A wedding custom of the Indian Thomas Christians

When I lived in Chicago, I did a fair amount of research into the liturgical practices and spirituality of the Syro-Malabar Rite Catholic Church, which has a diocese (the first Syro-Malabar Catholic diocese outside India) located in one of the near western suburbs. Syro-Malabar Rite Catholics are Indians who trace their Christian heritage back to St. Thomas the Apostle’s evangelism in India. (The Apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas, a 3rd-century Syriac document, suggests this trip. Documentary and archaeological evidence in Kerala — #13 on this map — traces Christianity back to at least the early 3rd century.) St. Thomas, “Mar Thoma” in Syriac and Malayalam, is their patron (and the patron of many of their parishes).

Their liturgical language, historically, has been Syriac, though their liturgy suffered much Latinization due to Portuguese influence during the colonial period. They adopted the vernacular with enthusiasm. In the Chicago diocese, worship is in Malayalam and English; the English translation, which is used by the youth and students of the church, has been painstakingly prepared by very liturgically knowledgeable laypersons and youth leaders, in consultation with Syro-Malabar clergy. I have written several papers on their liturgy, but that’s not what I’m here for today — and I’ve done a few presentations on the exceedingly complex history of the Thomas Christians, but I’m not going to do that here either.

English Mass at Mar Thoma, Chicago, Oct 2008. Photo by David Hwang (thanks!)
English Mass at Mar Thoma, Chicago, Oct 2008. Photo by David Hwang (thanks!)

The Syro-Malabar Rite Catholics I met have a saying, adapted from Fr. Placid Podipara: they are “Indian in culture, Catholic in religion, and Syriac in worship.” Just this morning I discovered a new instance of the truth of this saying. A Hindu friend of mine commented on Facebook about seeing a white woman wearing a mangalsutra. Since I didn’t know what that was, I looked it up. It’s a necklace that’s put on the woman as the central element of a Hindu marriage ceremony — and, I see, the Thomas Christian marriage ceremony as well. In Malayalam, it’s called a thali or thaali (താലി). Whereas many different designs can be used on a Hindu mangalsutra, the Holy Spirit is apparently the preferred design on a Christian thali.

Enjoy exploring!

5 comments

  1. Thank you for this post.

    When I articulate how the Byzantine tradition has influenced my spirituality, I never use the word Eastern because I know from Taft’s courses that there is so much more, and from what little I know, it is very diverse. For the record by Byzantine I generally mean Uniate and Orthodox.

    Recently I read Philip Jenkins The Lost History of Christianity: the Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia –and how it died. Like his book The Next Christendom, I like people who challenge me to think outside the box.

    For The Next Christendom, I have a lot of sociological skills and knowledge with which to evaluate and challenge his conclusions, and indeed come to some very different ones.

    I lack much of a framework for evaluating the Lost History. I would be curious to hear from anyone whose has read Jenkins Lost History and has some take upon it.

  2. Jack, you’re wise and well-trained to be cautious in such matters — everything is more complicated than it looks at first sight, right? (It took me 45 minutes to distill those first two paragraphs from what I know.)

    I haven’t read the Jenkins books, but looked at the first chapter of Lost History. I take it that this is his thesis: “The particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millenium the historical norm . . . . For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful reputation in Europe, Africa, and Asia . . . . [Europe] was the continent in which it was not destroyed” (3). This is fairly accurate, although the Thomas Christians in India, the Armenians trying to survive in Turkey, and the Ethiopic and Eritrean Christians in Africa might think, with Twain, that reports of their death are greatly exaggerated.

    I think as a corrective to a Western-dominated view of Christianity the book is probably very valuable, but it should lead to knowledge of the modern practitioners of these rites, not just lament. I’m sure as a scholar I could find some things to quibble with in his history, but it looks like an accurate but less-nuanced picture to me so far. Anyone else read it?

    1. Yes, it was wonderful you introduced us to Indian Thomas Christians by their contemporary experience, e.g. the picture of their liturgy, and the bracelet.

      Even more interesting was Fr Podipara’s they are “Indian in culture, Catholic in religion, and Syriac in worship.” In a postmodern world that values spirituality and self expression, it sounds like a winner: keeping all the best of the past while opening themselves to many future possibilities within that broad framework. Perhaps they will become leaders in the global religious economy. Is there an Indian Syriac Pope in our Catholic future? That might be even more interesting than an African one.

      A Coptic Christian whom I met was extremely pleased that I recognized his background and could carry on an intelligent conversation with him. It was sad to learn that he felt he was a neglected isolated misunderstood minority in contrast to other more visible ones.

      Keep the contemporary experience coming.

  3. Hi Kimberly. I am a Syro Malabar Catholic currently living in Chicago now. I’m interested to see if I could read or view some of the presentations or papers you were referring to in this post.

    1. Rajeev, I’m sorry I did not see this at first – I don’t usually look at comments on my posts after a few months. If you’re still checking, it’s best to email me:
      kbelcher (at) csbsju.edu

      I’d love to hear from you.

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