Of Orthodox Syrian Christian Heritage

I am a NRK, non-resident Keralite, as I was born in Kunnamkulam town, Kerala, but never really lived there. The only time I actually lived in Kerala was two years of my M.Phil course at CDS, Trivandrum. However, I spent all my summer holidays between Kunnamkulam and Irinjalakuda, both in Trissur. I have heard numerous stories of the two families I belong to, Cheeran on my father’s side and Pullikkotil on my mother’s, both being illustrious families of Kunnamkulam. So began my search, not for my roots as there was no doubt about that, but about my Syrian Christian heritage. I spoke to as many people of the older generation, who are fast disappearing, read books and searched sites. I was amazed to find that Kunnamkulam and my families had a history tied to the beginnings of the Orthodox church and its establishment in this town. I must admit that many families claim to be the original Cheerans and Pullikkotils, and what I state here is only a strong possibility and not the gospel truth (pun unintended). My training as a researcher kicks in and hence this blog is somewhere between a personal story and a research paper! Well, it is also important to know that there are books, blogs and of course Wikipedia that talks of my personal history and this is not purely the figment of my imagination!!

Kunnamkulam, my hometown and place of birth, is a prosperous predominantly Malankara (land of Malayalees) Orthodox Syrian Christian settlement in Trissur district in Kerala with relatively recent inclusion of all religious communities. The town’s strange topography always fascinated me as a child and it derived its name from the same.  Kunna, meaning hills, the town having extremely steep roads, is interspersed with Kulams, meaning ponds.  The main town (angadi) is laid out in the form of a cross with streets named Kazhakeangadi (East Street), Padijanrangadi (West Street), Thekenangadi (South Street) and Cherleyangadi. The last street was perhaps named after the famous church, while it should ideally have been named Wadakeangadi (North Street)! The rest of the streets emanate from these main streets. 

The Pullikkotil tharwad, my maternal ancestral house, where I spent many summers in childhood, stood at the top of this really steep hill on Puthenpetangadi, literally meaning New Town Street. These town houses stretch backwards to a number of levels and at the very last level there was a cattle shed with a number of milch cows in the hay days! There was also a back lane and when I was very young we had scavengers walk down those lanes and collect the night soil.

The upper most brown floor was the attic and was used by this landed Pullikkotil family to dry paddy and other agricultural products. 

Dr. Francis Buchanan was a Scottish physician, turned geographer and botanist, In.1799, after the defeat of Tippu Sultan and the fall of Mysore, he was asked to survey South India resulting in ‘A Journey from Madras through the Countires of Mysore, Canara and Malabar (1807) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis Buchanan-Hamilton
He came to Kakkad, suburbs of Kunnamkulam and wrote “near here there was a town full of Syrian Christians called Kunnamkulam. It has ‘pan’ (betel leaf) cultivation around. On a slightly elevated land was Kunnamkulam.

How did this little part of the country come to be predominantly Christian? There are a number of legends regarding this, dating back to the arrival of the first apostle of Christ, St. Thomas. After the resurrection of Christ, it is said he asked his disciples to travel and spread his word. St. Thomas arrived in India in the first century AD and there are historical and oral records of his travels and the miracles he performed. 

According to the oral tradition of songs, the apostle Thomas came to Kodungallur (anglicized name Cranganoor) a town in the South Western corner of Trissur district in 52 AD. The rajah (king) of Kodungallur gave permission to Thomas to preach the gospel and according to the legend, the majority of conversions made by the Apostle were those of Brahmins (Namboodiri). The king also became a Christian. Some Brahmins however were infuriated and left the village. E.R Hambye wrote that a Brahmin family called Kalathu Manga kept a document where it is written, “Kali Year 3158 (52 AD) the foreigner Thomas Sanyasi came to our village, preached there, causing pollution. We therefore came away from that village.” That village was called Chavakatt or Chapakatt – the cursed forest’, (Susan Visvanathan, IIC Quarterly, Summer-Monsoon, 1995). My maternal grandmother hailed from this village, on the coast 28 kilometers from Kunnamkulam and 47 kilometers from Kodungallur.

According to another legend, a cross was installed by apostle Thomas, at Arthat church Chattukulangara. In Chatukulangara, (a large pond) was a temple called ‘Cherukulangara’ temple. When the apostle Thomas came to Chattukulangara a number of Brahmin families converted to Christianity, including the Cheeran family. Many miracles are attributed to apostle Thomas. In the narrative when he was talking to Namboodiri priests he threw up some water and it stood in the air. The high priest of the temple ‘Cherukulangara’ also witnessed this event and converted to Christianity. During the invasion of Tippu Sultan the Christians from Chattakulangara migrated to Kunnamkulam in 1789. They were invited by the Rajas of Kunnamkulam and its surrounding areas, provided residences and places of worship. 

Legend has it that the apostle Thomas founded seven churches in Kerala including in Kodungallur and in Palayoor (Chattakulangara) about 55 kilometres south of Kunnamkulam (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodungallur, accessed July 6, 2016). Kunnamkulam is a town of many churches. The cross installed by apostle Thomas from Arthat, Chattukulangara was probably brought to the Arthat church of Kunnamkulam, the oldest and the most important church of the town, which now belongs to the Orthodox Syrian Christian church.  It is said that during the invasion, Tippu Sultan’s army burnt down the Arthat church and many left for Travancore. Those who returned including those from Chattukulangara, rebuilt and established the church with the help of local Brahmin chieftains. The Cherlah Chieftians are said to have helped to construct the Cherlah Church. Pazha Palli (old church) was established with the help of Mankulam Chieftans, other landmarks in the town.


