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Caste, Family, Self: Savarna Christian Perspectives

Caste, Family, Self: Savarna Christian Perspectives

nidhin 1

Nidhin Shobhana

nidhin 1(This is a short report on a self-perception survey conducted among Young Syrian Christians as a part the author’s MPhil Coursework in Centre for Studies in Discrimination and Exclusion, JNU)

What is the value of a perception survey?

The Mandal Commission in its ‘socio-educational’ household survey asked the participants the following question— Do others consider your caste/sub-caste/hereditary group socially backward? This was the only question which directly aimed at ‘self-perception’.  Clearly, the answer to this question might have informed the first criteria of social backwardness devised by the Commission[1] in 1978.   Tracking perceptions is an innately qualitative exercise. Self-perceptions can be linked to larger quantifiable indicators such as education and employment, informing policy.

 In a caste society, possibilities of developing a ‘self’ perception are severely curtailed by socially legitimate ascriptive structures. However, one cannot deny abilities to subvert constraints. Groups and individuals often resisted social identifications by embracing new names. It is recorded that many Dalit Christians of late nineteenth century resisted the move by Census Officials to mark them by their castes. Instead, they wanted to be recorded as ’Christians’. Similarly, many Christians in Chhattisgarh marked themselves as Satnami Christians instead of Chamar Christians in 1931.  Similarly, several lower-castes embraced names such as ‘Arya Samajists’ to at least partially crack the permanence of jaati names. Thus, self-perception has a political value to it.

 The idea of conducting a perception survey which fully depends on the ‘opinions’ of individual participants, can open up many new ways of subverting stereotypes or rationalizing them.  However, these possibilities are fenced by the nature of our questions. The researcher can carefully word questions to ‘confirm’ his/her own bias.  The processes of developing a perception survey, networking for participants and dealing with the problems of the questions asked (especially in an online survey) are the most valuable lessons of such a survey. In this process, we often come face to face with our own limits as a researcher.

About my Survey: Ideas and Starting trouble

My survey aimed at understanding the perceptions of Young Syrian Christians on their families and identities. The survey questionnaire was designed in nine sections, with exercises of social ranking, word associations, and short and long answers. Most of the participants were from Delhi. However, I did find online participants from Bangalore, Pondicherry, Mangalore, Kochi, Germany, and Chennai as well. The participants were majorly composed of research scholars and university students. This fact surely has a bearing on the answers and their patterns. One of the first challenges during the survey was ‘identifying’ Syrian Christians.

The term ‘Syrian Christian’ does not have a single meaning. It is broadly used to denote two groups (a) Native Christians of Kerala or pre-16th century Christians (b) Present-day Christians who are affiliated to Syrian Christian Churches. While the former may be a part of the latter, vice-versa may not be true. Due to the evangelical missions of Syrian Christian Churches starting from late 19th century, a considerable population of lower-castes (in some cases even outside Kerala) are part of Syrian Christian Churches.  C.J. Fuller among other scholars observes that 19th/20th (or even 21st century) lower-caste Christians of Syrian Christian parishes are not socially recognized as Syrian Christians or Nasrani Mapilla.  Some do make claims to the Nasrani identity but may not be able to settle down with that identity perpetually due to social hostility. Much like terms such as Rajput or even Maratha, Nasrani can often slip into contested terrains of Savarna claims and counter-claims, often to the distress of ‘true’ Native Christians in Kerala.

This survey does not try to choose one meaning over the other. Any individual who identifies as a ‘Syrian Christian’ could participate in the survey. However, my friends who helped me find ‘Syrian Christians’ had a real testing time. Many admitted that identifying them is not simple. In this report, I touch upon certain salient aspects of the survey which collected responses from 24 participants.

What makes you the best Syrian Christian?

When asked ‘What lends higher status to a family within Syrian Christians?’  Most of the participants responded that a combination of money and ‘family name’ (Tharavatuperu) lend a higher status to families within the community. Some of the participants categorically listed conditions for higher status. For example, take a look at the following answer–

By invoking the history of the family, of its long relations with the church, and number of nuns and priests to the church

The relationship with the Church or Sabha is often substantiated with the numbers of nuns and priests the family has produced. More the number of priests and nuns across known generations the better. Family histories of Syrian Christians are replete with biographical details of nuns and priests. Historically, the leading figures of the priesthood and ecclesiastical hierarchies were drawn from certain families alone. For example, till early 17th century, the Archdeacon of the Nasrani Mapilla was drawn from Pakalomattom family. Drawing one’s family tree back to the Pakalomattom family is a common feature among several family historians in Syrian Christianity.

