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This article deals with the Nasrani People as an ethnic community, for a detailed article on the religious tradition of the Nasrani people; see: Saint Thomas Christians.

The Nasrani people are an ethnic community from Kerala, South India, who follow the early Hebrew-Syriac Christian tradition. Their heritage is Syrian-malabar, their culture South Indian, their faith St. Thomas Christian, and language Malayalam. Much of the Jewish tradition has been forgotten, especially after the Portuguese invasion of Kerala in the early 1500s.

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The Nasrani Menorah also known as the Mar Thoma cross

The Nasrani people are also called as Syrian-Malabar Christians, Saint Thomas Christians or even as Syrian Christians and Mar Thoma Nasranis.



The passages of time and human progression leaves in its wake remnants of ethos and imprints from the past extant in fragments and pieces, largely forgotten by the original people, and sometimes obscured by official versions of historical narration. One such is the fragment of the nasrani tradition of Kerala.

The Southern coast of the Indian subcontinent (hypothesized by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus to be the place mentioned as Ophir in the Old Testament) inevitably became the gateway for the Mediterranean world to the Far East. The people there traded in teak, ivory, spices and peacocks, and the area was endowed with a magnificent coastline full of ports from Mangalapuram to Kodungallur, originally known as Cranganore and also called Muziris.

The trade routes brought with it not just riches but also stateless nations and nascent worldviews. Cranganore became one of the earliest settlements of the Jewish diaspora from the later Old Testament period. They continued trade with the Mediterranean world, thus establishing a strong link between the southern coast of the Indian peninsula and the Judeo-Roman world. Laying the links or foundations for what would later be the early 'Judeo-Nazrani' diaspora. The early aramaic speaking 'Syriac'-Christians who came to Kerala (which already had a Jewish settlement in Kodungulloor) were Jews. This is because the identity of being Jewish is not purely religious, but hereditary; that is, anybody who is of Hebrew descent is Jewish by origin, and anybody who is born of a Jewish mother is Jewish, regardless of whether the person follows Judaism or not.

The British researcher, William Dalrymple travelled across the Arabian Sea to Kerala in a boat similar to those mentioned in ancient Jewish and Roman texts and showed how the Nasrani-Jewish people had travelled to Kodungalloor. He followed the same course as mentioned in the Acts of Thomas, a copy of which survives in a monastery on Mount Sinai. Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, ancient Aramaic text of the Gospel of the Nazarenes and other related texts were found in South India. Many of the texts match word to word the text of the Dead Sea scrolls.

The term Syrian-Malabar Nasranis is a composite form of the elemental aspects of the ancient tradition. In it the term Syrian actually refers to the Aramaic speaking Jewish tradition rather than Syria, while the term Malabar is the ancient name of the present day state of Kerala in India. The term Syrian-Malabar Nasrani therefore means people of Christian-Jewish tradition who follow Jesus of Nazareth and are from the Malabar coast in South India.

Christian Jewish tradition

These early Christian Jews believed in Jesus as the Christ, but followed Jewish traditions and called themselves Nazarenes or Nazrani (meaning Jews who followed the Messiah from Nazareth). The terms Nazarenes and Nasrani were first mentioned in the New Testament in Acts 24:5. It was they who referred to themselves as Nasrani Katholikos Khristianos (Nasrani Catholic Christians) for the first time in Antioch to denote themselves as "Jewish followers of the universal assembly of Christ from Nazareth." (Acts 11:26). The term nasrani was used essentially to denote Jewish followers of Jesus from Nazareth, while the term Khristianos or (christian) was initially used largely to refer to non-Jewish people who followed the Christ.

Until the advent of the Portuguese in the 1500s, the proto-Jewish-Nasrani ethos in Kerala thrived with Jewish customs and the Syrian-Antiochian tradition intertwined with South Indian customs. They preserved the original rituals of the early Jewish Christians, such as covering their heads while in worship. Their ritual services (mass) was and still is called as Qurbana (also spelled as Kurbana) which is derived from the Hebrew word Korban (קרבן) meaning Sacrifice. Their ritual service used to be held on Saturdays in the tradition of the Jewish Sabbath. The Nasrani Qurbana used to be sung in the Suryani (Syrian) and Aramaic languages. They also believed that it was the Romans who killed Jesus because, historically, Jesus was crucified; the official form of execution of the Jews was typically stoning to death, while the official form of execution of the Romans was crucifixion.

