Monday, March 12, 2018

Status of women in the Syrian Christian society

Introduction

The paper aims at showing the practices and procedures existing in the events of birth, marriage and death amidst the Syrian Christians of the state of Kerala in India. And the rituals and customs aimed at creating a mental and social divide in a patriarchal society with the place of women in the father's household and in her conjugal household after marriage. So also it will explore the elements of Syrian Christian wedding and the Indian practices customized exclusively for the women, and not the men to bear as symbols of devotion in a matrimonial relationship. 

The subject of analysis are the Syrian Christians of the state of Kerala in India, who believe that they were converted by St. Thomas, the apostle of Christ according to myths that date back to AD 52, but since 17th century have been divided into several different church denominations and traditions. The Orthodox and Jacobite syrian Christians are two of the segments of one denomination which split in 1912, with one paying allegiance to the patriarch of Antioch and the other to the Malankara metropolitan, the Catholicos.1
Kerala society in the earliest centuries was traditionally plural. It allowed for the portrayal and interaction of the Hindu, Christian, and Syrian codes which led to a later society inspired by all these schools of thought. There was an effective internal impetus towards reciprocal relativity among the various spheres of social life, and less of dominance or submission of any one in relation to the others. There had been the areas bound by a pluralistic system of values in which the other spheres of activity are accorded their due and place. It does not mean at all that the Syrian Christians did not have their private world. They did have their own private world. It related to their rituals and ecclesiastical life, “with the norms of endogamy determining the level of contact and intimacy between the individuals”. The Christian community, as the traditions of the Syrian Christians show, lived and developed and the Christian life grew on the pattern of temple-life of the Hindus.2 The community must have lived together as a caste, in villages or in towns, as is the ancient custom of India, and the church probably stood in a central place. Apart from the convenience for church-worship, the Christians considered it spiritually elevating to live near the churches, and this preference for living near the churches has continued in Kerala down to this day. They used to bring the sick to the church. The churches and the surrounding places were used as inns or Dharmashalas by the pilgrims.

1 A. R Sreedharan Menon, Cultural heritage of Kerala, An Introduction, p 57
2 A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, Bangalore, TPI, 1984, Pp. 1-21



However, their public life was much more fundamental. Their public life related to their affiliation to Hindu kings, their acquisition of Hindu norms of purity and pollution, their own status and rank consciousness, and even their adherence to customs linked with food, language, and culture. In their public life, they had a wider framework of interaction. Respect was conformed to the private life of the Syrian Christians, and in turn they too revered the exclusive domain of Hindus. There was a consciousness of difference which separated them, each group being aware of its individuality, though there had been much of a similarity in cultural life. As it is the case in the plural societies that interaction and communication do not take place through the loss of identity, so it was with the Hindu – Syrian Christian pluralistic society of ancient Kerala. 3There was a perfect communal harmony between the Hindus and the Syrian Christians of Kerala till the 16th century.
As mentioned earlier, in south India Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jews and later Muslims lived in peace and harmony till 16th century developing a philosophy of religious tolerance. There used to be mutual exchange of gifts in kind and money between the Churches and Temples during Feasts and Festivals. Culturally the Syrian Christians were fully Indian and they practiced all the customs like that of their fellow humans in the country. There was difference in their faith, which was an internal matter and more to do with the spirit resulting in no chances for communal disharmony. One find in the decree of the Synod of Diamper strictly ordering the Syrian Christians of Kerala to distance themselves from the cultural practices which strengthened the communal harmony. It is evident that the Westerners were repulsive towards whatever was Indian. The cultural practices and customs which the Syrian Christians used to keep in common with the Hindu brethren was labeled as unchristian, “heathen” or even as superstitious by the Portuguese missionaries in 1599. 4

3 Xavier Koodapuzha, “The Indian Church of the Thomas Christians”, Christian Orient, I (1), 1980, Pp. 20 – 61
4 Sadasya Tilaka T. K. Velu Pillai, “Preface”, in K. E. Job, The Syrian Christians of Malabar, Changanacherry, St. Joseph’s Orphanage Press, 1938


Picture credit:

