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Every Family Its Own Historian?

The Case of Syrian Christian Family Histories

Upper-caste Syrian Christian family histories variously comprise the reconstructions of popular beliefs; family and church genealogies claiming Brahminic and apostolic origins; biographies of prominent family members; discussions on the crisis of national and global migration; purity of race and blood; descriptions of relationships with other social groups; road maps and visions for the future; endogamous family directories; popular bedtime stories, among others. These family historians select the most desirable facts, figures, myths, and legends to present a strange blend of facts and fancies. This paper explores how the Syrian Christians mobilise, conceive, and position their histories within the social matrix of Kerala and their ideological uses for identity politics.

The author is grateful to the anonymous referee for their detailed comments.

[T]he history, which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience, will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened. In part, it will be true, in part false; as a whole, perhaps, neither true nor false, but only the most convenient form of error.

— Becker (1932: 229–30)

Carl Becker (1932: 223) defines everyday history as a “memory of things said and done,” emphasising its certainty in making sense of the present and anticipating the future. Writing down things said and done is an artificial extension of our memory. The process of writing is selective. We select facts, figures, myths, and legends to construct historical knowledge, albeit with varying filters of accountability. Our knowledge is directed by purpose and the “most convenient forms of error” (Becker 1932: 230).

This paper, culled from my doctoral work, tries to make sense of such historical knowledge as produced by the upper-caste Syrian Christian families of Kerala.1 These family histories, or kudumba charitrams, are artificial extensions of collective memory. They are collective possessions with decisive public lives. We find them as showpieces in family living rooms and as displays in state archives and libraries. The content of these family histories includes the reconstructions of popular beliefs; family and church genealogies that claim Brahminic and apostolic origins; the biographies of prominent family members; discussions on the crisis of national and global mig­ration; the purity of race and blood (vamshashuddhi and rakthashuddhi); descriptions of relationships and transactions with other social groups; road maps and visions for the future of the individual member and family; endogamous family dir­ectories often with photographs of its members; popular bedtime stories, so on and so forth. They operate as social and historical commentaries from the perspective of the kin network.

Syrian Christian historians select the most desirable facts, figures, myths and legends, presenting a strange blend of facts and fancies. They combine stories to fashion a past that meets the needs of the present. In doing so, the charitram fulfills certain functions, appropriate to the aims of the modern family, its caste and religion. This paper broadly seeks to achieve two things: one, explore how the Syrian Christians mobilise, conceive, and socially position their histories and two, highlight some of its ideological uses for the family and community.

Across the world, one finds a recent expansion in family history and genealogy writing, among the upper to middle classes. Scholars point out that the digitisation of key documents (esp­ecially in the West), including church records, census returns, land papers, and other material sources, has contributed to this spike in the number of family history enthusiasts and ­societies (Bottero 2012, 2015). One also finds an array of allied commercial services, such as family history guides and man­uals, genealogy websites, professional family historians, and DNA testing kits, which helps the amateur historian navigate the terrain of consumer historiography.

Mobilising Kudumba Charitram

In India, we are gradually witnessing a similar expansion, chi­efly among the propertied upper castes who have profited from neo-liberal capitalism, though we encounter a few notable exceptions.2 Transnational Syrian Christian families are a concrete example of this class. Nevertheless, it should be noted that family history writing is not a new phenomenon in India. Wealthy families, feudatories, and royalties, spread across the subcontinent, have historically maintained their genealogies or vamshavali, using both oral and written methods. With lite­racy, oral accounts have metamorphed into family history books anchored by modern family associations or kudumbayogams—a corporate body of households who share a common male ancestor, usually called the kudumbasthapakan or family founder. This transition is evident in the life of the affluent Syrian Christians. Moreover, the social elites of Semitic religions have always maintained their blood genealogies in one form or the other. Mary Bouquet’s (1996) remarkable essay points out the influences of biblical genealogies and family trees or secular genealogies of private families in post-Enlightenment Europe. Allusions to such influences are found in the Syrian Christian charitrams as well.

Kutayma, or collectivity, is an oft-repeated term in Syrian Christian family histories. For example, Philip P Olassa, in his prologue for the Changanassery Olasil family, underlines that the Bible conceives the family as a domestic parish or garhikasabha. Thus, it represents a holy collective, or kutayma, similar to a parish or sabha (Olasil Kudumba Sanghadana 2003: 12). Family histories are products of family collectives, with the family patriarchs or household “heads” as the face of individual dwellings and branches. They are both a consequence and response to modern attempts to organise families in changing times, beginning from the second half of the 19th century. This reorganisation has included a makeover (and subsequent consolidation) of class, gender, and communal rela­tions. Questions ranging from body fashioning to developmentalism have had its impact on the family and the extended kin among Syrian Christians (Thomas 2018; Abraham 2019). This is true for Kerala as a whole (Devika 2008).

