A+| A| A-

Dalit Christianity in Kerala

Women and Religiosity

The everyday life of the congregations of slave castes involved the active support of women, right from the mid-19th century when Dalit communities began to accept Christianity. Prayers in the family and in congregations were occasions in which women were substantially involved, wherein hymns/songs became powerful articulations of the critique of caste slavery and prayer was used as an effective tool to resist instances of caste oppression. However, relatively blurred gender hierarchies in the pre-Christian phase among the slave castes were transformed by the conscious intervention of the missionaries in favour of the secure family structure with an assertive male head.

Christianity has had a significant presence in Kerala, even before the arrival of the Portuguese and other subsequent colonial powers. The legendary origin of Christianity in Kerala is traced to the Apostle, Saint Thomas, who is believed to have landed at Kodungallur, an ancient port town that was connected with the Indian Ocean world, in 52 CE. The apostolic origin of the church puts it on par with the claims of Western Christianity, where the Christians of Kerala are distributed along the lines of various denominations. Although not accepted by historians as a historically verifiable fact in the absence of corroborative evidence, the Christian community holds the arrival of Thomas as a historical truth. However, there is definite historical evidence to suggest the arrival of the Christians of West Asian origin, under the leadership of prominent merchants who had settled down in Kerala in 345 CE. Ecclesiastically, they followed the Eastern Christian tradition. In subsequent centuries, with the coming of other Christian groups, there was a proliferation of Christian settlements in the port towns of Kerala such as Quilon (Kollam), testified by the copper plate inscription famously known as the Syrian Christian or Tarisapalli Copper Plates. These were issued by the local ruler in lieu of granting special privileges to the Christian merchants, including assigning the services of different working castes specialising in different occupations to them, including slave labour to till farmlands.1 Until the Portuguese intervention, the traditional Christians do not seem to have faced any challenge to their privileged position.2 However, with the coming of the Portuguese and, with them, Catholicism, the Jesuit missionaries began evangelising thousands of souls for the church from among the lower-caste fisherpeople along Kerala’s coast.

Riding high on the spirit of the inquisition, the Portuguese wanted to purge the already existing Christian practices of its local accretions. This led to severe contests between the traditional Christians and Roman Catholicism represented by the Portuguese Catholic hierarchy, with the schisms becoming particularly significant in the 17th century. The fallout of the mid-17th century development was the firm decision of one section of the traditional Christians to resist the ecclesiastical power of Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church finally had to accept the traditional Christians, regrouped as Jacobite Christians. The ascendancy of the Dutch made matters easy for the non-Catholic Christians to get their Bishops from West Asia, to oversee their spiritual affairs, including the consecration of Bishops, as the Dutch were Protestant. With the coming of the English, there were further changes in the history of Christianity in Kerala, as this period witnessed the genesis of Anglicanism with the arrival of the Church of England. Missionary organisations of the Anglican church became very significant as they worked among a range of social groups and established modern institutions.

To read the full text Login

Get instant access

New 3 Month Subscription
to Digital Archives at

₹826for India

$50for overseas users

Updated On : 3rd Nov, 2017

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

The absence of a gender perspective in the labour laws and the absence of any labour rights perspective in the anti-trafficking frameworks are the...

The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, a key legislation in India that enables women to transcend the public–private dichotomy and stake their claim for...

One of the major milestones of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is to provide a...

Since the 1990s, the discourse around caste-based reservations has taken a sharp turn towards hostility, which has resulted in pushing individuals...

This paper examines the experiences of dispossessed women in terms of accessing work opportunities in a setting of opencast coal mining in Talcher...

The relationship between social reproduction and capital accumulation in independent India is delineated by arguing that social reproduction...

The rise of web-based social spaces has expanded the political sphere beyond the boundaries of the nation state, while also disseminating and...

With a focus on “Indian” feminisms in the United States diaspora, based on their experiences as academics committed to social justice issues, two...

An ethnographic study of the women migrants in Barkas, an old Arabian neighbourhood in Hyderabad, shows that women migrants over the years have...

Back to Top