Knānāya Diaspora of Ancient Malabar
|Regions with significant populations|
|c. 300,000 (Kerala, India; Chicago; elsewhere)|
|Malayalam; local languages
Liturgical: SyriacWritten: Suriyani Malayalam
|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.
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 (Knāy Thoma) in the 4th or 8th century. The divisions were present by the time of the Portuguese colonization in the 16th century and were noted through the European colonial era.
Today, the majority of Knanaya are members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (Eastern Catholic) and the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church (Oriental Orthodox). 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.
- 1 Names
- 2 History
- 3 Culture
- 4 References
- 5 Bibliography
- 6 External links
The term Knānāya derives from the name Knāy Thoma (anglicized as Thomas of Cana), an important figure in the Saint Thomas Christian tradition. The earliest written record of the term used as a designation of the community dates to the 1800s, however notations of the term itself are found in Knanaya folk songs such as the song of the erection of Kallisserry Church in 1580.  The term is derived from Thomas' Syriac adjectival epithet Knā'nāya in reference to the land of Canaan and is defined as meaning "Those of Caanan".  Members of the Knanaya Community are also generally called Knāy or Knā, in reference to Thomas. Many Knanaya families, especially those of the Kaduthuruthy region maintain the surname Kinān, a derivative of Thomas’ epithet. Woman of these families preserve gendered forms of the term, examples of this being Kināti Anna, Kināti Mariam, etc. 
The ultimate derivation of Thomas' English 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.Alternately, it may be a corruption of a Syriac term for merchant (Knāyil in Malayalam). However, scholar Richard M. Swiderski states that none of these etymologies are entirely sound. Knanaya priest and scholar Jacob Kollaparambil argues that the "Cana" form is a corruption introduced by European scholars in the 18th century based on the Malayalam form Knāy and its variants (Knāi, Kinān, Knāyi) found in the folk tradition of the Knanaya and the common parlance and literature of the people of Malabar. This may be a reference to the Christian community of Kynai, in Bét Aramayé in Persia, a historical center of Syriac Christianity. Knanaya is the spelling preferred by community members; other less common spellings include Cananites and Cnanites.
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.
Historically the Knanaya held the title of being the "protectors of seventeen castes", an authority given to them by the Cheraman Perumal according to folk tradition. This title which was reflective of the historical high caste status of the Knanaya, is to this day exhibited during Knanaya marriage ceremonies when individuals taking part in the rituals ask permission before fulfilling their designated role. A prominent example of this is seen during the "Chandam Charthal" or grooms beautification ceremony, in which the barber petitions the assembly three times with the following request: "I ask the gentlemen here who have superiority over 17 castes, may I shave the bridegroom?".
The Knanaya were also known as Ancharapallikar or the "Owners of Five and a Half churches" a title reflective of the five churches owned by the Southist Community before the Synod of Diamper in 1599. The churches are listed as the following: Udayamperoor, Kaduthuruthy, Kottayam, Chunkom, and Kallissery. The "half church" is a reference to the half privilege and share the Knanaya held in other churches they co-owned with the Northist St. Thomas Christians, usually in areas where not many Knanaya lived. 
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. The St. Thomas Christian tradition defines the division as being both geographical and ethnic, expressing that the Native St. Thomas Christians initially resided on the north side of the Chera Empire’s capitol city of Cranganore while the Middle Eastern migrant Knanaya arrived and settled on the south side, which subsequently led to the designation Northist and Southist. Directional divisions within communities are common in Kerala, including among Hindu groups. 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.
A number of traditions and stories have emerged to explain the division, and both Southists and Northists use variants of these traditions to claim superiority for their group. The earlier version traces the divide to the figure of Thomas of Cana, a Syrian merchant who led a group of 72 Jewish-Christian immigrant families, a bishop named Uraha Mar Yausef, and clergymen from the Middle East to settle in Cranganore, India in the 4th century (some sources place these events in the 8th century). 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. 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. Elements of the Thomas of Cana story feature in ancient songs as well as a copper plate grant awarded to Thomas of Cana followers by a local ruler. These plates are said to have granted Thomas’ followers 72 "privileges" from Cheraman Perumal, the Chera king. The plates were present in Kerala during the time of the Portuguese colonization in the early 17th century, but were lost during Portuguese rule. The Knanaya invoke the plates as evidence of their descent from Thomas of Cana's mission. This version of the Thomas of Cana narrative is the accepted history among both Knanaya and Northist scholars alike as well as scholarship in general. 
In many other variants recorded during the colonial era, 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 Northist. These variants are considered apocryphal and are not the accepted tradition among contemporary Northist and Southist scholars who generally believe them to be the consequence of rivalry between the St. Thomas Christians and Knanaya. 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. In other variants, both wives were Kerala natives, while the Southists' forebearer was from a higher caste. 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 enforced strict endogamy, maintaining a "pure" lineage.
