Kerala's Syrian Christian Orthodoxy Didn't Let Priyanka Chopra Fulfil Her Grandmother's Final Wish

11/06/2016 1:17 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Priyanka Chopra doesn’t need a reason to trend, but on Friday she topped the social media charts because of an unusual situation: from a celebrated actor, she had suddenly become the victim of the inherited wrath of a Syrian Christian church in far away Kerala. The Church didn’t even care that she was mourning the death of her beloved grandmother.

Priyanka Chopra, the Bollywood hotshot, and some Kerala church? And why the hell should she pay heed to them?

That’s the story of the Syrian Christian churches of Kerala and their inescapable community writs. Priyanka, or rather her family, was a victim of one of those unwritten rules according to which if you marry outside your community, you are excommunicated. It means that, among other things, you lose your right to be buried in your family church. You can’t go to another church or churches of other denominations because you had never been baptised there.

In other words, before your community chieftains, you die as a rogue. And the place for you is not your family vault at the church, but the pit for rogues (that’s the exact, most likely figurative, phrase in Malayalam), if at all one exists anywhere.

Priyanka, or rather her family, was a victim of one of those unwritten rules according to which if you marry outside your community, you are excommunicated.

That’s what happened to Priyanka Chopra. Her grandmother, Mary John, was born in Kerala as a Jacobite, one of the groups of native Christians who call themselves Syrian Christians for their imagined lineage. Her family church, St Johns Attamangalm Jacobite Syrian Church in Kumarakom, the place that was made famous by Arundhati Roy and tourism companies, was where she was baptised. As an adult, she went to Bihar to work as a nurse, married a Hindu and continued to live there. In her old age, she told her family that upon her death she wanted to be buried in her family church.

Not many in Kerala knew that Priyanka had this connection with their state until she, through her grandmother’s family, made arrangements for her burial at the Attamangalm church. Priyanka, her mother and a few others flew down with the body for burial, but the church authorities told them that Mary John had married a Hindu, had lived a non-Christian life, and hence she couldn’t be laid to rest there. When local and national media reported the development, a nonchalant Vicar of the church, Rev. Fr. Simon Manuel Kidangath, told them that tradition, rules, and the faith of the believers were more important to the church than Priyanka.

Disheartened, Priyanka and her family was about to go back to Mumbai with the body when another clergyman, this time a kinder one, - bishop of the Kottayam diocese of Jacobite Syrian Christian Church Thomas Mar Themothios - offered to help. Although unhappy that they have been unable to fulfil Mary’s death-wish, the family accepted the alternative and buried her in a Kottayam church under his jurisdiction.

What happened next was even more shocking. The bishop was suspended by his synod. Local news channels and social media went into an overdrive, Priyanka started trending more, and the priest above the priest who suspended the bishop stayed the latter's order. The senior priest obviously sensed that if he didn’t do that, it would expose the Jacobite church to unnecessary scrutiny.

The disgraceful experience that Priyanka and her family suffered at the hands of the Attamangalm church is a great example of the vicelike grip that the Syrian Christ clergy.

The disgraceful experience that Priyanka and her family suffered at the hands of the Attamangalm church is a great example of the vicelike grip that the Syrian Christ clergy - not just the Jacobites, but others too - enjoy over their subjects in Kerala. Excommunication is an instrument they use for retaining the community’s honour, which essentially is no different from plain racism, and to bludgeon people into submission.

In the case of marriage outside the community, it appears to be about purity because the lineage gets disrupted. Take a look at this message from Vicar Rev. Fr. Simon Manuel Kidangath of the Attamangalam church (taken from its website), that denied the burial of Priyanka’s grandmother: “Our perseverances to stay in unceasing loyalty to Holy See of Antioch and all the East our obedience to the Holy Throne is of St. Peter and the Apostolic successor H . H. Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka 1, and H.B. Baseliose Thoms 1, our Diocesan Metropolitan Thomas Mor Themotheos is unquestionably pure and unblemishable (emphasis by the author). The Identity of every Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Christian is this.”

It’s clearly about loyalty to Antioch (the ancient capital of Syria, now in Turkey), a mythical lineage, and maintaining its purity.

The Asst. Vicar Rev. Fr. Libin Kuriakose Kochuparambil adds his bit to this purity: “The Jacobite Syrian orthodox church keeps vigil to follow the apostolic tradition and Episcopal purity (emphasis by the author). The church is proud of the succession from St. Peter, the Apostle to the present patriarch of Antioch.”

Excommunication by the church is very common among Syrian Christians even though inter-religious marriages are more regular these days.

Excommunication by the church is very common among Syrian Christians even though inter-religious marriages are more regular these days. It’s also routinely used against the families of parish members who don’t toe the line of the church. In December last year, in Thrissur, members of the Ollur St Antony Forane took out a public procession against a family because it registered a case against the church for using firecrackers. In retaliation, the parish reportedly passed a “referendum” and asked the church not to solemnise an upcoming wedding in the defiant family. Reportedly, the family was asked to withdraw the case or face the wrath of the church and the parish.

The Syrian Christians in Kerala also practised a peculiar inheritance tradition. While the rest of India followed the Indian Succession Act of 1925, in Kerala they went by an archaic Travancore Christian Succession Act of 1916 and Cochin Christian Succession Act of 1921 by which women didn’t enjoy the same inheritance rights as their male siblings. Arundhati Roy’s mother Mary Roy fought against her family, and essentially her community, and went all the way to the Supreme Court to prove them wrong. In 1986, after more than two decades of an epic legal battle, she won the case and got her rightful share of the family property. Ideally, that should have set the record straight; still, many Syrian Christian families follow the old tradition than what’s legal.

The Priyanka Chopra incident should be an opportunity to build resistance to such extra-constitutional behaviour of religious groups, that too in a state that claims to be near-literate, secular and predominantly left.

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