Kerala Christian Sainthood Collisions of Culture and Worldview in South India
Kerala Christian Sainthood is an ethnography-based study that celebrates the multi-vocal function of saints. Drawing on pilgrim anecdotes, shrine practices, official hagiographies, and regional lore, author Corinne Dempsey demonstrates how the business of saints routinely extends beyond their capacity as earthly conduits of miraculous power.
Saintly characters described in this book, hailing from the religiously pluralistic south India state of Kerala, tend not only to the health and happiness of individual devotees but help craft and express the multiple identities and complex power relations of their devotional communities as well.
Throughout the study, Dempsey highlights the traditions of Sr. Alphonsa of Bharananganam (1910-1946) and St. George the martyr, two figures who reflect the many preoccupations of Kerala sainthood. Sr. Alphonsa, native of Kerala and famous for her life of suffering and posthumous power, stands in line to be canonized by the Vatican. St. George, the caped dragon slayer imported to kerala by Syrian merchant s and later by Portuguese and British colonizers, is today partially debunked by Rome. These two figures, while differing dramatically in temperament, nationality, age of cult, and Vatican standing, boast a vast popular appeal in Kerala’s district. In examining Sr. Alphorns and St. George, Dempsey shows how kerala’s saint traditions reflect devotees’ hybrid identities in both colonial ad postcolonial times.
This ethnography of Christian sainthood within a Hindu cultural context, of ‘foreign’ traditions adopted by native context, of ‘foreign; traditions adopted by native practice, and of female sanctity negotiated through patriarchal expectation is poised at a number of intersections. Dempsey provides not only a comparative study of cultures, religions, and worldviews, but also a unique grounding for contemporary ethnographic, post-colonial, and feminist concerns.
Corinne G. Dempsey received a master’s degree in systematic theology from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, and a PhD. in South Asian religions from Syracuse University.
“Kerala, God’s own country,” a pithy promotion commonly invoked (and perhaps even invented) by the tourist industry, has become a kind of state motto, familiar to visitors and locals alike. Although the saying is rendered for the most part in English to coax outsiders to the region, a silver of tropical abundance in India’s southwest, Malayalis also use it among themselves, thereby reflecting a shared pride in their unique corner of India and, often, distinguishing themselves from the rest of the subcontinent. Postcards that depict lush tropical greenery, inviting sandy beaches, breathtaking mountain vistas, and markets over flowing with local produce are often designed with these words emblazoned across their glossy fronts. The images demonstrate the many blessing showered upon a chosen people or, perhaps, a chosen visitor: “God’s own.” Whether local motto or touristic jingle, the saying points to what seems obvious to most-the undeniable richness, beauty, and bounty of kerala.
Yet in the context of another kind of bounty found throughout Kerala, readily acknowledged by both inhabitants and casual visitors, the expression “God’s own country” (or, perhaps, “the gods, own country”), opens up a completely different set of images. This other conspicuous abundance is kerala’s religious pluralism, marked by the variety of churches, temples, and mosques nestled throughout its tropical landscape. Moreover, beyond the many impressive Christian and Muslim edifice standing alongside those of the Hindu majority, we can see other reflections of this plurality. These take shape in the ecumenical-although mainly Christian and Hindu-heavenly characters who populate Kerala’s terrain. In fact, one need not even enter a church or temple to find them. Saints and deities, colorfully painted on trucks and auto-rickshaws, regularly vie for space n busy streets; others, encased in roadside shrines, receive visits from devotees who light candles or lamps, offer followers, or slip coins into metal offering boxes. It is from this “other” abundance in kerala that the seemingly self-evident (yet still applicable) motto “God’s own country” raises more questions than answers: Whose God? Which God? And because many of the Christian figures appear to hail from foreign shores, one might even ask, which country?
