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Knanaya Wedding Crown.jpg
Knanaya Bride's Wedding Crown
Regions with significant populations
c. 300,000 (Kerala, India; Chicago; elsewhere)

Malayalam; local languages

Liturgical: Syriac
Predominantly Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church
Related ethnic groups
Saint Thomas Christians, Malayalis, Cochin Jews

The Knanaya, also known as the Southists or Tekkumbhagar, are an endogamous group in the Saint Thomas Christian community of Kerala, India. They are differentiated from another part of the community, known in this context as the Northists. Today there are about 300,000 Knanaya in India and elsewhere.[1]

The origins of the division of the Saint Thomas Christians into Northist and Southist groups are unclear. Various traditions trace it back to the arrival of the Syrian merchant Thomas of Cana in the 4th or 8th century, while another legend traces their origin to Jews in the Middle East. The divisions were present by the time of the Portuguese colonization in the 16th century, and was noted through the European colonial era.

Today the majority of Knanaya are members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Malankara Churches. They became increasingly prominent in Kerala in the late 19th century. Many Knanaya migrated away during the 20th and 21st centuries, largely westward, forming communities in non-Malayalam speaking areas, with a large expatriate community currently living in Chicago, Illinois, United States.


Thomas of Cana, the leader of the Knanaya migration to India sometime between 345-800 A.D.

The term Knanaya derives from the name Thomas of Cana, an important figure in Saint Thomas Christian tradition. The ultimate derivation of Thomas' epithet Cana is not clear: it may refer to the town of Cana, which is mentioned in the Bible, or it may instead refer to the land of Canaan.[2] Alternately, it may be a corruption of a Syriac term for merchant (Knāyil in Malayalam).[3] However, scholar Richard M. Swiderski states that none of these etymologies are entirely sound.[2]

Knanaya priest and scholar Jacob Kollaparambil argues that the "Cana" form is a corruption introduced by European scholars based on the Malayalam form Knāy and its variants (Kynāi, Kināyi, Kinān) found in the folk tradition of the Knanaya and the common parlance and literature of the people of Malabar.[4] This may be a reference to the Christian community of Kynai, in Bét Aramayé in Persia.[5]

The Knanaya are also known as Tekkumbhagar in Malayalam; this is generally translated into English as "Southist", or sometimes "Southerner" or "Suddhist". This is in reference to the historically significant geographical division between them and other Saint Thomas Christians, who are known as Vadakumbhagar or Northists in this context.[6]

Origins and traditions

It is not clear how the division of the Saint Thomas Christians into Southern and Northern groups originated. The earliest written evidence for the split dates to the 16th century.[7] Directional divisions within communities are common in Kerala, including among Hindu groups.[8][9] A similar north-south division is found among the Nairs, and it historically appears to have been in place in the early Brahmin settlements in the area. The Saint Thomas Christians may have taken this trait from the Brahmins.[8]

A number of traditions and stories have emerged to explain the division,[10] and both Southists and Northists use variants of these traditions to claim superiority for their group.[11] According to C.J. Fuller The Northists are by far the more numerous, but they are ranked below the Southists. [12]Whatever the stories are, Southists in particular, if not Northists, shared a world of common culture and inhabited a common space with other high-born[13] The earlier version traces the divide to the figure of Thomas of Cana, a Syrian merchant who led a group of 72 immigrant families from the Middle East to settle in India in the 4th century (some sources place these events in the 8th century).[11] This story may reflect a historical migration of East Syrian Christians to India around this time, which established the region's relationship with the Church of the East.[14] In the Knanaya versions of this story, the Knanaya are the descendants of Thomas of Cana and his followers, while the Northists descend from the local Christian body which had been converted by Thomas the Apostle centuries earlier.[15] Elements of the Thomas of Cana story are enumerated in ancient songs as well as a copper plate grant awarded to Thomas of Cana followers by a local ruler.[16][17][18] These plates are said to have granted Thomas's followers 72 "privileges" from Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king.[19] The plates were present in Kerala during the time of the Portuguese colonization in the early 17th century, but were lost during the Portuguese rule.[20] The Knanaya invoke the plates as evidence of their descent from Thomas of Cana's mission.[21]

Thomas of Cana and the Knanaya Depart for India
Thomas of Cana receives privileges from Cheruman Perumal
Copy of Inscriptions from the Thomas of Cana Copper Plates

