NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
THE SYRIAN CHRISTIANS
These very interesting people are well described, and an admirable and exhaustive history of their Church given in Whitehouse’s “Lingerings of Light in a Dark Land.” To this a few general remarks may be added, with some account of their domestic manners and customs, which have not hitherto been described. For part of the latter I am indebted to an able paper written at my suggestion by Mr. M. Matthew, B.L.
Birth. — A horoscope is generally procured immediately on the occurrence of a birth, from the Kanian, or astrologer, one of whom resides in each village, of course knows the families well, and can make shrewd guesses as to the future. For this custom the apology is made that it is “convenient for pre-serving the date as a register; “ but it is happily dropping out of use.
Names are taken from Scripture, chiefly the New Testament, and many of them considerably altered in the course of ages from the original Syriac form, so as to be hardly recognizable. Peter, for instance, has come to be Poonen; Joshua, Koshi; Paul, Peili; Zechariah, Tarien; Alexander, Chandy; and John Lohanan.
Baptism. — The children are accompanied by sponsors. The water for baptism is first consecrated, the infant placed in the stone font, and water lifted up in the hand of the priest and poured or rubbed over the whole body of the child, which is also anointed with holy oil on the forehead, ears, chest, hands, and feet, both before and after the baptism.
“There are a good many ceremonies besides the simple baptism — the exorcism of evil spirits; a strange plan of mixing warm and cold water with the assertion that ‘John mixed water for baptism and Christ sanctified it, went down into it, and was baptized; ‘ and an investiture of the baptized person with the priest’s girdle and a crown, of which the latter is removed by the priest seven days after the baptism, with a prayer that the child may receive instead of it a crown of glory. The doctrine of regeneration in baptism is strongly stated.”(Bishop Cotton.) A “baptismal feast” is usually held afterwards.
At a year old, “the giving of rice,” is observed. For this occasion the maternal grandparents supply a string of ornaments. For a male child, the largest ornament is a gold cross — for a female, a golden ducat or other coin. Parents take great pride in having many and costly ornaments tied round the neck of the child. But this exposes the little ones to danger from the cupidity of thieves. An ornament consisting of a tiger’s claw set in gold, curiously carved, is worn round the waist of children for good luck.
Boys when young wear these golden ornaments, but they are removed as they grow older. The Syrian girls are very fond of ornaments, wearing armlets, gold rings on the right hand; and in the upper part of the ear, in the southern parts of the country a golden takka, or cylinder, like the Sudra women. These earrings are the only ornaments retained after marriage. The ears of girls are bored, but not those of men, whereas among Hindus both males and females have the ears pierced.
At about four years old, the alphabet is learnt. A brass vessel full of rice is taken to the teacher. A lamp being lit, the teacher holds the right hand of the child and makes him write a letter or two on the rice, which afterwards, along with a few chuckrams, some tobacco and betel-nuts, is presented to the teacher. On beginning to use the pen, a present is given to the teacher, and a feast to the whole school, consisting of parched corn, plantains, cocoanuts, and jaggery, distributed by the monitors.
The lessons chiefly consist of grammar and poetry, Syrian prayers and songs in Malayalam, which is at present the vernacular of these people, and Scripture stories, all written on palm-leaves and committed to memory. Boys and girls are taught alike, as long as girls attend school, generally until married.
Food. — There are no prejudices against any particular kind of food. Beef is ordinarily not procurable, therefore not eaten. Rice and curry is a favourite dish. The Syrians eat sitting on the ground, on a mat or piece of plank. Brass vessels are used to contain the food, and on important occasions plantain leaves. The right hand only is used in eating.
Marriage — Few or none remain unmarried, except the higher orders of priests. A girl is never left unmarried, and only the very poorest have been known to wait till the age, say, of twenty- two. Even a deaf, or dumb, or blind girl must get married, because girls receive no share of the parent’s property, only marriage dowries.
Some fifty years ago, eight thousand chuckrams (Rs. 285) was considered a large dowry — at present such a sum is insufficient, as much as a thousand rupees being sometimes given. The dowry is supposed to be equal to one-third of the property of the bridegroom’s father. Should the husband die, the dowry is returned to the widow; in case of her early death, it goes to her relatives.
Re-marriage of widows is conducted in the early morning before daylight, as a somewhat shameful thing. Hence the possibility of such a fraud as was committed by a priest about ten years ago, who substituted a niece of his own, a young widow with several children, instead of the bride promised to a certain man.