Typically, a family history committee is appointed by the family association that collects contributions—financial and archival—from family members to aid research, writing, and documentation of the charitram. Family meetings buttress the process of writing family histories by providing the primary contacts and networks. The extension of the family to new functional arenas through kudumbayogams has gained steam in the past few decades. Transnational migration, new economic opportunities post-liberalisation, and the emergent crisis faced by endogamy have pushed families to take up new roles.

The Parayathukattil family history traces how prominent men in the family had to first contact and mobilise long-lost relatives who progressively out-migrated from the place of origin (Varghese 1995). This process was followed by the commencement of the first kudumbayogam. It took 18 annual kudumbayogams for the family to appoint a family history committee and publication committee. Another example of such prolonged engagement and investment is that of the Cha­kkamvellil family. The family historian mentions how the ­migration kindled by World War II led the family to recognise the need for a kudumbayogam and describes how prominent migrant men tried to prepare the early history of the family in the 1950s. However, they faced difficulties in compiling the ­genealogy and thus its publication was delayed. The family history remained unfinished for a long time, only to be taken up again by a group of well-resourced men, including a professor, from the family. Eventually, the necessary connections with family branches were made and the book was published in the late 1980s after a lapse of over 30 years (Chakkamvellil Kudumbam nd).

The Kulathakkal kudumba charitram captures well the academic, financial, and logistical processes that shape family history writing. The Kulathakals spent over `8,000 in 1974 to publish 720 copies of their 500-page-long family history. This sum was collectively invested by family members through the family meetings. They compiled and verified the genealogy listings branch-wise (Kulathakkal Kudumbayogam Committee 1974). Travelling long distances to connect with family members and collect relevant information was and is a crucial part of family history writing. Thus, the process of writing and the subsequent publication of the family history involves a number of events and activities that require organisational acumen and social/economic capital. The process is cushioned by church networks and establishments. Similar to amateur family historians and hobbyists in other parts of South Asia, Syrian Christian family historians are largely men from secure middle-class, urban backgrounds. In fact, family history, as a cultural form, is a leisurely activity enabled by specific-class affordances and caste settings. One needs to be free of immediate economic insecurities and social anxieties to pursue history of this kind. It is individuals, mostly white-collar migrants, who initiate discussions on history within family circles, which is then picked up by the family in an ordered fashion. The final product is the printed charitram—a collective effort. The charitrams examined in this paper have been christened by the kin and their respective churches. They should not be confused with fragmented individual efforts to reconstruct family history nor with critical historical works that center family and kinship.

In recent years, one has witnessed a spike in such printed family histories filling up the “people’s archive” sections of the Kerala Council for Historical Research. This brings us to the next aspect of mobilisation—public display and consumption. Families expect their charitrams to inform a general readership outside the family. For instance, the Ayroor Pakalomattom Thazhamon (henceforth, APT) family endorses its charitram (1998), first published in 1926, as a book that would interest researchers and history enthusiasts apart from family members. Similarly, the Pulikunnel Family Golden Jubilee Bulletin describes its book as desha charitram, or local history, which may have takers even outside the family (Pulikunnel Kudumbayogam 2013). Further, printed family histories are part of an extended body of the family’s literary culture in print as well as electronic and digital media. For example, the historian of the Muthalaly family mentions how the family tree, which appears in the annexure of the book, is available on a website where family members can trace their relations to each other.3 He further points out that the book operates as a directory and address book for its family units with an aim to strengthen family connections across the world. The same directory was earlier published by a constituent branch of the extended family (Jacob 2011: 1–3).

The family collectives mobilise and disseminate charitrams beyond the immediate family circle. Dissemination, often, inv­olves a formal book launch and endorsements by mainstream political leaders, caste organisations, and ecclesiastical hierarchy. Book launches soon migrate to digital spaces as audiovi­sual material parked carefully on family websites. One frequently finds the presence of political leaders, charismatic speakers/preachers, and higher echelons of the church (across Syrian Christian denominations) attending and blessing kudu­mbayogam meetings. For instance, E M S Namboodiripad endorsement of the Kurakaran family history (Kurakaran Valiyaveettil Kudumbayogam 1993) or A K Antony’s endorsement of the Yogyaveedu family history (Yogyaveedu 2002: 11). Both are former chief ministers of Kerala, representing two opposing political streams: Namboodiripad from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Antony from the Indian National Congress. Clearly, endorsements are a cross-party phenomenon.