Although images of tropical splendor do not disappear from the following pages, this book focuses on issues raised by this latter type of affluence—that of religious pluralities and associated worldviews and cultures. It is, as its title promises, a study of Christian sainthood in India's southwest; but a study of Kerala's saints raises questions no less unwieldy than those raised about the motto. The following account thus regularly winds its way far afield from the shrine itself, beyond dynamics between devotee and sacred figure, and finds that perceptions of and devotion to these saints implicate a larger, unavoidable world of "colliding" perspectives intrinsic to Kerala's pluralistic milieu.
The presupposition that saints—whether in Kerala or elsewhere—have much to tell us about their devotees and the society in which they live is not unlike the Malayalam proverb, Kuttali nannengil kannati venda (Whoever has a good companion does not need a mirror). People with whom we choose to surround ourselves— heavenly or mundane—have a propensity for casting back to us aspects of our personalities, our views, and our lives. Yet the cults of saints do more than simply mirror devotees' lifestyles and beliefs; they provide forums whereby devotees potentially carve for themselves a place within their many worlds: religious, communal, and global. For those of us who look for insights into the complex weave of identities that make up Kerala Christian society, Kerala Christian sainthood providentially offers a kind of multidimensional looking glass as a guide.
Beyond simply noting and analyzing the pluralisms that are reflected by Kerala Christian sainthood, the following discussion also addresses tensions if not exploitations (implied by sometimes violent "collisions") intrinsic to competing cultures and worldviews. To begin untangling and analyzing such complex and often troubled dynamics of power, I have found postcolonial theories of hybridization and ambivalence to be helpful. Such theories are useful in that they complicate perceptions of absolute domination/subordination between groups while, at the same time, they avoid romantic Utopian notions of religious and cultural syncretism.6 The idea that separate religious, political, or supernatural contingents can be at odds but interdependently bound is a theme that emerges repeatedly in the following chapters. The book, by unfolding various examples of ambivalent reciprocity, ultimately aims at discouraging the tendency to draw absolute contrasts or stark oppositions between coexisting groups and ideologies, and furthermore to question the extent to which dominance is as total as the dominant group would like us to believe.
A logical extension of these efforts to highlight hybrid traditions and question claims for absolute power is the suspicion that the following chapters will reveal concerning ideologies that promote rigid understandings of "authentic" religious, national, or communal identity. Such prescriptions for pure identities and origins, seen from the context of this book's view of Kerala Christian saints and their devotees, tend to emerge in the form of abstracted ideologies and from places of actual or desired power. Less absolutized, more earth-bound, and therefore more complicated constructions of identities and relations, on the other hand, often stem from shrine practice and locally based traditions. Although the following discussion attempts to locate exceptions to this pattern, the bulk of my observations are consistent with those of theorists of religion who find that institutional religious prescriptions are of limited use for understanding complicated local categories and perceptions. As such, this study represents a shift away from a more traditional emphasis on belief as a means of constructing the category "religion"—a scholarly perspective that, according to Asad (1993), is rife with post-Enlightenment bias. By framing religion in terms of practice rather than precept, reflected identities and delineations can at times appear more "hybrid" and fluid, particularly in contrast to power-charged claims for purity and authenticity.
The ethnographic lens through which this book views saints—allowing this shift in emphasis from official to localized manifestations of religion—furthermore requires a nuanced reading of (and likewise brings down to earth) postcolonial theories arguing for the hybridity of colonial traditions and the disruption of absolute authority. Particularly in the first chapter, while discussing colonial and postcolonial dynamics of "foreign" saint cults, I argue that the ambivalent "hybrid" authority of these imports cannot be taken for granted when we consider different vantage points. Although they appear as an outside "imposition" to the untrained eye, a European saint or tradition may in fact act to bolster indigenous agendas to an extent that its foreignness is all but forgotten or becomes, for many people, irrelevant. I thus emphasize that the perception of the degree to which an imported saint cult (or ideology or piece of clothing) represents domestic and/or foreign agendas cannot be an abstracted "given" but is a matter of one's point of view and place in history.
