Syrian- and Latin-rite Catholic churches side-by-side in Kerala

  • A local "three wheeler" dedicated to the native saint of Kerala.

Though a minority religion, Catholicism has ancient and deep roots in the southern Indian state of Kerala, home to more than 33 million people.  Kerala is the heartland for two Syrian-rite Catholic Churches, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Churches, and is home to a large Latin-rite Catholic population. In 2011, according to the Kerala census, Christians constituted 18% of the population, a much higher ratio than is true for India as a whole.1 The language of the state is Malayalam.  By almost all measures of educational achievement and social welfare, Kerala ranks highest in India. Keralites commonly refer to the state as “God’s own country.” 

Kerala’s Syrian Christian roots stretch back by tradition to the era of the Apostle Thomas, and its Latin roots to St. Francis Xavier and the early Portuguese missionaries of the 16th century. Keralite Catholics often speak with pride about these roots. 

In Kerala, Hindus constitute 55% of the population, and Muslims constitute 27%.2 Catholics are quite familiar with major facets of Hinduism and Christianity. The mix of religions is quite visible in major cities where small Catholic and Hindu shrines may be cheek-by-jowl. In Thiruvananthapuram, the music at the Latin-rite cathedral competes with the Muslim call for prayer from just down the street. 

55% of Keralite Christians are Catholic (both Syrians and Latin rite), while the rest belong to a variety of Orthodox (Jacobite), Reformed (Mar Thoma) and Protestant churches.3 Christian populations tend to be concentrated in several centers, including the coastal areas around Veli and Thumba, Kuravilangad, or Pala. In these parts of the state, one could feel as if Christianity constituted the dominant cultural force – a very different situation than is to be found in most other parts of the country.  

  • 1K. C. Zachariah, "The Syrian Christians of Kerala: Demographic and Socioeconomic Transition in the Twentieth Century," (working paper, Center for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, November 2001), 14
  • 2K.C. Zachariah, The Syrian Christians of Kerala (Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman Private Limited, 2006), 91.
  • 3Zachariah, The Syrian Christians of Kerala, 154.