A detailed look at one such endorsement would be of some value. The erstwhile general secretary of the Nair Service ­Society, P K Narayana Panicker, in his endorsement to the ­politically dominant Elanjickal family, points out that the prosperity of a family depends on the charitable deeds and qua­lities of its ancestors (John 2003). According to him, the Elanjickals are a great family and its members are charitra nayakanmar or historic heroes. He admires the family for their ­political clout in the region and as “men” who worked closely with Nair leaders. Powerful families or communities relate to each other within modern hierarchies as co-decision-makers, sharing the same time and place—living through moments of historical significance. In other words, Pannicker as a samudaya nethavu (community leader) of the Hindu Nairs relates to the Syrian Christian family as co-operating ruling elites. He further underlines how a foremother of the family saved the Syrian Christian ecclesiastical head, Mar Thoma V, by giving away all the gold in her possession to the Dutch colonialists. This permanently marked the role of the family in the annals of the community and the church. Being visible within the offi­cial timeline of a region’s or religion’s history because of one’s pre-existing material and cultural capacities is a precondition for becoming a “great family.” It is only with such visibility that a family can convince a civil society of its social importance. Not all Syrian Christian families can accumulate such importance as the Elanjickals. However, quite a few involved in the family history project pursue this journey with varying deg­rees of success.

These processes make charitram a social practice and a cultural form that defines the family and its unity for insiders as well as outsiders. However, cultural forms cannot exist apart from economic and social structures. Thus, family histories protect the concrete class–caste and gender interests of the family, a point that I shall return to in the concluding discussion on ideology. The next section briefly captures the sources and methods of comparison in family histories.

Sources and Conceptualisations

Oral sources or vaamozhi form the backbone of Syrian Christian family histories (Podipara 1970: 20–21). Family histories are primarily scripted on the basis of oral narratives drawn from the memories of articulate elders of the family. This is true for all charitrams in this paper. Writing down family stories as charitrams gives them a fixed structure, lending future projects a sense of permanence and a historiographical road map. Nevertheless, in the introductory chapters of charitrams, one also finds accounts on how the past was reconstructed using material and written sources. A priest, Bernard, of the St Thomas (Third Order of the Carmelite Discalced), in his foreword to APT’s charitram, defines family history as parambara varthamanam or “lineage-accounts” and argues that “good” families have many ways to compile and narrate their lineage (APT Kudumbayogam 1998). The author of the same charitram, Cheriyan Mappila, lists manuscripts written in the Thekkan Malayanma4 as well as architectural remains and aristocratic armaments/tools from yesteryears as material artefacts in reconstructing the family’s past. The author also referred to essays and articles on the family that had appeared prior to the publication of the charitram in 1926.5 Similarly, reports and writings produced by the kudumbayogam between 1900 and 1926 are also used in the charitram.

The Chembarathi Kudumba Charitram (2009) tells us about visits undertaken to ancient churches, temples, Brahmin homes (illams) and public libraries (for manuscripts and palm scripts) to source material. Interviews with elderly members of the family and its many branches, memories of senior members in the parish, palm scripts available in the tharavadu (ancestral homestead), and diary entries of clergymen from the family are all listed as sources of evidence (Chemparathy 2009).6 Similarly, legends and anecdotes that are locally well known are incorporated in the historical narrative. The Vayalil kudu­mbam, members of the Kodukulanji Church Mission Society Parish (Alappuzha, Kerala), mention that a large section of their family history was borrowed and reconstructed from the golden jubilee memoir of their parish church. The memoir gives elaborate details on the family, especially in the context of its foundation in Kodukulanji. The Matheckal Family (2015) also traces the roots of the family back to 1,000 AD with the help of Church records. It is noteworthy how histories of churches and rich Syrian Christian families merge at many critical junctures, sometimes making them indistinguishable (Plantharayil nd). The recipe of a new family history also ­depends on the pre-existing charitrams. For example, the Pullipadavil (1986: 11) family traces its origins with the help of the Kadavettur kudumbayogam and a family history put together by one of its branches.

Coming to conceptualisation, charitrams imagine society to be a structure made up of families and, by that logic, history as a bundle of family histories. The Srampickal family historian marks out kudumba charitram as an example of social history that expands the scope of history writing beyond kings and queens (Srampickal 1998). Several family historians assign “academic” relevance to their venture, placing them within the scope of social history, which emerged as a sub-discipline of history in the anglophone West after World War II. It distinguishes itself from political, imperial historiography of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Christoph Conrad (2015: 307) exp­lains that the “social” in social history deals with “structures of societies and social change, social movements, groups and classes, conditions of work and ways of life, families, households, local communities, urbanization, mobility, ethnic groups, etc.” An important goal of social history was to challenge dominant historical narratives that did not place ­social change (as opposed to political change) as a central dimension of historical analysis. Sumit Sarkar (1997: vii) observes that the historiographical tradition of social history was associated “with flexible traditions of Marxism” and a commitment to “more democratic and humane forms of socialism” centred around the historical category of class.

