The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, November 04, 2005

An emerging trend in the Kerala Christian, Muslim historiography

Distorting to claim a mythical history
Dr. C.I. Issac

The religious minorities of Kerala, particularly Christians and Muslims, are proud of their historical past. However, these days they have started to feel a sense of insufficiency of their historical value. Since the days of Portuguese, stories regarding the first century of Common Era (CE) origin and aristocratic beginning began to circulate widely amongst the Kerala Christians. Later on this articulated tradition got deep rooted with the Christian faith. Scholars even from amongst the Christian community began challenging the historicity of the legend that claims the noble descent and first century origin of Indian (Kerala) Christianity. Those who supported the first century origin of Christianity mainly highlighted some mystifying stories related to certain saints and churches. The veracity of the stories associated with these monuments is doubtful. This is because the architectural style that was adopted in constructing these churches (structures) does not match the style that prevailed in that period.

Similarly, the Muslims of Kerala were a peace loving national community until the days of the expeditions of Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan. Thereafter, they were forced to transform themselves into fanatics. The seeds of fanaticism that were sowed by the Mysorian invaders were reaped in the bumper harvest during the days of the Mopla Riot of 1921 (Malabar Riot). The Muslim fanatics who were at the front of the Hindu massacre during the course of the Malabar Riot are now christened as freedom fighters and comrades, respectively, by the Right and Left coalitions of Kerala. This is the thumbnail portrait of the contemporary politico-social structure of the Muslim social formations of Kerala. But recently as a result of the GEB (Gulf Economic Boom), the Muslim community of Kerala also began to think of rewriting their history by incorporating the story of a rich and distant past. As the Christians of Kerala did they also coddled themselves in fabricating a so-called history of Islam in Kerala – a history of Hindu kings converting to Islam and attributed antique value to a few of their mosques.

In order to evade enquiries from the students of history, such monuments of religious importance are being demolished without preserving the relics of antique value and new and lofty structures are being contructed in their place with granite slabs (with inscriptions on them) claiming that at the site of the new building there was another one dating back to the days of the founder of their religion. Today the process of the demolition of churches and mosques is happening at an extensive and unprecedented rate. A set of would be secular historians with vested interest is supporting the Christian and Muslim historio-graphical exercise (distortions). All these necessitated an enquiry into the antique values of the Christian and Muslim places of worship that are subject to the demolition exercise and into the (religious hierarchical) social psychology behind their reconstruction.

Monuments of religious importance are being demolished without preserving the relics of antique value and new and lofty structures are being constructed in their place with granite slabs (with inscriptions on them) claiming that at the site of the new building there was another one dating back to the days of the founder of their religion.

Christian interest in the construction of new churches or chapels in the Hindu dominated areas is shrouded in obscurity. Now the mushroom growth of churches and chapels is a serious threat to the socio economic relations of the state. Pope had declared that church’s ultimate motive in the new millennium is to ‘plant a cross in Asia (India) as it was done in the previous millenniums in Africa, Europe and Americas’. In the light of this Pontifical design the demolition and reconstruction of the churches of Kerala leaves a lot of doubts. All these should be viewed in the light of the Vatican Council, 1960, that drafted a new strategy for conversions in Asia. After the Vatican Council, Indian Catholic missions have shown remarkable dynamism in activities in economically backward regions with Hindu majority. As a part of the ‘new strategy’ church is following a less intransigent attitude towards birth control. International Christian proselytism enterprises are labouring for a large baptized Christian population in India by 2025. In addition to it they are hoping for a Crypto Christian population of three crore by the said date. By this time the population map of India will have 7.4% Christians, 72.9% Hindus and 12.2% Muslims.

It is believed that Christianity set its foot in Bharat through the gateway of Kerala during 52 CE. That was long before Europ or the Middle East enjoyed the tenets of Christianity. In 1952 CE, the native Catholic Church hierarchy approached the Papacy [Rome] for Pontifical approval to celebrate 1900th year of Thomas’s [one of the disciples of Christ] venture of proselytism of Kerala. Papacy instantaneously declined the humble request of the Kerala Catholics on the ground that the claim [legendary belief of Thomas Apostolic transaction in Kerala] has no historicity. But the Catholic Savarna (Syrian) aristocracy of Kerala couldn’t accept such a response from Rome and celebrated the 19th centenary of the arrival of Thomas (planting of cross in Bharat) with much pomp.

