north side of the city, while the Christians who came with Thomas of Cana resided on the south side of the city. The other chronicle says that the southern side descends from the union of Thomas Cana with a western Asian woman from Syria and the northern side is the descendant of its union with a woman from Nair (Swiderski 1988). The second narrative in the story of Thomas de Cana gives more legitimacy to the southern side because of its “pure blood,” while the northern side is considered descended from a concubine.

Juggling evidence

Like Syrian Christians, juggling Jews or Cochin Jews have lived in Kerala for a long time; in fact, Malabar Jews can be traced back almost two millennia to the Malabar region (Katz 2000). There are several stories of origin of the Jews of Cochin in the Hebrew tales of Malabar and in those of foreign travelers. While some say that the first Jews sailed south of India with King Solomon’s ships in 931 BC, others say that they fled to Malabar after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD (Slapak 1995). . Like the Syrian Christians, the Cochin Jews enjoyed many privileges from the rulers of Malabar that allowed them to occupy the upper economic strata of society. Sometime between 379 and 1000 AD (disputed date), King Chera, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, gave a gift of copper plates to the community, granting them 72 privileges, including the freedom to practice their religion and the tax exemption “as long as the world and the moon exist” (Pinsker 2015; Katz 2000; Beth-Hillel 1973; Ayyar 1926).

Juggling Jews enjoyed their privileges for a long time until the arrival of the Paradise Jews or the “white Jews” of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. These so-called foreign Jews arrived in Kerala when they fled the religious persecution of the Alhambra Decree in Spain and Portugal (Slapak 1995). Upon reaching the coast of Kerala, the ruler of Cochin also granted them privileges, but to a lesser degree compared to Jewish juggling. These Jewish paradises did not embrace their Indian counterparts in Cochin. Instead, they transformed the egalitarian customs of traditional Judaism to fit the prevailing caste hierarchy of Hinduism (Katz and Goldberg 1993). A complex system of castes and sub-castes was created within the Jewish community where the sub-castes strictly followed endogamous marriage and the “upper” group denied the “lower” group a role in the life of the synagogue. This internal division was based on Israel’s descent and skin tone (Katz 2000). Of the 900 Jewish families, only a hundred belonged to Jewish paradises. Although these hundreds of families were considered to be of a higher sub-caste, they were apparently lower on the scale of wealth and influence. So why did the Jews of Cochin (who were not Meyuchasim) care if the descendants of ancient Israel (Meyuchasim) accepted them? After all, they were the majority and possessed more wealth and influence. The simple answer is that the smaller group possessed something that the larger group did not have and always wanted: “Yichus,” or an indisputable Jewish status that came from their origins in the Jewish homeland of Israel (Katz 2000). The reason for this need to prove his status as a Jew arose when travelers from Europe came into contact with paradise Jews. These Jews had more in common with European travelers, as they had lived in Europe themselves. Travelers would believe the stories told to them by the Paradesi and favor them more for their white skin. The mentality of these European travelers was also shared by the colonial powers. Paradise Jews claimed that the darker-colored local Jews of Cochin were nothing more than the descendants of Indian slaves who had converted to Judaism (Beth-Hillel, 1973). This story, of course, has been answered by juggling Jews who claim to be direct descendants of Jews who came from Israel more than two thousand years ago.

Conclusions

If we look at the historical narratives that these two communities love so much, we see a pattern in the practices of both communities. Both communities want to be part of the narrative that has an older history of origin and this seems to give them greater legitimacy in their minds. They also seem to support historical narratives without scrutiny.

It is by no means impossible for St. Thomas to come to Kerala, as many sources show that there was trade with the Malabar coast and the Araba region. At the same time, there is no conclusive evidence that St. Thomas came to Kerala because most of the sources citing this visit are from members of the Syrian Christian community who have a special interest in this narrative (Ayyar 1926).

The stories in this article have one thing in common: they all speak of an origin that dates back thousands of years. The emphasis in such ancient stories is to create the perception that members of these communities are “purer” than their counterparts who were converted by the missionaries. These stories invite critical readings not only because they have no historical record, but also because there are several alternative theories simultaneously inside and outside the community.