Kerala Christianity: A Brief Overview
As I discuss Kerala Christian sainthood, I commonly label churches, saints, and people according to denominational affiliation. These include Jacobite, Orthodox Syrian, Latin Catholic, Syrian Catholic (including Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites), and Mar Thomite. Because Kerala's jumble of Christian traditions reflects an intricate mix of internal and international schisms and alliances that have taken place over many centuries, an historical overview seems the most useful form of explanation. Historical details of Kerala's Christianities are not only irrepressible in their complexity but also form the basis for heated disputes, and so the following brief sketch attempts only to keep to the largely agreed-upon basics. According to a widely held Keralite tradition, the beginning of Christianity on the Malabar coast was marked by the arrival of St. Thomas the apostle in Kodungalur (Anglicized as Cranganore) in or around 52 C.E. After he carried out his mission of evangelization and church building, St. Thomas purportedly traveled east to Mylapore in Tamil Nadu, where he died a martyr's death in the year 72. Although there is no way to prove or disprove St. Thomas's mission to Kerala, there is ample historical evidence of an East Syrian Chaldean Christian community by at least the fourth century, which was reinforced by continuous waves of Syrian immigrants involved in Kerala's thriving spice trade. Few details are known about this early community except that it had become, by the time of the Portuguese arrival in the late fifteenth century, highly integrated into Hindu society. Through their practice of local customs, including a variety of ritual observances for upholding "caste" purity, it seems these early Christians enjoyed a high social status similar to that of the well-to-do Hindu Nair caste. Although these kerala Christians kept their use of east Syrian liturgical language and canon law, they tended to model their churches after south Indian temples, and their priests bore a marked resemblance to Hindu sannyasis.
Roman Catholicism in Kerala, introduced by Portuguese missionaries, officially arrived in 1503 with the completion of the first Catholic Church in Kochi, five years after the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama landed on the shores of northern kerala. The Portuguese like the Syrians before them, busied themselves in establishing trade routes between kerala and their home country. But unlike their predecessors, they w ere fervently bent upon converting the masses to heir (Roman Catholic) Christian tradition. As a result of their zealous mercantile and missionary efforts, the Portuguese eventually succeeded not only in blocking competing Arab trade routes but in cutting off Syrian Christian ecclesial ties to east Syria, as well. The flow of foreign bishops upon which keral’s Syrian Christian community depended thus slowed to a standstill during much of the sixteenth century.
Animosity between Portuguese missionaries and Syrian Christians built up during the sixteenth century and came to a head during the latter part of the same century, after the deportation of Syrian bishop Mar Joseph and the death of the last remaining foreign bishop in kerala, Mar Abraham. To add fuel to existing tensions, Alexis de Menezes-the Portuguese archbishop of Goa who was instrumental in cutting all ties with the Chaledan Church- was spurred on by the pope to investigate and punish doctrinal disobediences of the kerala Christian community. Menezes thus put into motion a campaign to purge from the Malabar Church-once and for all-its troublesome Nestorian heresies and “Hindu” superstitions. These efforts culminated in the 1599 Synod of Udiyamperur (known also as Diamper), which officially placed the Malabar Christians under the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Jesuits. The Goan Inquisition, begun in 1560, had also become a showcase of Portuguese eventually shattered any possibility for cordial (or even functional relations between themselves and the powerful Hindu courts and, as a result, their stronghold began to slip away by the seventeenth century.
In 1653, during a time when Portuguese power was at a particularly low ebb, roughly one-third of the St. Thomas Christian population, frustrated by increasingly harsh Portuguese impositions-as well as the continued lack of Syrian leadership-gathered in Mattanssery. Here they crowded around a large crucifix outside the main church, lit candles, and took an oath swearing that they would never again be under the sway of the foreign Jesuits. Five months later, twelve priests ritually lalid their hands on a Malayali archdeacon, Mar Thomas, installing him as the archbishop o f the community. From this “Coonan Cross Oath” and appointment of indigenous leadership emerged a separate Christian community which, in 1665, recognized ecclesial leadership in Antioch, west Syrian upon the arrival of an Antiochan Jacobite bishop, Mar Gregarious, from Jerusalem. As a result, Syrian Christians who currently claim an allegiance to the patriarch of Antioch refer to themselves as Jacobites (“Yakoba” in Syrian).