In many other variants, Thomas of Cana had two wives or partners, one of them being the ancestor of the endogamous Southists, and the other one being the ancestor of the Northists.[8] In some of these variants, the Southists' ancestor was Thomas' Syrian wife, while the Northists' was an indigenous Nair woman who became his second wife or concubine, implying that the Southists are Thomas' true heirs.[22] In other variants, both wives were Kerala natives, while the Southists' forebearer was from a higher caste.[23] More recent versions of this story downplay the importance of either wife's status, focusing instead on their descendants' marriage practices: the Northists intermarried with the natives, while the Knanaya maintained their strict endogamy, maintaining a "pure" lineage.[24]

Northists also maintain versions of the Thomas of Cana story that counter the Knanayas' assertions. In the Northist versions, both Northists and Southists are descended from marriages between Thomas' party and indigenous Christians, but the Knanaya are descended from Syrian servants who married "low caste" Keralans; the Knanayas' endogamy and "purity" are thus borne out of their exclusion by the higher class Northists. These variants frequently trace Knanaya descent back to a dobi (washerwoman); in some versions of this story, she became Thomas' concubine, while in other she married a lower-caste Maaran boy.[25] This assertion is based on the Portuguese document "M.S Sloane 2748-A" of 1676, the first and only early European record which flips the social position of Southists and Northists. The document is attributed to Fr. Mathew O.C.D but is believed to be a forgery due to the documents handwriting not matching any other works of the author. [26]

Another story regarding the origin of the division became popular during the 20th century. In 1939, Knanaya politician and author Joseph Chazhikaden published a book on the community, Tekkumbhagasamudayam Charitram, in which he argued that the Knanaya were the descendants of ancient Jews. Chazhikaden built upon the folk history that the Knanaya came with Thomas of Cana to India but asserted that they originated in Judea, and later converted to Christianity, though they maintained their distinct culture and identity[27]. Eventually they were forced out of their homeland and moved to Cranganore, where they were welcomed by the ruler Cheraman Perumal and lived near, but maintained their separateness from, the indigenous "Northist" Saint Thomas Christians. Swiderski believes that the legend was "conceived and promulgated" by Chazhikaden himself.[28] Many modern Knanaya accept the account as factual, while others reject it. As with other Knanaya origin traditions, Northists dispute and condemn it.[29]


Early mentions

The first known written evidence for a division in the Saint Thomas Christian community dates to the 16th century, when Portuguese colonial officials took notice of it.[30][31] A 1518 letter by a Jesuit missionary mentions a conflict between the children of Thomas of Cana, hinting at a rift in the community in contemporary times.[30] In 1579 another Jesuit missionary named Monserrate wrote on the tradition of Thomas of Cana's two wives for the first time; he describes the division of the community, but gives no details about either side.[7] A 1603 letter by Portuguese official J. M. Campori further discusses the division, which had by that point become intermittently violent; Campori likewise traces its origin back to the story of Thomas' two wives. [32]

St. Marys Knanaya Jacobite Church in Kottayam,Kerala containing ancient Nasrani symbols and Sassanid Pahlavi inscriptions

Definitions of the division by the Portuguese:

  • (1579) Monserrate, SJ saw them as tribes (tribus) divided on the basis of places of residence on the North and South.[33] Thomas of Cana had two wives from both the Christians descend, one free and the other a slave but both of noble birth. [34]
  • (1604) Campori SJ called them castes and geracao (lineages).[33] Southist and Northist both claim to be descendants of the true wife and do not enter into marriage with each other.[35]
  • (1604) Bishop Ros SJ considered them as dous genros (two kinds) of Christians; dous parcialidades (two parties, factions).[33]Descendants of Thomas of Cana residing in the churches of Carturte (Kaduthuruthy), Cotete (Kottayam), Udiapmer (Udiyamperoor) and in Turigore are endogamous while Christians of St. Thomas are exogamous and readily convert gentiles.[36]
  • (1606) Gouvea saw them as castes and bandos (factions, groups).[33]Southist are the descendants of Thomas' true wife while Northist are the descendants of a Nair woman whom Thomas of Cana converted to Christianity. [37]
  • (1611) De Couto considered the Southists as Armenians by caste.[33] Southists are those who came with Thomas of Cana and reside in the churches at Kaduthurthy, Diamper, and Kottayam.[38]
  • (1636) Da Trinidade OFM characterized the Southists and Northists as castes and bandos (factions, groups).[33] Southist are the descendants of Thomas' true wife while Northist descend from slave woman converted to Christianity.[39]
  • (1657) Bishop Sebastiani OCD called them two factions (fattioni).[33] Southist are the descendants of Thomas' true wife while Northist descend from Thomas' concubine of Nair blood. [40]

