ACW

ACW

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Church in Southern India



Wild goats are a common sight in India.

If, two thousand years hence, an archaeologist were to study buildings and cemeteries (as archaeologists do) in southern India, he/she would conclude that it was a Christian country.  Never, not even in the American Bible Belt, have I found a greater density of churches, particularly in central Kerala.  However, the archaeologist would be wrong, because 79% of Indians are Hindu [1], compared with just 2.3% Christians. Having spent just two weeks in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, I do not pretend to be an expert, but this is what struck me:

The caste system has not gone away.  All Indians must carry a caste certificate, but many from lower castes have changed their religion from Hindu to Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, as a way of escaping its worst aspects.  You can gloss over one’s caste by saying that you are a Christian, take any job, worship in any church and marry another Christian. 

The vast majority of marriages, even Christian marriages, are arranged.  Young men and women do not socialise and dating is frowned upon.  Parents find husbands/wives by searching ‘matrimonial’ classifieds in newspapers and on the internet.  Christian marriages take place in church, with no civil ceremony required, and the groom is ‘allowed’ to appear in a suit, although the bride will wear a sari.  If the bridge and groom are from different faiths, she is expected to convert to his religion. 

In India you wear your religion like a football scarf, with, perhaps, a Cross or a ‘Jesus is Lord’ emblazoned across your car windscreen.  Our tour bus had ‘Maasha Allah’ painted on the front.

Rice Boat in backwaters of Kerala.
Churches, mosques, Hindu temples, synagogues and ashrams look very similar; often you need to check for  crosses, minarets or statues of gods. You take off your shoes before entering any of them, as a mark of respect, to preserve antique tiles and because, as there are often no pews, worshippers kneel on the floor.  In Saint Thomas Home Cathedral in Chennai, Christians prayed in front of the altar, prostrate, in what I thought of as the Islamic prayer position.

Several days into our tour, our British tour manager, M, was stricken with acute stomach pains, necessitating many trips to the doctor, then to the hospital. D, our local guide, who hadn’t known M until the start of our tour, accompanied him to all these visits, staying up all night with him in hospital until a decision was made to carry out surgery.  The following day, without sleep, D did M’s job as well as his own, taking us out on our day’s schedule of touring, with good humour and enthusiasm, and, in fact, D continued to lead us by himself for the rest of our holiday.  D is an Indian Christian.  D is a modern Good Samaritan.  The Church of Southern India is alive and visible and not just through its magnificent buildings.

What an amazing cue for our next ACW competition, which we are about to launch in association with Street Pastors.  For this comp, you may enter a piece of fiction or non-fiction on Today’s Good Samaritans.  As this is an open competition, an entry fee will be chargeable.  More details in the spring edition of Christian Writer.


[1] "Population by religious community - 2011". 2011 Census of India. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner. Archived from the original on 25 August 2015. Retrieved 25 August 2015.

7 comments:

  1. What an interesting post. Thank you.

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    1. Thank you, Aggie. Next time I will try and write something properly about writing!

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  2. Thank you for this post, Rosemary. Your view of Southern India is very interesting. I have recently returned from two weeks in Kerala. The Catholic churches we saw were huge, grand affairs. Could this be a cultural approach, an unconscious continuation of the caste system - God is so great He needs a palatial place for people to meet in? We passed a RC church one Saturday, where an Indian Christian wedding was about to start. The bride wore a beautiful long white dress, the groom a suit. I would have loved to know their story - did they know each other already? Was it an arranged marriage? Our guide was a local Christian who talked about his own arranged marriage. He spoke about falling in love with his wife after they were married, and they are now the delighted parents of a small son.

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    1. How amazing that we were both in Southern India at the same time, Veronica! I also was struck by the grandeur and beauty, particularly, of the Catholic churches. I understand that Syrian Christians settled in Kerala some 600 years ago, that Keralans go back to work in Arab countries (obviously not to Syria), earn lots of money and spend some of it on their churches. The Anglican churches tended to be understated, or, to put it another way, in disrepair, presumably neglected after the end of the Raj, although building work was taking place in many of them when we visited.

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  3. What an inspiring trip! It also reminds me that I have much to be grateful for. Thanks for sharing it with us, Rosemary.

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    1. Yes, I was shocked by how ingrained the caste system still was and by arranged marriages amongst Christians.

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  4. Thank you for a fascinating post Rosemary. For those of us who read this in an email digest, can you please put your name in the title or a bio at the bottom so we don't have to go to the web to find out who we're reading?

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