     ‘Family name’ was the most repeated answer, often in combination with ‘economic background’ or ‘priests’. One of the participants expanded the meaning of family status in the following words –

How far back the family-history as Christians go, and the social status.

Family histories often make attempts to trace back their Christian genealogies to the first century A.D. Such genealogical accounts do not bear any historical validity. However, what really counts is how well can a family organize and disseminate stories of legacies using their economic and social standing.  Such activities, which require a lot of investment, are carried out by economically sound families.  Some of the participants also listed ‘land’ and ‘gold’ in the list of factors that lend higher status.

Indianness, Hinduness, and Syrian Christians

The perception survey made certain attempts to understand how Syrian Christians relate to the ideas of ‘Indianness’. Academic literature produced within Christian historiography and exclusively on Syrian Christians has argued quite aggressively about the ‘Indianness’ of the group. For example, Immanuel D. Rajappan (1950)[2], Jacob Joseph (2012)[3], I.T. Varghese (1990)[4],  Dr. K.T. Joy (1986)[5] to name a few. Susan Viswanathan, Pius Malekandathil, George Malancherry also underline the Indianness/Hinduness of the group as against Western Christianity/Protestantism which is seen as an imperial by-product.

However, the question in the survey was generally looked at with suspicion by the participants. This suspicion is evident in their responses. For example:

       Are Syrian Christians more Indian than other Christians? Explain

$11.     Nobody can be more or less Indian based on religion. India is a secular nation (though, now, I genuinely have doubts about that)

$12.     No. I don’t really get where this matter of more Indian and less Indian comes from. A lot of their traditions have been appropriated from Jews and Hindu tradition so if that makes them more Indian, then yeah.

$13.     I am uncomfortable with hierarchies of “Indian-ness”, especially in the present times.


The suspicion, among at least a few of the respondents, can be explained by the comparative nature of the question. However, when the question did not expect any comparison the responses were much more forthcoming. For example:

Do you think Syrian Christians are culturally Indian? Please explain.

$11.       Yes. We’ve imbibed many traits from our ancestors who were Hindu. The neelavilakku in the picture earlier is one of those. Also, the thali mala used for weddings.

$12.       Yes. Their traditions are rooted in Indian culture and aim to keep it preserved for posterity in its entirety

$13.       Yes.. Christians in India have a mixed culture and I just love it

$14.       Basically, the Syrian Christians are more Indian than anything else, they do have some Syrian and some Hindu characteristics

$15.       Yes but upto some level. For example, feast in church sometimes resembles those old traditions in India. Like fireworks, chenda melam, etc.


Hindu or ‘Hindu characteristics’ were invoked by certain participants to explain cultural Indianness. For example, as mentioned above, participants spoke about thali mala (mangalsutra), neelavilakku (lamp), chenda melam (percussions), fireworks (often associated with Hindu festivals) to explain ‘Indianness’.

The next question which enquired whether Syrian Christians are closer to Hindus received a mix of interesting answers. For example –

$11.       yes, specifically to Nairs.

$12.       Depends on what you are comparing. We are closer to Hindus in some things, closer to Europeans in others.

$13.       Yes, since Christians still light the lamps in church and have idols placed in worship places which is a tradition followed by Hindus.

$14.       Syrian Christians were Buddhist and Jain converts; this is the case of Hindus in Kerala as well. Hence they are sharing of cultures.

$15.       Well, the Syrian Christian community I have been brought up in – away from Kerala- had a distinctively “Christian” culture. I really had to adjust to the dominant Hindu culture around me – since I found many things strange and alien.


The fifth response mentioned above is very interesting. The participant was born and brought up in Delhi. According to her, Syrian Christianity was a distinctively ‘Christian Culture’ as opposed to the ‘dominant’ Hindu Culture around her. This binary is a product of migration and space. The cultural similarity is very clearly marked only with ‘Hindus’ back home (in Kerala). For example, the first response mentioned above categorically states the closeness to Nair culture. The argument that Syrian Christians and Hindus were Buddhist and Jain converts emerges from certain trends in Christian historiography[6], which try to academically trace the presence of Buddhist and Jain traders in first Century Travancore.

