When I moved to Europe, stereotypes about India and Indians that existed here entertained me. One of the most intriguing ones, however, was the assumption that I were a Hindu. Now what’s so special about it? At the outset, nothing. It is a valid assumption – I mean, yes, it is the only country, after Nepal, with a majority of its population practising Hinduism. But what intrigued me was the potential of such a remark to lead to so many generalizations and presumptions, sometimes even seeping into academic writings, for instance, ‘indigenous culture’ is automatically presumed to be Hindu or at least having something to do with it. Being a student of religious studies, it made me think: How does one then approach cultural traditions in India which are often so interwoven with shared cultural practices that permeate into the very core of regional identity? How does one begin to classify cultures as ‘foreign’ or ‘indigenous’ when they have been around and have evolved simultaneously with some of the oldest traditions of the land? This article recounts some facets of cultural practices of Kerala (located in the southwestern tip of modern India), where Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam have developed together, resulting in a unique crossing-over of practices and traditions.
Let us briefly consider the title of this piece: A nilavilakku, usually made of bronze or brass, is a traditional oil lamp of Kerala. Etymologically, the Malayalam word denotes a lamp placed on the floor (nilam = ground and vilakku = lamp). The nilavilakku is used in almost all religious spaces in Kerala irrespective of religious affiliations. How is this accomplished? With just a little modification of the head motifs of the lamp, it is translated into all religious settings, for instance a peacock head motif for Brahmanical temples, a cross motif for churches and a crescent moon and a star motif for mosques. Isn’t that neat?
Anthropologist Dominique-Sila Khan states, “Religions tend to develop and transform themselves – like languages – in an organic way” (Khan, 2009: 151). Just like languages influence other languages in contact, religions and religious practices, too, influence and sometimes even form new traditions because of cultural encounters that facilitate processes of internalisation, assimilation, space for expression and sometimes assertion. When diverse religious communities reside together, these entanglements reflect from the very land that they inhabit – making it a shared sacred landscape and ritual exchanges between them become a means to ensure communal harmony between them. For instance, let us look at the very terms that denote the places of worship in Kerala. While Brahmanical temples are denoted by several words like ambalam, cenni, ksetram and so on; churches, mosques and synagogues are all expressed by quite a generic term palli. Scholars like Venogopala Panicker on several occasions noted possible Buddhist (and even Jain) origins of the term which denoted a place where texts were studied. Interestingly, even today the Malayalam equivalent of the Sanskrit word vidyalayam (school) is pallikudam. However, palli also signifies a village with no special reference to a non-Brahmanical place of worship as, for instance, Tiriccapalli and Mittapalli in Tamil Nadu (South India). Moreover, the inner chamber of deities (or even kings!) in Malayalam is called palliyara (i.e. the palli chamber), where the term clearly signifies a Brahmanical place of worship.
As integrated as the palli is also the very landscape of Kerala. A case in point is Vagamon, a beautiful hill station in the Idukki district of Kerala which is home to the famously termed “Trinity Hills,” which interestingly enough represents neither the Christian trinity: God, Son of God and the Holy Spirit nor the Brahmanical: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Mahesh (destroyer). In fact they are called: Muruganmala, after the Brahmanical god Murugan (who is himself a regional version of the more ‘standard’ Kartikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati); Kurisumala, (kurisu meaning the Christian cross and mala meaning hill) and Thangalpara, Thangal being an honorific Muslim title, somewhat equivalent to the Arabic title Sayyid (that draws a direct lineage from Prophet Muhammad). Muruganmala is home to a rock-cut temple dedicated to god Murugan, Kurisumala has a St. Thomas Church and a monastery; and Thangalpara has a dargah dedicated to the Sufi Saint Husrath Sheikh Fariduddin Baba, believed to have taught on the spot some eight hundred years ago. Interestingly, St. Thomas the Apostle, who is believed to have spread the gospel in Kerala and after whom the Christians of Kerala define themselves (i.e. the St. Thomas Christians) is also visually imagined as an incarnation of the local god Murugan, both of them iconographically portrayed with a spear and a peacock!
Even pilgrimages to individual deities neatly integrate diverse religious communities residing together. Ayyappa, the Hindu god of growth, particularly popular in Kerala, would be an excellent case in point. Every year, pilgrims from diverse religious backgrounds, having donned their signature black dress, smear holy ash on their forehead, chest and arms and embark on a pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala; the itinerary of which is one of the most fascinating depictions and reminders of inter-religious relations practised by the people in Kerala for generations. Before the pilgrims visit the temple of the regional god, they circumambulate the Nainar Juma Masjid, also called Vavarpalli (mosque) in the Kottayam district and bathe in the St. Andrew’s Basilica in the Alappuzha district of Kerala. The tradition is to honour the fabled friendship between god Ayyappa and his Muslim and Christian companions, Vavar and Veluthachan respectively.
Furthermore, it seems Christian saints have become family of the Brahmanical Gods in several local legends in Kerala! Mary is regarded as the younger sister of the local goddess Bhagavati in Kalissery, St. George is regarded as Bhavavati’s brother in Pudiyedam and Bharanangamam legends regard St. Sebastian and Krishna as siblings. These relations are in fact venerated by regular ritual exchanges between respective inter-religious sites. Referring to Jesus as Guru Yesu Illam or naming a temple as Malanga ‘Shah Aulia’ Bhagavati temple or regarding designers like R. Gopalakrishnan, as the most sought-after mosque builder in the region, thus surprises practically no one there. The fabric of society in Kerala could perhaps best be understood therefore, as boundaries that inhabitants constantly bridge and yet somehow never breach.