The Syrian Church of India emerged into a clear historical light at the time of Vasco da Gama's arrival in Kerala. By then it had grown to such an extent that the Portuguese estimates placed the number of Syrian Christians as high as two hundred thousand, yet the Christians in Kerala had long ceased any effort at proselytizarion, regarding admission to their Church as a matter of birthright rather than conversion.
Until the seventeenth century, the loyalty of those Syrian Christians who did not turn to Rome was still to the Patriarch of Babylon, and this meant that, though the majority were simple, semi-literate believers, concerned little with doctrinal points about the nature of Christ, the general tendency of their Church was Nestorian; there is no evidence of disagreement on this point between the bishops who came periodically from Persia or Babylon and the native Indian clergy.
But though Persian and Mesopotamian immigrants gave the Indian Church a Syriac liturgy and a Nestorian doctrine, and maintained the link with the Catholicos of the East which has always seemed particularly important to the Christians of the Malabar Coast, these relatively small numbers of settlers cannot account for the numerous congregations which existed at the end of the 15th century, or for the spread of Syrian Christianity into areas away from the coast which eventually became its great strongholds, such as Kothamangalam and Kottayam, where the churches are undoubtedly very ancient.
Modern Syrian Christians look no different from other Malayalis, and whatever Iranian or Semitic strain may have been brought from there has never been any real doubt that the Persian crosses preserved in the Valia Palli church at Kottayam date, as the Christians claim, from the early 9th century A.D., and the very handsome church itself, with its steps inscribed in a Malayalam script long obsolete, is undoubtedly almost as old.
Syrian Christians of Kerala have taken a significant part in the medical, educational and industrial development of Kerala. A large section of the colleges and schools in Kerala are run by them. The Syrian Christian women are among the earliest Indian nurses. Their professors and teachers have distinguished themselves throughout India and have also served in a considerable way in the armed forces.
Syrian Christians in fact claim to be of high-caste Hindu descent, and this claim is admitted by the status within the caste system which the Brahmins tacitly allowed them. Yet during the past five centuries the only Malayalis who have accepted conversion to Christianity have been very low-caste Hindus, like the fishermen of the Travancore coast who responded to the preaching of St. Francis Xavier and his Jesuit followers.
Buddhist and Jains preached freely, made converts and enjoyed the protection of kings and noblemen, and likewise the Christians were no less favoured. It was evident during this period of general religious permissiveness that Syrian Christianity was, in India, a proselytizing religion. The names of the Brahmin converts have not been preserved, but at least one important chiefly family of Kshatriya rank, the Rajas of Villarvattam in the Cochin area, accepted Christianity and maintained the religion until their line died out just before the arrival of the Portuguese; the tomb of the last Christian Raja of Villarvattam is still preserved in the ancient church of Udayamperur. The accession of this family to the Syrian Church provides the core of truth in the story, told to Vasco da Gama by the Christians who welcomed him on his second visit to India, which they had once had their own king, whose sceptre they presented to the Portuguese commander.
Syrian Christian Wedding
For the Syrian Christians the days of proselytization were over as soon as they accepted this situation; they even underwent a process of Hinduization. Caste rules they applied only slightly less harshly than their Hindu neighbours; a man of a lowly community might be allowed on to the veranda of a Christian home but not into the house itself. They also adopted many Hindu customs. For example, during the Syrian wedding ceremony the Christian bridegroom follows the Nayar custom of tying a thread round the bride's neck and giving her a white cloth which he drapes over her head. The wedding takes place in the Syrian Christian Church. In the churches of Kerala hang many-wicked bronze coconut lamps very similar to those used in the Hindu temples, and bathing in sacred waters is an important feature of some Christian festivals. The most important holy days for the Syrian Christians are Easter Sunday and Good Friday.
Syrian Christian Bishop in Kerala
The clergy of Syrian Christian in Kerala have Catholics at the apex, and ten bishops called metropolitans, for ten dioceses. There are as many as 100 churches in one diocese, while there are about one thousand priests. Entrance is after the pre-university level. Training is provided at the M.D. Seminary, Kottayam, with course lasting four years. B.D. degree needs to be attained from the Serampore University. The bishop of Syrian Christians of Kerala is mainly chosen from among the monks or celibate priests; however a layman can be elected if he obtains the B.D. degree, etc. The Patriarch of Syria generally consecrates the Catholics though they have no jurisdiction over the Church, which is Indian and independent.
In general, the Syrian Christians were unmolested by the non-Christians of Kerala. At a later period Tipu Sultan destroyed some Christian churches in Malabar and made a few forcible conversions to Islam, but he was an alien from Mysore, unaccustomed to Malayali traditions of tolerance. The only known persecution by Hindus was the massacre in 1809 of many Syrian Christians, including some priests, during a Nayar rising against the British East India Company, but this was less because of the religion of the victims than because they were suspected of favouring the British. However, before the arrival of the Europeans, the chief vocation of the Syrian Christians in Kerala apart from agriculture was trade and commerce. Moreover a considerable portion of the state's trade in pepper and other commodities was likely in the hands of Syrian Christian merchants.