The Syrian Christians used to take Indian and Indianised names. Onam was the national festival of Kerala and all celebrated it irrespective of religious affiliations. Syrian Christians used to learn the temple arts and fine arts. They were good in Kathakali, Kooth, Thullal like classical dances and folk dances. Even the men folk of the Syrian Christians, like their Hindu brethren, used to wear ornament on their ears. 5 Till 16th century, we find the Syrian Christians as a harmonious and culturally integrated community with no scope for communal tension and disharmony. A learned scholar writes: ‘the westerners, especially by Diamper Synod, estranged the Syrian Christians of Kerala who had one language and one ethos with their fellow Keralites, from their fellow non-Christians.’ In Kerala at the time of the Synod of Diamper, there had been many elementary schools which the Keralites called Kalaries in every village. Both Hindu and Christian children learnt to read and write in these kalaries, irrespective of the religious faith of the teachers called Ashans, and mainly these Ashans were Hindus who were men of moral integrity and exemplary life. The Syrian Christians, who lived in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious context of India, had always maintained a tolerant, benevolent, and positive approach and theology of non-Christian religions.
The Syrian Christians of Kerala had the same cultural traits as that of their fellow Hindus till 16th century, for they were from the same stock and race. One can call it as cultural and ritual interactions in terms of values and life style. It was one of the most remarkable traits of the Syrian Christians that even while they remained Christian in faith, they retained the typical Brahmin customs from their forefathers. The Hindu dietary and dressing habits, socio-religious ceremonies, and art and architecture rules were all observed with just slight variations. The Syrian Christians also practiced rituals related to birth, vidyarambha (initiation to learning), vivaha (marriage), and death.6

5 Paul Pallath, “Some Aspects of the Progressive Theology of the Church of St. Thomas Christians before its Westernization”,Journal of St. Thomas Christians, Vol. 13 (4) & Vol. 14 (1) 2003, p. 71
6 L. K. Anatakrishna Ayyar, Anthropology of the Syrian Christians, Ernakulam, The Cochin Government Press, 1926, Appendix E

Customs connected with pregnancy and child-birth were exactly that of the Brahmins. When a young woman was about to become a mother, that is usually in the seventh month of pregnancy, she was taken to her parental home, where she would remain for three, five or even seven months, after the delivery and would be taken care of in ritualistic pomp and show . The new born baby was bathed in tepid water and was fed with drops of honey in which a few grams of gold used to be rubbed in. The women attending on her were considered unclean, and became purified after a dip-bath in a pond, a stream or a river. The mother was said to be unclean for fifteen days after which she was purified by a ritual bath. She could not go on with her usual routine for either fifty-six days or ninety days. The naming ceremony of the new-born child was known as Mammodisa in Syriac and its Malayalam translation was Jaana-snanam meaning “bath to attain wisdom”. It used to take place either on the seventh day or fourteenth day of the birth. In the naming of the newly born child at baptism, the Syrian Christians had their tradition like that of their caste-Hindu brethren. The paternal grandfather’s or grandmother’s name was given respectively to the first male or female child. The second child acquired the name of the maternal grandfather or grandmother. 7
There used to be the custom of the first feeding of child with rice as practiced by the Hindus (Annaprasam or Chorr├Ću). It used to take place in the sixth month after birth. Parents often used to make vows to have the ceremony performed in a particular church, as the Hindu parents take their children to particular temples in fulfillment of special vows. When the child was about four years of age vidyarambham (initiation to learning) used to take place. The Ashan (teacher) of the village or community was invited, and a brass vessel full of rice was taken to him. 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 along with a few chakrams (coins of money) and ponn were presented to him. Boys and girls were taught together.

7 L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St Thomas: An Account of the Ancient Syrian Church of Malabar, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982
8 G.M. Moraes, A History of Christianity in India, Cambridge, Cambridge university Press, 1964

