[Paper presented by Prof. George Menachery at the 13th Triennial Conference of the Church History Association of India, CHAI, Old Goa, 2005 with Title 'Aspects of the Idea of “Clean and Unclean” among the Brahmins, the Jews, and the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala']


Comparison is often made between the customs and traditions of the Thomas Christians and the Jews[1] on the one hand, and between those of the Thomas Christians and the Brahmins (i.e. the Nampoothiri or Malayalee Brahmins) [2] on the other.


This paper attempts, adhering to the spirit of the theme of this conference, viz. “Indian Society and Culture: An Encounter with Christianity”, to outline aspects of the idea of “Clean and Unclean” among the Brahmins, the Jews, and the St. Thomas Christians or Nazranies as they are often designated, and to examine the common traits in these three sets of customs and beliefs regarding the idea of “Clean and Unclean”. The overriding concern for “Cleanliness” dominates, or used to dominate, the ritual and daily life of all these three communities to the detriment of comfort, convenience, and even the unhampered pursuit of the common activities of the vast majority of people around them, and even stands frequently in the way of showing consideration, nay even common courtesy to others.


To study the prevalence of ideas of “Clean and Unclean” (Shuddham and Ashuddham) among the Brahmins the writer has mainly depended on the works and precepts of the sages[3] and elders of the community and of kindred communities as well as on the few works of an anthropological nature that exist independently or as part of general historical works4; for the Jews the OT, the NT and the various commentaries were chiefly made use of; and for the Thomas Christians in addition to the few scattered remarks that deal with the matter in well-known works[5], the personal experience of the writer and the knowledge gathered from parents, grandparents, and other elders, and from the observation of the conscious and unconscious behavior of the members of the community have been made use of. There is a vast fund of material that deals with these issues scattered in a plethora of works which aught to be systematically tapped, not just in a paper like this, but at least by way of a doctoral thesis or two6, and the earlier such detailed studies are undertaken the more will be the material available to investigate, both in the form of documents and living customs, and in the form of personnel in the know who are still in our midst.


Before launching into a study of the ideas about “Clean and Unclean” among these communities it will be profitable to take a quick look at the similarities that exist in their other better known customs, practices, and beliefs. As this assembly is made up of Christians mainly, and as we are meeting in a predominantly Hindu locality let us commence by comparing the Christian customs and Brahmin customs first, bearing in mind the special relationship Kerala Brahmins have always had with west coastal Brahmins of the Konkan Coast, rather than with Paradesi or Tamil Brahmins [7]. The similarities in the customs of Kerala Brahmins and Bengali Brahmins also have been noticed by certain scholars.[8] The following are only a few of the points of comparison between the general customs of the so-called Syrian Christians[9] or Thomas Christians and the customs of the Kerala Brahmins. As the consensus among modern scholars of Kerala history, like Dr. M.G.S. Narayanan and Dr.Veluthatt Kesavan is that the Nambuthiri Brahmins arrive in Kerala only many centuries after the existence of Christian communities there it is quite possible that many of the customs and manners of the latter were imitated or borrowed by the former.[10] The similarities outlined below are only indicative, and not exhaustive.


In both communities, i.e. Kerala Christians and Kerala Brahmins, women wear only predominantly white dress. Among Brahmins of the east coast only widows use white dress. [2 & 3] Otherwise Brahmin women outside Kerala use dark reds, blues, greens etc..


For both communities, Kerala Christians and Kerala Brahmins, piercing the nose for nasal ornaments is taboo. For all Brahmin women elsewhere nasal ornaments are customary. [2 & 3]


Architecture of residential houses of Upper Caste Hindus and Christians was almost identical, both residing in Nalukettu and Ettukettu houses, respectively having one inner courtyard surrounded by four (nalu) halls (something like the Spanish courtyard), and having two inner courtyards surrounded by eight (ettu) halls.[11]


Architecture of churches and temples was alike. Cf. Temple Architecture of Kerala, Dept. of Archaeology, Govt. of Kerala, Trivandrum, and Andrews Athappilly, “Church Architecture of Kerala”, STCEI, II, 1973, as also id. James Menachery, “Thomas Christian Architecture”. Remember how Vasco da Gama and company mistook a temple for a church and worshipped Kali or Bhagavathy thinking it was Our Lady (BVM). To avoid the similarity between the temple and the church the Portuguese introduced the “facade” in Kerala churches as an extension of the wall separating the nave or Hykala from the portico or Mukhamandapam of the church. Also see the hundreds of photographs by the editor- i.e. this writer - in the STCEI and the Indian Church History Classics, Vol. I, The Nazranies.


