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Regions with significant populations
c. 300,000(Kerala, India; Chicago; elsewhere)
Malayalam; local languages
Predominantly Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Syrian Orthodox Church
Related ethnic groups
Saint Thomas Christians, Malayalis

The Knanaya, also known as the Southerns 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 Northerners. Today there are about 300,000 Knanaya in India and elsewhere.[1]

The origins of the division of the Saint Thomas Christians into Northern and Southern groups are unclear. Various traditions trace it back to the arrival of the Syrian merchant Thomas of Cana in the 4th century. Other versions trace the origins of the Knanaya to Jews in the Middle East. The rift in the community was noted through the period of European colonization.

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 in 20th and 21st centuries, largely westward, forming communities in non Malayalam-speaking areas, with a large community forming in Chicago.


The usual Malayalam name for the group is Tekkumbhagar. This is generally translated into English as "Southerner", or sometimes "Suddhist".[2] It would not be translated as "Southist" as that would intend "south" as being studied or being a professional of "south." The term Knanaya derives from the name of Thomas of Cana. However, the ultimate derivation of Thomas' epithet Cana is not clear. It may refer to the town of Cana, mentioned in the Bible, or to the land of Canaan.[3] Alternately, it may be a corruption of a Syriac term for merchant (Knāyil in Malayalam).[4] However, scholar Richard M. Swiderski states that none of these etymologies are convincing.[3]

Origins and traditions[edit]

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.[5] A number of traditions and stories have emerged to explain the development,[6] and both Southist and Northist groups use variants of these traditions to claim superiority for their group.[7]

Most commonly the division is traced the figure of Thomas of Cana. According to these versions, Thomas of Cana was a Syrian merchant who led a group of 72 immigrant families from the Middle East to settle in India in the 3rd or 4th century (some sources place these events in the 8th century).[7] This story may reflect a historical migration of East Syrian Christians to India during this time, which established the region's relationship with the Church of the East.[8] In these versions, the Knanaya or Southists are the descendants of Thomas of Cana and his followers, while the Northists descend from the local Christian body converted by Thomas the Apostle centuries earlier.[9] In some versions, Thomas of Cana had two wives or partners, one the ancestor to the endogamous Southerners, and the other (generally described as a Kerala native) the ancestor to the Northerners.[9]

In 1939 Joseph Chazhikaden introduced and popularized a theory that the Knanaya were the descendants of ancient Jews. According to Chazhikaden, they originated in Judea, and later converted to Christianity, though they maintained their distinct culture and identity. 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 "Northern" Saint Thomas Christians.[10]

Directional divisions within communities are common in Kerala. A similar north-south division is found among the Nairs, and 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.[11]


Early mentions[edit]

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. 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.[12] In 1579 another Jesuit 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.[5] 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 to the story of Thomas' two wives. None of these sources explicitly name the two sides as Northists and Southists.[13]

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. European observers tended to label the Northists and Southists as "castes" and regarded this as an example of the prevalence of divisions in Indian society in general.[14] Later, both Saint Thomas Christians and Europeans tried to assuage the animosity and downplay the division.[15]

Modern era[edit]

St. Marys Knanaya Syrian Church in Kottayam,Kerala containing ancient Nasrani symbols and Sassanid Pahlavi inscriptions
An unveiled tabernacle of a Syro-Malabar Catholic Knanaya Palli or church

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.[16] 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 of both the Malankara and Catholic churches, which were founded in 1910 and 1911, respectively.[16]

Like other Saint Thomas Christians, many Knanaya have migrated away from Kerala and India since the 20th century. The largest Knanaya diaspora community is in Chicago.[17] 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.[18] Unlike other Indian Christians in Chicago, the Knanaya have maintained their strict tradition of endogamy through arranged marriages.[19]

It is worth noting that while the Knanaya people claim strict endogamy, as the force behind their justification for select participation, their modern appearance does not support the theory. If the group was endogomous they would look as their claimed Syrian ancestors do but this is not the case. If you were to have a "Southerner" aka Knanaya person stand next to a "Northerner" no one would be able to tell the difference. If you were to however stand a Syrian next to a "Northerner" the difference in ethnic appearance would be very apparent and easily distinguishable. Since there has not been enough time for any evolutionary events to have taken place we can only conclude that the endogomous claims of Knanaya persons is mythological.

Religious traditions[edit]

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, and both Knanaya and Northist groups were internally divided.[16][20][page needed] 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.[16]

In 1910, the Syriac Orthodox Church established a distinct Knanaya-based diocese reporting directly to the Patriarch of Antioch. The following year, a Knanaya Catholic eparchy (diocese) was established under Pope Pius X, known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Kottayam. Its first bishop was Matthew Makil.[20][page needed]


Like other Saint Thomas Christians, Knanaya culture is largely derived from Syriac Christian culture mixed with local Indian customs, with later elements derived from Indian and European contacts.

Pesaha pal and Pesaha-appam are made during Passover


Southists' history of rule by the Portuguese and settlement in India is reflected in Knanaya cuisine, which has benefited from various cultural exchanges and contributions. Honey yeast cakes and halwa is a popular dessert among the Knanaya.