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 Thoma's 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 Thoma's concubine, while in other she married a lower-caste Maaran boy. This assertion is based on the 1676 Portuguese document "M.S Sloane 2748-A", a likely forgery attributed to the Carmelite priest Father Mathew.
Historian of medieval India and Northist priest Pius Malekandathil argues that the two-wives legend was simply a creation of rivalry between the Middle Eastern migrant Knanaya and the Native St. Thomas Christians. Malekandathil expresses that the story originated in the medieval era due to the two ethnic groups of Christians asserting socioeconomic dominance over the other. Furthermore, Malekandathil notes that the two-wives legend is not the accepted tradition among the people of Kerala but instead that the indigenous Saint Thomas Christians got the appellation "Northists" because they were initially located on the northern part of the city of Cranganore, while the migrant Knanaya under the leadership of Thomas of Cana were given the southern side of the city which led to the generic title of "Southists".
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 Thomas of Cana tradition but asserted that Thomas' followers originated in Judea. According to Chazhikaden, the group converted to Christianity while maintaining 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. Swiderski believes that the legend was "conceived and promulgated" by Chazhikaden himself. Many modern Knanaya accept the account as factual, while others reject it. As with other Knanaya origin traditions, Northists dispute and condemn it.
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 the Jesuit missionary Alvaro Penteado mentions a conflict between the children of Thomas of Cana, hinting at a rift in the community in contemporary times. In 1525, Mar Jacob, a Chaldean bishop in India, recorded a battle the year before between the Kingdom of Cochin and the Zamorin of Calicut that destroyed Cranganore and many Knanaya homes and churches. The Knanaya had a township and three churches namely of St. Mary, St. Kuriakose, and St. Thomas in southern Cranganore which according to tradition was built by Thomas of Cana when the community arrived to India. The battle destroyed the entire township and caused the community to disperse from the city to other settlements. The event is noted in the Knanaya folk song "Innu Nee Njangale Kaivitto Marane" or "Have You Forgotten Us Today Oh Lord?".
After the battle, a portion of the community migrated to the interior of Kerala to the foothills of the Western Ghats and founded the settlement of Chunkom which was developed into a customs house, where they eventually built St. Mary's Knanaya Church in 1579. The Knanaya of Chunkom grew prosperous and carried out commerce in the region in which they regularly traded with the Kingdom of Travancore and the Tamil Dynasty of Madurai. The local Brahmin chieftains grew indebted to the Knanaya and would offer slaves of the Malleen (Hill Arrian) caste to the community in order to settle their debts. The Knanaya converted the Malleens to Christianity and built them a separate church known as St. Augustines. Besides collecting duties, the Knanaya in Chunkom were also known to mold "famous" pottery.
In the year 1550, the Portuguese commander Francesco Silveira de Menesis aided the King of Cochin's army in a victorious battle against the Kingdom of Vadakkankur (Kaduthuruthy), subsequently killing its king Veera Manikatachen.  After the death of their king, the entire army of the Kingdom of Vadakkankur formed itself into chaver (suicide) squads and sought revenge against the Syrian Christians in the region who they viewed as co-religionist of the regicidal Portuguese. The Knanaya Tharakan (minister) Kunchacko of the Kunnassery Family was a member of the Vadakkankur Royal Court and a close advisor to the slain king. In order to save his people from the ire of the chaver squads, Kunchacko Tharakan gathered the Knanaya from their parish of Kaduthuruthy St. Mary's Valiya Palli (Great Church), as well as all other Syrian Christians he could find within the vicinity of Vadakkankur and fled to the region of Mulanthuruthy where he eventually built Mulanthuruthy Church. The Knanaya were later called back to Kaduthurthy by the descendants of Veera Manikatachan and left Mulanthuruthy Church in the care and protection of the Northist St. Thomas Christians who remained there. 
During this same altercation with the Kingdom of Vadakkankur in 1550, a portion of the Knanaya from Kaduthuruthy were invited to the city of Kottayam by its chieftain in the Kingdom of Thekkumkur and were given permission to build a church which they consecrated as Kottayam St. Mary's Knanaya Valiya Palli. These Knanaya had brought with them ancient relics from Kaduthuruthy Church known as the Persian Crosses which are till this day exhibited at Kottayam Valiya Palli. 
