ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Women and Religiosity

Dalit Christianity in Kerala

The everyday life of the congregations of slave castes involved the active support of women, right from the mid-19th century when Dalit communities began to accept Christianity. Prayers in the family and in congregations were occasions in which women were substantially involved, wherein hymns/songs became powerful articulations of the critique of caste slavery and prayer was used as an effective tool to resist instances of caste oppression. However, relatively blurred gender hierarchies in the pre-Christian phase among the slave castes were transformed by the conscious intervention of the missionaries in favour of the secure family structure with an assertive male head.

The author would like to acknowledge two research projects that helped develop the ideas presented here, namely, the project titled “From the Lord’s Prayer to Invoking Slavery through Prayers: Religious Practices and Dalits in Kerala, India” (2012–14) funded by the Social Science Research Council, New York, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Gottingen. The author would also like to thank Janaki Nair for her encouragement to write this paper.

Christianity has had a significant presence in Kerala, even before the arrival of the Portuguese and other subsequent colonial powers. The legendary origin of Christianity in Kerala is traced to the Apostle, Saint Thomas, who is believed to have landed at Kodungallur, an ancient port town that was connected with the Indian Ocean world, in 52 CE. The apostolic origin of the church puts it on par with the claims of Western Christianity, where the Christians of Kerala are distributed along the lines of various denominations. Although not accepted by historians as a historically verifiable fact in the absence of corroborative evidence, the Christian community holds the arrival of Thomas as a historical truth. However, there is definite historical evidence to suggest the arrival of the Christians of West Asian origin, under the leadership of prominent merchants who had settled down in Kerala in 345 CE. Ecclesiastically, they followed the Eastern Christian tradition. In subsequent centuries, with the coming of other Christian groups, there was a proliferation of Christian settlements in the port towns of Kerala such as Quilon (Kollam), testified by the copper plate inscription famously known as the Syrian Christian or Tarisapalli Copper Plates. These were issued by the local ruler in lieu of granting special privileges to the Christian merchants, including assigning the services of different working castes specialising in different occupations to them, including slave labour to till farmlands.1 Until the Portuguese intervention, the traditional Christians do not seem to have faced any challenge to their privileged position.2 However, with the coming of the Portuguese and, with them, Catholicism, the Jesuit missionaries began evangelising thousands of souls for the church from among the lower-caste fisherpeople along Kerala’s coast.

Riding high on the spirit of the inquisition, the Portuguese wanted to purge the already existing Christian practices of its local accretions. This led to severe contests between the traditional Christians and Roman Catholicism represented by the Portuguese Catholic hierarchy, with the schisms becoming particularly significant in the 17th century. The fallout of the mid-17th century development was the firm decision of one section of the traditional Christians to resist the ecclesiastical power of Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church finally had to accept the traditional Christians, regrouped as Jacobite Christians. The ascendancy of the Dutch made matters easy for the non-Catholic Christians to get their Bishops from West Asia, to oversee their spiritual affairs, including the consecration of Bishops, as the Dutch were Protestant. With the coming of the English, there were further changes in the history of Christianity in Kerala, as this period witnessed the genesis of Anglicanism with the arrival of the Church of England. Missionary organisations of the Anglican church became very significant as they worked among a range of social groups and established modern institutions.

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Updated On : 3rd Nov, 2017
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