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Regions with significant populations
c. 300,000 (Kerala, India; Chicago; elsewhere)
Malayalam; local languages
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. Another legend traces their origin 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 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.

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


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 convincing.[2] 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.[4]

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 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.[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, 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).[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] In many 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.[6] 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.[11] In other variants, both wives were Kerala natives, while the Southists' forebearer was from a higher caste.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14]

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. 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.[15] Many Knanaya individuals and organizations accept the account as factual. However, Swiderski believes that the legend was "conceived and promulgated" by Chazhikaden himself. As with other Knanaya origin traditions, Northists dispute and condemn this story.[16]


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.[17] 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.[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 back to the story of Thomas' two wives. None of these sources explicitly names the two sides as Northists and Southists.[18]

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.[19] Later, both Saint Thomas Christians and Europeans tried to assuage the animosity and downplay the division.[20]

Modern era[edit]

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.[21] 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.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23] Unlike other Indian Christians in Chicago, the Knanaya have maintained their strict tradition of endogamy through arranged marriages.[24]

Religious traditions[edit]

An unveiled tabernacle inside a Knanaya Catholic Church

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.[25] 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.[26]


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. [27]

Folk songs[edit]

Knanaya and Cochin Jewish folk songs are of a similar composure and linguistics, and can grouped into categories such as bridal, biblical, invocational, historical, and miscellaneous. Many of the songs also have almost the same lyrics with the exception of a few words. According to the Cochin Jewish scholar P. M. Jussay, "these similarities are not accidental and cannot be easily explained".[27]

Knanaya "Kulli Pattu" or "Bath Song":

"Ponnum methiyadimel melle melle aval natannu
Velli methiyadimle melle melle aval natannu"[27]

Cochin Jewish procession song:

"Ponnum methiyadimel melle natannan, Chiriyanandan,
Velli methiyadimel melle natannan, Chiriyanandan"[27]

Knanaya blessing song:

"Vazhvenna Vazhu ninakke thannen
(Let thine be the blessed life)
Neeyum nin bharthavum makkalum koote
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)[27]

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)[27]

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 munnilakambai nayan
Nin Viliyattum pattum"
(Unintelligible, however similar to Cochin Jew lyric)[27]

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)[27]

Folk traditions[edit]

After the burning of Cranganore during one of the many battles of the Zamorin of Calicut, the homes and temples of both 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 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.[27]

Wedding traditions[edit]

The Knanaya maintain distinctive wedding traditions and wedding customs that have helped to sustain their identity and culture. These traditions include influence from Syrian Christian as well as Hindu and Jewish customs, reflecting the centuries that the Knanaya 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.[28]

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.[29] 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.[29]

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.[30] 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.[31] 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).[32]

Prior to entering the church 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.[33] 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. This chant has been used by other St. Thomas Christian groups as a processional hymn, but the Knanaya maintain it for weddings. After the chant, the priests bless the newlyweds.[33]

The wedding reception features several traditions. After the wedding, the assembly holds a great procession to the reception place, including celebratory music and cheering. At the end, the bride and groom are carried by their uncles up to the door.[28] 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.[34] 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.[28] 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 "Vazhuvenna Vazvhu".[34] 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.[34] Afterward is the presentation of milk and fruit, which the couple drinks from the same cup.[34]

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.[35] 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.[36]

Other traditional songs[edit]

The Knanaya have maintained numerous archaic songs that are sung on several different occasions. These songs and ballads speak of many subjects, including the arrival of Thomas of Cana and party to India, wedding customs, the erection of ancient churches, and biblical events from the Old Testament. [37]

Biblical songs are composed with the intention of teaching and transmitting Bible stories. Knanaya Bible songs show the age-old mixing of Hindu and Christian cultures. An example of this can be seen in the Knanaya song "Maranarul", or "By the Lord's Command", a rendition of the creation of Adam.[37]

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.[37]


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 [37]


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.[38]

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.[39] 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.[40]

Dress and ornaments[edit]