Various later sources mention the Southists and their mutual enmity with the Northists. Following the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653, both the Southists and Northists were split internally into Catholic and Malankara Church factions; this rift overshadowed the north-south divide for a period of time. European observers tended to label the Northists and Southists as "castes" and they regarded this as an example of the prevalence of divisions in Indian society in general.[41] Later, both Saint Thomas Christians and Europeans tried to assuage the animosity and downplay the division.[42]

Modern era

Mar Matthew Makil, first Knanaya Catholic bishop of Kottayam (center)

In the late 19th century social changes in British India led to increased wealth and social power for the Saint Thomas Christians. This social change tended to advance internal divisions within the community, including the Southist-Northist division.[43] Through this period the Knanaya promoted their own uniqueness and independent identity to push for further opportunities for their community. They sought the establishment of Knanaya-centred parishes for both the Malankara and Catholic churches, which were founded in 1910 and 1911, respectively.[43]

Like other Saint Thomas Christians, many Knanaya have migrated away from Kerala and India since the 20th century. The largest Knanaya diaspora community is located in Chicago.[44] The community originated in the 1950s when a small number of Knanaya and other Kerala natives emigrated to the area as university students; they were followed by more substantial immigration after 1965. The immigrants met up periodically for social events, and in the 1970s the organizations for Catholics, members of other Christian churches, and Hindus were formed. In the 1980s the various Indian Catholic particular churches sent chaplains to Chicago; in 1983 the Bishop of Kottayam sent a chaplain to minister specifically to the Knanaya Catholics.[45] Unlike other Indian Christians in Chicago, the Knanaya have maintained their strict tradition of endogamy through arranged marriages.[46]

Religious traditions

Traditionally the Knanaya have followed the religious traditions and practices of the wider Saint Thomas Christian community. In the 17th century, when the Saint Thomas Christians were split into Catholic and Malankara Church factions following the Coonan Cross Oath, both the Knanaya and Northist groups were internally divided.[47] The Malankara faction became affiliated with the Syriac Orthodox Church, an Oriental Orthodox church based in Syria, while the Catholic faction is now known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Beginning in the late 19th century, both Malankara and Catholic Knanaya lobbied for their own dioceses within their respective denominations. In 1910, the Syriac Orthodox Church established a distinct Knanaya-oriented diocese in Chingavanam, which reports directly to the Patriarch of Antioch. The following year, the Catholic Church established a Knanaya Catholic eparchy (diocese) in Kottayam, known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam.[48]

DNA Testing

A 2018 autosomal DNA study with 20 samples found the Knanaya on average to have 14% Middle Eastern ancestry hailing directly from the Caucasus region, the highest autosomal connection to the Middle East of any Kerala ethnic group. This percentage was compared to 48 samples of the larger St. Thomas Christian community whom averaged 3% Middle Eastern ancestry with a few individual samples showing elevated amounts of 12% hinting at these individuals being the descendants of other Middle Eastern migrations to India such as those influenced by the mission of Mar Sabor and Mar Proth in the 9th century. The study also found legitimate endogamous patterns among the Knanaya in reference to centimorgan relationships or chromosomal linkage in which all Knanaya were in the range of first to fifth cousins and shared up to 350 centimorgans with each other. The presentation also speculated on the possible origins and development of endogamy among the Knanaya with the community being likely endogamous upon arrival to India, slowly integrating through exogamy, and finally reverting to endogamy to safeguard their distinct identity and culture after the destruction of their city of Cranganore in 1524, an event that is both seen in historical sources as well as the folk history and songs of the community. [49]

According to the study:

"The Knanaya may very well be the descendants of said 72 families from the Middle East but definitely experienced a period of exogamy and then a reversion to endogamy after the destruction of their city. This would mean that Knanaya identity is based on these 72 families, those who they married during an exogamous period, and the descendants of these people who reverted to endogamy. Nonetheless, since the Knanaya did indeed have this exogamous period there will likely be some among them who show no connection to the Middle East, though none have appeared so yet."[50]


Aged Torah Scroll Knanaya Family Heirloom

Like other Saint Thomas Christians, Southist culture is largely derived from Syriac Christian culture mixed with local Indian customs, with later elements derived from Indian and European contacts. However numerous scholars have found that the traditions and customs of the Knanaya are very similar to that of the Cochin Jews of Kerala. This can be seen through the similarity in folk songs and folk traditions. This symmetry likely resulted from the fact that the groups have lived in close proximity for centuries and may also reflect the Knanaya's claimed Judeo-Christian ancestry.[51]

