Kerala: “God’s Own Country”

The tourist motto for this southwestern Indian state reflects the enthusiastic religiosity of the people here in Kerala.  There are Hindu temples and shrines everywhere, including a statue of a saint in a glass display case just 10 yards from our Homestay guest house.  You hear the call to prayer from several mosques at once.  And so many churches!

There’s also a lively neighborhood of tourist shops and restaurants called Jew Town, a name we can’t bring ourselves to say aloud.   The currently-standing synagogue was built in 1567 and includes materials from two centuries before that.


Legend has it that St. Thomas, the “doubting” apostle, traveled here after Christ’s Ascension and converted local high-caste Brahmin priests with miracles.  One story says he proved the truth of the Gospel by a sort of controlled experiment: “OK, so you guys splash water from the river into the air every day in honor of your God.  I will do the same thing today, but my God will actually take the water up, and none will fall.”  And the story says it happened.

Lower caste people have also converted over the centuries, finding more divine compassion in the Christian idea that we live only one life, not thousands bound by our many sins which generate bad karma.  In most Hindu traditions (but not all), your caste is determined by good or bad deeds in past lifetimes.

About 1400 years after Thomas, Vasco Da Gama showed up on these shores, and the Portugese, then Dutch, then British all took turns fighting each other for spice-trade monopolies.  They destroyed each other’s churches with alacrity.  Many European traders remained in walled, segregated isolation.  Others built grand houses and warehouses in Kochi, Goa, and other cities.  Priests were very active in the community and today about 20% of the people in this state are members of one of a dizzying number of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations.  This church, St. Francis’, has been Roman Catholic (Portugese), Protestant (Dutch) and Anglican (British).


Jews have been in Kerala even longer than Christians.  After the Babylonian Captivity in the 500’s BCE, communities of Jewish merchants came here from what is now Iraq.  When the violent post-partition ethnic cleansing of India came in 1947, the remaining Jews feared they’d end up in the crosshairs, like in Europe.  So they went to Israel.

When it comes to tree versus river, Kerala is complicated.  On one hand, everyone we’ve met–Christian, Muslim, and Hindu–say that everyone gets along well here, though intermarriage is unusual.  So if the streams of belief aren’t exactly merging, they are at least flowing placidly parallel downstream.  On the other hand, WITHIN, say, Christianity, Kerala is a hothouse of sprouting denominations.  On Sunday, Lynnell went to to an Anglican church and John a Roman Catholic one (below).


So as not to bore the reader, we cite one branch of Eastern Christianity (often called “Orthodox” back home).  The St. Thomas Christians trace their lineage back to No-Longer-Doubting Thomas in the first century CE.  During the first few hundred years, they followed Nestorian Christianity, which was part of the mainstream until 431, when a schism led to their leadership moving to Persia.   The fight was about the relationship between Jesus’ human and divine natures and the schism separated Syrian-speakers from Greek and Latin churches in the west.  Even when Persia converted to Islam, Nestorian Christianity flourished under their rule from the Mediterranean to China.  A later schism happened in 1552, between the Chaldean (modern Iraq) and Indian branches.  And when the Portugese got to Kerala and found Nestorians there, they wasted no time trying to force them to be Roman, not Indian, Catholics.  This effort mostly failed, but today among the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala, you find the following separate denominations (thanks to wikipedia)

Today (Monday) we visited the biggest church we could find in Kochi, the Jerusalem Mar Thoma Syrian Church, where a wedding was just winding up:


One of the guests said she was a Jacobite, but felt completely welcome.  The Vicar greeted us in his chilly air-conditioned office and told us he’d once led a Mar Thoma parish in Des Plaines, Illinois where, like back home in southwest India, the service is in Malayalam and Syriac and the Chicagoland congregants are almost all immigrants.  The Vicar commented that the recent US government moves against immigration was making his flock there very nervous, though they aren’t Muslim.  But they are brown.  And foreign.  So the rest of us need to be good allies, something that seems hard to do at this distance, but we’ll be home soon enough.

Kerala became world-famous as the Malabar Spice Coast, when globalizing European businessmen got rich on importing cloves, pepper, cinnamon, and tea.  The Arabian Sea is full of fish, and some Chinese fishermen brought large land-based movable nets from southeast Asia perhaps in the 1400’s.  They’re pretty cool. Photo credit: Gaius Cornelius, 2005.

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And plenty of fishermen string vertical nets out from shore:


Kerala is also known for its extensive inland waterways, called backwaters.  Sometimes they’re canals, sometimes giant fish or shrimp farms, and during the monsoon season (summer) when freshwater pours down all the rivers toward the sea, they grow a crop of rice in the backwaters.  We took a bicycle tour along 25 km of roads and little lanes that connect villages, lagoons, beaches, and fish farms.  At one point, we put our bikes into a canoe.


The pilot poled six of us along through a soft rain past settlements like this:


Keralans are proud of their status as the best-educated state in India.  The government has alternated between center-left and left-wing coalitions including several socialist and communist parties, but like interfaith cooperation, the parties seem quite stable, from what we can tell.  Here’s a Communist sign on a wall facing an Acumen mutual fund sales office across the street.


Kochi has centers for local theatre, and on our second night here we saw a traditional play about the Hindu God Shiva and the archer Arjuna.  Although the subject matter is explicitly religious, Keralans don’t fuss about it.  The more religion, they seem to say, and the more kinds, the better.  Here are the actors getting make-up applied:


The man in the photo below is hand-painting excerpts from the Latin American spiritual novel Baroni: A Journey, which combines magical realism, experiences of the afterlife, and the parallel existence of the spiritual and material world.  John counted at least ten panels like this one.


Tomorrow, we’ll head north, away from summertime swelter to spring weather in Varanasi, the beating heart of Hinduism on the Ganges River.   We’ll say goodbye to God’s Own Country, Kerala.


One last picture: this little girl is the granddaughter of the family that runs our homestay guest house.  She loved ringing the bell on Lynnell’s rented bicycle and getting the attention of the good-natured man across the street.


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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

2 thoughts on “Kerala: “God’s Own Country””

  1. I worked for a woman who was from Kerala for about five years. When I first met her, I thought she might be from Britain because she had a faint British accent. Turns out she was educated by English nuns at a Catholic school. When Kerala went back to using Malayalam as the language on street signs and buses. her mother was unable to read them–she could read Hindu and English but not her native tongue.


  2. Completely compelling, John. I knew little about Kerala, and now I¹m prompted to learn more. Looking forward to your report from Varanasi.


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