Knanaya women historically wore gold earrings with balls and minute heads raised on it, one inch in diameter, known as Mekkamothiram or Kunukku. The same earrings are worn by the Northist St. Thomas Christians but their earrings are larger in diameter. This could have been a factor by which the two communities of Northist and Southist maintained separate identities. Similar to this, both Southist and Northist Christian women wear a distinct type of sari known as the Chatta Mundu. The Mundu dress is a long white cloth worn at the women's waste down and includes 15-21 pleats covering the back thigh in the form of a fan representing a palm leaf. On their torso they wear the Chatta, which is a white blouse embroidered with design. [36] Knanaya men historically would wear white shawls to make a headdress/turban and also a white cloth to tie around the waist down. Both are tied in a special way known as Njettum Valum Ittu Kettuka. [36]

Baptismal Traditions[edit]

After the Mamodisa or Baptismal celebration is concluded at the church, the family of the baptized child and all other guests will gather at the families home. During this reception food and drink are served while the patrons watch and take part in dances, songs, and other celebratory customs. During these celebrations, a particular Knanaya baptismal tradition takes place where the child is brought to the center of the room and is placed in front of a plate of numerous objects to choose from. The objects on this plate represent numerous careers, interests, and aptitudes. In example, plates may include rosaries, money, pencils/pens, and a food item. If the child chooses the rosary it is presumed that the he or she will live a religious life and or become a clergyman/woman. If the child chooses the money it is presumed that they will become very wealthy in the future. If the child chooses the pen or pencil it is presumed that they will be very studious. If the child chooses the food item it is presumed that they will either toil in agriculture or be a hefty eater. In some cases the family has the child choose three times and the last item chosen represents the child's future potential. This tradition however, is not taken as a serious indicator of the child's future aptitude but simply done for amusement and enjoyment. [38]

Funeral traditions[edit]

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. 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." [36]

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.[36]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. [38]


  1. ^ Fahlbusch, p. 286.
  2. ^ a b Swiderski, "Blood Weddings", pp. 55–56.
  3. ^ Neill, p. 42.
  4. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", p. 73.
  5. ^ a b Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", p. 77.
  6. ^ a b Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 76–80.
  7. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 73–92.
  8. ^ a b Baum & Winkler, p. 53.
  9. ^ Neill, pp. 42–43.
  10. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 74–76.
  11. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 76–77.
  12. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 77–78.
  13. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 78–80.
  14. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 80–82.
  15. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 88.
  16. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 88–89.
  17. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", p. 83.
  18. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 83–84.
  19. ^ Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", pp. 84–85.
  20. ^ Swiderski "Northists and Southists", p. 86.
  21. ^ a b Swiderski, "Northists and Southists", p. 87.
  22. ^ Swiderski, Blood Weddings, p. 169.
  23. ^ Jacobsen & Raj 2008, p. 186–187 and note.
  24. ^ Jacobsen & Raj 2008, pp. 202–207.
  25. ^ Swidersky, "Northists and Southists", pp. 84–85, 87.
  26. ^ Swidersky, "Northists and Southists", pp. 87–88.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i Jussay 2005, pp. 118-128.
  28. ^ a b c Vellian 1990, pp. 25-38.
  29. ^ a b Vellian 1990, pp. 32-33.
  30. ^ Vellian 1990, pp. 33-34.
  31. ^ Vellian 1990, pp. 34-35.
  32. ^ Vellian 1990, pp. 33-35.
  33. ^ a b Vellian 1990, pp. 35.
  34. ^ a b c d Vellian 1990, pp. 36-37.
  35. ^ Vellian 1990, pp. 38.
  36. ^ a b c d e Vellian 1990, pp. 30.
  37. ^ a b c d Swiderski, "Oral Text: A South Indian Instance", pp.129-133
  38. ^ a b c Vellian 1990, pp. 28.
  39. ^ Vellian 1990, pp. 29.
  40. ^ Vellian 1990, pp. 28-29.


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