The officiating priest was not in the secret, but on coming to the light at the door after the ceremony the sexton recognized the woman, and the deceived bridegroom took to his heels and fled to the Metran to complain. Of course, this was no valid marriage. Second marriages are thus allowed without the usual display, while third and fourth marriages are severely reprobated.
The minimum age of marriage is ten for a boy and seven for a girl, though such early and scandalous marriages are contrary to the ancient canons of the church, and apparently from a recent decision of the Sadr Court, contrary to the law of Travancore. In Christian marriage, it was decided, the free and reasonable consent of both parties is absolutely indispensable, therefore a marriage performed between such mere infants is null and void; and to this point the attention of the Syrian community was invited.
Yet a Syrian marriage, it is said, was recently solemnized between a boy of eleven years of age and a girl of nine, the children of educated and influential people. The usual ages are respectively sixteen or eighteen, and twelve. Never is a youth supposed to wed a girl older than himself — girls are always professedly but twelve before marriage, and strange to say, some are eighteen within two years after ! Unfortunately there are no registers of births or deaths kept in the churches. The young man may have no means for supporting a wife : then his parents must provide.
Intermarriage between blood relations on either side is prohibited to the seventh generation, which stringent rule interposes unnecessary difficulty in the way of finding suitable wives. They never intermarry with converts from inferior castes. Generations must pass before even high-caste converts get rid of the reproach of idolatry.
Wooing is not customary, nor are love-letters written : all is arranged by the parents alone. Often the parties have never seen each other until they meet in the church. The girl’s family are first to make proposals. It is a common saying that young men, whatever be their age, will find a wife at pleasure, but if girls are not married young, suitable husbands will not easily be found.
The fortunes of the young couple are usually cast from their ages and horoscopes. There is a “book of fate” in the hands of the clergy for this purpose. Much useless expenditure is incurred on weddings for the hire of conveyances, jewels, umbrellas, and musicians and feasting for days. The marriage expenses are roughly estimated at half the dowry. Both parties meet in the bride’s house to arrange the dowry and date of marriage.
The dowry may consist of ornaments, lands, or money. Eight days before the wedding, the parents of the girl send a deputation to the house of the boy’s father with the money for the dowry : it is contained in a purse carefully tied and received without counting, but should the contents prove, in the meantime, to be less than the sum agreed on, the boy does not come to the church.
The banns are published a week before the wedding, and only once. Marriages are always, except amongst a few of the reformed churches, celebrated on Sundays, and forbidden on all fast days. The bride and bridegroom must attend the public service immediately before being married, else a fine is imposed.
The bride never enters the church before the bridegroom : should she happen to arrive before him, she waits in some house in the vicinity. Her dress is a white cloth with red stripe down the front; or a coloured cloth, and a jacket worked with yellow silk on the sides and round the neck : a light muslin is thrown over the head as a veil. She is generally laden with borrowed jewels and strings of gold coin hung round the neck.
The bridegroom wears a splendid robe and turban, heavy gold bracelets on the arms, and a large golden cross on the breast; sometimes a silver girdle encircles his waist. They do not use the ring but a tali, a bit of gold with the figure of a cross strung on a piece of cord, which the bridegroom ties round the woman’s neck, and which she always retains.
‘The tali or marriage badge (like our wedding-ring) which every woman wears while her husband lives, proclaims her at once and everywhere as a married woman, and as having a protector. It also ensures her attention and respect, where a woman without the tali might receive neither.” (‘Every Day Life,’ p. 102.)
Both are required to fast on the day of marriage till the ceremony is over, generally in the afternoon. This appears to be a Hindu custom. In return for this abstinence they have the peculiar privilege of sitting in the church during divine service, while others stand. And when returned to the bridegroom’s house, they are seated for the time on an equality with the Cattanars. Only after all the guests have feasted may the married couple partake of food. Some, indeed, is offered them in church, immediately after the marriage, but it is generally declined, or only a handful accepted — even this the bride cannot do unless the husband has first taken a little.
Returning from the church, the newly-married couple do not enter the house till the ceremony called nellum nirum, “rice and water,” is over. A female relative meets them in front of the house, with a lamp in her left hand (even in broad daylight, which is one of the privileges of the Syrians in Travancore), and some paddy powdered and mixed in a vessel with water in her right hand. With this she makes a spot on the forehead, first of the husband, then of the wife, who makes obeisance in acknowledgment.
To omit this would be regarded as dooming the parties to poverty. The attendants then conduct the young couple into the house amid the exciting shouts of men and women, the men crying nada, ‘march,’ and the women making the kurava cry, a shrill sound produced by the vibration of the tongue between the lips and teeth. This is much used at Hindu weddings, devil-dancing, and so forth. The wedded pair enter the house and are seated on a plank curiously adorned with patterns of rice flour mixed with water, and surrounded by circles of the same substance.
The feasting now begins, the guests sitting in rows parallel to each other. All the men are seated on mats by themselves, and are served first. The women are seated inside. The men take rank according to seniority and the antiquity of their pedigree. The position of greatest honour is marked by two pieces of cloth, one black, the other of some dark colour, put in a place visible from all parts of the pandal. If an upstart, or a convert from Hinduism, however wealthy, takes his seat on these, irony is poured on him by the younger men till he is glad to vacate the seat.
A man having a head-cloth tied on his head stands in the marriage pandal holding a basket full of tobacco, areca nuts, and betel leaf for chewing. Thrice he begs permission of the company to present the basket, which being accorded, it is laid before the principal persons. Others with similar baskets, and a little lime, and spittoons, enter and supply the guests.
A short time is spent in chewing betel. After going out to cleanse their mouths and returning to their respective seats, the large leaves of the plantain, which are used as plates, are laid before each. The Syrians enjoy the peculiar privilege of folding up the end of the leaf !
Salt is put upon the righthand side of the leaf, then rice upon the leaf, and around the rice various curries of fish, fowl, and vegetables. Afterwards milk curd is brought to each leaf, and sugar, plantains, curd, and rice are mixed together and eaten. The sign of being satisfied is to close the fingers, which is noticed by the attendants. When all have made this sign, the question is formally put, “Have all closed their fingers?” and an affirmative answer is given. Afterwards all leave the pandal to wash their hands, tobacco is again distributed, and they go home.
On the second night of the wedding, small and great unite in merriment and joy, dance and song. Women amuse themselves by repeating all the songs they have ever learnt. Men and women come to the pandal splendidly attired, glittering with gold and silver jewellery. The young couple are placed in the centre of the pandal, four pieces of cloth are presented by the bridegroom to his mother-inlaw, uncle, grandmother, and father respectively.
Each embraces the bridegroom; the most respectable men and women in the company embrace the bride, the men first and women afterwards. Dancing, singing, and cheering are kept up till daybreak, when the company quietly disperses, to meet again in the evening. Only men dance. The bride’s relatives supply the guests with churutti a sweetmeat in shape like a conical roll, thought indispensable at Syrian weddings, and peculiar to that people.
The next evening is also spent in dancing and singing. One of the bride’s relatives acts the part of mother-in-law to the bridegroom. She is bound to supply him with rice, and to superintend the cleaning of the marriage chamber. On the fourth night of the wedding, the fictitious mother-in-law stands at the door of their room, which has been purposely closed, and anxiously requests that it be opened.
The attendants dictate various conditions, to which she assents. She knocks at the door with songs full of fine promises. “Open the door, my son and daughter. I will give you a cow and a calf to provide milk to drink — a servant to attend upon you, a brass cup for the children’s rice — a basin to wash your hands,” and so forth, exhausting the catalogue of domestic utensils, earnestly beseeching and knocking till the attendants report that the son- in-law is pleased, and orders the door to be opened for her entrance.
Other plays and jests are performed amongst the friends, in which several days after the wedding are spent. Parents, relatives, and visitors freely intermingle and rejoice together. The greatest happiness of Syrian parents is to see all their sons and daughters married during their own lifetime.
Laws of Inheritance. — Property devolves to legitimate children alike by first or second marriage, sons inheriting the bulk of the property in equal shares; daughters can claim only dowry, and are, therefore, not responsible for debts on the estate. The father cannot quite disinherit any of his children, but may, while alive, distribute his property to them by gift in any reasonable manner or proportion that he pleases.
If there are no sons, all goes to the daughters, or brothers, or next heirs — if no near relatives, to the Church. Persons without children may bequeath all their property to the Church, but this is not allowed if they have children. A widow with a family may enjoy her late husband’s property till her sons come of age; if she re-marries, nothing is given her.
Burial. — The body is carried in procession on a bier to the church, decently covered with white cloths, the hands crossed, and only the face exposed. Chanting a psalm on the way, the Cattanar, or priest, precedes, the corpse with a cross, umbrella, &c., the male friends and relatives following.
The body is laid in the porch of the Church, with the face towards the east, and a lamp and a cross at the head, where prayers are read. It is then re-wrapped with additional strips of cloth, the priest’s fees are paid, the body is placed in the grave, and the funeral service completed. Consecrated water is sprinkled on the corpse, and both it and the grave are incensed. All present turn eastward, and offer intercession for the departed. Then the priest first throws in a little earth, the people follow, and the grave is filled up.
Some are buried inside the church, for which a large fee is required, or in a kind of skeleton church or “cemetery,” erected and consecrated for the purpose. Metrans are always buried near the altar. Rarely are monuments erected; on the contrary, the remains are often treated irreverently, being thrown out on the next occasion when the grave is required, and cast into a great pit in a corner of the churchyard.
Fasting for the dead is kept, like the Hindus, for a whole year, by a member of the family of the deceased, during which time he who fasts is to abstain from meat and from shaving.
Amongst the southernmost churches, the Syrians have been largely awakened and enlightened through the influence chiefly of the Church Missionary Society, who have laboured directly amongst them, and the London Missionary Society in the Quilon district. In some churches the public service is conducted almost wholly in the vernacular, and the gospel is preached. About fifty of their churches are more or less reformed; but the future of this movement greatly depends on the result of the lawsuits going on for some years past, as to the legal rights of the Patriarch of Antioch, and Metrans appointed by him, who desire to maintain the old state of things.
Farther north, little improvement is discernible — there is no preaching or teaching of the people, no effort for the ingathering of the heathen. When urged to go out to read and exhort at least on a Sunday afternoon, they said that after confession they must not even speak to a Hindu, or answer when called ! Caste rules are observed by them towards their inferiors, and applied to them by Sudras and Brahmans. Immorality, it appears, is not inconsiderable in amount; opium eating, intemperance, and quarrelling not uncommon. There is no discipline in the churches, as the priests are dependent on the fees received for sacred offices; and some of themselves are blameworthy. Sorcerers are sometimes secretly consulted, especially in cases of epileptic disease, and offerings made to propitiate demons.
It is chiefly these who swell the proportion of crime amongst Christians to an undue extent by their smuggling tobacco and cardamoms, in which they seem to take the lead, and which they, perhaps, regard as venial sins.
The Syrians appear to be in the lowest condition in the northern and mountainous districts in Muvattupulay direction, where the Mission has, as yet, been able to do very little. Between Cottayam and Trichoor, a distance of about 70 miles, a great field for Christian labour lies open, for which the Alwaye Itineracy has been established.
At Muvattupulay and Todupulay there are large numbers of Syrians, poor, hardworking, and kind people, renting lands from the Namburi landlords, for which they pay four or five times the seed sown, and cultivating areca palms and the fruits, roots, and grains on which they live. They have no Scriptures or other books, and few schools. Nor is there a Sirkar District school at either of the two district towns just mentioned. The priests conduct service and go off to their houses; sometimes indeed there is no one to hold worship in the churches. The surrounding population have very little idea as to what God the Syrians worship, or how.
The ignorance and spiritual darkness of these poor nominal Christians is very great. On a tour in that quarter not long ago to see the country, I very carefully and cautiously examined those whom I met, or stayed with, as to their knowledge of Christian truth. It was heart-rending to learn of the criminal indifference and negligence of the priests, and to find old men and young quite ignorant, not only of the Scriptures, which they never read nor hear read, but even as to who Jesus Christ was.
“I know nothing of it “said an old man with whom I conversed. A youth with handsome open countenance could not tell what kind of person or character Jesus Christ was — whether a Brahman, a government officer, a carpenter, or what ! He “could not say.” One could hardly credit that such Ignorance was possible; but a native friend, who accompanied me, also repeated the queries in various forms to make sure that they were understood, and both of us used their Syriac terms.
The old man could mumble over the creed, but did not know the meaning. “What then do you go to church for ? “ “To do the appointed things, and worship the cross. The priest shows us God.” But he could not tell why the cross was worshipped.
Another said he went to worship the Apostle Paul, but did not know who he was, or what he did. “Why are you baptized ? “”For the religion and for the soul; to make me a Mapillay,” were the answers. “Why do you attend the holy communion ? “ “Because it is the custom. We are told to do it, but do not know the reason why.””Is it the same as eating your rice?”
“Oh no, something quite different, but I do not know what.” Scarcely any knew who the first man was, and such like things. I found that the Syrians were beneath the Roman Catholics of the neighbourhood, both in knowledge and in morals.
The accompanying engraving of the carved stone-work on the doorway of the Syrian church at Kotarakara is copied from a sketch made on the spot, and shows their usual style of ornamentation — the cross, angels, &c.; and what rather surprised me at first, the cock beside the cross.
I asked a man what this meant, and he told me it was the cock which the Angel Gabriel heard crow! He meant the Apostle Peter. Then he related some foolish story respecting the armed figures on the posts of the door. It is a solid and neat piece of stone-work.