Marriage was an elaborate ceremony among the Syrian Christians, and it was very much social in character with the local Hindu traditions. There was no wedding ring and the Tali had taken the place of wedding rings. Child marriage was rather common among the Syrian Christians. They followed the Brahmin custom of dowry, given by the party of the bride to the bridegroom as a bride price. It was given in cash and gold on the day of engagement or betrothal at the house of the bride to the guardian of the groom. Marriages usually took place on Sundays and the celebrations would last for four days. Kalamezhal (or rangoli like designs made with rice flour in the pavilion erected in front of the house), Antamcharth (the ceremonial dressing of the bridegrooms hair), ceremonial bath, Mailanchiyidal (feet of the bride used to be anointed with henna), Madhuram-vekkal (feeding the bride and bridegroom with sweet), etc. were part of the marriage ceremony among the Syrian Christians and even today they are kept up. The most important function within the marriage was the tying the knot of the Tali or Minnu (a cross with 21 minute beads around more or less in the shape of a heart) at the neck of the bride by the bridegroom, and the thread of which is drawn out from the Mantra-kodi or the bridal veil. This again resembles the Minnu, the exact counterpart of the Tali in the Brahmin marriage ceremony in Kerala. The tying of Tali and the subsequent covering of the head of the bride by the bridegroom with the bridal veil all resembled the Hindu custom, with slight Christian modification. The Tali which is the marriage badge should not be removed as long as a woman remains a wife, and should be given to the church after her husband’s death, a practice observed from time immemorial till today. Marriage procession used to proceed on elephant’s backs or in palanquins with the five traditional types of music and with the loud hooting of joy which is still known as Kurava in Kerala, which was one of the 72 privileges of the Syrian Christians. 9 After the religious ceremonies in the church, the bride and the groom were taken home in procession, and at their arrival they were welcomed with the sprinkling of nellum nirum (paddy and water) – a fertility-cum-coronation rite and with lighted lamps, another sign of nobility-practice. Special attention was paid that the couple entered the house with their right feet.

9 Taken from A Synopsis of the History of the Syrian Church in Malabar, Kottayam, V. G. Press, 1910, as seen in George Menachery (Ed), Indian Church History Classics: The Nazaranies, Thrissur, The South Asia Research Assistance Services, 1998, p. 266.

Death pollution, vegetarianism during mourning periods, ceremonial bathing to remove death pollution (pulakuli), funeral rites followed by feasting (adiyantram), death anniversary feeding (Shraddham or Chatham) all were part of the culture. After the death of an aged person, the members of the family observe pula or pollution, usually for 11 days, or even 13 days, after which there is a vegetarian feast and prayers are offered for the repose of the soul. This ceremonial observance is known as Pulavidal till today. Anniversary of an individual’s death is also celebrated with prayers for the dead and banquet called as Shraddham or Chatham in Malayalam. This is also a typical Hindu practice. This practice is still kept up among the Syrian Christians. Further, taboos relating to menstrual pollution were followed strictly by women. Formerly, it is said that, like the Hindu girls and women, Syrian women also were under seclusion for three days during which they could not enter into the kitchen, and they bathed on the fourth day. 10
10 R. G. Rawlison, Intercourse Between India and Western World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1916, p. 133

Stridhanam: Women’s Wealth or Bride Price?

Stridhanam is the financial obligation on the parents of a bride who present a very large sum of money amounting to lakhs and lakhs of rupees, which the father of the bride gives to the groom's bride at the time of marriage as a share of the familial inheritance for his daughter. It represents the fundamental truncation of economic ties from her natal home with no claim to her father's property in a tomorrow to come, and her inclusion in her conjugal household. The Orthodox/Jacobite Syrian Christian idea of dowry does not correspond to the notion of dowry.11 They defined dowry as a part of the financial or conjugal fund passed from possessor to the procurer which is a part of the familial property with the daughter becoming a heir, semi-heir or residual heir in the indicative intention of linking a daughter to a desirable man in a conjugal relationship.12 The primary objective of stridhanam was to pass on the property, especially landed property to the son of the family (patriliny). This practice has been shaped to a considerable degree by patriarchal norms such as patrilocality, which is socially acceptable in most Indian societies, and strengthened by the fact that the girl is a "bird of passage", "another's property" and so on.13 Stridhanam as per informants is a woman's share of her father's property (avakasham) which includes, cash, jewellery and a piece of the land from the father's property.
The Syrian Christians observed certain rigid customary practices in the mode of giving stridhanam ages ago. It was wrapped in a white cloth and offered on a plantain leaf which is replaced in the young generation by the informal mode of handing over the amount in the form of draft or currency notes and even gold.In Orthodox/Jacobite Syrian christian case stridhanam comes under the category of pre-mortem inheritance. 14 Many times the woman has no control over her wealth with suppressed violence which the women accepts in subjugation, as a part of her dutiful responsibility towards her family and fearing the stigma that the society will dole out in case the matter aggravates.