Folk songs

Palm Leaf Relics of Knanaya Folk Songs

Knanaya folk songs are ancient in origins and were first written down in the year 1910 by the Knanaya scholar P.U Luke in his text Puratana Pattukal or Ancient Songs. The origins of the songs themselves are unknown but were collected by Luke from Knanaya families who kept palm leaf relics which contained the text of these songs. The songs were written in Old Malayalam but contain diction from Sanskirt, Syriac, and Tamil indicating their antiquity. Analytically, these ancient songs contain folklore about the faith, customs and practices of the community, narratives of historical events (such as the mission of St. Thomas the Apostle and the immigration of the Knanaya to India), biblical stories, songs of churches, and the lives of saints. The songs are poetic in nature and are considered treasures in Kerala's cultural heritage.[52] Scholars have also found that the songs of the Knanaya are of a similar composure, linguistics, and characteristic to that of the Cochin Jews and that some songs even have almost the same lyrics with the exception of a few words or stanzas. According to the Cochin Jewish scholar P. M. Jussay, "these similarities are not accidental and cannot be easily explained".[51][53]

Knanaya "Kulli Pattu" or Bath Song:

"Ponnum methiyadimel melle melle avan natannu
(With golden shoes he slowly walked)
Velli methiyadimel melle melle aval natannu"
(With silver shoes she slowly walked)[54]

Cochin Jewish procession song:

"Ponnum methiyadimel melle natannan, Chiriyanandan,
(With golden shoes Chiriyanandan (Joseph Rabban) slowly walked)
Velli methiyadimel melle natannan, Chiriyanandan"
(With silver shoes Chiriyanandan (Joseph Rabban) slowly walked)[54]

Knanaya blessing song:

"Vazhvenna Vazhu ninakke thannen
(Let thine be the blessed life)
Neeyum nin bharthavum makkalum kootae
Kalam peruthayi vanittirikennam
(With thy husband and children let thee live for long)
Vazhvanam bhoomi bhalamake thannen
Pangittu nin makkal kolluka yenneki"
(Earth and all its fruits were granted to thee and to thy children to share)[55]

Cochin Jewish blessing song:

"Vazhuvanna Vazhvu ninakkayirika
(Life blessed I have bestowed to thee)
Makkalum shalom peruthayirkka
Vazhuka thangeya perana bhoomil
(Large be the number of thy children and peace great)
Pangittu nin makkal kolluka yenneki"
(To thee and thy children to share)[55]

Knanaya song: "He Comes In Gold Decorated Palanquin"

"Ponnantheedum thandukaleri
Mangala velam kanman''
(He comes in gold decorated palanquin to witness the wedding festivities)
Valarkoti munnil muthanithone
Vattakam Vessumeethe''
(The noble standard in front and the diamond studded alavattom swaying)
Pinnani munnilakambadi nayan
Nin Viliyattum pattum"
(Unclear, however similar to Cochin Jew lyric)[56]

Cochin Jewish song: "He Comes In Gold Decorated Palanquin"

"Ponnantheedum thandukaleri
Mangala velam kanman''
(He comes in gold decorated palanquin to witness the wedding festivities)
Ponnorumala marvilum ponnu
Poosari manthal meethe''
Mannavan ekan poyithuyilatum
Pattani poondu nalla''
(With gold chain in the chest and gold glittered canopy above a king clad in golden fluttering silks)
Valarkoti munnil muthanithone
Vattakam Vessumeethe''
(The noble standard in front and the diamond studded alavattom swaying)
Munnani pinnilakambadi nayarum
Velayattum pattum''
(Retinue of Nair soldiers in front and rear with dance and song)[56]

While many Knanaya folk songs are Judaic and Syriac Christian in nature, some songs show traces of the mixing of Hindu and Christian cultures. An example of this can be seen in the Knanaya song "Maran Arul", or "By the Lord's Command", a rendition of the creation of Adam.[57]

Maranarul (English)

By the command of the Lord, man (world-dweller) was made
endowed with all qualities out of chaos
came unity. To prepare for the birth He grasped mud
and with a tool shaped it into a mass.
Within it the blood flowed and the muscles were arrayed.
For prosperity God’s place was housed amid the nine apertures.
Two hands, ten fingers with nails all red
the ten all afire, and the dancing soul was granted.
The soul bestowed, powerful Adam
without hesitation made heard the very first words.[57]

Maran Arul (Malayalam)