In 1579 the Jesuit missionary 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. A 1603 letter by Portuguese official J. M. Campori further discusses the division, which had by that point become intermittently violent; he states that the majority of Christians are those baptized by St. Thomas the Apostle while a minority descend from Thomas of Cana. In 1611, chronicler and official historian of Portuguese India Diogo de Couto mentions the tradition that a contingent of families had accompanied Thomas of Cana and notes that these Christians are "without doubt Armenians by caste; and their sons too the same, because they had brought their wives". Couto attests that the descendants of Thomas of Cana and his party are a minority that reside in the Southist churches of Diamper (Udayamperoor), Kaduthuruthy, and Kottayam.  Other Portuguese authors who wrote of the Southist-Northist divide, generally referencing versions of the Thomas of Cana story, include the envoy Antonio de Gouvea (1602–1603), Archbishop Francis Ros (1604), Franciscan friar Paulo da Trinidade (1630–1636), and Bishop Giuseppe Maria Sebastiani (1657).
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 regarded them as examples of the prevalence of divisions in Indian society in general. Later, both Saint Thomas Christians and Europeans tried to assuage the animosity and downplay the division.
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. 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 diocese' for both the Malankara and Catholic churches, which were founded in 1910 and 1911, respectively.
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. This 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 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.
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 the Knanaya maintain a unique sub-culture of their own and a number of scholars have found that the distinct traditions and customs of the Knanaya are similar to those of the Cochin Jews of Kerala. This can be seen through the similarity in folk songs and folk traditions which may reflect the Knanaya's claimed Judeo-Christian ancestry. Scholar of Cochin Jewish culture and history P.M. Jussay notes the following about the cultural similarities:
“In the many splendoured wonder of Kerala’s population, the critical observer is intrigued by the striking similarities that exist between two small communities - the Cochin Jews and the Knanite Christians. Neither of them is said to be of the soil; but having taken root and flourished for long in this fertile land, they have been indistinguishably integrated with its colours and contours. The similarities become significant when the Knanites claim a Jewish origin”
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. 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.
|"Knanaya Folk Songs"|
Palm Leaf Manuscripts of Knanaya Folk Songs
|Genre||Music of Medieval India|
Knanaya folk songs are ancient in origins and were first written down in the 17th century on palm leaf manuscripts. The texts of the palm leaves were compiled and published in 1910 by the Knanaya scholar P.U. Luke in his text Puratana Pattukal, or Ancient Songs.  The songs were written in Old Malayalam but contain diction and lexemes from Sanskrit, 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. 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".
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)
Cochin Jewish procession song:
Some songs show the influence of the Hindu culture of Kerala. For instance, the Knanaya song Mailanjipattu is adapted from the Hindu song Krishnagatha.
Songs of bards
Historically a class of bards known as Panans would visit the homes of nobles castes in Kerala and sing songs of heroic figures as well as legendary events. After doing so the Panan would receive payment for their performance in the form of a material donation of items such as betel leaves and other types of charitable aid. Likewise, the Panans would visit the homes of the Knanaya and sing songs of the communities history and heritage. In particular, the Panans would sing of a story in the life of Thomas of Cana during the reign of Cheraman Perumal. The story is narrated from the perspective of the leader of the bards known as Tiruvaranka Panan. The contents of the story revolves around a mission bestowed to Tiruvaranka by Thomas of Cana in which he is to travel to Ezhathunadu (Sri Lanka) and implore four castes, namely carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and molders, to return to Cranganore which they had left due to an infringement on their social traditions. The four castes are initially hesitant to return to Cranganore but are persuaded by Tiruvaranka when he shows them the golden staff of Thomas of Cana which he was granted to take on his journey as a sign of goodwill. After seeing the staff the four castes are content and in their satisfaction remove their own ornaments and smelt a golden crown for Thomas of Cana which they present to him upon their return to the Cranganore. Wearing the crown, Thomas and Tiruvarankan go to meet Cheraman Perumal who is pleased with the success of their mission and grants Thomas of Cana privileges. The remainder of the song sings of the seventy-two historical privileges bestowed upon Thomas. 
After the burning of Craganore in 1524 during a battle between the Zamorin of Calicut and the Kingdom of Cochin which the city was apart of, the homes and temples of both the Cochin Jews and Knanaya were destroyed. The Knanaya historically commemorated this loss by carrying around a handful of charred earth as a keepsake from their ancestral settlement. From this act originated the custom of including a pinch of ash from a bride's home in a knot at the end of her new dress when she went to live with her husband. On account of this, Northists sometimes derisively dub the Knanaya "Charam kettikal", or knot makers of ash. The Cochin Jews had a similar custom of keeping a handful of earth from the place their temples once stood. The burning of Craganore was a vital and drastic event for both the communities and figures heavily in their stories and songs
Both the Knanaya and Cochin Jews maintain folk traditions based on figures and stories of the Old Testament. Both groups particularly revere Joseph; the Knanaya perform a circle dance called "Poorva Yousepintae Vattakali" ("Round Dance of Old Joseph"), while the Cochin Jews also maintain songs glorifying Joseph. The Knanaya and Cochin Jews give local flavor to their Old Testament-based songs, stories and traditions. A Knanaya folk song about Tobias describes his wedding as including Kerala paraphernalia, while a Cochin Jewish folk song describes Ruth dressed and groomed like a Malayali girl or Cochin Jewish bride. For both the Knanaya and Cochin Jews, these flourishes make Bible stories relevant to their current experience.