Some beleive that in the first century of the CE one of the disciples of Christ, named Thomas, reached the seashores of Kerala and established seven-and-a-half churches [Seven big churches and a small church] to fulfill the requirement of his proselytismic measures. That most of the claimed places of the eight churches were located either on the ruins of old Hindu temples or near celebrated temples is a historical fact. One such famous church of this category now functioning at Malayattoor, near the birthplace of Adi Sankara, was till the date of the national independence a Siva temple. The revenue records of the old princely state of Travancore justify this fact. Now the Papacy has declared, in its spiritual as well as temporal capacity, that Malayattoor is an international pilgrim centre. What is the reasoning behind the interference in the sovereignty of India by an alien religious head, Pope? Has it happened with the concurrence of the king-making ‘Italian Catholic Lady’?

In 1983 the Christian Catholic lobby attempted to occupy the ‘Holy Garden’ (Sacred Groves) of the celebrated Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimalai (Kerala) claiming (on a lame excuse) that this was the place where one of Thomas’s eight churches was located. But the timely interference of Hindu organisations saved the temples from sharing the fate of the one at Malayattoor. All these encroachments or forceful occupations of temples and temple lands have taken place mostly in eight locations wherein Thomas is claimed to have established churches in the first century. The aim behind the forceful occupation of Hindu temples and temple lands for the construction of churches is to historicise the arrival of Thomas and to thus claim a tradition and aristocracy for the Christian community of Kerala. Similarly this is aimed at creating ‘schism’ and confusion ‘in the souls’ of the Hindus who believe that all upasana systems are true.

The native Catholic Church hierarchy approached the Papacy [Rome] for pontifical approval to celebrate 1900th year of Thomas’s (one of the disciples of Christ) venture of proselytism of Kerala. Papacy instantaneously declined the humble request of the Kerala Catholics on the ground that the claim (legendary, belief of Thomas apostolic transaction in Kerala) has no historicity.

It is estimated that during the last two decades about a thousand old Christian churches were demolished in different parts of southern Kerala. The church hierarchy claims that all such churches were constructed during the first century. Behind every such claim they deliberately popul-arise a story of a Namboothiri (Brahmin) having converted to Christianity. Here the question as to why they demolish particular churches with such immense historicity and antique value remains unanswered. It is not logical to consider it as a part of the church strategy of sharing the fruits of recent economic progress of the community, for the renovation of their churches. Since the days of the British the churches in Kerala were endowed with vast patches of royal lands and are financially sound institutions. Several Hindu temples including the one at Palayoor (Guruvayoor) were destroyed by the Christian fanaticism between the 16th and 17th continues. This temple destruction trend continued unabatedly in the old princely State of Travancore for a long duration. The last of such demolitions took place in 1950, by setting fire to the famous Sastha Temple at Sabrimalai. In the Malabar region it continued unabatedly until the resistance movement organised in 1969 under the organisational umbrella of Kshetra Smrakshna Samiti by the renowned freedom fighter K. Kelappan (Kelappajee).

The history of temple annihilation in Kerala starts with Francis Xavier in Travancore-Cochin and the Malabar regions during the time of Mysorian invasions when it acquired a pragmatic colour. The first organised temple destruction of Kerala took place in the 16th century under the stewardship of Francis Xavier, who was the architect of Inquisition in Goa—the first Christian fanatic of India. The initial prey of his dogmatic wrath was the temple at Thevalakkara in Quilon district and Palluruthi near Cochin. It is relevant to consider the information available from the work of C.M. Augur, an English missionary, to pencil in a correct picture of the Christian intolerance since the days of Padre Francis Xavier to the generations of the contemporary church renovators. According to Augur in 1816 there were, in Travancore State (now the part of Kerala), 19,524 temples and 301 churches. But in 1891, that is after 76 years the number of temples came down to 9,364 and the number of churches burgeoned to 1,116. At the same time William Logan, District Collector of Malabar, notes that during the eighties of the nineteenth century the Latin Catholic Christians of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar together had in possession only 40 churches and the Syrian Catholics of this region had 160 churches. In the said period the Syrian Catholic and Latin Catholic population in Kerala including children was two lakh and 90,000, respectively. The Basel Missionaries started Protestant mission activities in Malabar region of Kerala in 1839 and with their proselytizing effort the Protestant population in Malabar in 1883 including children was 2632.

