The Syrian Christians: Narrative of a Tour in the Travancore Mission of the Church Missionary Society John M. Barton

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Mission Life, Vol. III (new series) (1872), pages 510-516

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown

Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006


[Full particulars of the present state of Travancore will be found in

an interesting work entitled The Land of Charity, published by Messrs.

Snow, Paternoster Row.]

THE Travancore Mission is divided into two districts, North and South,

each under the charge of a resident missionary, who superintends the

native pastorates. The character of the people, and the nature of the

work, is much the same in both districts. In both there are numerous

Syrian churches. Side by side with these are congregations of Syrians,

who have left their Church and joined ours, and whom we now

distinguish as Syrian Protestants.


Everywhere on the outskirts of each central organization or head

station, where the native pastor resides, there are also two or three

congregations of slaves.

The work among the slaves is of comparatively recent date, and forms a

most interesting feature in the Travancore Mission. The first efforts

were made about 1850 at the instigation of Mr. Ragland, but they did

not meet with much success (so bigoted and prejudiced were the

surrounding heathen Nairs, and even Syrians also, and opposed to any

attempt to raise, or even instruct, the poor down-trodden despised

slaves), until within the last ten or twelve years, which have

witnessed a most remarkable ingathering of converts.

The number of Christians in connection with the Travancore Mission

[511/512] has risen in this time from 7,919 to 14,490, and nearly all

of these have been from the slave caste–the accessions from the

Syrian Church having almost ceased now that it has begun to reform


These slaves, like the Helots of Sparta, were evidently the original

inhabitants of the country, previously to the great Aryan or Scythian

immigration, which took place, as philologists and Sanskrit scholars

tell us, about 2,000 years ago, when the Sanskrit-speaking race,

called Hindus, because they came from beyond the Indus, or Sindhuh

(lit. black river), took possession of the whole country, and, as in

the case of the Saxons in England, drove back the former inhabitants

to the forests and fastnesses of their native hills, and reduced the

weaker people of the lowlands to the position of serfs or bondmen.

There are thus two classes of Aborigines or non-Aryan races in

India–those which inhabit the hilly tracts, as the Santals and Gonds

and Bheels, who retain their own language and remain a perfectly free

people; and others, like the Mângs of the Deccan, or the Malias of the

Telegu country, or the slave people of Travancore. These last have

become so completely absorbed into the Hindu community, that they have

lost not only their independence but also their former language, and

to some extent their old religious beliefs also–almost everything, in

fact, but their distinctive physiognomy, the preservation of which is

simply owing to the fact that they are regarded as outcasts, the very

scum and dregs of society, and that none, even the lowest of the Hindu

scale, would dream for a moment of intermarrying with them. They

reside in miserable mud hovels, built on mounds amid the rice swamps,

which they are compelled to cultivate for their Hindu or Syrian

masters, receiving as their only wages a scanty pittance of grain, so

insufficient as a rule for even their slender wants, that they are

driven to theft, and make it a practice to enter the neighbouring

plantations at night to steal the cocoa-nuts, or plantains, or roots.

As a natural consequence they are sunk in the most brutal ignorance;

for days and weeks together, at certain seasons, they have to stand in

water up to their waists, and so rife are diseases of all kinds among

them, that they seldom live to old age.

The slaves were formerly bought, sold, or mortgaged, just like the

land on which they lived, or as the cattle and other property of their

owners. No wonder that to such a people the Gospel has been good news

indeed. It offers them, first of all, deliverance from the fear of the

devil, of whom they stand in the greatest terror; their whole

religion, in fact, consisting of various rites and sacrifices

performed to avert the anger of the demons supposed to inhabit

different places. Next, it procures for them their just rights as

human beings, which Hinduism and corrupt Christianity has denied them.

[513] As one might expect, the moral standard and spiritual tone of

such people, even after they become the professed followers of Christ,

is not very high; still there is a marked change, which even their

heathen masters are ready to admit.

“Sir,” said the head man of a Syrian village one day to B., “these

people of yours are wonderfully altered. Six years ago I had to employ

clubmen to guard my paddy [unhusked rice] “while it was being reaped.

Now, for two or three years, I have left it entirely to your

Christians, and they reap it and bring it to my house. I get more

grain; and I know they are the very men who robbed me formerly.”