Nasrani Menorah

The symbol of the Nasranis is based on the Jewish menorah, the ancient symbol of the Jewish people. It is a branched candle stand for seven candlesticks. The Nasranis elaborated the middle candle stick as the cross. The Nasrani menorah became a representation of the Christian Jewish tradition, and became the etched symbol with a central cross (on behalf of the first candle) and with branches, three on either side of the cross on behalf of the 6 other candles of the Jewish symbol. The six branches, (three on either side of the cross) represents God as the burning bush, while the central branch holds the cross, and the dove at the tip of the cross represents the Holy Spirit. This later came to be called as the Syrian Kuriz (cross) or the Mar Thoma cross. In Jewish tradition the central branch is the main branch, from which the other branches or other six candles are lit. Netzer is the Hebrew word for branch and is the root word of "Nazareth" or "Nazarene".

Note that the Christian cross was not adopted as a symbol by Mediterranean Christianity until several centuries have passed.

Persecution by Portuguese

The Judeo-Nasrani tradition of the Syro-malabar Nasranis was wiped out when the Portuguese invaded Kerala, and denounced the Nasrani account of Christian faith as false. They imposed their rituals and liturgy and obliterated the Jewish legacy from the Nasrani tradition. The Portuguese described the Nasranis as Sabbath keeping Judaizers.

Archbishop Menezes of Goa, convened the Synod of Diamper in 1599, in Kerala. There he ordered all the texts of the syrian nasranis to be burnt. The Portuguese burned the Gospel of Thomas and the Acts of Thomas. The purpose stated by Menezes was to erase all legacies of antiquity and Jewishness. They completely obliterated the records of early Nasrani life and Hebrew - Syriac tradition and imposed on the Nasranis that they were local people who were converted and not descendants of early Jewish settlers converted to christianity by the Apostle Thomas. This despite the fact that the Acts of Thomas ( a copy of which still survives in a monastry on Mount Sinai), states that the early christian converts by the Apostle Thomas in Kerala were early Jewish people settled in the Malabar coast.

Most of all the Portuguese burned the Nasrani Aramaic Peshitta bible known today as the Lost Aramaic Bible which was based on the jewish Targum and included the Gospel of the Nazarenes. The Portuguese imposed the teaching that the Jews killed Jesus. The Nasranis, who were,until then, the "living fossils" of the Christian-Jewish tradition, lost their very defining ethos.

The only Nasranis who managed to preserve some elements of their Jewish origin was the Knanaya people, because of their tradition of being endogamous within their own community and therefore preserving their tradition.

Nasrani tradition today

Though much of the Jewish tradition was obliterated and wiped out, some of the important traditions lived on. The symbol of the Nasrani people is still the Nasrani menorah based on the Jewish menorah. Other surviving Jewish tradition still followed by the Nasranis is the tradition of Pesah appam. On passover night, the Nasrani people have Pesah-appam (unleavened passover bread) along with Pesah pal (passover coconut milk). This tradition of Pesah appam is observed by the entire Nasrani people until this day. The Knanaya people (a distinct group within the Nasrani people) have maintained much more of the Jewish traditions.

The nasrani place of worship (called Palli in malayalam) has separate seating arrangement for men and women. The "holy of holies" is divided by a red curtain for most of the time and is opened during the central part of the Nasrani Qurbana.

Nasrani people today belong to various christian denominations of the Mar Thoma Christian tradition. See: St. Thomas Christians for a detailed description of the various denominations.

Nasrani People in present society

Nasrani people largely live in the districts of Kottayam in Kerala and neighbouring districts. They have also migrated to other cities in India like Mumbai and Bangalore. Others have migrated to the United states and work in the Gulf countries.

Nasrani people own large estates and engage in rubber and spices trade and trade in cash crops. They also take prominent role in the educational institutions of Kerala and throughout India.

List of prominent Nasranis

External links


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