In 1805 there was a dispute between the Malankara Orthodox Christian Church and the Catholic Church, who claimed Arthat church in Kunnamkulam. ‘Shaktan’ Thamburan, the Maharajah of Cochin (Brahmin Namboodiri King) came to Kunnamkulam to settle this dispute. In 1806 a ‘Magna Carta of Orthodox Church’ was signed on a ‘Padiola’ (’ola’ is a palm leaf) as proof that the Arthat church belonged to the Malankara Orthodox Church. This was how old standard records were originally maintained. Later this was written on a brass plaque and today it has been engraved on a granite stone and placed on the wall in the Arthat church. This Magna Carta was signed by the twelve most prominent and wealthy Christian families of Kunnamkulam being Cheruvathoor, Pullikkotil (my mother’s family), Chungath, Kollannoor, Panakkal, Paramel, Thengungal, Cheeran (my father’s family), Kanjirathingal, Moolapath, Tholath and Kakkassery. Their names were engraved on the plaque stating that the Arthat Church was originally an Orthodox church.  https://en. wikipedia.org/ wiki/Kunnamkulam. Catholics then established a church close to the original one.

What has all this to do with my family history? Cheeran meant ‘kirti’, fame, ‘aiyshwaria’, and persons with the ‘Cher’ were Cheeran. On our side we claim that from the Cheeran family, Pathu, born 1757 and a farmer/trader of agricultural produce, was one of the signatories of the Magna Carta in 1806. His great grandson was Ipe, born 1842 was a farmer, who had two sons. Chakunny was a Gumasthan, court record keeper, and Pathu, born 1869, was a school teacher. The latter Pathu was my father’s grandfather, who also had two sons. Cheru was a school teacher and Ipe, my grandfather was a medical doctor.

The Pullikkotil family, on my maternal side, had a very famous priest of the Orthodox church. Again there are claims and counter claims to this line of heritage. Mar Dionysius II, born Pullikkotil Joseph Ittoop (15 January, 1742 to 24, November 1816) also known as Pullikkotil Mar Dionysius I as he was the first Metropolitan from the ancient Pullikkotil family of Kunnamkulam.  Nearly 91 years ago (1925). Pullikkotil Joseph Mar Dionysius II founded the Malankara Sabha MJD School in Kunnamkulam. The school continues to flourish till date. 

Pullikkotil was an ancient family which moved from Arthat to Kunnamkulam. He was ordained as a priest by Mar Thoma VI and was known as Pullikkotil Joseph Kathanar. He was the vicar of his parish, Chattukulangara Arthat church. Tippu Sultan invaded Guruvayur and adjacent in AD 1740. The people of Kunnamkulam defended the attack with all their effort. The soldiers of Tippu Sultan set fire to Arthat church and murdered a number of people. One of them was killed inside the sanctuary. Witnessing all these atrocities Pullikkotil Joseph Kathanur had no other option but to hide inside the church. A large number of refugees left Arthat and settled in Kunnamkulam under the leadership of Joseph Kathanar. After Tippu Sultan left, Joseph Kathanar returned to the parish and renovated the church removing tha area of the sanctuary where the man was killed https:// en. Wikipedia .org/wiki/Mar_Dionysius_II.

So it appeared that both the Cheeran and Pullikkotil families were converts from the Namboodiri clan and moved to Kunnamkulam from Chatukulangara due to the persecution of soldiers of Tippu Sultan. And so the legend of Kunnamkulam lives on with the Cheeran and Pullikkotil families playing a key role in establishing the Arthat church in Kunnamkulam. Obviously the answers to the questions are far from a simple and/or and there can be many interpretations. However, the journey of discovering this heritage has been fascinating. Not perfect. Might come across many new facts as my Uncles and Aunts read this and hopefully contribute to our collective memory!!

6 thoughts on “Of Orthodox Syrian Christian Heritage

  1. A friend and old ADB colleague told me about Brahmins embracing Christian faith after the Apostle's visit. I had been to the Holyland on a Pilgrimage with Kumari. Though Christinity in Kerala is as old as that of the religion itself, it flurished in a peaceful atmosphere unlike in the Holyland. In my view, India is incredible for reasons like these. Good to know about your family history and it's roots.July 16, 2016 at 6:07 PMPosted to Of Orthodox Syrian Christian HeritageDelete Comment Delete Comment CancelCopyright © 1999 – 2016 Google

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  2. A friend and old ADB colleague told me about Brahmins embracing Christian faith after the Apostle's visit. I had been to the Holyland on a Pilgrimage with Kumari. Though Christinity in Kerala is as old as that of the religion itself, it flurished in a peaceful atmosphere unlike in the Holyland. In my view, India is incredible for reasons like these. Good to know about your family history and it's roots.July 16, 2016 at 6:07 PMPosted to Of Orthodox Syrian Christian HeritageDelete Comment Delete Comment CancelCopyright © 1999 – 2016 Google

    Like

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