Before the arrival of the Europeans in India, Christian presence was seen only in the Travancore and Cochin regions of Kerala. The antagonism that was generated amongst the Christians and Muslims due to the Crusades of 11th, 12th and 13th centuries prevented Christian proselytism enterprises from planting their roots in the Malabar region where Muslims got roots quite earlier. It is only during the British period that the Christian society came into being in the Malabar region. That is why the Christian claim of Apostle Thomas’ establishment of eight churches has not extended to the Malabar region. It is true that the Christians in Travancore Cochin were only a marginal community confined to a few port towns before the arrival of the Europeans. For that reason during this period the churches in Kerala were very few.

During the last two decades about 1000 old Christian churches were demolished in different parts of the southern half of Kerala. The church hierarchy claims that all such churches were constructed during the first century.

The Church History of Travancore points out positively that in the interlude between 1816 and 1891 in Travancore alone 10,160 temples were demolished and in its place 815 new churches were constructed. Such a church construction took place at Guruvayoor (Palayoor) The Palayoor church authorities until the day of the collapse of the disputed structure at Ayodhya, kept a board in front of the church that read “the church is constructed by Saint Thomas after demolishing a temple”. (Now the board has been removed). At such an instance even Rome (Papacy) is not ready to believe the story of the arrival of St. Thomas in Kerala; it is true that the demolition of the temple might have taken place only after the European occupation of this land. The erstwhile Princely State of Travancore was a place approximately 300 kms long and maximum width of 100 kms with an area of 12,000 sq. kms. In such a small region the temple destruction was inaugurated by Francis Xavier and it continued unabated. Considering the geographical area the number of temples set ablaze or knocked down in Travancore was proportionately much higher when compared to the temples demolished by the Muslim rulers.

While Francis Xavier launched his proselytism enterprises in the coastal region of Kerala in the 16th century the native Christian society was mostly confined to a few seaport towns and were loyal to the native rulers. The alarming growth of the Christian population in this region through the subsequent period was the outcome of the intolerance and obsessive approach of people like Francis Xavier and the Portuguese’s malicious designs. The Portuguese did not spare even the Jews of Kerala from their wrath of intolerance. In 1565 the Jews of Crangannoor (at present Kodungalloor) escaped to places of Hindu dominancy of the then Kerala like Paravoor, Mala, Chennamangalam, Ernakulam in order to escape the Portuguese persecution. The mission that was inducted by Francis Xavier continued here without any apathy through the Dutch, the French and the British regimes in the subsequent centuries and this completed the circle of Christianisation of this tiny landscape. The mission that was unwrapped by the Portuguese was carried on by the British under the disguise of a more sophisticated mode, that is, of education and modernisation of Kerala in general and particularly of the subalterns. While these missionaries sowed the tenets of Christ amongst the basic classes purposefully they conveniently avoided the responsibility of elevating them from their long-established socio, cultural and economic backwardness.

It is this western unholy interference in the social relations of Kerala that enhanced numerical strength of the Christians from a three-digit number in the 16th century to 20.8% of the total population (approx. 16 million) of Kerala in 1951. The present attempt is to whitewash the detestable past of the native Christianity by the distortion and suppression of the above sequence of events.