11 Goody ,Jack and SJ Tambiah [1973] Bridewealth and Dowry, Cambridge, Cambride University Press.
12 Yalman, Nur [1967], On the Purity of Women in the Castes of Ceylon and Malabar, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 93 pp 25-58.
13 Srinivas, M (1983), Some reflections on Dowry, Delhi:Oxford University Press.
14 Goody ,Jack and SJ Tambiah [1973] Bridewealth and Dowry, Cambridge, Cambride University Press.

The sum of money that is paid is as per a specific rate which increases with the economic and social status of both the families, educational qualifications of the bride and the groom, their jobs and even the colour of complexion of the woman being important factors that negotiate this deal. Over the years, the sum of money paid is determined by a prevalent rate with a possible bargaining over the sum which increases every year and with the age of the bride.15 In middle class and lower income groups, sometimes the entire property is sold off or mortgaged to meet the expenses of a daughter's wedding and stridhanam. Many alliances are shrugged off because the stridhanam offered was not sufficient or could not be arranged on time. The amount is decided before the marriage and exchanges hands in a ceremonial public event. 16 In lieu of the Anti Dowry laws that the government has passed, the amount is not disclosed and the practices of virind and ora (ceremonial feasting and public declaration of the alliance) are losing ground so many cases of fraudulent cheating have also been reported. Earlier the tithe (passaram) paid to the church from the stridhanam recorded the amount given and taken, now it is null and void and no one except for the giving and taking parties are aware of the amount that goes and comes. In today's times church records give no indication of the amount that is given and taken. 17 Since the time a daughter is born, her parents start planning her stridhanam which becomes a financial constraint for the parents.

15 Sweetman, Caroline (2003), Gender development and marriage, Oxfam Press
16 Vishvanathan, Susan [1982], Stridhanam: The Decline of Gift in (ed Susan Vishvanathan, K M Taragan etal) Struggle against Death, Kottayam CMS press [1986], ‘Reconstruction of the Past among the Syrian Christians of Kerala’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, (ns) 20,2 [1987], ‘Syrian Christianity in Kerala: A study in the sociology of the Religion, Phd thesis, Delhi University)
17 Goody, Jack (ed) [1973], The Character of Kinship Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

In 1999, in a very famous case in Kerala, three daughters of a family had committed suicide to spare their parents of this compulsive demand. A daughter is therefore seen as a liability and her conjugal rights and privileges are a chore for the capacity and even before her education and personality are charted out, this always remains a cause of concern for the parents. In troubled waters, the woman can hold her head up and say that “I didn't enter this house empty handed, I have come with stridhanam.”
Amidst Syrian Christians even though the rates are high, it is a morally controlled system, with little or no cases of physical harassment in the name of the custom are reported. In lesser known cases, when the money is not paid in full, the daughter may be sent back to her parent's place and asked to remind her father and brothers of what needs to be done. If the relationship between the husband and the wife is weak, then this may lead to the escalation of the issue with emotional, mental and physical torture aimed as weapons for a defenseless daughter. To uphold the family name and individual's character she suffers like a sheep with muted mollification to spare herself and her family of the societal stigmatization. Separated or divorced women have no place in the Syrian Christian society therefore, most women stand guard to protect the honour and family name of her parents. Divorce rates are negligible, with women making adjustments and sacrifices to stay in bad marriages, in case things have fallen apart. Stridhanam therefore, expresses the relationship between two families that have entered into a relationship of equilateral socio-economic hierarchy in the society, with old values losing ground that once determined the marriages happening in the Syrian Orthodox communities. The wife givers in this way acknowledge the hypergamic situation where stridhanam is the means by which a marriage maybe concluded.18Unlike in dowry, it takes the character of the groom price for only by the payment of stridhanam a marriage is concluded with the woman having no say in the control of the wealth, which in this case is done by the husband and the kin.
19 The woman bringing stridhanam therefore buys her rights into the conjugal household. In most cases, this is used by the husband's family to buy domestic rights for sisters or daughters into other families or invested in land or a new business. Thus instead of empowering women by giving them assets that would lead to their financial independence, the giving of stridhanam can disfranchise women in a domestic relationship and the other relationships arising out of a marriage. 20
Goody has expressed that the transfer of property to women in cash or land, does not in any way fulfill the notion of inheritance. In this case, there is an early mortgaging or breaking of the property which doesn’t fall in the interest of the other siblings and family members. And also since this is loosely an example of cash dowry, it goes into the control of the men in the husband’s family, the husband or the father in law and does not act in empowering the woman.