The preceding discussions help us discern the popularity of certain ideas of ‘Indianness’ and ‘Hinduness’ among Syrian Christians. The notions seem to locate itself more often within the particular details of Kerala. Hindu and Hindu characteristics often break down to specific Savarna Hindu locations in Kerala.

Sensing Hierarchy

The survey had asked the participants to rank Syrian Christians within the Christian Community of India. This ranking was aided by a triangle. Five out of 24 participants marked Syrian Christians on the top of the triangle. Three out of 24 marked them in the second position. 6 out of 24 marked them in the third position. While the rest either marked the fourth or fifth position. Several participants were disturbed by this question. While one can sense hierarchy in other responses as well, this question which directly dealt with a hierarchy (physically represented in a triangle) did not go very well with the respondents. Many of them marked all the positions.  After the ‘triangle’ exercise, two more questions were asked in quick succession.

Few responses are as follows – 

Who do you think is equivalent to Syrian Christians in the Indian Christian Community?

$11.     Brahmin Converts in Madurai share similar social status

$12.     Malankara Catholics

$13.     I’m uncomfortable with such hierarchies

$14.     Nairs

$15.     Anglicans

$16.     Orthodox Christians


Who do you think are below Syrian Christians in the Indian Christian Community?

$11.     Syrian Christians believe that Protestant Christians and Latin Christians are lower caste converts so considering them as below

$12.     CSI Christians who are mostly Dheevara converts

$13.     Satanic groups

$14.     Latin Catholics

$15.     dalits, lower caste converts, protestants


While most of the respondents either denied hierarchy or refrained from mentioning names of any communities/castes above or below the Syrian Christian positioning, a significant number did provide certain insights into hierarchies which are often found in scholarships and political articulations. For example, the participant, who wrote about the Buddhist and Jain conversions to Syrian Christianity, mentioned that the Madurai Brahmin Christians share an equivalent social status to Syrian Christians. Some of them named Syrian Christian denominations equivalent to each other. 

On the other hand, responses to who were below Syrian Christians received more number of concrete answers. Lower-castes, Dalits, and Dheevara (fishing community) Latin Catholics or CSI Christians were listed as below Syrian Christians. However, it should be noted that quite a few denied the existence of any community below Syrians in Christian Social hierarchy. 

The variety of responses can be partially understood based on (a) nature of the survey (b) the general profile and composition of the respondents. The survey was mostly conducted online. Thus, one cannot ensure whether the survey questionnaire was filled individually or in a group. Similarly, online surveys allow more time to write, delete and rewrite answers. Second, most of the respondents were from either Jawaharlal Nehru University or Delhi University. This has had an impact on the nature of the responses. However, irrespective of these limits several interesting perceptions emerged from the exercise. 

A similar ‘triangle’ exercise of ranking Syrian Christians within Kerala’s society was part of the survey. The responses were again a mix. Most of the participants marked Syrian Christians in the third position (8 out of 24). 7out of 24 participants marked them in the second position. While one participant marked them on the top of the list. While a significant number refrained from naming communities equivalent or below Syrian Christians (9 out of 24), quite a few did ‘name’ communities.

 For example –

Who do you think are equivalent Syrian Christians in Kerala’s society?

$11.     I am not sure since I wasn’t born and brought up in Kerala. But according to what I have read, Syrian Christians claim to be equivalent to Hindu Nair community. Although personally, that holds no significance

$12.     Nairs

$13.     Imagining an order or hierarchy itself need some base, i don’t understand what is exactly your query?  If you mean caste status, Syrian Christians believe that they are in the upper layer of the social hierarchy in par with Nair community

$14.     Nair community

$15.     Nairs, Menons

$16.     Nairs

$17.     Nairs? I’m not really familiar with all the hierarchies in Kerala society.


 As you can see, Nairs as a caste are most frequently equated to Syrian Christians in the survey. We do find instances where denominations within Syrian Christianity are equated to each other (Syrian Catholics, Malankara Catholics, Syro-Malabar, and Jacobite) However, it is interesting to note that Mar Thoma and CSI Churches did not surface in their answers, though they technically form a part of the larger Syrian Christian denominations. One needs to probe further to clarify whether this exclusion is due to the large presence of lower-castes in Mar Thoma and CSI denominations. The case of claiming equivalence with Nairs is a curious case. Through literature (academic and otherwise) we are repeatedly told that the Syrian Christians believe and reproduce the story of Brahmin-origin. However, nobody among the respondents equated the community to the Brahmins in Kerala.  This observation was also made by Fuller in his work on Syrian Christians. They claim social equivalence with Nairs but trace their lineage with Brahmins. Instances of social equivalence with Nairs was a direct result of changes in land tenure systems and political economy in Travancore in the late 19th century. When land was opened up for commercial exchanges, Syrian Christians were in a position to buy them from the traditional Nair and Namboothiri tenancy holders.  However, the vast majority of literature produced by Syrian Christians, claim Brahmanic ancestry in combination with Apostolic origins. This duality or contradiction is not an exclusive domain of Syrian Christians. Even Nambiar family histories in Kerala make claims to Brahmin origins without making any real claim of social equivalence with them.