Māŕānarul ceytīlōkēyannu nìravēri
ḕrrinalguṇaṅṅalellāṁ bhramimēlorēṭaṁ
orumayuṭayōǹ pērumakoṇḍu karuti maṇpiṭičču
piṭičča karuvilaṭakkam nēṭi pùrattu tukal potińńu
tukalakmē cōranīrum elluṁ māṁsadhatukkal
bhratikaḷkku vātilańǰum navadvāraṅṅaḷāyattu
raṇḍāṭu nālum nāluviralkku čuvappunakhaṇḍal pattu
pattuṭayoǹèrayakattuṭayōnāya koṭuttuṇarttyōrātmāvum
ātmāvum koṭuttu perumiṭṭōrābhamennu
enašēšaminniččāllāmunniniṇḍaḷ kēḷppin [57]

Folk traditions

After the burning of Craganore during one of the many battles of the Zamorin of Calicut, the homes and temples of both the Cochin Jews and Knanaya were destroyed. In order to remember what was lost, the Cochin Jews carry a handful of earth from the hallowed spot where their synagogues once stood, to be used in traditions such as depositing onto the graves of deceased relatives. Likewise, the Knanaya also carried a handful of charred earth as a keepsake from the place of their settlement. From this act originated the custom of them taking a pinch of ash from the hearth of the ancestral home of the new bride, and depositing it in a knot at one end of her new dress when she bade farewell to it and went to live with her husband in their new house. On account of this, the Northist Christians dub them derisively as "Charam kettikal", or knot makers of ash. [58]

The burning of Craganore from where this tradition developed, was a vital and drastic event for both the communities and sheds light on the folk tradition of maintaining legend and history through the use of song .[59] For example, the Knanaya folk song "Ennu Nee Gnangle" describes the event as the following:

"Kollavachu Nayarkoodi

Pattanathil Pukare Kollivachu palliyazhichannu chuttu pattanam ...timarichannu moovar kottavur mannavar"[59]

"Nair soldiers entering the city plundered it they set fire to the church and burned down the city

while three good kings bravely fought and fell"[59]

According to the Cochin Jew scholar P.M Jussay, "this is undoubtedly based on the Jewish legend that their glorious synagogue at Cranganore was burnt down by the soldiers of the Zamorin who mounted an attack on the city under the cover of night". Just as three kings are mentioned in the lines of this historical song, one of the Jewish songs also makes mention of three kings in Cranganore taking part in a royal procession .[60] The three kings mentioned in these songs are said to be Thomas of Cana the father of the Knanaya, Joseph Rabban a leader of the Cochin Jews, and Cheruman Perumal the King of the Hindus and Cranganore. The songs that describe this legendary and historical event glorify the descendants and successors of the three kings and their lost battle against the Zamorin. [60]

"Munnanamondu, munthalamondu

Moovaru rasakkal aararaulpettu" [60]

"Three elephants in front and beating with cymbals

Three kings bestowed with grace" [60]

Other folk traditions that both the Knanaya and Cochin Jews share is a common culture based upon figures and stories of the Old Testament. One of the most striking similarities is the importance given by both the communities to Joseph of the Old Testament whom the Knanaya give reverence to in the song and ancient round dance known as "Poorva Yousepintae Vattakali" or The Round Dance of Old Joseph. The Cochin Jews's also maintain traditions and songs of Joseph that esteem and glorify him as an ideal son, father, and ruler.[60] It is also a commonality of these two groups to give a local flavor to their songs, traditions, and stories of the Old Testament. In a Knanaya folk song about the biblical figure Tobias, his wedding is described to have all the paraphernalia found at a historical Christian wedding in Kerala such as "Trays of beetal leaves, bowls of sandal paste, gingerly oil, coconut oil, etc". In correlation, in a Cochin Jew folk song of about Joseph, it is described that when the biblical figure of Ruth goes to meet her lover Boaz, she is washed, well groomed, and clad in white, exactly like a Malayalee girl and Cochin Jew bride. In this way the Jews and the Knanaya make the stories of the bible not something of far away and long ago but of the immediate present and of the neighborhood. [61]

Passover Traditions

Pesaha Appam and Pal

The tradition of Passover or "Pesaha" is practiced every Holy Thursday in the homes of the Knanaya. On the night of Holy Thursday the "Pesaha Appam" or Pesaha bread is made with unleavened flour along with a sweet drink made of milk and jaggery known as "Pesaha Pal" (in some families banana is also a part of this custom). The first batch of Pesaha appam is decorated and blessed with palm leaves from Palm Sunday set in the shape of a cross, the Pesaha milk also shares this adornment (however any other batches of Pesaha bread are not decorated with the cross). The first batch is said to be the most sacred and is only given to members of the family and other Syrian Christians. In ritualistic practice, the family gathers in the home and the father or grandfather of the household blesses and prays over the bread and milk, often also reading a bible passage. He then cuts,portions and distributes the bread, banana, and milk to his family members, giving it to males of the household first. Traditionally after the celebration is over any waste product that was used in the ritual was burned away according to the rules of Leviticus and the sacred nature of the practice. It should also be noted that all utensils and vessels used in the process are either brand new or washed in a ceremonial manner. Pesaha is also regularly practiced in the homes of the larger St. Thomas Christian community but scope of usage can vary based on the specific denomination and region. Distinctions also occur based on the type of bread and products used and specific rituals that take place. Additionally if a family is in mourning following a death, Pesaha bread is not made at their home, but brought to them by their Syrian Christian neighbors. [62]