18 Vishvanathan, Susan [1982], Stridhanam: The Decline of Gift in (ed Susan Vishvanathan, K M Taragan etal) Struggle against Death, Kottayam CMS press [1986]
19 Chacko, Elizabeth [2003], Marriage, development and the status of women in Kerala, India
20 Roy, M (1999), Three generations of women, Indian Journal of Gender studies, 6(2)
Inheritance

Until February 1986, The Travancore Succession act of 1916, and the Cochin Christian Inheritance Act of 1921, governed the succession of property and particularly in case of women’s rights to property, these laws were a dampener. The Travancore Act of 1916 had fixed the rate of stridhanam at one fourth the son’s share or Rs.5000 whichever was lesser, for a daughter in case the father died intestate. Female heirs could not inherit the property and were often left at the mercy of the brothers who often turned down their rights and did not think beyond the nominal rates fixed. 21
Intestate property divisions now follow the Indian succession act which gave equal rights to both the sons and daughters in the division of property.
A typical example of the obligation to pay stridhanam and the tensions arising out of the Syrian Christian rules of inheritance were successfully challenged by Mary Roy. It was in 1986 that Ms. Roy had obtained a landmark judgment from the Supreme Court entitling Syrian Christian women to an equal share in their father's property. Till then, the Syrian Christian community followed the provisions of the Travancore Succession Act, 1916 and Cochin Succession Act, 1921 even as members of the community in other parts of the country were governed by the provisions of the Indian Succession Act, 1925. As per the Travancore and the Cochin Acts, daughters were eligible for one quarter of the sons' share or Rs.5,000, which ever was less, if the father died intestate. 22

21 Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, p. 9
22 L.W Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas: An Account of the ancient Syrian church of Malabar, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982