‘Churchianity’ was not a business in Kerala until the arrival of European missionary interest in this land. The first church of Kerala was constructed in 849 CE at Quilon. Then the Hindu King of Venadu (a small principality of Kerala) Ayyan Adikal Thiruvadikal had granted permission to the Christian merchants of Quilon to construct a church. This royal grant is known as Theressappalli Copperplate Grant of 849 CE. This is the first valid/authentic document relating to the Christian history of India. Until 1550 CE no reference pertaining to the construction or existence of a Christian church is available. One of the oldest Christian churches is the Valia Palli (big church) of Kottayam, constructed in 1550 under foreign influence with liberal contributions from the native Hindu Raja, where the legendary Persian Cross is kept. There was less than half-a-dozen Christian churches functioned all over Kerala until the sixteenth century. The subsequent centuries witnessed the rapid growth of church and Christianity in Kerala due to the coercive tactics of European colonial interests. But at present more than 1000 churches are claiming 1000 to 1900 years of existence. The contemporary church hierarchy is eagerly striving to establish historicity to these legends.

Temple destruction trend continued unabatedly in the old princely State of Travancore for a long duration. The last of such demolitions took place in 1950, by setting fire to the famous Sastha Temple at Sabrimalai.

Most of those churches that claim long history from the days of Thomas (Apostle) were constructed during the period of European intervention by demolishing the existing native (Hindu) places of worship or on the site where the Hindu places of worship were deserted due to natural calamities. To a certain extent even the church hierarchy recognises this as a crippled reality. The time is not far when the heritage of these churches which claim great antiquity will be questioned in the light of modern science and technology. The church is well aware of the inherent danger of scientific enquiry into the archaic space of most of the churches that claim more than 500 years of existence. Hence the only available escape left for the godfathers of the ‘Chakkraviewham of the apostolic origin of Indian Christianity’ is the destruction of the ‘monuments’. Their exercise is, no doubt, a criminal offence under the purview of history and they can be compared to a criminal who destroys evidence after committing an offence.

Should these churches, which claim antediluvian impor-tance, be protected as national monuments? The reconstructions of the old churches are justified as a process of ‘pulling down the old’ so as to cater to the spiritual needs of its ever-increasing laity. Why do the parishes which posses extensive landed property destroy the old churches instead of protecting them by constructing new ones in their vacant lands? When the State and central archaeological departments are ready to protect the old churches as national heritage monuments why are the church authorities in a hurry to demolish the old churches? To the Christians there is no place value to their places of worship unlike in the case of Hindus. The church constructions and reconstructions which is happening in present day Kerala have raised doubts in the minds of the people.

Kerala Muslim historiographical exercise is not much different from that of Christians. The Christian ‘Syndrome of attributing antique status’ to places of worship is being imitated by the Muslims of Kerala. A much more shocking news is their attempt to highjack ancient Kerala kings to Islam. One such story that they built in the near past was the conversion of Cheraman Perumal (an ancient Kerala King) to Islam. They also claim that after the conversion, the king went on a haj to Mecca where he met the Prophet and later he died there and was buried at Zaffar in the Arabian seashore. Before the King left on Haj he had constructed a mosque at Crangannoor that is presently known as the Cheraman Palli. This story is aimed at claiming aristocratic origin ‘theory’ of the Kerala Muslims and thus to penetrate into the heart of the native Hindu society and dismantle them. Here it is relevant to look at the recent conversion of the writer Kamala Das to the religion of Islam. After the conversion she changed her name to ‘Kamala Suraiyah’. The prime motive behind her conversion was to make fragile the Hindu ego. Fortunately it did not produce the desired impact on the people instead the Hindu population viewed it as a hysteric transaction of the person involved in the conversion.

Let us make an enquiry into the authenticity of the Hindu King’s conversion story. The story is that this conversion took place either in 325 or in 825 of CE. The first year is 200 years before the birth of the Prophet and the second one is 100 years after the death of the Prophet. None of the early and medieval Muslim travelers like Sulaiman, Al Biruni, Al Kazwini, Ibn Batuta, Abdur Razzak, etc, had referred to this fabulous story of conversion. The mission behind Ibn Batuta’s journey towards the Malabar coast was the conversion of its ruler Zamorin of Calicut. His mission failed miserably. Let us quote K. P. Padnabha Menon, “It is remarkable that Ibn Batuta (1442 CE) makes no reference to the conversion of Cheraman Perumal or of the story of his Mecca pilgrimage”. Ibn Kurdad Bah (869) and Abu Zaid Ziraf (916) referred in flattering terms to the nature of the commercial relations between Arabia and Malabar (Kerala). But they did not mention anywhere about any sort of conversion of a Hindu king to Islam. Let us quote Sulaiman (851), the Arab traveller, “I know not that there is anyone of either nation (China & India) that has embraced Muhammadanism or speaks Arabic”. It is interesting to see that the legend of the conversion of a Hindu Raja into the Islamic fold crept into the accounts of foreign travelers only after the advent of the Portuguese. A cautious examination of the data available may reasonably be said to lead to the conclusion that there is nothing to illustrate that the last Cheraman Perumal became a convert to Islam.