Syrian Christian family histories discuss social change and continuities from the vantage point of individual families. They colour their narrative mostly as oral histories. However, family histories embrace several pretensions of mainstream historiography (if not its methods), eyeing for a “re-invention” of tradition.7 Oral traditions of genealogy and storytelling become authoritative when written down (Varghese 2004). In the preface to the Muthalaly family history, Sebastian Paul (a former member of Parliament and journalist) praises the historian for providing an “academic and scholarly” justification to the family’s age-old pride (Jacob 2011: cover). Though the historical consciousness of the family (and the caste community) draws inferences that are often contradictory to academic historiography, they prefer a coat of “professionalism” in their displays and presentations.

The selection, description, and arrangement of facts in terms of relevance are conducted in accordance to one’s own belief about and interpretation of the past (Kosso 2009: 14). In other words, the way we organise a historical description, in this case a family history, is shaped by our convictions about the past. Family histories do provide textual evidence of the already existing beliefs. The explanations and interpretations of narratives and legends expose them implicitly. One may even find explicit statements on what constitutes the historical sense of the family historian. The Syrian Christian family histories are full of “independent facts” (Kosso 2009: 12). Pre-­existing knowledge within the community and professional historical accounts are used eclectically to produce a family acc­ount. In doing so, they do not place themselves against legends or against descriptions of historical facts. They attempt a combination of the two to arrive at their political aim. Independent facts are cherry-picked as per the requirements of the family and put together to provide an account, which may not look all that convincing to a professional historian. Mainstream historians are “challenged” only when their conclusions seem to negate the political purpose of family histories. In other words, the challenges are never wholesome or methodological, they are partial and identitarian. Barring such rare instances, hardly does the family historian negate the dominant. For example, the Pullipadavil (1986) history concludes with an interesting timeline of family milestones. These events include visits by ecclesiastical hierarchies, important court orders pertaining to the Orthodox Church, establishment of local schools, parishes and seminaries, Indian independence, etc. The events mentioned in the timeline traverse multiple scales—the familial, local, regional, national and transnational. However, it ­effectively operates as a denominational, Christian jati (caste) timeline of remembering events that really matter to the identity of the family and its claims to “true knowledge.” In such an exercise, the family historian does not negate dominant, official accounts of church history but only tries to claim a place of honour in them (Pullipadavil 1986: 192–96).

One can argue that the explicit and implicit objectives of family-history writing are not in conflict with dominant historiography per se. As Webster (2002: 130–46) points out, the textbook history of Christianity in India is dominated by the elite or upper-caste Christian historiography; much like the rest of Indian history. Official historical accounts on the Syrian Christians and their denominations are mostly authored by Syrian Christians themselves. They mirror the class anxieties and ­aspirations of family historians, blurring professional–amateur distinctions.8

Charitram and Social Position

The reconstruction of the past often includes a reconstruction of social positions as well. Wendy Bottero (2012: 54–74) argues that social positions in family histories are established by making useful comparisons that are intelligible to social hierarchies in a given context. She highlights that family histories establish relationships, across time and place, between generations and social groups. They are constructed through selective comparisons that could be temporal or lateral in nature. Lateral reconstructions place family ancestors in relation to historical peers or groups. This juxtaposition can provide deep insights on how the family constructs social positions. The ­examples that follow would elucidate this point in some detail.

The first example pertains to an episode in the anti-caste movement of the 20th-century Kerala. The incident finds a mention in the Elanjickal charitram (John 2003), as a prominent ancestor played a part in it. We would juxtapose this account with a parallel narration of the same by Kunnikuyi S Mani and Anirudhan P S (2013: 113) in their book on Ayyankali. Let me start with the latter.

The reconciliation meeting after the Kallu Mala Struggle was a success. However, several people were still booked under many forged cases by the police. [The] poverty-stricken Pulayas had no money to fight these cases. As a result, nobody was ready to take up this case. Finally, out of sympathy, Elanjickal John Vakil took up the case under one condition. He asked the Pulayas to construct a pond, Kumman Kulam. The labour required for the construction will be accounted as fees. Thus, all the accused in the case came together to build the pond. This pond can now be found in the office campus of Kollam Zilla Panchayat. The Pulayas won the case and twelve Nairs were punished by the court. (Translations from the original Malayalam are my own)

An excerpt of the same event in the Elanjickal family history (John 2003: 158–59) elaborates,

