Syrian rite churches find home in Kerala, India

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

Though still a minority religion in the state, Catholicism has very deep roots in the state of Kerala. Kerala is the heartland for the Syrian rite Christian churches, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara, and home to a large Latin rite population. In 2001, according to the Kerala census, Christians constituted 19% of the population of the state, 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 Christian roots stretch back to the era of the apostle Thomas and to the early Portuguese missionaries of the 16th century. Keralite Catholics often speak with pride about these roots.

In Kerala, Hindus constitute 56% of the population, and Muslims constitute 25%.2 Catholics are quite familiar with major facets of Hinduism and Christianity. The mix of religions is 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 a number of centers, including the coastal areas around Veli and Thumba, in 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.