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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, 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 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 "Southist", or sometimes "Southerner" or "Suddhist".[2] 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] 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.[6]

A number of traditions and stories have emerged to explain the division,[7] and both Southist and Northist groups use variants of these traditions to claim superiority for their group.[8] The earlier version traces the divide to 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).[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] In some versions, Thomas of Cana had two wives or partners, one the ancestor to the endogamous Southists, and the other (generally described as a Kerala native) the ancestor to the Northists.[10]

A second tradition regarding the division became popular in 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. 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 "Northist" Saint Thomas Christians.[11] Many Knanaya individuals and organizations accept the account as factual. However, Swiderski believes the legend was "conceived and promulgated" by Chazhikaden himself.[12]


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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15] Later, both Saint Thomas Christians and Europeans tried to assuage the animosity and downplay the division.[16]

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.[17] 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.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] Unlike other Indian Christians in Chicago, the Knanaya have maintained their strict tradition of endogamy through arranged marriages.[20]

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.[17][21][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.[17]

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.[21][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.[22][page needed][23][page needed][24][page needed][25][page needed][26][page needed][27][page needed][28][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.[29]

Wedding customs[edit]

Wedding customs include Kaipidutham or Clasping of hands by the parental relatives of both groom and bride showing the agreement for marriage. Mylanchi Idiyal or beautification of the bride is a ceremony which takes by smearing of henna (a special yellow ointment called mylanchi)on the brides palms and feet. Chantham Charthal which means the beautification of the groom is a ceremony in which the groom is given a ceremonial shave by the barber. Importance is given to people of other communities like the panan who sings the story of Knayi Thoma, goldsmith who makes and presents the golden thali (a gold medal in the form of a baniyan leaf on which a cross is embossed with 21 minute buds)to the sister of the bridegroom on the eve of the marriage, etc. Ichappad or offering sweet pudding to the boy in the pandal (wedding seat) by the elders. Cenpachor, white rice cooked in coconut milk at the wedding banquet, which is a reminder of the dietary habit of the Mesopotamian ancestors. Using of a thread made up of seven yarns taken from the bridal veil, for the tying of thali. Nadavili or shouting nata, nata at the wedding procession.[30]

Reception given to the bride and groom with koluvilakku, a special lamp for that purpose by the mother of the groom and making sign of the cross on their foreheads with blessed palm leaf piece of Palm Sunday dipped in a bowl with grains of paddy and water, seating the couple on an elevated seat (Manarkolam) under a canopy, just like the Jewish huppa spreading on it a white linen and woolen sheet (Vellayum Karimpadavum) which is a privilege of royalty, offering milk and fruit (Palum Pazhavum) to both the couple who drink it from one and the same cup as a symbol of unity, the mother of the bride blessing the couple in a special way placing her hands crosswise over their heads (Vazhupidutham), similar to the gesture of the celebrant at the offertory prayer in the Syro-Malabar Liturgy. The resemblance in wording, content and style of the wedding songs of the Knanaya Christians to those of the Cochin Jews is strking. Two songs, Vazhvenna Vazhu and Ponnanintheedum, in the two versions are quite similar though in both there are minor variations. Instead of the Jewish crown the Knanites place Venthanmudy (Royal crown) on the heads of the couple. Along with these traditions there are many others take place during the days of a Knanaya Wedding.[30]

These traditions indicate a close affinity between Knanaya and Jewish traditions. Most interesting and attractive factor in all these ceremonies is that all of them have special songs to be sung by men or women at appropriate time. Another most important note is that the women are given eminent roles in these ceremonies. Moreover, those who have the main role in the ceremonies have to ask thrice permission from the assembled before they start the ceremony.[30]

Traditional Songs[edit]

The Knanaya Community has maintained numerous archaic songs that are used for several different occasions. The songs and ballads sing of many subject matters such as the arrival of the merchant Knai Thoma to India, traditions that take place during wedding ceremonies, biblical events of the Old Testament, and the erection of ancient churches.[31]

Wedding Songs[edit]

Are those songs related to Knanaya wedding customs and ceremonies especially in houses of the bride and bridegroom. The ancient songs contain the story of the immigration of Knanites under Thomas of Kana to India. Songs of marriage are sung at different occasions of marriage celebration. It includes, mailanchi ideel (beautification of the bride), Antham Charthal or Chantham charthal (beautification of the bridegroom), reception in the house after the marriage, blessing by the elders etc. They describe the immigration of the knanites to Malabar coast and events thereafter as well as songs describing marriage and the procedures which take place.[32]

Songs of the Churches[edit]

In Kerala every church at the time of its foundation or a little after it tried to keep a story of it in order to have a social and historic awareness of the foundation of the church. There was a practical need for such songs because nobody did write down the history. Hence the people composed the songs of the churches to transmit the history to the next generation. It includes the planning of the church, people involved, priests who took initiative, the day of foundation, the bishop who consecrated the church, the donor of the land etc. Thus each church has a song for its own. And on the auspicious occasions of the parishes people would sing the song.[32]

Biblical Songs[edit]

Are composed with such intentions of teaching and transmitting the Bible stories. Knanaya bible songs along with others show the age old mixing of Hindu and Christian culture an example of this can be seen in the Knanaya song "Maranarul" or "By the Lords Command" which is a rendition of the creation of Adam in the biblical story of Adam and Eve.[31][32]

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.[31]


  • 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 [31]

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. 76–80.
  7. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 73–92.
  8. ^ a b Baum & Winkler, p. 53.
  9. ^ Neill, pp. 42–43.
  10. ^ a b Swiderski 1988a, pp. 76–80.
  11. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 88.
  12. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 88–89.
  13. ^ Swiderski 1988a, p. 83.
  14. ^ Swiderski 1988a, pp. 83–84.
  15. ^ Swiderski 1988 a, pp. 84–85.
  16. ^ Swiderski 1988a, p. 86.
  17. ^ a b c d Swiderski 1988a, p. 87.
  18. ^ Swiderski 1988b, p. 169.
  19. ^ Jacobsen & Raj 2008, p. 186–187 and note.
  20. ^ Jacobsen & Raj 2008, pp. 202–207.
  21. ^ a b Weil, S. 1982[page needed]; Jessay, P.M. 1986[page needed]; Menachery G; 1973, 1998[page needed]; Vellian Jacob 2001[page needed]
  22. ^ Menachery G; 1973
  23. ^ Menachery G; 1998
  24. ^ Weil,S. 1982
  25. ^ James Hough 1893
  26. ^ Thomas Puthiakunnel 1973
  27. ^ Vellian Jacob 2001
  28. ^ Koder S. 1973
  29. ^ "". Retrieved 2012-05-01. 
  30. ^ a b c Kottayam Archdiocese, Knanaya Tradition
  31. ^ a b c d Swiderski 1988c, pp.129-133
  32. ^ a b c Kottayam Archdiocese, Traditional Knanaya Songs


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  • 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. 
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  • Swiderski, Richard Michael (1988). Blood Weddings: The Knanaya Christians of Kerala. Madras: New Era. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  • Swiderski, Richard Michael (1988). "Oral Text: A South Indian Instance" (PDF). pp. 129–133. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
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External links[edit]