E J John Vakil was ready to take up that case for [the] Pulayas. However, instead of monetary remuneration, he asked them [for] their labour (adhvanam). Kollam’s urban dwellers faced acute water shortage. Though the Ashtamudi lagoon was close by, its water was salty. The people of Kollam town wanted a source of water—a pond. [The] ­Pulayas, who were used to hard labour, had no problems with this demand. Till the judgement of the case, [the] Pulayas were made to work on building the pond only on food [remuneration]. The judgement was in favour of [the] Pulayas. The large, expansive pond was ready. Twelve Savarna Pramaanis were punished. (Translations from the original Malayalam are my own; italics added)

The first of the above two accounts appears in a biographical introduction to the work and life of anti-caste leader Ayyankali. The passage is part of a lengthy chapter on the Perinad Revolution (the mid-1910s), which was sparked, among other things, by Dalit women’s rejection of caste markers, such as kallu mala or crude stone necklaces. The writers, Mani and Anirudhan (2013), approach the revolution and the specific event mentioned in the passage as a part of a larger struggle for civil liberties and democracy in Kerala. The inability to monetarily remunerate the Vakil (advocate) marks the dispossession of the Dalits. However, the fact that they were putting up a revolutionary fight is highlighted. Elanjickal John is remembered and mentioned in this episode for his instrumental sympathy and not as its primary protagonist. The fact that the Dalits had to physically labour to fight their case is recollected as a grim historical reality.

On the contrary, for the Elanjickal historian, the leading character—the mover of this event—is noticeably the Vakil. The substitution of monetary compensation with hard labour is perceived as an intelligent solution to the water problem of Kollam town-dwellers. Thus, John Vakil is not only remembered for fighting and winning a case but also for solving a public water crisis. Pertinently enough, this event appears in a chapter title “Real and Interesting Event” involving the family. The question of labour and human dignity is overweighed by the sympathy and intelligence of the family member. The above instance underlines the family’s projected relation to the lower castes in modern times—a socio-economic relation of clientele patronage where the family ancestor has significant control over legal knowledge and the labour of the lower castes. Moreover, the narrative is an exercise in memory; a memory accrued from a socially dominant position. The next example also represents the Syrian Christian relation to the lower castes, possibly in precolonial times, untying facets of class–caste power and direct violence (Chemparathy 2009: 111–12).

Agriculture required the labour of many people. Slave trade was commonplace back then. [The] Parayan, Pulayan and other such [Dalit] groups could be purchased cheaply. In 1847, the king [of Travancore] had around one lakh 65,000 slaves of his own. Leasing them or selling them out contributed heavily to the royal treasury. Slaves could be easily purchased for rates ranging from six to `17. The slave and her progeny were considered the private property of the masters. Only the Savarnas had the right to own slaves. Slaves were relieved, happy and felt secured to be purchased by a good ‘Thambran’ [Master]. [...]

However, during the month of Meenam, most of the strong, well-built Pulaya men would run away from their Masters. They would run away to the forests. They firmly believed that Meenamaasam was meant exclusively for anti-social activities. Drinking alcohol, looting homes, killing wild animals and eating them, etc. were their hobbies during this month. They used to light/carry huge thipandam or torches during robbery. Thus, they were also referred to as Thivettikal (thugs). Chemparathy family had its own pulayakudi (Pulaya settlement) and parayakudi (Paraya settlement). Some of these agrarian slaves would start acting weird during the month of Meenam. Since, the family was bestowed with the title and rights of Panikkar (a medieval title denoting caste prviileges), we had absolute right and control over the slaves. We could punish them to any measure.

People who were thus punished and killed were buried in the south-west of the Paliyakunnel Malika. Until recently, orphaned dead bodies were also buried in that area. Many have hung themselves to death on an old Tamarind tree located in the burial ground. It is widely believed that people who pass by that area have often experienced the presence of ghosts. (Translations from the original Malayalam are my own; italics added)

This story appears in the concluding chapter “Kathaveshasham” (conclusion) of the Chemparathy family history. The chapter includes oral stories hitherto exchanged over generations, composed and written with a sprinkling of secondary sources. The above-mentioned story narrates a central aspect of the family’s significance. The exercise of absolute, arbitrary violence on the Pulayas and Parayas—as a matter of right—is featured as an essential historical aspect of the family’s “high birth” or savarnatha. The story instantly marks out the masters and the slaves. Ignatius Payyapilly (2016) points out how the Syrian Christians were highly involved in trading and retaining slave-castes at least till the mid-19th century. Certain church accounts provide details of how adimapanam, or slave offerings, were made to the Church (Payyapilly 2012). The practice of slavery found both secular and spiritual explanations within Syrian Christianity. The recollection of this historical violence is a crucial exercise in identity formation and class–caste assertions. Sanal Mohan (2008) argues that slavery was a central experience of Dalit historical knowledge in Kerala. On the contrary, in this specific instance, “slave ownership” emerges as one of the central historical experiences of the Syrian Christian historical knowledge. The historian highlights that these stories tell us about the social standing/position (sthanam) and the general attitudes (pothu swabhavam) and responses of the family to social structures and economic systems. They are also recollected for their “entertainment” quotient, according to the family historian (Chemparathy 2009: 104–12).