The Supreme Court judgment triggered another legal tangle to the whole story as Ms. Roy approached the Kottayam sub-court in 1988 praying for her share of the property left by her father, P.V. Isaac, who had died in 1960. As per the provisions of the Indian Succession Act, her mother, Susie Isaac, was entitled to enjoy one-third of the property until her death, but without the right to alienate it. The remaining two-thirds were to be shared among her, her sister, Molly Joseph, and two brothers, Ms. Roy said in her prayer. The lower court rejected her prayer, accepting the contention of the respondents, who maintained that they had transferred their shares in another property, held by their father P.V. Isaac, in Ooty in lieu of her share in his Kottayam property, which was spread over two locales, one in Kottayam town and another at Nattakom grama panchayat. However, Ms. Roy approached the Kerala High Court in 1994 and got the judgment of the lower court overruled. 23
Later, after her mother's death in 2000, she approached the Kottayam sub-court praying for the final decree. The case went on for eight long years until the final decree was pronounced in December 2008. Following this, Ms. Roy filed the execution petition in January 2009, which was finally ordered on Wednesday.
It was defined 24 that stridhanam expressed the father-daughter relationship and inheritance the father-son relationship. Therefore early segregation of the property resulted in divided ownership with very little or no property remaining for inheritance for the heirs after the death of the father. 25 So what the fathers save and share are in the light of thrift and economy which are passed on as both values and savings to the heirs. The Indian Succession act changed the definition of the brother-sister relationship especially when it came to equal inheritance and in lieu of the father dying before the marriage of the daughter and the brother becoming her guardian.
23Goody, Jack (ed) [1973], The Character of Kinship Cambridge, Cambridge University press
24 Paul, Madan C, Dowry and Position of Women in India: A study of Delhi Meropolis,, New Delhi-Inter India pubs, 1985.
25 Goodenough, Ward H [1966], Property Kin and community on Tonk, Connceticut,:Archon Press.
In such cases, as opposed to the earlier instances, the daughter won’t be evicted from the tharavad or family home with a mere payment of Rs. 5000 as a share of the estate. So also, it changed the relationship between the affines i.e. the daughter’s husband and the sister’s husband. It toppled the concept of affinal inheritance which was earlier concluded by giving away a daughter’s share as per the Travancore and Cochin Succession act. 26
In case where no sons were born into the family and only daughters were the primary inheritors, all the daughters were married off with the youngest one remaining to look after the parents with a look out for a son-in law who would be willing to live uxorically. This condition was called “Deth keruka”, a form of affinal adoption which means adopting a son-in law as the legal heir to the property that will be left for the youngest daughter. The social implications were discomfited in this case with the material advantages. 27If the father died of old age, his wife would be staying in the estate along with her eldest son and daughter in law and their children with the other sons frequenting her often. She would be the person in maintenance of the property giving directions to her sons which might lead to her dominance in the household, with very little scope for the daughter-in laws.
26 K. P. Padmanabha Menon, Kochi Rajya Caritram /History of Cochin (Malayalam), Thrissur, Bhavilsam Press, 1087 (Malayalam year), Pp. 471, 478 etc
27 Jeffrey, R (1989) ‘Women and the Kerala model:Four lives 1870s-1980s’ South Asia XII (2): 13-32
If the widow is young the position can be very different. In a particular case, a young widow’s parents took her away after the untimely death of her husband while reclaiming the stridhanam which severed all ties between the two families. At the age of eighty six she died and it was only then that her husband’s brother’s son, a priest came to attend the funeral after seventy years of the contacts being broken. Her stridhanam was used to educate three of her brothers. She lived respectfully with her brother and after their death with their son. The affection was expressed with honour and respect and the money of her stridhanam used to educate her brothers was returned to her in time, by a written will dividing it amongst the sons of the brother’s son. 28
This case shows the attitude of wife-givers to wife-takers who has no stake in her husband’s house if he died. 29
28 Vishvanathan, Susan [1982], Stridhanam: The Decline of Gift in (ed Susan Vishvanathan, K M Taragan etal) Struggle against Death, Kottayam CMS press [1986]
29 Jacob, A (2002), ‘Violence against Women, Samyukta 2(2):48-56


Domestic relationships and the place of women in the society

Marriage was an elaborate ceremony among the Syrian Christians, and it was very much social in character with the local Hindu traditions. There was no wedding ring and the Tali had taken the place of wedding rings. Child marriage was rather common among the Syrian Christians. 30 They followed the Brahmin custom of dowry, given by the party of the bride to the bridegroom. It was given in cash and gold on the day of engagement at the house of the bride. Marriages usually took place on Sundays and the celebrations would last for four days. Kalamezhal (or rangoli like designs made with rice flour in the pavilion erected in front of the house), Antamcharth (the ceremonial dressing of the bridegrooms hair), ceremonial bath, Mailanchiyidal (feet of the bride used to be anointed with henna), Madhuram-vekkal (feeding the bride and bridegroom with sweet), etc. were part of the marriage ceremony among the Syrian Christians and even today they are kept up. 31 The most important function within the marriage was the tying the knot of the Tali or Minnu (a cross with 21 minute beads around more or less in the shape of a heart) at the neck of the bride by the bridegroom, and the thread of which is drawn out from the Mantra-kodi or the bridal veil. This again resembles the Minnu, the exact counterpart of the Tali in the Brahmin marriage ceremony in Kerala. 32 The tying of Tali and the subsequent covering of the head of the bride by the bridegroom with the bridal veil all resembled the Hindu custom, with slight Christian modification.
30 A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. 1: From the Beginning Up To The Middle of 16th Century, Bangalore, Theological publications in India, 1984, Pp. 154 – 156
31 Sadasya Tilaka T. K. Velu Pillai, “Preface”, in K. E. Job, The Syrian Christians of Malabar, Changanacherry, St. Joseph’s Orphanage Press, 193
32 R. G. Rawlison, Intercourse Between India and Western World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1916, p. 1338.
The Tali which is the symbol of married status of the woman should not be removed as long as a woman remains a wife, and should be given to the church after her husband’s death, a practice observed from time immemorial till today. 33 Even though with non biblical references, this practice was made by the patriarchal forefathers to push the woman to the lower strata of the society while christening the husband as the head of the family, with no such symbols of devotion expected of him.

