Sacred yet Shared Traditions in Kerala, South India: Illuminated neither by Candles nor by Diyas, but by a Nilavilakku

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.