Wedding traditions

Knanaya Bride's Wedding Crown

The Knanaya maintain distinctive wedding traditions and wedding customs that have helped to sustain their identity and culture. These traditions are an amalgamate of Judeo-Christian, Syriac, and Hindu customs, reflecting the Knanayas claimed origins and the centuries that they have lived as a minority community in India. Historically, Knanaya marriage celebrations lasted several days, with many of the ceremonies centred around the home. In the present day, these ceremonies take place over three days and the wedding traditions can be divided into the categories of betrothal, groom, bride, reception, and miscellaneous. These ceremonies are also accompanied by numerous ancient songs characteristic of the Knanaya.[63]

Betrothal customs include Kaipidutham, or "clasping of hands". This is an initial agreement and fixing of the marriage, which involves the future bride and groom as well as their paternal uncles. The uncles clasp the hands of the betrothed in the presence of the priest at church. This symbolizes the uncles' and extended families', support and investment in the relationship.[64] Maternal uncles undertake a Maternal Uncles Agreement, at which they come together at the erection of the poles of the pandal, a canopy and temporary hall set up for the wedding. The uncles from each party exchange a kindy, or water bowl, for rinsing and hand washing. The dowry is also delivered by the bride's maternal uncle to the groom's uncle, and they kneel on a mat in front of a lighted lamp symbolizing Jesus, and pray as though in front of an altar.[64]

Bride and groom participate in ceremonies in their respective homes on the eve of the wedding. The groom's is Chandam Charthal, or "beautifying the boy". The village barber arrives at the pandal and requests permission to shave the groom three times. After receiving permission, the barber performs the ceremonial shaving (historically, this was his first shave), then takes him out to put oil on his head and bathe him, while the assembly sings ancient songs.[65] The bride's ceremony is Mylanchi Ideel, or "henna ceremony". The bride's palms, feet, and nails are smeared with a special yellow or green henna, by her maternal grandmother. Similar ceremonies are found among various Hindu and Muslim groups in India; the Knanaya, give it a Biblical meaning referencing the original sin of Eve. The grandmother then takes the bride to be bathed and changed into a new dress.[66] Following these ceremonies the bride and groom return to the pandal for the Ichappad (sweet giving) ceremony, at which the bride and groom are fed white rice pudding with brown sugar by designated elders (paternal elders for the groom, maternal elders for the bride).[67]

Prior to entering the church for the wedding, the bride and groom greet their parents and elders for Sthuthi ("Peace Blessing"), where they receive blessings from their family. This is believed to be a reference to Sarah receiving her father's blessings in the Book of Genesis.[68] At the end of the marriage ceremony, the priests sing the "Bar Mariam" (Son of Mary) Syriac chant. This chant describes the life of Jesus, with special reference to the Marriage at Cana, where he performed his first miracle, and to the Crucifixion. After the chant, the priests bless the newlyweds.[68]

The wedding reception features several traditions. After the wedding, the assembly holds a great procession to the reception place, including celebratory music and a distinct ritualistic cheer known as “Nada Villi”. At the end, the bride and groom are carried by their uncles up to the door.[63] In the reception pandal, the groom's mother leads the Nellum Neerum ("Welcome Blessing") to solemnly welcome the newlyweds. The groom's sister holds a lighted brass lamp and a bowl of water, paddy, and leaves from Palm Sunday, symbolizing purification and fertility. The mother traces the sign of the cross on the couples' foreheads with a wet piece of palm leaf.[69] Special low seats called manarcolam (marriage venue) are prepared for the couple by spreading sheets of wool and white linen, representing the hardships and blessings of married life.[63] The bride's mother then gives the Vazhu Pidutham (Mother's blessing) while placing her hands crosswise on the couple's heads, and all the women present sing the wedding song "Vazhvenna Vazvhu".[69] Following the mother's blessing, relatives present gifts in Kacha Thazhukal ("Gift Giving"). The first gift is a new dress given to the bride's family; family members then remove their gold jewelry and place them on the newlyweds.[69] Afterward is the presentation of milk and fruit, which the couple drinks from the same cup.[69]