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. The first batch is said to be the most sacred and is only given to members of the family. 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 the 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.
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 Knanaya's 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 centered 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.
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. 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.
Bride and groom participate in ceremonies in their respective homes on the eve of the wedding. The groom's ceremony is "Antham Charthal" which is now most commonly known as Chandam Charthal. The name signifies the end or last day of the bachelor life of the boy as well as 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. The bride's ceremony is Mylanchi Ideel, or "henna ceremony". The bride's palms, feet, and nails are smeared with special green henna, by her maternal grandmother and aunts. Similar ceremonies are found among various ethnic groups across the Middle East, North Africa, and India; the Knanaya give it a Biblical meaning referencing the original sin of Eve, stating that because Eve walked with her feet to the Tree of Knowledge and plucked its forbidden fruit with her palms, the feet and palms of the bride are smeared with henna to cleanse her of Eves original sin. The grandmother then takes the bride to be bathed and changed into a new dress. 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).
Knanaya priests chant the "Bar Mariam"
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. At the end of the marriage ceremony, the priests and congregation sing the "Bar Mariam" ("Son of Mary"), a "paraliturgical" Syriac chant referencing events from Jesus' life. After the chant, the priests bless the newlyweds with holy water to conclude the ceremony.
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”. In the end, the bride and groom are carried by their uncles up to the door. 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. 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. 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". 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. Afterward is the presentation of milk and fruit, which the couple drinks from the same cup.
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. Another miscellaneous tradition is the Margam 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.
The Knanaya make several special foods. Pidy is a rice ball dish traditionally made when sending pregnant women home for a 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.
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. Knanaya eating together would eat from the same plantain leaf as a sign of cordiality. Catholic and Orthodox 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.
Dress and ornaments
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 also worn by the Northist Saint Thomas Christians. 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.
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.
The Knanaya maintain a distinct round dance, the Margamkali, or "the way/path" of Thomas the Apostle. This traditional dance was historically performed among Saint Thomas Christians, but the Knanaya have played a prominent role in preserving and maintaining it since European contact. The Margamkali was traditionally a male dance exhibiting twelve players symbolizing the Twelve Apostles dancing in a circle around a lighted brass lamp representing Jesus. It is accompanied by ancient songs about Thomas the Apostle, based on the apocryphal 3rd-century text Acts of Thomas. The song text consists of 450 lines, divided into 14 sections. These songs contain Syriac and Tamil diction, suggesting an origin before the emergence of the Malayalam language in Malabar between the 9th and 13th century.
The Margamkali declined considerably after European colonization. In the 17th century, the Knanaya priest Anjilimoottil Itty Thommen Kathanar revised the text, which has influenced its current structure. In 1910, scholar P.U. Luke published the text for the first time in his collection of Ancient Songs. In 1924 the European priest and scholar Father Hosten was enamored by the Margamkali he saw danced by the Knanaya in Kottayam. He attempted to present the dance at the 1925 Vatican Mission Exhibition, but it was not performed due to mass disapproval by Northist Saint Thomas Christians. In the 1960s the Saint Thomas Christian scholar of folk culture Chummar Choondal led a sociological survey of the Margamkali. He noted that by that time, it was solely practiced and propagated by the Knanaya and could not be found among Northist communities. Furthermore Choondal found that all of the Margam teachers and groups of the time period were Knanaya. With Choondal's aid, the Knanaya priests George Karukaparambil and Jacob Vellian spearheaded research on the Margamkali in the 1970s and '80s with the help of 33 Knanaya ashans (teachers). The team systematized the Margamkali and promoted it among schools and cultural organizations. In 1995, Mar Kuriakose Kunnasserry, the bishop of the Knanaya Diocese of Kottayam, established Hadusa (Syriac for dancing/rejoicing) as an All India Institute of Christian Performing Arts.
The Knanaya hold to a death bed tradition based on Old Testament teachings, wherein a dying man gives a final blessing to his children and grandchildren. The father places his hand on the heads of kneeling recipients while giving the invocation. Other funeral traditions include the Thazhukuka, in which friends and relatives embrace a grieving family at a funeral. The family stands in line at the church as the priest sprinkles holy water on them, and friends embrace them. After the burial, the family holds a ceremony at home where they drink from a single tender coconut to symbolize their unity following the death of their loved one.
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