Osaka to Unakavu

It’s not usually the point of this blog to recount my everyday comings and goings, but I’m on a research trip at the moment so hopefully these are temporarily of a little interest. The Japan part of the trip over, I had the chance to make an unusual journey from the hyper-modern Japanese city of Osaka all the way to the hill village of Unakavu in the south Indian state of Kerala, passing through Hong Kong, Delhi, and Cochin on the way. 

All this was mostly thanks to the slightly creaky Air India and the shiny new upstart LCC – low-cost carrier – Indigo. Apparently these LCC’s are partly responsible for the deterioration of some of India’s long-distance rail services, having stolen away the demographic – the sharp-elbowed middle-classes – that used to complain the most if things weren’t spick and span on the trains.

The final 140km of the journey, from Cochin airport to Unakavu, was covered in terrifying style in a little Ambassador car weaving in between cars, buses, and lorries along a track lined with immensely colourful temples and churches, poster ads, and Communist Party flags.

One of the many churches that flashed past too quickly to catch the name or get a decent picture...

A good quarter or so of Kerala’s famous Communists have traditionally been Christians, and it’s partly this relationship of religion/spirituality with social and political activism that I’ve come here to find out more about.

Having spent a bleary-eyed Christmas Eve watching the cleaners at work in Delhi Airport’s semi-closed terminal 1D, I had missed the midnight Christmas rite. Instead, I had the chance to tour round the three competing Christian churches in Unakavu – a Syrian Orthodox, a Malankara, and a Syro-Malabar. For those with a penchant for detail, Wikipedia’s attempt to explain this complexity in South Indian Christianity – which predates Christianity in the West by hundreds of years – is worth a look.

St Thomas's Church, Ranni

In the evening, a short motorcycle ride took us to where a local festival was being held, celebrating the anniversary of the establishment of the large, plush, and richly illuminated St Thomas’s church, Ranni. A great many of India’s Syrian Christians are from wealthy, land-owning backgrounds, and church architecture (quite deliberately) reflects a sense of confidence and long history.

This is partly why while some Syrian Christians are concerned about the future of this relatively small denomination, there are plenty who prefer to stick to the idea that you don’t ‘convert’ to Syrian Christianity – you have to be born into one of its families, many of whom trace themselves back almost two thousand years. Poorer, lower-caste Indians who converted to Christianity in the modern era are generally looked down upon, euphemistically referred to as ‘nineteenth-century converts’. They took part in this festival only as on-lookers standing behind walls – heightening the sense that religion is so often about piety and self-assertion simultaneously, and that it doesn’t really make sense to try completely to distinguish the one from the other.

Part of the procession on its way to the church, women and girls holding candles

The Malankara Rite, to which this particular church, St Thomas’s, belongs, grew out of a reunion with the Catholic Church in the 1930s, and in most church properties here – and in many homes – you can see Pope Benedict XVI lined up alongside photos of Malankara bishops and archbishops.

People are generally positive – or, at least tactful – about this relationship with Rome, but the Pope’s gaffe a couple of years ago, when he cast doubt on the origins of South Indian Christianity – linked to the Apostle Thomas – understandably tested the good will of the Christian communities here.

Alongside the architecture, the musical tradition that goes with Syrian Christianity is beautiful, drawing on Syrian melodies and words, translated into Malayalam (one of the local languages here) and set to a local arrangement. The procession was accompanied by small choirs carried in wagons like the one to the right here, singing along to a keyboard and a backing track. (I have footage of this and will post it once I have a better internet connection…)

 

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