In 1911 a schism emerged within the Jacobite Church upon the dismissal of Malayali bishop Vattasserril Mar Dionisius by the Antioch patriarch, Mar Abdulla. This was in answer to the Malayali bishop's insistence that the patriarch, while having the power to consecrate domestic bishops, need not have jurisdiction over Church properties in Kerala, as well. Roughly half of the dioceses eventually sided with the indigenous bishop, and formed the denomination presently known as Orthodox Syrian with its ecclesial head, the Katholicos, stationed permanently in Kerala. In 1958, the Jacobites and Orthodox Syrians reunited under the Keralite Katholicos, only to go their separate ways once again shortly thereafter.
The Syrian Christians who maintained their allegiance to Rome (that is, descendants of those not present at the Coonan Cross event) are known as Syrian Catholics of the Syro-Malabar rite and constitute the largest contingent of Christians in Kerala today. The smallest rite within Kerala Catholicism, Syro-Malankara, presently numbers around 300,000 members. This latter group was formed when a portion of the Orthodox Syrian community united with the Roman Catholic Church in 1932 under the leadership of a Malayali bishop, Mar Ivanios. Both the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara communities are generically referred to as Syrian Catholic.
Latin-rite Catholics, comprising about 32 percent of the Kerala Catholic population, are largely made up of Hindu communities who were converted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Portuguese missionaries. Although a number of high-caste Hindus also converted to Catholicism, most Latin Catholics are from low-caste fishing communities. Syrian Christians, long established as a high-ranking "caste" within Kerala society by the time of the Portuguese arrival, did not normally intermarry with members of the Latin Catholic community. Similarly, because of their interest in upholding high social status, it made little sense to recruit new members into their tradition, particularly from the lower castes. As a result, a significant divide continues to lie between Latin- and Syrian-rite Catholics in terms of social and economic status as well as political clout.
Aside from the Jacobites, Orthodox Syrians, and Roman Catholics, Kerala Christianity also includes a variety of Protestant traditions. Although the North American-inspired Pentecostal movement appears to be the fastest growing among them to date, the largest Protestant denominations currently in operation are of British origin. The two major branches of Anglican-influenced traditions include the Mar Thomites and the Church of South India (C.S.I.), which make up approximately 7 and 5 percent of the Kerala Christian population, respectively. The Mar Thomite tradition, established in 1889, is a result of an Anglican-influenced reform of the Jacobite tradition. Largely Protestant in their teaching and theology, Mar Thomites have maintained much of their Jacobite heritage, as is reflected in their liturgical practices and their self-proclaimed Syrian Christian identity. C.S.I, stems from the unification of the Anglican dioceses in south India, the South India United Church (based on a 1908 coalition of Congregational and Presbyterian Churches), and the south Indian districts of the Methodist Church (of British origin). Although a large portion of C.S.I, members include low-caste converts, charter affiliates included approximately 6,000 parishioners from Jacobite and, later, Orthodox Syrian communities. Many who converted from the higher social classes (and lower classes as well) did so as a means of garnering political and economic support from the British through their missionary societies.
Because keralite Protestants, like other Protestants worldwide, do not typically engage in saint devotion, this study focuses on the views and practices of kerals’s non-Protestant traditions-that is , Roman Catholic, Orthodox Syrian, and Jacobite. The Kottayam district where I carried out most of my research is primarily a Syrian Christian (and, more specifically, an Orthodox Syrian( stronghold, so Latin catholic perceptions and devotional practices are not discussed as thoroughly as are Syrian Catholic, Orthodox, and Jacobite, Also included in the category “non-Protestant” are members of Hindu communities who, on the whole, are much more inclined than are Protestant Christians to take refuge in Christian saint traditions during times of duress or to celebrate the holy patrons of neighborhood churches during their annual festivals.