The Palayoor Church authorities until the day of the collapse of the disputed structure at Ayodhya, kept a board in front of the church that read “the church is constructed by Saint Thomas after demolishing a temple”. [Now the board is removed]

The rewriting of history by the Muslims does not end with this Mosque at Crangannoor. They are attributing age-old mystic relations with several of their mosques spread all over the Malabar region. That in some cases their stories go beyond the birth of the Prophet is a matter of sarcasm. The new GEB and charity inflows from oil rich countries are helping the demolition and reconstruction of several Mosques for which they claim historicity as well as antique value. As in the case of Christians they are also demolishing the said old mosques without leaving any trace of its heritage and this is a humorous ‘transaction’.

Before concluding this enquiry, it is necessary to quote Christian Encyclopedia on future Indian population pattern: “Christians and Muslims will probably both find room to grow in the mosaic of India’s peoples so that by 2025 Christians account for 7.4% and Muslims 12.2% while Hindus decline to 73%. …With sustained growth over the next few decades Christianity could grow to near 10% of India’s population by AD 2050. … Hindus will potentially decline as a percentage of India’s population as other religions continue to win adherents over the next few decades.”

Therefore, the ongoing process of the reconstruction of the semitic places of worship in Kerala that claims antiquated value as well as mystic importance is to mislead the catholicity of the native Hindu population.

References:

1. Christian Encyclopedia, OUP, 2001, New York, pp 359-370

2. This ‘Seven and a half’ concept is the replica of the ritual of the renowned Hindu temple at Ettumannoor where the main deity is Lord Siva. During the annual ritualistic procession of the temple seven and a half elephants idols made of gold are exhibited as the part of its ritual. The Christian church emerged as strong force in Kerala during the European period around this temple region. That is why the Christian faith on account of the importance and social recognition to the said temple incorporated the idea of seven and a half in their faith in the form of church.

3. Rig Veda, Chapter III, Mandala I, Vargam 22, Sooktam 164.

4. See discussions in The Church History of Travancore, C. M. Augur, 1902, Kottayam, pp 7, 8, 9.

5. A. Sreedhara Menon, Survey of Kerala History, 1970, Kottayam, pp 228, 229.

6. C. M. Augur, op cit, pp 7, 8,9.

7. William Logan, Malabar, First Published in 1887, rpt.1981, Trivandrum, p250.

8. The steady growth from there upon to this day caused the birth of a Christian/Catholic majority State Legislative Assembly Constituency named Irikkoor.

9. C.M. Augur, op cit, pp 7, 8,9

10. A. Sreedhara Menon, op cit, p 228.

11. T. M. Yesudasan, Dalit Svatvaum Adhikarathinte Prasnavum [mal], 1997 Changanacherry, pp 166, 167, 168.

12. M. S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, 1996, Bangalore, p159.

13. A. Sreedhara Menon, op cit, p 160.

14. “In the absence of some written record of respectable antiquity to corroborate the tradition of conversion and pilgrimage, one is disposed not to attach any evidentiary value to the tomb on the shores of the Arabian Gulf”, K. P. Padnabha Menon, History of Kerala, Vol. I, rpt, 1989, Trivandrum, p 446

15. Ibid, p 437.

16. Ibid, p 442

17. Ibid, 437

18. A. Sreedhara Menon, op cit, pp 103, 104.

19. Ibid, p 135.

20. Christian Encyclopedia, op cit, pp 364, 366.

(The author is the head of department and professor of History at CMS College, (Kerala) Kottayam. His Email- drciissac@dataone.in Web- www.christiansofkerala.com)

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