After the reception is the Adachu Thura (Bridal Chamber Ceremony), where the bride's mother brings the groom special sweets and foods. The couple and their elders and friends enter the bridal chamber, where the bride's mother promises utensils and ornaments to the groom. They then exit the chamber and the bride and groom are anointed with oil and bathed. They put on new clothes and share a meal with the attendees. Special songs accompany each step.[70] Another miscellaneous tradition is the Margum Kali ("The Way", referring to the way of Thomas the Apostle), a traditional St. Thomas Christian dance. The dance and accompanying songs retell the story of Thomas and his mission to India. This dance is practiced by the entire St. Thomas Christian Community, but is used by the Knanaya during their wedding celebrations, such as during the Henna Ceremony.[71]

Knanaya couple wearing Venthan Mutti (Knanaya Wedding Crowns)

Another feature of Knanaya weddings are the "Venthan Mutti" or wedding crowns. The Knanaya wear distinctive wedding crowns that were said to be a royal gift from Cheruman Perumal according to folk history. The Venthan Mutti are different in shape and composure for males and females. The original Venthan Mutti gifted from Cheruman Perumal are said to have been saved by the Knanaya fleeing Kodungalloor and are kept on display at St. Mary's Knanaya Church, Chunkom. [72]

Other traditional songs

Apart from their folk songs, the Knanaya also maintain an ancient East Syriac para-liturgical chant of blessing distinct to their marriage ceremonies known as Bar Mariam or Son of Mary. The chant sings about the life of Christ with specific mentions to the Marriage of Cana where he did his first miracle, the Crucifixion where the Church was betrothed to Christ, and numerous other expressions of Christ's journey, death, and resurrection. In total the chant has 49 couplets (however not all are sung during weddings) and is considered para-liturgical.[73] The chant is sung after the wedding Holy Qurbana (East Syriac Liturgy) is concluded and is chanted by priests and all laymen present. After Bar Mariam is sung the priests sprinkle the newly wedded couple with Holy Water and conclude the ceremony.[68][74]

"Bar Mariam"
Knanaya priests chant Bar Maryam.jpg
Knanaya priests chant Bar Mariam
Genre Paraliturgical
Length 4:00-6:00
Music video
"Bar Mariam" on YouTube

Couplets of Bar Mariam in East Syriac:

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God

ܐܵܘܥܝܼ ܣܵܘܟܹܐ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܐܲܝܟ ܢܒ݂ܝܘܼܬ݂ܵܐ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary brought forth branches,
According to the prophecy

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God

ܩܲܕܸܫ ܡܲܝܵܐ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܡܲܥܡܘܿܕܝܼܬ݂ܹܗ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary sanctified the waters
By his baptism.

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God

ܫܲܕܲܪ ܪܘܼܚܵܐ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܦܵܪܲܩܠܹܛܵܐ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary sent the Spirit,
The Paraclete.

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God

ܐܸܟܲܠ ܦܸܨܚܵܐ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܥܲܡ ܬܲܠܡܝܼܕܲܘܗܝ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary at the Passover meal,
With his disciples

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God

ܫܘܼܒ݂ܚܵܐ ܠܲܫܡܵܟ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܡ݂ܢ ܟܘܿܠ ܦܘܼܡܝܼܢ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary sent the Holy Spirit,
The Paraclete

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God

ܠܥܵܠܲܡ ܥܲܠܡܝܼܢ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܐܵܡܹܝܢ ܘܐܵܡܹܝܢ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary glory be to you name from every mouth,
forever and ever amen

ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ ܒܲܪ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ
ܒܲܪ ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ ܝܸܠܕܲܬ݂ ܡܲܪܝܲܡ

Son of Mary, son of Mary
Mary brought forth the Son of God [74]


The Knanaya make several special foods. Pidy is a rice ball dish traditionally made when sending pregnant women home for delivery, and some other occasions. Venpachor is a white rice pudding prepared on the eve of a wedding for the ceremonies of Chandam Charthal and Mylanchi Ideel. Other bread-based foods and snacks favored by the Knanaya but consumed by the entire Kerala community are Achappam, Kuzhalappam, Avalosunda, and Churutt. These foods are regularly made in the homes of the Knanaya and are offered during meals and tea times.[75]

Knanaya historically ate on two plantain leaves, one placed over the other. According to folk tradition, this was a royal privilege granted to the community. Today, the Knanaya symbolize this by folding the left side of a plantain leaf underneath to make one leaf as two.[76] Knanaya eating together would eat from the same plantain leaf as a sign of cordiality. Catholic and non-Catholic Knanaya dining together would eat from the left and right side of the leaf to show that despite their different religious affiliations, they were still part of a united ethnic community.[77]