Both in front of many churches (e.g. Kallooppara, Niranam, Kundra, Chengannur), and the majority of temples there are rock (granite) lampstands [photos in The Nazranies & STCEI II & Pallikkalakalum Mattum & Trichur (Arch) Diocesan Centenary Volume (Articles by the present writer) and the CBCI 2004 Trichur Volume (articles and pictures by the present writer).


Both in front of all the churches and temples there are flagstaffs. (See 2.05)


Both communities are patriarchal, unlike the family system of the Sudras (Nairs) who follow the matriarchal system.


Both communities hold menstruation and delivery to be occasions of pollution, demanding elaborate ablutions and purificatory ceremonies.


Both communities have many customs connected with child birth (e.g. feeding the babe with powdered gold and honey). In the eleventh month the child is ceremoniously fed with rice for the first time. Mangoose teeth and panther toes worked in gold were part of the children’s ornaments.


Ceremonies connected with marriage like ceremonial baths, Manthrakodi or Pudava (bridal cloth or veil), Thali or Minnu - the gold ornament signifying marriage tied by the groom adorning the bride’s neck until “death do them part” - are all to be found among the Brahmins and the Christians in an identical style. Similarly death and funeral ceremonies like Pula, keeping legal defilement for a certain number of days, Shradham or the several feasts in memory of the dead were common to these communities.

There are several more customs, common to these two communities of Christians and Brahmins alone, which we are not enumerating for fear of exceeding the time and space limits prescribed by the organizers.


Similarly there are a number of general customs and manners common to the Judaic and Thomas Christian traditions. Here one must note the existence of a particular community of Syrian Christians or Thomas Christians who trace their descend to Thomas Kinai or Cana or K’nai and his party. Naturally Jewish customs are more prevalent in that community of Knanaya Christians than among the vast majority of Thomas Christians. However as many Jewish and Old Testament customs are to be met with in Christianity all over the world here one might be content merely to enumerate a few customs found commonly among the Jews and the Thomas Christians in general.


The Thomas Christians abstained from work on feasts and on Sundays. This abstention may be compared to the Jewish abstention from work on the Sabbath. Maffeus says:” When the sun sets they [Thomas Christians] could work on Sundays, because Monday is then begun.” [12] Again Fr. Jerome: “In the same way, also on Sunday evening they can work”.[13 ] Gouvea’s words are similar: “They may work after sunset (on Sundays), because it is already Monday”.[14] Fr. Paolino of St. Bartholomeo writes: “The feast began at the first vespers of the feast, in such a way that in that hour they used to close all the shops and end all day’s work. They do not start them again until after the second vespers.”[15]


The similarity in the celebration of the Pascal feast between the Jewish customs[16 ] and the Kerala Christian customs is noteworthy. In this there was very little difference between the Knanaya community and the other Thomas Christian communities. “Though a Pascal lamb is not used, certain elements of this meal allude to the Jewish Passover, as, for instance, the unleavened bread, the wine [“milk”], the time of the meal, the ordinary supper preceding, the standing position, the respect and reverence pervading the scene, the annual commemoration of the wonderful works of God, the bitter herbs, almsgiving, and the singing of hymns.”[17]


Both communities are seen to use mostly biblical names for their children. Names from the Old Testament are quite common, such as Abraham (Avara, Avarachan), Issac (Ithakku), Jacob (James, Chacko, Chakkunny,Chakkappan, Yakkob) and Joseph (Ouseph).[18] According to Ludovico di Varthema, “They use four names, John, James, Matthew, and Thomas.”[19] However today George is the most popular Christian name among the Nazranies.[20]


Leaving aside for the moment the consideration of common GENERAL customs among these three communities of Jews, Namboothiries, and St. Thomas Christians let us take up the study of a few specific customs related to the idea of “Clean and Unclean” and find out how far these customs were prevalent in the said communities and with what degree of universality, and variations, if any.


This is all the more relevant in the light of the accusation at times made against modern day Christians of Kerala by Caste i.e. “high caste” Hindus of Kerala that the Christians are not sufficiently conscious of cleanliness - in their eating habits, dressing habits, and even in the matter of keeping their body and habitat clean. It would be interesting to examine the validity of this accusation and to note who was responsible for this decline in the Cleanliness - Fad among the Christians, which is so very characteristic of the Kerala Brahmins, and what led to this decline if any.