Sharing the Spotlight: St. George and Sr. Alphonsa
The following study of kerala sainthood narrates tales of highly complex Christian diversity, of schisms within schisms; it also invokes an impressive array of heavenly figures. These include keralite manifestations of some universally familiar saints such as Mary the mother of Jesus, St. Thomas the apostle, St.Sebastian, and St. Therse of Lisieux, as well as some less well-known native saints such as the Orthodox Syrian T. Gregouius and the Syrian Catholic Fr. Chavara. Two saints, however, play leading roles thought this book, supported by other saints and Hindu deities who perform minor parts. They are Sr. Alphonsa of Bharananganm and St. George of Seemingly everywhere, two saints who are dissimilar in almost every possible way and who deserve some introduction.
minor parts. They are Sr. Alphonsa of Bharananganam and St. George of seemingly everywhere, two saints who are dissimilar in almost every possible way and who deserve some introduction.
Sr. Alphonsa (1910-1946) was a Syrian Catholic Keralite nun from a Franciscan Clarist congregation who—although devotees regularly refer to her as "saint"—has yet to receive the official stamp of sainthood from the Vatican. In 1984 she was beatified and given the title "Blessed," just one rung below full canonization, and thus has moved relatively quickly through what is normally an agonizingly slow canonization process. Among the seven current Malayali candidates for sainthood, only Sr. Alphonsa and Fr. Chavara advanced to the position of "Blessed" in 1984. In late 1994, Bishop Thomas Kurialassery also joined the ranks of the "Blessed." The bishop's beatification did not capture the national attention that Alphonsa's and Chavara's had, however, as their ceremony a decade earlier was performed in Kerala by the pope himself. Sr. Alphonsa's claim to fame—beyond having inspired a papal visit to Kottayam—is her life of ascetic self-denial and suffering and, perhaps most importantly, her posthumous ability to bestow favors upon her devotees.
Hagiography depicts Kerala's St. George—in almost diametrical opposition to the rather passively construed Alphonsa—as a brave soldier who heroically saves a maiden and her village from the jaws (or deadly breath) of a fierce dragon. Com¬monly invoked by Keralites for protection against poisonous snakes (in menacing abundance in the tropics of India), the cult of St. George in southwest India appears to be nearly as old as Alphonsa's is young. Probably imported by Syrian merchants during the first few centuries of the common era, additional layers of St. George's cult were superimposed by the Portuguese during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, again, with the arrival of the British. He was, and still is, the patron saint for both these western European nations.
In spite of the superficial differences between these two figures in terms of nationality and international scope, charism, gender, and cult history, each boasts a vast popular appeal largely unrivaled by other Kerala saints (see Figure 2). Among the group of seven Malayali Catholic saint candidates, Alphonsa's tomb shrine, with its constant stream of visiting pilgrims, is by far the busiest. Compared to the many other "foreign" saint cults in Kerala, St. George's is remarkable in its universality; it is both undeniably popular and very diverse, attracting devotees from across a number of denominational and religious divides. The dramatic differences between Sr. Alphonsa and St. George—in their lives as holy people and their relationships to Kerala's religious and cultural terrain—shape the following chapters.
The Foreign and the Foreigner: Juxtaposition and Misunderstanding
Given Christianity's firm standing upon south Indian soil, amid a predominantly Hindu culture, the following discussion of sainthood elicits comparisons of Hindu and Christian practices and beliefs. I also compare Kerala Christian saints and cultic practices with non-Indian—primarily European Catholic –saint traditions in order to situate kerala Christianity within a wider context and to help us to understand what might be uniquely Indian about Kerala Christian sainthood. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, bay exploring European cult practices and beliefs in the midst of a discussion about keralite traditions, existing similarities between Christian and Hindu religious practices become all the more striking.
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