Dress and ornaments

Malabar Christians of 19th century

Knanaya women historically wore gold earrings with balls and small raised heads, one inch in diameter, known as Mekkamothiram or Kunukku. The same earrings are worn by the Northist Saint Thomas Christians, but their earrings are larger in diameter. This difference may have served to distinguish Northist and Southist communities. Southist and Northist women alike wear a distinct type of sari known as the Chatta Mundu. This comprises the chatta, a white blouse embroidered with design, and the mundu dress. The mundu is a long white cloth worn from the waist down, and includes 15 to 21 pleats covering the back thigh in a fan shape representing a palm leaf.[71]

Knanaya men historically wore white shawls as a headdress, and wore a white cloth wrapped around the waist. Both are tied in a special way known as Njettum Valum Ittu Kettuka.[71]


Knanaya Margam Kali

Like the larger St. Thomas Christian community, the Knanaya maintain a distinct round dance known as "Margam Kali" or "the way/path" of St. Thomas the Apostle. It was traditionally a male dance exhibiting twelve players dancing in circle around a lighted brass lamp, the lamp symbolizing Jesus Christ and the dancers His twelve apostles. Margam Kali is accompanied by ancient songs that sing of the life, missionary work, and death of St. Thomas the Apostle based on the apocryphal Acts of Thomas of the 3rd century. The song text of Margam Kali consist of 450 lines and are divided into 14 sections. These songs contain Syriac and Tamil diction which are indicative of its antiquity and imply an origin before the emergence of the Malayalam language in Malabar which occurred sometime between the 9th and 13th century. [78]

Hadusa All India Institute for Christian Performing Arts created by the Knanaya

Throughout the history of Margam Kali the Knanaya have played an important role in its maintenance and preservation. In the 17th century the Knanaya priest Anjilimoottil Ittithomman Kathanar was responsible for the revision and textual enhancement of the content accompanying Margam Kali and developing its current structure. In the year 1910 a Knanaya scholar by the name of P.U Luke collected, documented, and printed for the first time in its history the text of Margam Kali in an article known as the Ancient Songs of the Syrian Christians. [78] In the late 1900s the art form was heavily in decline among the entire St. Thomas Christian Community but the Knanaya community took upon the initiative to promote and further expand the art form. In the 1970s and 1980s the Knanaya priest Fr. George Karukaparambil and the revered scholar of folk culture Dr. Chummar Choondal undertook years of heavy research and study with the help of 33 Knanaya ashans or teachers of Margam Kali to revitalize the ancient art form. Through critical historical, musicological, and ethnochoreology evaluation this team of researchers systematized Margam Kali and promoted it among schools and cultural organizations as an item of competition in youth festivals and eventually presented it to Kerala's Minister of Education who inaugurated a 14 minute long documentary created by the team. In order to make sure Margam Kali would be an art form set in stone, the team looked for a formal center for the furthering of Margam Kali and allied Christian art forms. Mar Kuriakose Kunnasserry the bishop of the Knanaya Diocese of Kottayam came to the aide of the team in 1995 and established Hadusa (Syriac for dancing/rejoicing), as an All India Institute of Christian Performing Arts which in part has forever aided the existence and prominence of Margam Kali today.[33]

Funeral traditions

The Knanaya, hold to a death bed tradition based on Old Testament teachings, known as the blessing by the father. This is a final blessing given by the father at his death to his children and grandchildren. The father places his hand on the head of the recipient who kneels for the blessing.[71] Then the father makes the invocation:

"The blessing which God gave to Abraham.
The blessing which Abraham gave to Isaac.
The blessing which Isaac gave to Jacob.
The blessing which Jacob gave to my forefathers.
The blessing which my fathers gave to me.
The same blessing dear son/daughter, I give to you."


Other funeral traditions include the tradition of embracing the relatives of the dead. After the burial of an elderly person, the members of the family of the dead would stand in a line at the church. The priest then sprinkles holy water on them. Then the friends and distant relatives would embrace them and symbolically kiss their cheeks in a tradition known as Thazhukuka.[71] This is an indication of their sympathy, concern and continuous support for the bereaved. After the burial, in a ceremony at home, the children and close relatives of the dead would drink from a single tender coconut as a sign of their cordiality and oneness that should exist even after the death of their parents and elders.[75]


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External links

  • Archdiocese of Kottayam
  • Official website of the Knanaya Catholic Congress of North America

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