There are a very large number of customs and practices connected with “Clean and Unclean” among the Nampoothiries, and a good number of such among the Jews. Among the Thomas Christians in times gone by, most of such customs and practices among the Nampoothiri Brahmins and those among the Jews were both in vogue together, making them perhaps the most “Clean” community in the whole world.


In note 3 below are listed the 64 special rules for Kerala Brahmins, most of which dealing with the practice of “cleanliness”, Shudham. In addition to these there are ever so many other customs given sanctity and sanction and the status of law as a result of long and strict practice. In fact the very life of the Kerala Brahmin is made “Hell”[21] literally by these rules, regulations, and conventions regarding “Clean and Unclean”. In addition to this there is the strict observance of Ayitham [22] , which is much more than mere untouchability. The Syrian Christians more or less strictly adhered to all these codes of behaviour also[23].


The occasions on a single day when the Nampoothiri Brahmin must necessarily wash oneself or bathe are innumerable. And this bathing has to be performed not by standing under a shower, or by pouring water over oneself with a mug, but only by immersing oneself in water - in a pond, a tank, or a river. The Brahmin must bathe before cooking. Braahmanans, desirous of purity (“Suddhi”)[“Cleanliness”] shall bathe if they touch a “Soodran”, etc. And it must be remembered that Soodran (a member of the fourth caste - the Soodras) denotes not outcastes, but caste Hindus like Nairs, Menons, and all or at least large portions of Pillais, Panickers, and even Ambalavasis or Temple-Castes like Variers, Pisharatis, Marars etc. The duty of the Sudra community was to serve the other three castes of Brahmins, Kshathrias, and Vaisyas. In Kerala these services extended to domestic help in the houses of upper castes by both the men and women of this fourth caste, and even the performance by Soodra women of the duties of a concubine in the unique sexual relationship prevalent in Kerala euphemistically called Sambandham.[24]

There are many other occasions when the Brahmin must ritually and otherwise bathe. It would be tedious to describe the dozens of occasions and circumstances that would necessitate bathing by the Kerala Brahmin, for example as a result of touching or seeing, or coming near people belonging to lower castes.[25]


Bathing, especially ritual bathing is found often prescribed for the Jews in the Old Testament. “Bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the Tent of my presence, and tell them to take a ritual bath.” (Ex. 29.4) “ The person shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and have a bath; he will then be ritually clean...on the seventh day he shall again shave his head, his beard, his eyebrows, and all the rest of the hair on his body, he shall wash his clothes and have a bath and then he will be ritually clean.” (Lev. 14.8-9)


Thomas Christians were always as much addicted to washing their bodies as the Brahmins or the Jews or even more so. In spite of the decrees of the Synod of Diamper and the efforts of the missionaries the Thomas Christian could hardly reconcile himself to any laxity in the matter of cleanliness. All Christians in the villages continued to observe the strictest rules that obtained among the Brahmins in matters of cleanliness and caste distinctions even till very recent times, as this writer could assert from his own experiences in and about the inhabitants of the villages of Kattur, Meloor, Chalakkudy, Ollur, Mala, Kallettumkara, Edakkulam, Chengalur, &c. in present day revenue districts of Thrissur and Ernakulam.

The following Decree of the Synod of Diamper(Action VIII, Decree XIII. Cf. The book of Geddes in the ICHC, Ed. George Menachery, p.91) throws much light on how far the Christians adhered to ritual cleanliness:

“ The Synod doth very much condemn what some...imagine, viz. That if they do not wash their Bodies betimes in the Morning on a Fastday, their Fast will be of no worth; and that if they happen to touch any of a base Race, or a Naires , they must wash themselves to make their Fast to be of any Merit; and declares that all such Washings and Superstitious touches, are commanded neither by God nor the Church...”

However the old customs died first in towns and townships, as the result of English education and contact with Westerners and their ways. The habit of taking bath for various reasons and of washing legs, hands, etc. quite often was fully prevalent during this writer’s childhood and even boyhood, and was a big headache and nuisance and even a burden. There were ponds or huge wells with steps leading down in the compound of all notable families, where the river was far away. A number of Kindies or a vessel with a spout or nozzle-like side tube to pour water was always available which was used to wash one’s feet whenever climbing into the corridor or verandah of the house after walking outside. The latrines were separate structures during my childhood always a great distance from the house.


Ayitham or untouchability, a sort of total segregation of a member of the lower caste, from a Brahmin in the form of Thottukoodayma and Theendikkoodayma was one of the strongest practices that has now more or less - only more or less - disappeared from Kerala, but after a very long and bitter struggle. Seeing the extreme forms Ayitham or untouchability, “unseeability”, and unapproachability as practised in Kerala took, Swami Vivekananda was forced to call Kerala a “Lunatic Asylum”.