The next example, also from the Chemparathy charitram, underlines the “purification” duties (thottu shuddamakkal) of the Syrian Christians within Travancore’s Brahminical social order. The family historian explains that in the eighth century, Travancore witnessed the rise of the Aryans and the establishment of the varna order, leading to a consolidation of various purification rituals. While most of the vegetables were available in the immediate neighbourhood, certain products like salt, oil, and jaggery were handled and processed by the avarna castes, such as the Ezhavas and thus required “purification.” According to the family historian, since the Nasranis (or Syrian Christians) “cunningly” stood outside the caste order and enjoyed considerable social standing owing to their high birth, they were co-opted by the Brahmins as purifiers. This essential role was fulfilled by spatially accommodating the Nasrani families near the landlord families (prabhukudumbam) and temples. He claims that the quality of the purifier family and jati was strictly maintained by restricting or prohibiting the conversion of non-Brahmins to Christianity. The account also includes an interview with a 99-year-old Nair landlord who provides evidence on the purification duties of the Syrian Christians. The landlord recollected that during his youth, the Mannathur Temple had got a Nasrani, named Maani, from Perungalathur for the duties. He also remembered that in his own house, when the Ezhava palm climber broke the scaled coconut into two halves, the appointed Nasrani had to touch each half before they could enter the Nair household for consumption. The family historian dwells deep into these rituals only to underline how the Syrian Christians were, in fact, ­“Aryan converts” and thus guardians of the Brahminical purity.9

Unlike the previous examples, which represent the relations between Syrian Christians and the lower castes, this instance highlights their social position with relation to the castes above them or those similarly placed in the social order. The family historian, in the same example, claims a status for the Syrian Christian that operates both inside and outside the ritual order. The justification for this peculiar status is guided by the basic assumption that caste-based hierarchy is a Hindu concern. Ergo that the Syrian Christians, owing to their Christian status, stand outside of it, unaffected. Nevertheless, this aspect coupled with their high-birth myth makes them a fav­oured group in the Brahminical order, according to the family historian. It should be noted that the Brahmins, as a class, are held synonymous to the outmoded notion of the Aryans (Thomas 2018). It is also associated with priesthood, high social status, and powerful social networks. Family historians valorise the old belief of Brahmin ancestry with the help of these associations, masquerading them as circumstantial evidences or historiographical facts. Material cultures, such as illams, poonool (sacred thread) or kudumi (tuft or lock of hair), and rituals that are popularly associated with the Brahmins are appropriated through family stories.

Clearly, the examples quoted above bring out how kudumba charitrams capture the historical and mythical time and place of the Syrian Christian ancestors through social comparison and juxtaposition. The past of Kerala is imagined as a hierarchical order, intelligible and stimulating to the present. Fixing the place of one’s ancestor, marking their friends, rich patrons, poor clients, servants and slaves, then become important ways of drawing continuities and changes in a charitram. In doing all of this, the family historian assigns calibrated meaning to the caste claims of the Syrian Christian families. They construct the family as a product of the economic and social interactions with other communities and families. In that, families and communities are placed within a system of reverence and contempt. Such a historical perspective has great pedagogic value as the historian conceptualises family history as an instrument of social reproduction. Family, beyond its universal appeal, transforms into a complex set of social ascriptions and distinctions. It becomes a workshop wherein social class and caste are reproduced in the light of historical “self-knowledge.” Thus, far from being a private concern, the family emerges as a political institution realised through daily rituals and observances. In the next section, I discuss the ideological functions of these exercises in greater detail.

Ideological Function

André Beteille (1992) observes that educated Indians, mostly upper caste, who are part of state institutions are committed to the family more than caste. He separates the fields of family and caste, calling for an exclusive focus on the former. In a different work, published a year earlier, Beteille (1991) made the same point, calling family—not caste—the fundamental social form, which reproduces inequality among the upper castes that occupy new managerial or service employments. This ­paper, based on evidence from family histories or what upper-caste families have to say about themselves, does not find sharp distinctions bet­ween the family and caste. They emerge as constitutive, overlapping units that reinforce each other in the historical reconstruction of the past. Family histories rep­roduce an essentialised family. The construction of this essential family relies on class–caste, gender, and religious ideologies. As we saw in the beginning of this paper, family histories are not isolated emotional activities, instead they are ideological products of family collectives. Family is built on hierarchical comparisons and juxtapositions, wherein communities, identities, and families are recollected within the scope of accepted social differentiations.