Take a look at the next question and a select set of answers – 

$11.     Presumably all the lower castes – whether Hindu or Christian. And Muslims. At least in terms of education and economic power.

$12.     dalits, dalit coverts, protestants

$13.     Ezhavas, Pulayas

$14.     Dalits(socially and economically)

$15.     If you mean caste status; Syrian Christians are considering Ezhava and other lower caste as below Syrian Christians

$16.     ezhavas, dalits etc

$17.     I have again read about the Dalit community still facing discrimination – both within and outside the predominantly Syrian Christian churches.


Very clearly, present-day SCs, OBCs (Ezhava and Pulaya are catchwords), lower-caste Christians and Muslims are held below the Syrian Christians within and without the Church and Kerala at large. This pattern corroborates with sociological accounts on Syrian Christians and their sense of hierarchy. It also explains how equivalence is built across religious affiliations and as a corollary inequality is practiced across religious affiliations. This pattern, in a way, ascertains David Mosses’ argument that caste and provides the general characteristic of our society. Christianity should be seen as a mere influence/flavour on the bedrock called caste[7]. The everyday praxis of Syrian Christianity can be more appropriately understood in terms of jaati and not religion. The Christian religious identity of Nasranis does not figure in the mundanity of their life or its social and economic transactions. We hardly find a notion of a Christian ‘community’ emerging from their self-perceptions.

Christian Conversion

In the word association exercise in the survey, the most interesting set of associations emerged with the word ‘conversion’.

$11.     The Church I belong to doesn’t do it except through marriage.

$12.     not permitted by the church and considers as a sin

$13.     Strict no-no

$14.     Vested interests

$15.     Is it necessary?

$16.     Subjective, but if forced, is wrong.

$17.     Usually the lower caste conversions are not recognized by the Syrians.

$18.     I don’t support it

$19.    Shit



20 out of 24 participants gave a critical or negative response to the term ‘conversion’. A minority among the participants associated it with ‘aspirations’ and ‘personal choice’. However, as one can see above, a large number of responses give us a picture of how conversions are viewed among Syrian Christians. This is also interesting because most of the Syrian Christian Churches have their own evangelical missions today (under the influence of Anglican Churches). Certain participants associate conversion with ‘modern-day churches’, ‘Pentecost’ and ‘lower-castes’. These associations can be historicized and contextualized. Conversion is seen as the entry of ‘lower-castes’ in Christianity through modern churches including Pentecostal missions. Pentecostalism, which comes under racial attacks in popular cultures of Kerala, historically played a very important role in democratizing the idea of worship and congregation.

This process is viewed with suspicion by the Indian State, the Savarna sections across the board which includes the Syrian Christian community. Answers like ‘shit’, ‘vested interests’ or ‘I don’t support’ are symptomatic of this suspicion. The first decade of post-colonial India had witnessed several steps by Congress Governments against Christian Conversion. The appointment of Niyogi Commission by Madhya Pradesh Government is a watershed in such interventions. The successive legislations across states against conversions have only strengthened suspicion and contempt for religious conversion. It seems that Syrian Christians have imbibed this legacy of suspicion often dissociating themselves with evangelical activities (not in our church!) and placing it squarely as a ‘lower-caste’ phenomenon.

Other Word Associations: Family Names and Meetings

Veetuperu/Tharavatuperu (Family name) invoked a mix of responses among the participants. While most of them named their family names, a few associated words such as ‘judgement’, ‘feudal’, ‘honour’ and ‘identity’ with the word. The word ‘family meetings’ (Kudumbayogam) attracted words such as ‘patriarchal’, ‘prayers and gossips’, ‘ultimate indulgence in the glories of the past’, ‘togetherness’, ‘orientation class’, ‘differences between rich and poor’ etc.  What one finds in the responses are the multiple ways in which words are consumed and valued. However, a common strand emerges when we connect these words. Family meetings and family names are deeply involved, invested in the sociological process of status-building among Syrian Christians. The associations of the participants open up various ways understanding status production activities within this Savarna community.