The custom of Ayitham or untouchability or segregation among the Jews is evident from these words of Peter. He (i.e. Peter) said to them, “ You yourselves know very well that a Jew is not allowed by his religion to visit or associate with Gentiles”. (Acts 10.28)

Paul also concurs:
And so the Lord says, “You must leave them and separate yourselves from them. Have nothing to do with what is unclean, and I will accept you”. (2Cor 6.17) And Paul goes on to add:” So then, let us purify ourselves from everything that makes body or soul unclean”. In the same chapter v.14 says: “Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers, for it cannot be done. How can right and wrong be partners?” More scriptural verses it is not necessary to cite in this assembly.


The practice of Ayitham as it existed among the Thomas Christians, and as it continued to exist even in my youth with some intensity, can be understood from the enactments of the Synod of Diamper of 1599. Allow me to quote a little extensively:

“The Synod being informed, that in some parts when any one of the baser sort do but touch the Cisterns of Christians, that Christians do Disemplear or Purify them, by performing certain Ceremonies...(the Synod) with great rigour command those that make the said Disempoleamento or Purification,. to be thrown out of the Communion of the Church, and to be denied Casture...and to be punished with the Penalties...” (Act IX, Decree III of the 1599 Synod of Diamper)[26]

For Christians as to the Brahmins Nairs being Sudras was an untouchable caste, though some European writers have described the Nairs as Noblemen and so on.27 Cf. Decree II of Act IX of the said Synod fully and may I request you to go through it most carefully to understand how expediency and profit often comes first with Archbishop Menezes, and how His Grace advises tricks to combine religion with material benefit. He allows Christians to practice untouchability or Ayitham and to pretend to go by the existing customs of segregation, but not to perform the ritual bath after the pollution caused by going near or touching Nairs and lower caste persons if it will not come to the attention of the king and the elite! “Therefore the Synod doth command all that shall be found guilty of forbearing to touch such [Nairs], or having touched them, shall wash themselves, to be severely punished as Superstitious followers of the Heathen Customs, and commands the Preachers and Confessors to admonish them thereof in their Sermons and Confessions.”

In the same Decree when the Synod is advising the Christians not to shun or steer clear of others who are Christians it is also indirectly pleading the cause of the Yavanas who were often considered Mlechas by caste Hindus and were untouchables for the native Christians too.


As the paper has already gone beyond the allotted length hereafter we shall restrict ourselves to a consideration of a few more related practices prevalent among the Christians and to draw some parallels between those and the Jewish or Brahmin customs.


The Synod doth condemn the Custom, or abuse that has obtained in this Diocess of the new-married couple’s not going to Church till after the fourth day after their Marriage, when they use to Wash themselves, which is according to the Judaical Ceremonies condemned by the Law of Christ...” (Action VII, Decree XVI, Geddes, ICHC I, Ed. Menachery, p.89)


Heathen Muscicians to be kept out of the church. Hence Kottupuras as at Kuravilangad and Palai(?).Geddes, Ed. Menachery, p.74.


“Faithful Christians must not only avoid the Ceremonies and Superstitions of the Heathens, but the Judaical Rites and Ceremonies also,..the Synod, tho’ it doth very much commend the Holy Custom of carrying Children to Church forty days after they are born,...; nevertheless it condemns the separating of Women for the said forty days after the birth of a Male, as if they were unclean ...and eighty days after the birth of a Female; both which are Jewish Ceremonies, that are now abrogated...” (Geddes, Ed. Menachery, ICHCI, p.96, Decree V)


“Whereas the Synod is informed, That the meaner sort of People are much better disposed to receive the Faith than the Naires, or Nobles, and being extremely desirous to find some way whereby such well disposed People may be made Christians, so as to assemble together with the old Christians, as why should they not, since they all adore the same God,...and conferred about the most proper methods for the effecting of it...we have not been able to find any that are effectual...” (Decree XXXVI, Geddes, Ed. Menachery, ICHCI, p.95). It is suggested that this is not done in order not to displease the Heathen Kings, “who would correspond with us no longer to the loss of the Trade and Commerce we do at present maintain with them”. To overcome such problems the Synod suggests that “and the Prelate shall be advised thereof, that he may give order for the building od distinct Churches for them” (i.e. the meaner sort of People), “and in case they have not a church to themselves, they shall then hear Mass without doors in the Porch,” etc. Geddes, p.95.


Back Home Top
EmailEmail this Link to a Friend FeedbackSend Your Feedback