Another day, as a native catechist was discussing with a heathen Nair

the nature of human responsibility, he illustrated his remarks by

referring to the habits of the slaves, who were accustomed to lie,

cheat, steal, &c. The heathen at once interrupted him, saying, “No,

the slaves do not lie, or steal, or get drunk, or quarrel now; they

have left off all these since they learned your religion.”

I visited some eight or ten of these slave congregations, and was

greatly pleased and interested by the simple earnestness of the

people; their willingness to contribute–far more largely, in

proportion to their means, than their Syrian neighbours–to the

building of their churches and maintenance of their readers, as also

by the remarkable aptitude shown by many of the children in learning

to read. I think there is little doubt that another generation will

find many of them quite on a par, as regards knowledge and

intelligence, with the Christians of higher castes. Care has to be

taken to keep them from getting puffed-up by their

elevation,–especially now that, by an order of the Native Government,

all slaves are declared free in Travancore, and many other of their

civil disabilities removed.

The movement is, however, a very hopeful one as well as a very

remarkable one, and it has done a world of good to the somewhat

indolent, selfish, and apathetic Syrians, who were quite content to

receive the Gospel and education and Christian ordinances at our

hands, but would not contribute a farthing towards it themselves. Now

the zeal and liberality of the formerly-despised slave converts is

beginning to put them to shame,–and, what is better still, the

employment of Syrian (I use the word Syrian here as generally

elsewhere, to denote nationality or caste, and not religion, for our

agents, though Syrian in origin, are Protestant in creed and belonging

to our own Church) catechists and readers, to go among these people

and minister to them in spiritual things, has tended wonderfully to

break down the barriers of caste prejudice, which formerly existed

between the two races, even when both formed a part of the Christian


As regards the actual Syrians themselves, I saw much that was

encouraging, and calculated to give good ground for believing that a

[513/514] real spiritual reformation was going on amongst them. True,

the catanars, or priests, are still, as a body, deplorably ignorant,

and care for little more than a decent performance of the duties

attached to their office and the saying of masses. There are, however,

some noble exceptions, whose zeal and earnest efforts for the

spiritual improvement of their people is beginning to stir up even the

more careless and lazy among their brethren. One whom I met and had

some encouraging conversation with, has translated the Syrian Liturgy

into the vernacular Malagalim, from which are omitted nearly all the

prayers that a Protestant would take exception to. The Malagalim

Scriptures, translated by our Missionary, Mr. Bailey, and printed by

the Bible Society, are now read in almost every church; and several of

the catanars have mustered up courage enough to expound and preach.

The same catanar mentioned above has got his people to subscribe and

build a little prayer-house, or chapel-of-ease, on the outskirts of

the village where he lives, some two miles away from the nearest

Syrian church, to which the people may come on Sunday afternoons and

read the Bible together and have it explained by himself or one of his

brother catanars. The building, composed almost entirely of wood,

reminded one almost of a Swiss chalet, it was so tastily carved in

front, and altogether so neat and good. At the gable end, above the

entrance porch, two texts were inscribed from the Malagalim Bible: the

first, “There is one Mediator between God and man,–the man Christ

Jesus;” the second, “God is Spirit, and they that worship Him must

worship Him in spirit and in truth.” One could hardly wish for

anything better than this; and if no other result has followed from

fifty years of labour in Travancore, this would be an ample reward in


At first we began by fraternizing with them entirely, then, after a

few years, when they found out what scriptural Christianity really

involved, and how very far apart they were from us, they drew off, and

would have nothing more to say to us, nor allow us to preach in their

churches. For some twenty-five or thirty years, accordingly, the only

influence brought to bear upon the Syrian Church has been entirely

from without: several Syrian congregations joined us in different

parts of the country; indeed, all who wished to offer to God a

spiritual and scriptural worship were obliged to come over to our

Church, for they could get no instruction or help in their own.

For the last ten years, however, there has been a movement going on

within the Syrian Church itself, and there are now no more accessions

from them, nor could we desire it, so long as there is perfect freedom

given to priest or layman to adopt a scriptural faith and a purer

worship. Much of this reform is doubtless owing to the countenance and

encouragement it received from the present Metran or Bishop, who

rejoices in the high-sounding title of Mar Athanasius. We were his

guests for [514/515] one night, on our way down from Mavelicurra to

Quilon, at a place called Kayen Kulum, where we took up our quarters

in the premises attached to the Syrian Church.

It was an interesting evening, and one that I shall not soon forget.