Jon Bernardes (1985: 275–97) identifies family ideology “as a multilayered system of ideas and practices,” which holds a certain kind of family as natural and universal. This notional family, scholars argue, is often stronger and more efficient than the “empirical institution” (Barrett and McIntosh 2015: 18). Bernardes convincingly points out that irrespective of the differences in our specific domestic or household arrangements, we may still hold on to an ideal-typical construction of the family. Differentiation, he identifies, is a significant element of family ideology. Families are differentiated both internally and externally. Factors such as gender, age, and rites of passage ensure one’s access to resources and respect in a domestic arrangement. Family histories carve out ideal types for householders, especially women householders or kudumbinis, qualifying this internal differentiation (Donald 2019). Conjointly, families differentiate themselves from other families and communities, which, in our case, translates to caste dif­erentiation. However, the modes of marking this difference with the other, in the case of Syrian Christian histories, can be categorised broadly into three types. First, the absolute hierarchical division between the lower castes and the Syrian Christians. Second, the friendly or sometimes competitive affinity with the upper-caste Hindus, characterised by both simila­rities in social standing and difference in religion. Third, the almost filial affinity with the Brahmins as a concrete class and idea that best describes their pre-Christian days. The Syrian Christian family stands at the interface of these three differentiations. Thus, far from being universal and thus classless and least divisive, family ideology reproduces social divisions in ways unparalleled by any other institution (Barrett and McIntosh 2015: 43). Family, in the Nasrani imagination, is a class, caste, and religious institution.

Family histories enunciate the ideal type of Nasrani family, similar to Brigitte and Peter L Berger’s (1983) portrayal of the bourgeois family. They argue that a bourgeois family operates as a wealth-accumulating unit with decisive control over the nature of interpersonal relationships and social interactions as opposed to a working-class family. Its interaction with a range of strangers—an unavoidable feature of accumulation and consumption—is governed by the existing cultural protocols of master–servant relationships and market mechanisms. In the case of a breakdown in such a protocol, the master has the right to punish the servant. Such families have a strong interest in passing on accumulated assets to their offspring(s) and such inheritance is required to assist the perpetuation of a lineage. The household is perceived as a ­“secluded enclave” that filters out and interprets external factors in order to plan strategies of investment, consumption, and reproduction (Berger and Berger 1983). Family associations, through their history projects and other activities, are at the forefront of fortifying the household from external threats. Scholars underline inheritance as the most important source of class maintenance through families (Barrett and McIntosh 2015). Inheritance bet­ween generations, through marriage and within castes, become salient factors in the concentration of resources—cultural or material. The class reproduction played out through families is an important factor in the perpetuation of social inequality. More importantly, the logic of family-based class divisions stigmatises working-class families (or communities)—a point evident from the historical juxtapositions in family histories.

Family histories construct an ideal space where Syrian Christian social interactions and production relations are governed by the natural aim to perpetuate lineage and maintain accumulated wealth within the inscribed circle of endogamy. Family history and its precursor, the family association, maintain a discourse of historical/mythical superiority, build greater internal cohesion between transnationally dispersed household units, filter out changes that threaten the bloodline, and consolidate their clout as a powerful social class. These make them exquisite examples of identity politics among Syrian Christians, blessed by the infrastructure of their respective churches. An important aspect of this politics is finding support among other powerful jatis, communities, and individuals that are equally invested in such ideas. The endorsement of the Nair community leader (from one of the preceding sections) should be seen in this light.

The construction of the ideal­-typical Nasrani family also dem­ands the evasion of historical facts that stand in conflict with their claims. This inattention is cultivated through ­ideology. Charitrams tactfully and passively negotiate blind spots notwithstanding a display of apparent curiosity. This makes family history, like other historical projects, a measurement of both knowledge and ignorance. Certain political ­objects can be achieved only when we are ready to ignore and not be attentive. Such cultivated ignorance shapes the historiography of charitrams. The selection of facts and fancies, their systematic arrangement, calibrated comparisons, and sources present us with an array of convenient forms of error.

The perpetuation of a pure, exclusive lineage is innately cushioned by religious familism. Brent Waters (2007: 205), writing from a Christian perspective, defines family as a

witness to God’s providential ordering of creation, a human association comprised of biological and social affinities which provide a place of mutual and timely belonging for its members. (italics added)

Not having a family is denying the “vindicated order of creation” (Waters 2007: 193). Family situates its members within the creation’s unfolding history. It encapsulates an ordering of both natural and social affinities. In the absence of biological and social bonds, a sense of continuity between generations is lost. Family historians are invested in such a sense of continuity, socially and morally. Lineage and heritage are not merely a line of genetic descent but a legacy of love and­ ­fidelity embodied in and enabled through “proper” marriage (Waters 2007: 197).

