Christ in Kerala

In the Indian state of Kerala lies the town of Kelakam, sixty miles inland from the Arabian Sea. The land here is forested and until the 1950s was the roaming ground of tigers and wild elephants. It is still a remote area, best known for its Hindu shrine to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. Waters in a small lake are felt to possess medicinal properties, and pilgrims still trek here bringing gifts of butter, coconut water, and milk to obtain blessing. Yet for all the Hindu and Muslim presence, it is Catholics that visually dominate Kerala. Alice and I came to Kelakam in October 2011, with a priest friend, Father Mathew Kalathunkal, to share a visit to his family and relatives.

The origins of Christianity in southwest India are shrouded in mystery. European traders visiting the subcontinent in 300 AD reported that Christian communities existed. Indians themselves have always insisted that the Apostle Thomas came to the Malabar Coast in 52 AD. For over a thousand years the Christians of India celebrated the Eucharist, with leaders drawn from the Brahmin cast. Today most Catholics in Kerala observe the Syro-Malabar rite, an ancient form of Christian worship influenced by Syrian traders on the Malabar Coast north of Kerala, and possessing its own distinctive spirituality.

 This spirituality seems to come easily in Kerala. Towns are awash in the sounds and sights of religion and at every large crossroad there are sacred trees, shrines, and donation boxes. The dashboard of our taxi carried a Jesus plaque, a statuette of St. George killing a dragon, the Hindu god Ganesh, our Lady of Fatima. A golden rosary dangled from the rearview mirror.At 5 AM each morning, the Muslim call to prayer echoed across the darkness, followed shortly by loudspeakers blaring out Hindu morning prayers. The Catholic churches typically began morning rosary at 6:30 AM, with light and amplified music streaming out the open doors and windows.

St. Joseph's Church
St. Joseph’s Church, Kelakam. High facades are typical of South Indian Catholic churches.

Kerala is easily the most Christian state in India, with 20% of the population tracing their origins to either St. Thomas the Apostle, Syrian traders, or the 15th century missionary work of St. Francis Xavier. Another twenty percent are Muslim, while Hindus are in the majority. Curiously, the presence of large numbers of Catholics in the hill country is the result of the Communist party’s election to power in the 1950’s and the subsequent distribution of ancient temple lands to small farmers. But like so many things in India nothing is what it seems. On one hand the country seems to be rushing toward western modernity. Roads are full of Nissans, Toyotas, Fords, and Chevrolets. The cell phone is ubiquitous, and American police dramas appear on television. New buildings are everywhere. But in its religious and cultural values India exists in a parallel universe, and similarities with the West are only skin deep.

At first glance, Catholicism here resembles that of Europe or America, heightened by its use of striking décor. Tabernacles are built into the wall behind the altar and given emphasis with crowds of angels, depictions of lighting bolts, and blinking lights. Synthesizers, violins, bells, and cymbals accompany singing. Colors used in church décor are as bright and varied as those of the saris and churidars worn by women worshippers.

On Saturday evening in Kelakam, we climbed a knoll to St. Joseph Church crowded with worshippers. At the front edge of the sanctuary, was a statue of the Virgin backed by a gauzy cloud of fabric filled with tiny blue lights flashing like fireflies. The half dozen boy and girl altar servers were in pink matching the pink clad angels behind the high altar. Church architecture is also flamboyant. The façade of St. Joseph’s was shaped in the form of an enormous crown, and columns on each side of the statues of Joseph and Mary in the Church supported large plaster reproductions of the church’s exterior.

At the front edge of the sanctuary, was a statue of the Virgin backed by a gauzy cloud of fabric filled with tiny blue lights flashing like fireflies.

The liturgy celebrated the Syro-Malabar feast of the dedication or giving of the Church, understood as the act in which following his death, Jesus offered the Church as his mystical bride to his heavenly Father. A commentary on the Syro-Malabar Mass explained, “The Church is the sign of the heavenly kingdom here on earth. Every time the believer enters it, he/she is invited into such a heavenly experience and to sing praises to the Lord in the company of the celestial choirs.” There was a palpable sense that the Church was holy ground. Parishioners entered the building with reverence, having first

removed their shoes and sandals. Women with veiled heads reclined on the jute carpeting on one side of the church, men on the other. At Mass that evening, some two-dozen small boys knelt at the front of the church for over an hour, without talking or jostling.

Keralese Catholics describe themselves as Hindu in culture. But their belief in the historic person of Christ is strikingly different than the emanations of light, holiness, and higher consciousness characteristic of Hinduism. Catholics make an effort to emphasize the distinctiveness of their belief. Large crucifixes  hang above every altar, and along the highways it is common to see pagoda like shrines containing images of Christian saints. In front of many churches are huge statues of Mary holding the body of her crucified son. Nor are Karalese Christians shy about identifying themselves as Christians. In the harbor at the port of Kochi, a third of the fishing vessels bore the name of Christian saints, and on the highways, busses, trucks, and three-wheeled taxis carried such names as “Ave Maria,” “Praise the Lord,” “Holy Trinity” and “Jesus.” The back car window of our Kalakam host bore the slogan, “My boss is a Jewish carpenter.” Catholicism was also evident in the more than a dozen homes we visited during our stay: each of them of them had a shrine area in their front room containing statuettes, candles, pictures of various saints, often with larger pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Above the shrine were often garlanded photographs of deceased family members.

That evening’s Mass at St. Joseph’s concluded with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the rosary, toward the end of which the congregation was invited to take part in a candlelight procession. The church quickly emptied as several hundred worshipers formed up behind two blue, silver-spangled processional umbrellas. Men in a single file to the left, women to the right, were followed by the half dozen priests in white cassocks. Accompanied by the amplified sounds of the choir, the cortege silently wended its way down the steps to the main highway and than back up the hill into the church for the concluding benediction. As the sacred bread was held aloft in its gold-rayed monstrance and blessed the congregation, the tinkle of the hand bells, and the clink of the incensing, were complemented by the booming clatter of large firecrackers set off at the entry to the church. This was a typical feast-day celebration, we were told.

The following day we left for the north, driving over the mountains into another state. Here the land flattened out, and the predominance of Christian churches gave way to the pointed minarets of lime-colored mosques and rainbow-hued Hindu temples. In India, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of religious expression. Indeed, in most of the country’s 28 states, Christianity is largely unseen. In this context I found myself anchored by Keralese Catholicism. With their deep sense of Church, strong faith identity, and sheer persistence, the Syro-Malabar Catholics of southwestern India inspired me.

Larry Mullaly

Nov. 3, 2011