One seemed transplanted back at once to the early days of Christianity

as one gazed on the venerable old man with long iron-grey beard,

clothed in a purple silk robe which reached nearly down to his feet,

but in all other respects living in the most simple and primitive

fashion; indeed, so scanty seemed his commissariat that we

congratulated ourselves on having brought supplies with us, and being

able, accordingly, to entertain him as a guest at table while we

shared his quarters.

Fortunately for me he knew English, and could speak it with tolerable

ease, having been educated, in fact, in our own institution in Madras,

when presided over many years ago by Mr. Gray. We had a great deal of

conversation together in reference to the Syrian Church, and he seemed

really desirous of help and sympathy, and anxious to do all he could

to raise the spiritual tone of his people. His position is a somewhat

difficult and precarious one, for there is a rival Metran in the

field, who also claims to derive his episcopal commission and

authority from the Jacobite Church in Mesopotamia, with which the

Syrian Church of Malabar has always been connected. Mar Athanasius

has, however, been recognised as the rightful Metran by the Travancore

Government, and he has certainly justified thus far the hopes then

entertained of him that he would rule his people faithfully and

promote among them a real reform.

We arrived just at dusk, and were welcomed on entering the churchyard

or “close” by some seven or eight catanars, who greeted M. as an old

friend. Among these was a young man, a nephew of the Bishop’s, who, a

few days before, had performed his first mass–as great an event,

apparently, in the Syrian Church, as preaching the first sermon in

ours; or greater still in one way, as it was followed by the feasting

of no less than 5,000 persons at the Metran’s expense, all of whom had

come in to witness the ceremony.

After going up-stairs to the hay-loft sort of place over the gateway,

which formed the episcopal residence, where we shook hands with the

Metran and exchanged a few complimentary greetings, the young catanar

spoken of above asked us if we would join them at their evening

service. This we did, and found that he had summoned together a

considerable congregation in the hope of hearing M. preach afterwards.

The service consisted partly of extemporised portions of the Syriac

Liturgy, translated into Malagalim, which the officiating catanar

repeated sentence by sentence, and which was afterwards taken up by

the people; partly of prayers from the Liturgy itself. When it was

over, the young catanar exchanged places with M., who read a portion

of Scripture and [515/516] expounded it, evidently to the great

satisfaction of his audience, for they were most attentive, the other

six or seven catanars also standing by. There are only a few catanars

as yet who venture to preach even from book, so that the people get

very little teaching, and this makes them welcome all the more the

occasional visit of a Missionary.

Another very interesting scene, which I also greatly enjoyed, was a

visit paid one day to a Syrian house, where the owner, a well-to-do

farmer, with a most pleasing countenance, received us most warmly,

placed beds and mats at our disposal to recline on, and feasted us

most sumptuously with all manner of curries, which he insisted on

providing, though we had brought our own food with us. The room in

which he entertained us was like a good-sized English summer-house,

raised about three feet above the ground, with a floor nicely boarded

and matted, and a roof thatched with cocoa-nut leaves. My seat was a

bed, with one of the nice stained grass mats spread on it. At the edge

of the platform M. sat on a low stool, and read a Malagalim tract

about the Russian nobleman and the wolves to a group of some forty men

and boys, who were seated outside on the ground, under the shade of

the cocoa-nut trees, in the midst of a grove of which the house stood.

Our host, who was a venerable patriarch, sat close to him, as he was

rather deaf, drinking in every word, and nodding audible assents and

occasional comments as he read.

On our way here we halted for an hour at another village, where there

is also a congregation and a church. The people were all waiting for

us, and some cannon, consisting of iron pipes, each four or five

inches long, closed at one end, announced our approach. The little

church has lately been renovated and almost wholly rebuilt by the

congregation, and a nice porch added, and some fifty or sixty were

present to meet us, and received a few words of instruction. Some

plantains, a basin of milk, and another of coffee, had been provided

for us, of which we were bound to partake, though we knew another

repast awaited us at our next halting-place.

And so it is wherever we go. Every Syrian house and church is open to

us; the people are all delighted to see us, and hear the Bible read

and expounded.

On the whole, I must say that the Syrians are a most kind, hospitable

people, and I felt greatly drawn to them. There is somewhat the same

kind of hospitality to be met with from the monks connected with the

Greek Church in Palestine, but, on the whole, I rather prefer the

Syrians of Malabar. Nothing would be more interesting than spending

three weeks or a month in a tour though all their churches, which

number, I believe, some fifty within the immediate neighbourhood of

our Mission Station at Mavelicurra.