The Timeless Allure of Kerala

Kerala today is a fascinating picture of age-old traditions challenged by Western influences.

text and photos by Claire Rydell

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The turbulent waters of the Arabian Sea have carried many outsiders to the lush shoreline of Kerala. The tropical forests along the fertile coastal plain lure outsiders, now as they have for centuries, with a promising landfall. Often the voyagers seek enrichment from the sea or land, but life among the native peoples offers its own wealth.

People of the Malabar coast of southwest India live simply, yet with a dignity and grace appropriate to this beautiful land. Their daily life retains the culture’s characteristic traditions. Yet they also freely greet the cultural riches carried into their region by the outsiders seeking the native spices and other local resources.

The long, complex history of Christian influence in Kerala suggests how people of the region adopt what outsiders bring. Tradition claims that by the middle of the first century, Thomas the Apostle traveled through Syria, Persia, and Afghanistan down to India. Eventually he arrived on the Malabar coast and made his way east to Madras, where he preached the good news of Christ before his martyrdom. He is credited with first spreading the branch of faith down into the Indian subcontinent.

When in 1498 Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to this region, Europeans were amazed to find Christianity well established here. At the same time they were shocked to learn that these people were linked to the Chaldean Church, which was separated from the Vatican. Like others even to this day, these Westerners could imagine their faith only through the Roman hierarchy. The years intervening since Thomas’s day had seen these Indian people’s fidelity to Christianity. Their faith had arisen and been maintained through their allegiance to the Eastern Christians in Syria and Persia. Hence, their church is known as the Syro-Malabar Church.

Since the arrival of the Portugese and their missionaries, their relationship with Christians of the West has endured some difficult periods. Yet, the root of faith carried by Thomas is the same as that which flowered in the West, and both continue to bear fruit, each with the unique flavor of its native culture. A quarter of the population of this area of Hindu-dominated India is united today in Christianity, representing Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and other variations.

The region’s contacts with the Levant go back centuries. Kerala has long been an international trading center for spices, sandalwood, ivory, and coir, among other sought-after commodities. Some scholars think that when King Solomon visited Ophir in search of pepper, he came to what is now the village of Puvar, south of Trivandrum and close to Kovalam beach. Down through history, representatives of other powerful rulers have also come here for the riches produced by the simple native life.

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Tags: Kerala Christianity Cultural Identity