Quoting Gustafson, Waters (2007) further points out that the good of the family and that of its members are intricate and reciprocal so that one cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Children and parents do not belong to each other but to the larger familial association. Familial cohabitation need not be perpetual or necessarily continuous, although it serves as a reminder that the providential trajectory of creation entails associations of mutual belonging and the forging of shared histories with persons both of and not of one’s choosing. The household also operates as a physical link bet­ween the family and society. Kinship is not simply a mechanism for tracing a line of genetic descent but also includes integration into the history of a lineage (Waters 2007: 199).

In such a conception, the family is viewed as the “seed of civil society” (Waters 2007: 204). This means that the existence of heteronormative (affluent) families fulfilling their socially sanctioned roles is necessary for the proper order of other social spheres. Good governance entails the lawful and just ordering of civil society in ways that embody the cultural heritage and traditions of the people being governed. Thus, within the parlance of religious familism, the family—as a central concept—connects the individual to larger society. Nevertheless, when families are inscribed within a complex caste–class-ordered society, their social reproduction would also mean a reproduction of inequality. The family association and its family history are imagined as an ideological bridge and wall bet­ween the family and the larger society. It operates in a liminal space between the domestic household and the world, like an outpost of the family.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

This paper is a limited exercise in outlining the mobilisation, sources, conceptualisation, and ideology of family histories among the affluent Syrian Christians of Kerala. Amateur historians on the behest of their family associations and church ­patrons construct an ideal family type. This type, irrespective of its empirical relevance, reproduces internal and external hierarchies as a seasoned pedagogic tool. This paper has focused on external hierarchies. Placing the family ancestor within the social complex of caste, class, and feudal entitlements marks the pursuit of the modern, middle-class family members. Why is this comfortable past important to them? Moreover, why do they need to share this past with the unassuming outsider? While white-collar migration and subsequent sociocultural shifts are pointed out as the reason for such opulent exercises, it also underlines the inseparability of family and social hierarchy. Far from being discrete or disjunct, the Syrian Christian family story is mutually intelligible to everyone implicated in caste and racial aggrandisement.


1 In this paper, “family” indicates a patrimonial arrangement made up of a group of men (their wives, children, and, sometimes, sisters) who share a common bloodline and, family name. They can be spatially and temporally at a distance from each other. They may belong to different income groups, nevertheless they claim a common class location.

2 Examples of family history writing in other communities in Kerala can be found among the Nairs, Nambiars, Muslims, and, to a limited extent, the Ezhavas in Kerala. It was brought to my notice that Dalit family histories have also emerged in the recent past, which take an oppositional look on the savarna story of Kerala.

3 The website can be accessed at

4 “Thekkan” stands for southern, while “Malayanma” refers to the old script of the present-day modern Malayalam.

5 For example, K M Varghese’s essay in an old Malayalam magazine called Navabharati titled “Pakalomattom Thazhamon,” which appeared prior to the first publication of the APT Kudumbayogam in 1926. The exact year of publication of this essay is not mentioned in the family history. The author of the family history has divided and classified the history of his family in the following categories: prarambham (beginning), purvam (early), madhyam (middle), and talkalam (present).

6 Udaya Kumar (2008) connects diary writing as a modern project that can be linked to the spread of Western education in the 19th- and 20th-century Kerala. Diaries cultivated literary competencies and a disciplined survey of everyday activities. Diary writing also contributed majorly to the emergence of autobiographical writing in the 20th-century Kerala.

7 The first level of invention of tradition among the Syrian Christians, I argue, was already underway in their everyday, unwritten lives. It is in the past century or so, with the advent of literacy, printing press and, now increasingly, digital platforms that we see a reinvention of the already invented.

8 Malekandathil (2018), Vela­ssery (2013) are among such scholars. For example, Malekandathil, commenting on the debates surrounding the saint, Thomas, legends and Brahmin conversion to Christianity, takes a sympathetic view, unlike other historians such as Bayly (2004: 245) who argues that Syrian Christians are the descendants of West Asian merchants. Malekandathil (2018: 3) believes that the story is “part of the collective consciousness and memory” of Syrian Christians as a whole. This “fact,” so to speak, makes the story plausible as it carries, what he calls, “a nucleus of historical truth.”

9 Sonja Thomas (2018) elaborates and analyses this claim in great detail.


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Updated On : 11th Jul, 2022
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