IN KERALA they may have their differences, but when in Mumbai, they identify themselves as a homogenous group — the Malayalee Syrian Christians. Back home in ‘God’s own country’ they could be either Syrian Catholics, Jacobites, Marthomites or Orthodox, all different sects of Syrian Christians — a Christian community from Kerala tracing its origin to Thomas the Apostle. In Mumbai, differences are put aside as the yearning to meet a fellow Malayalee brings them together.
A formal English education followed by a search for jobs brought the Syrian Christians to Mumbai around the 1930s. “It was not an organised migration of a community. Mostly individuals who had been educated moved to this city looking for jobs,” says T M Abraham (84), a retired engineer from Malad. Until 1940, there was no assembly or community. “We would meet each other by chance and keep in touch,” says Abraham.
However, in 1940, a few members of the different sects came together for their first worship in the St Mary’s Church in Parel. “It was like a home away from home for us. The Syrian Christians, the Marthomites, the Church Mission Society and the High Church Group came together for prayers,” says Abraham, a Marthomite. “Services were held at different timings for the different sects.”
“In the subsequent years the Marthomites and Jacobites went their separate ways. Now, most sects have their own churches,” says 55-year-old John Roy from Thakur Village, Kandivli. “The customs and traditions are, however, more or less the same,” he adds. Although the various sects have formed or leased space for their own churches, the practice of sharing church premises exists even today, despite their differences in Kerala.
“When away from Kerala, what brings us Malayalee Christians together is the language. It becomes a binding force,” says Thomas George, a 31-year-old advertising professional. When George moved to Mumbai 11 years ago, his brief stay at the Young Men’s Christian Association brought him in contact with fellow Syrian Christians.
“The hostel was full of Malayalees, all Syrian Christians. It didn’t matter which sect we belonged to. We celebrated all our festivals together, including Onam and Christmas,” says George, adding that food was another reason that brought the community together.The homemade delicacies of Syrian Christians, such as Irrachi Ullullarthiyathu, a dry meat fry, were unique and could be found only in kitchens of Syrian Christians.
“The women either have to refer to the famous cook-books or call their grandmothers for the recipe, as you can’t find them in restaurants,” says George. “Most women have a big fat cook book with handwritten recipes in them,” he adds.