Unleavened bread or pesaha-appam, together with coconut milk or Pesaha pal, is traditionally eaten on the night of Passover. This custom was formerly observed by the wider Saint Thomas Christian community as well as the Cochin Jews.


Traditionally, Southists have been a maritime people since they lived on the coast of Kerala and surrounding islands, with access to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. They were culturally isolated which led them to participate in shipping. The region's geographical position was situated in the juncture of the spice trade which linked east Asia, India, and the Middle East to the Mediterranean. With the influx of foreign merchants, Southists were able to grow affluent and shaped the nautical nature of the Knanaya people. Knanaya long-standing folklore deeply involves seafare, with the most celebrated story telling of the voyage east.[21][page needed][22][page needed][23][page needed][24][page needed][25][page needed][26][page needed][27][page needed] Paintings and sculptures of ships are quite common by Knanaya artists. Ships are often used to represent the Knanaya diaspora as it is neutral symbol to ease religious tensions.[citation needed]

Many Southists were seafarers, as they were familiar with the route west and deeply embroiled in the spice trade. Knanaya ships proved to have tactical advantage over the Caliph's fleet during the besieging of Kodungallur. They were able to resist effectively against the Caliphate larger fleet and smuggle Knanaya families out of the city.[28]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Fahlbusch, Ernst (2008). The Encyclopedia of Christianity: Volume 5. Eerdmans. p. 286. ISBN 9780802824172. 
  2. ^ Swiderski 1988a, p. 73.
  3. ^ a b Swiderski 1988b, pp. 55–56.
  4. ^ Neill, p. 42.
  5. ^ a b Swiderski 1988a, p. 77.
  6. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 73–92.
  7. ^ a b Baum & Winkler, p. 53.
  8. ^ Neill, pp. 42–43.
  9. ^ a b Swiderski 1988a, pp. 76–80.
  10. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 87–88.
  11. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 76–80.
  12. ^ Swiderski 1988a, p. 83.
  13. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 83–84.
  14. ^ Swiderski 1988 a, pp. 84–85.
  15. ^ Swiderski 1988a, p. 86.
  16. ^ a b c d Swiderski 1988a, p. 87.
  17. ^ Swiderski 1988b, p. 169.
  18. ^ Jacobsen & Raj 2008, p. 186–187 and note.
  19. ^ Jacobsen & Raj 2008, pp. 202–207.
  20. ^ a b Weil, S. 1982[page needed]; Jessay, P.M. 1986[page needed]; Menachery G; 1973, 1998[page needed]; Vellian Jacob 2001[page needed]
  21. ^ Menachery G; 1973
  22. ^ Menachery G; 1998
  23. ^ Weil,S. 1982
  24. ^ James Hough 1893
  25. ^ Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973
  26. ^ Vellian Jacob 2001
  27. ^ Koder S. 1973
  28. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-05-01. 


  • Baum, Wilhelm; Dietmar W. Winkler (2003). The Church of the East: A Concise History. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-29770-2. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  • Hough, James (1893) The History of Christianity in India
  • Jacobsen, Knut A.; Raj, Selva J. (2008). South Asian Christian Diaspora: Invisible Diaspora in Europe and North America. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0754662616. Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  • Jessay, P.M. (1986) The Wedding Songs of the Cochin Jews and of the Knanite Christians of Kerala: A Study in Comparison Symposium.
  • Koder, S. (1973) "History of the Jews of Kerala".The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India,Ed. G. Menachery.
  • Menachery, G. (1973) The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, Ed. George Menachery, B.N.K. Press, vol. 2, ISBN 81-87132-06-X, Lib. Cong. Cat. Card. No. 73-905568 ; B.N.K. Press
  • Menachery, G (ed); (1998) "The Indian Church History Classics", Vol.I, The Nazranies, Ollur, 1998. [ISBN 81-87133-05-8].
  • Neill, Stephen (2004). A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-54885-3. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  • Podipara, Placid J. (1970) The Thomas Christians. London: Darton, Longman and Tidd.
  • Poomangalam, Chandy Andrews (1998) The Antiquities of the Knanaya Syrian Christians; Kottayam, Kerala.
  • Puthiakunnel, Thomas. (1973) "Jewish colonies of India paved the way for St. Thomas", The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, ed. George Menachery, Vol. II., Trichur.
  • Swiderski, Richard Michael (1988). "Northists and Southists: A Folklore of Kerala Christians". Asian Folklore Studies (Nanzan University) 47 (1): 73–92. JSTOR 1178253. 
  • Swiderski, Richard Michael (1988). Blood Weddings: The Knanaya Christians of Kerala. Madras: New Era. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  • Vellian, Jacob (1988) Marriage Customs of the Knanites, Christian Orient, 9, Kottayam.
  • Vellian, Jacob (2001) Knanite community: History and culture; Syrian church series; vol.XVII; Jyothi Book House, Kottayam
  • Weil, S. (1982) "Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: The Cananite Christians and Cochin Jews in Kerala" in Contributions to Indian Sociology, 16.

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