Legend has it that in 52 AD, when St Thomas the Apostle landed on the shores of Kerala, the first person he encountered was a flute-playing Jewish girl. This sliver of India’s coast, where Onam festivities are underway this week, has long embraced people of all kinds and of all faiths. St Thomas himself, it is said, traversed the land, establishing seven churches so that long before Christianity touched even the outskirts of Europe, there were already Christians in India—a little detail that confounded the Portuguese who arrived 1,500 years later and “discovered" brown “natives" wedded already to the word of Christ. The Christians of Kerala, however, looked to the Patriarch of Antioch in modern-day Turkey as their leader. And so, when white men presumed to claim their ancient churches for the pope, quick came the retort: “Who is the Pope?" The Portuguese responded with instant persecution, but some of it was also sheer bewilderment—bewilderment of the variety shared by Indians of a certain persuasion today as they propagate a regrettable political cause.
Kerala, presently at the receiving end of hysteria that frames it as a “killing field" of Hindus, welcomed Christians and absorbed them into its social and cultural fabric, as it did with all who preceded them (such as the Jews) and all who came afterwards (for instance, the Muslims). In the 16th century, the raja of Kochi maintained thousands of Christians in his armies, while Christian merchants controlled trade in the port of Kollam. One traveller recorded that “there is no distinction either in their habits, or in their hair (style), or in anything else betwixt the Christians of this diocese and the heathen" Hindus, and there was tolerance of intermarriage too till the end of the 1500s. In the Krishna temple in Ambalappuzha, an image representing St Thomas used to be carried in procession alongside those of Hindu divinities on festive occasions, while in Chengannur, a Brahmin prince gifted a half-built temple to his Christian subjects, today home to the oldest church in that town. Even more revealingly, across the coast, there were Hindu shrines where only oil “purified" by the touch of a Christian could serve to light lamps and sacred fires.
The legends of Kerala too reflect this seamless pluralism. St Thomas, for instance, is supposed to have parleyed with the goddess Bhagavathy at the harbour in Pallippuram. They commenced a discussion on their respective faiths, till, many hours having passed, the goddess grew weary, and decided to return to her sanctum in Kodungallur. “St Thomas," Francis Day tells, “not to be outdone, rapidly gave chase, and just as Bhagavathy got inside the door post, prevented its closing." As Susan Bayly, the anthropologist, explains, both Bhagavathy and St Thomas are perceived as equally divine in this story, their chase tinged with a hint of romance. And while the Apostle did not gain access to Bhagavathy’s shrine and followers, he secured a “significant foothold" in the region. So too there are other shrines featuring heroes from religions that certain groups vehemently insist are antithetical to all that is Hindu—to this day, devotees visiting the Sabarimala temple pay obeisance first to the deity’s Muslim friend Vavaraswami aka Vavar, a name that sounds (painfully, to some) like Babur.
Embracing difference naturally birthed prosperity—in Kozhikode, Arabs collaborated with the Hindu Zamorin, transforming his capital into one of the great cities of the medieval world. Specific families too profited from welcoming those who were not like them—the Aithihyamaala (Legends Of Kerala) narrates the tale of Pandanparambath Namboodiri, a Brahmin who escaped poverty through his friendship with a Chinese merchant. While there are gripping stories in Kerala’s regional mythology of Hindu priests exorcising spirits, there are also Christian padres who sapped the power of evil. In the Kali temple in Parumala there is a yakshi defeated by a Christian—a Kathanar—who transformed her into a minor deity. Parvathi in the great temple of Chengannur menstruates, and locals tell of the donation made in the 1810s by the British Resident for her ceremonial bath. Kerala’s only Muslim dynasty was matrilineal, like Hindu royalty, and daughters had an equal claim with sons when it came to sitting on the throne—if a girl preceded a boy, she reigned as the Arakkal Beevi; if a boy came first, he was the Ali Raja. And the Beevis kept no purdah with the Hindu princes of nearby Kannur.
Then there is the matter of caste. Kerala was a veritable “lunatic asylum" of caste oppression, but it also became the land where some of India’s oldest reform movements appeared—Sri Narayana Guru, who lent spiritual force to the rise of the Ezhava community from poverty to power; Ayyankali, who wrested from high-caste Hindus the right for Dalits to walk on the road, and much more. And there is legend too that wryly points at the common origins of all these diverse castes. The sage Vararuchi, son of Sankaracharya’s preceptor, married a pariah woman, and fathered 12 children with her. One became a Brahmin, another a carpenter, and one was even a Muslim. Yet another sibling, when they all met for a feast, brought to the table food that he enjoyed: the udder of a cow, or beef if you will. Of course the story goes on to transform the meat into a plant that everyone then consumed, but the lesson is simply that though they were different in what they did and what they ate, they were all born of the same parents, and children of the same land.
And so it is, as Kerala celebrates its state festival—Hindus, Christians, Muslims all together, as always—that we must recall how its past was shaped, and where its future is going. For, after all, this is the age when alien ideologies shroud history in dark agendas of the present, seeking to transform a vibrant landscape into a universe of black and white, reducing a fascinating historical record into a narrow, tragic journey of us versus them.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.
The writer tweets at @UnamPillai