Marriage procession used to proceed on elephant’s backs or in palanquins with the five traditional types of music and with the loud hooting of joy which is still known as Kurava in Kerala, which was one of the 72 privileges of the Syrian Christians. After the religious ceremonies in the church, the bride and the groom were taken home in procession, and at their arrival they were welcomed with the sprinkling of nellum nirum (paddy and water) – a fertility-cum-coronation rite and with lighted lamps, another sign of nobility-practice. Special attention was paid that the couple entered the house with their right feet. 34Formerly, it is said that, like the Hindu girls and women, Syrian women also were under seclusion for three days during which they could not enter into the kitchen, and they bathed on the fourth day. 35
The present times have seen, not the abolishing of these practices but the modernization has led to more prestations on the bride’s parents with the groom’s family demanding for the best of post wedding celebrations. So in addition to the compulsive commitment of paying gifts in cash and kind, the parents of the bride are expected to arrange for a lavish feast and the most modern amenities for the boarding and lodging of the guests. This increases the financial constraints on the parents of the bride and often there is a fear of not being able to live up to the aforesaid expectations of the groom and his family. 36
Women are given little or no representation in the matters of the church and are expected to stay silent and follow their husbands. Men form the core committees in the church that takes care of the affairs and finances of the church. Women are pushed to the more menial of the imputations like dishing out delicacies during church festivities or while treating the bishops and fathers of the church on special occasions. They are supposed to pay one tenth of their monthly salaries if they are working, as tithes but do not get a say in the welfare or organization of the church. They are cloistered in their spaces that are objectified as organizations where in women are taught to stay humble and live in the true Christian way of life as charted out by the Bible and the patriarchal forefathers. 37

33 C. D. Sebastian, “Interaction between Classical Indian Ethics and Christians Ethics” in Rajendra Prasad (Ed), A Historical Developmental Study of Classical Indian Philosophy of Morals, New Delhi, Centre for Studies in Civilizations (Project of History of Indian Science, Philosophy and Culture Volume XII, Part 2), Pp. 477 – 496
34 Placid Podipara, “The social and Socio-Ecclesiastical Customs of Syrian Christians of India”, Eastern Churches Quarterly, Vol. 7, 1947, London, Pp. 222 – 236
35 A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, Bangalore, TPI, 1984, Pp. 1-21
36 Susan Visvanathan, The Christians of Kerala, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. viii
37 Paul Pallath, “Some Aspects of the Progressive Theology of the Church of St. Thomas Christians before its Westernization”,Journal of St. Thomas Christians, Vol. 13 (4) & Vol. 14 (1) 2003, p. 71
Mothers were never formally included in the affairs of the external domain, in matters related to property or dowry. In earlier times the mother never saw her son’s wife till her son ritually placed her in the care of his mother (Ammae elpichu). Women were expected to cook, clean and take care of the children while being religiously affiliated to the church. In older times, women had no say in even buying the provisions for the household. Things have changed for the betterment, with more and more women working out of their homes, but the rigidity of patrilocality stays, with women still not allowed to assume dominating offices at home. She can’t buy or invest in property and in the more demeaning of cases, even pay for a piece of jewellery without the consent of her husband. 38
The unmarried single woman is either an unthinkable or an enigma, as always in the Indian context where marriages are to a large extent arranged unlike in the West for instance where it is assumed to be a matter of individual choice. 39 But it is a well known fact that women in this country are seldom free and are always under the guardianship of either their husbands or other relations. 40 Thus women under these circumstances cannot become dependent on their father’s family and either break free to nurture talents and potential or if they get support from their birth families they make sure they contribute well to the economic and emotional nurturing of the family especially the siblings spouses and children. In some cases, they might be exploited financially, for seeking succor.
38 Vishvanathan, Susan [1982], Stridhanam: The Decline of Gift in (ed Susan Vishvanathan, K M Taragan etal) Struggle against Death, Kottayam CMS press [1986]
39 Padmavaty Amma. K, 2005, ‘Malayalee Marriage Modified’ in J.Devika, translated and edited,Herself: Gender and Early Writings of Malayalee Women, Kolkata: Stree.
40 Krishnakumari N.S. 1987. Status of Single Women in India: A Study of Spinsters, Widows and Divorcees. New Delhi: Uppal Publishing House.