Who is a Syrian Christian? What were they earlier?

Christians converted by St. Thomas is the most common definition/description of the community among the participants. However, there is a significant amount of confusion, about what were the identities before conversion. While many did not address this aspect, a few others repeated the common narrative of upper-caste Hindu conversions by St. Thomas. One of the participants categorically mentioned about the ‘Brahmanic claims’ of the community. Certain others offered denominational definitions. In other words, denominations which are largely identified as Syrian Christian Churches were listed in their descriptions. On the other hand, one participant insisted on Buddhist and Jain conversion to Christianity. Two participants traced a Syrian and Central Asian lineage of the community. And three participants underlined the affiliation of the Church with the Antioch of the East. Thus, we find a clear mix in the definitions/descriptions.

Often participants distanced themselves from queries on identity and hierarchy. They would do this by answering the question from the perspective of the community and then distancing themselves by negating it (Personally I do not agree!). One could find a similar pattern with the question –‘Who, according to you, are Syrian Christians?’

Questions adjacent to these definitional queries were also answered (by several participants) in a self-distancing mode.  For example, the question – ‘Who were Syrian Christians before conversions?’ also attracted such answers. Most of them used a single word ‘Hindu’ to describe Syrian Christians before conversions. While some of them shared community perspectives of high-birth and immediately negated it with their self-perceptions.

Thus, among the university students and research scholars who participated in the survey, we find a constant distancing from the community and its perspectives.  However, along with such examples, we do find participants who would only want to ‘marry’ Syrian Christians to protect ‘culture’. It was interesting to note that most of the married participants had Syrian Christian partners. None of the individuals were married to lower-castes (SCs or OBCs).

In lieu of a Conclusion

This report has covered only certain salient aspects of the survey. Caste and ensuing identities (family name, meetings, demography of priestly class within the family etc.) cannot be studied within imagined religious communities alone. The case of Syrian Christians disproves the logic of looking for caste within religion. Often, the sense of hierarchy which pervades communities move beyond the logic of religious affiliations.  The participants point out that largely the OBCs and SCs across religion are viewed as inferior by the Syrian Christians. This process of claiming superiority over a majority happens hand in hand with claiming equivalence with Nairs. Thus, the sense of hierarchy based on the caste system historically and sociologically defies limits of religion. The perception survey is symptomatic of this process.

Conversions are largely viewed as a suspect, a synonym for ‘lower-caste’ entry and vested interests by Syrian Christian participants. However, a few of them did have positive views on conversion. But largely, the stereotypes reproduced by the State are held dear by the Syrian Christian survey participants.

Family Meetings or Kudumbayogams fetched responses which clearly prove its familiarity among Syrian Christians. Over the past two decades, family meetings have emerged as an important site of identity revival for this Savarna group. Detailed studies on such meetings would be of great academic and political value.

The survey was limited in many ways. It was limited by my own enquiry into Syrian Christian identities and families. The questions were heavily shaped by my own perspectives. In fact, the questionnaire is an evidence of my own perceptions of this community to which I half belong to from my maternal side. The participants were not a cross-section. They were majorly university students and research scholars. This has affected the ways in which questions were answered and unanswered.

(For queries on the above survey please contact

[1]Mandal, B. (1980). Mandal Commission Report (Part I). Government of India.

[2] Immanuel D. Rajappan (1950). The Influence of Hinduism on Indian Christians. Leonard Theological College.  Jabalpur, India.

[3] Jacob Joseph (2012). The Mission Understanding and Practices of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church with reference to the SME in India. Masters of Theology Thesis. United Theological College, Bangalore.

[4]I.T. Varghese (1990). The Malankara Church in Nineteenth Century: In Connection with the CMS and the West Syrian Patriarchate and the consequent effects. PhD Thesis, Kottayam.

[5] K.T. Joy (1986). The Mar Thoma Church: A Study of its Growth and Contribution. United Theological College, Bangalore.

[6] Dr. Chacko M. Paul (2013). Syrian Christians: One Tradition, Many faces, V. Joshi & Co., Pune

[7]Mosse, D (2012). Caste and Christianity. Seminar Vol.633,pp.58-63 


Nidhin Shobhana is a writer, artist, and researcher. 

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