Conclusion
Therefore the society of the Syrian Christians of Kerala are still under the influence of patriarchy with marriage, birth and death viewed as turning points in inheritance and formation of social and domestic relationships. Unmarried women and those singled out because of widowhood or divorce are still fighting for an equal place in the social sphere unlike their married counterparts. What is most appalling is that change in the pattern of inheritance has in no way led to the abolishing of practices like streedhanam and with time the demands have only increased by leaps and bounds with the pre-requisite prestations creating a more intimidating fear in the families of parents having daughters. Till this day the church has not done much to do away with the practice of stridhanam. With the church fearing that they will lose out on whatever gifts and cash they get as a payment for conducting the marriage, it might be long before a strong stand is taken against this social evil. What needs to be seen is how many women like Mary Roy will come forward to give a wakeup call against the second hand treatment women have been meted out to, since times immemorial, to propagate the principle of gender equality in social and cultural spheres.

Bibliography
1 A. R Sreedharan Menon, Cultural heritage of Kerala, An Introduction, p 57
2 A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, Bangalore, TPI, 1984, Pp. 1-21
3 Xavier Koodapuzha, “The Indian Church of the Thomas Christians”, Christian Orient, I (1), 1980, Pp. 20 – 61
4 Sadasya Tilaka T. K. Velu Pillai, “Preface”, in K. E. Job, The Syrian Christians of Malabar, Changanacherry, St. Joseph’s Orphanage Press, 1938
5 Paul Pallath, “Some Aspects of the Progressive Theology of the Church of St. Thomas Christians before its Westernization”,Journal of St. Thomas Christians, Vol. 13 (4) & Vol. 14 (1) 2003, p. 71
6 L. K. Anatakrishna Ayyar, Anthropology of the Syrian Christians, Ernakulam, The Cochin Government Press, 1926, Appendix E
7 L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St Thomas: An Account of the Ancient Syrian Church of Malabar, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982
8 G.M. Moraes, A History of Christianity in India, Cambridge, Cambridge university Press, 1964
9 Taken from A Synopsis of the History of the Syrian Church in Malabar, Kottayam, V. G. Press, 1910, as seen in George Menachery (Ed), Indian Church History Classics: The Nazaranies, Thrissur, The South Asia Research Assistance Services, 1998, p. 266.
10 R. G. Rawlison, Intercourse Between India and Western World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1916, p. 133
11 Goody ,Jack and SJ Tambiah [1973] Bridewealth and Dowry, Cambridge, Cambride University Press.
12 Yalman, Nur [1967], On the Purity of Women in the Castes of Ceylon and Malabar, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol 93 pp 25-58.
13 Srinivas, M (1983), Some reflections on Dowry, Delhi:Oxford University Press.
14 Goody ,Jack and SJ Tambiah [1973] Bridewealth and Dowry, Cambridge, Cambride University Press.
15 Sweetman, Caroline (2003), Gender development and marriage, Oxfam Press
16 Vishvanathan, Susan [1982], Stridhanam: The Decline of Gift in (ed Susan Vishvanathan, K M Taragan etal) Struggle against Death, Kottayam CMS press [1986], ‘Reconstruction of the Past among the Syrian Christians of Kerala’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, (ns) 20,2 [1987], ‘Syrian Christianity in Kerala: A study in the sociology of the Religion, Phd thesis, Delhi University)
17 Goody, Jack (ed) [1973], The Character of Kinship Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
18 Vishvanathan, Susan [1982], Stridhanam: The Decline of Gift in (ed Susan Vishvanathan, K M Taragan etal) Struggle against Death, Kottayam CMS press [1986]
19 Chacko, Elizabeth [2003], Marriage, development and the status of women in Kerala, India
20 Roy, M (1999), Three generations of women, Indian Journal of Gender studies, 6(2)



This paper was originally written for the University of Nottingham. 

No comments: