7 Months in Kerala

Starting from August 2007, I'll be staying in Kerala until May to experience our rich Syriac Orthodox tradition and become "keralized". On a random basis, I'll be posting my thoughts and experiences. Enjoy!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Journal 8: Last Journal

Traces of Hinduism

Over 80% of the Indian population are Hindus. Though this religion dates back to the earliest time period, most, including myself, knew very little about it. But the more I studied about my Syriac Orthodox faith in India, the more I came to know about Hinduism. Traces of this ancient faith are found in many places. And this makes sense because Keralite Christians were at some point Hindus. When they converted, Hindu practices were also converted since they could not simply forget everything and start over. Instead, they "baptized" what they were already doing. Let me share with you a few examples.

1) The moment when flowers are thrown, music is played, and people rejoice at a Hindu wedding is when the groom ties a thread on the bride's neck. It is the moment when one is tied or joined with the other.
In the Syriac Orthodox wedding of India, all eyes are watching when the groom ties this thread, too. And this act is Christianized or "baptized" because the thread bears a cross symbolizing His ultimate love.

2) Formal education begins for Hindus when the child first writes with the guidance and hand of a guru or teacher.
Taking from this practice, many of the Christian faithful come to the bishop with their child to do the same. This act is "baptized" because the writing consists of some Christian word such as Jesus or God.

3) Lamps are typically seen inside temples. The oil from these lamps is put on the head or neck as a blessing.
In churches these lamps are also used:The lamp is "baptized" with a cross on top. And when its oil is placed on the head or neck, it's done so in the shape of a cross. Similarly, if one closely inspects the lamp-like post outside churches (also seen in temples), Christian images are found:

4) Ancient churches reflect architectural styles similar to temples. For instance, St. George Church in Kadamattom has a triangular covered area in front for people to rest and pray at the doors of the church:

It's built similar to the style of temples:

5) Hindu festivals include a long procession through the city stopping at their holy sites, established with an idol, to offer prayers. One of these places is close to where I'm staying. I noticed it at night because of the lamp that's always lit. I later found out that the place is dedicated to their snake god, which means there's snakes around. From that day onwards, as I'm walking through there at night, my ardent prayers are offered to all gods at every step!

Returning to the topic of Hindu processions, the people travel in lines through the city with drums and music.
Church festivals also include these processions, stopping at cross towers throughout the area to offer prayers. The faithful are dressed in white (like Hindus) as drums and Christian music play in the background.

In my visits to temples, it was quite interesting to find these similarities and others between the two faiths. The key point is that Christ can be seen everywhere, reflected even in these "baptized" Hindu practices.

Greatest of These is Love

The most noticeable aspect of Hinduism is their respect for other religions. They have no problem praying in churches and taking part in Christian events; the major reason being that they see god in everything. Jesus Christ and His saints are all seen as gods. I wrote earlier about church festivals filled with attending Hindus, especially in large and famous churches. They are the ones who, from my observation, show great faith. And for this, I believe, they will be blessed because they sincerely believe that what they request will be granted.

The typical manner of greeting in Indian culture is bowing slightly with folded hands:

This gesture comes from the Hindu understanding that all are gods. I am bowing and respecting you, o god. Like this, Hinduism respects Christianity.

Let me share with you two personal examples. While we were conversing with a young Hindu mother, the church bell ran as it typically does at 6pm. At that moment, she looks up and silently says "god" in the Indian language. This is the church, not temple bell . . . but this does not matter for her.

Another time I observed a Hindu procession taking place at night. To my surprise, it stopped in front of the church tower, and the one dressed in a decorative Hindu outfit began to respectfully dance in front of the cross tower:
They then left after giving an offering of money.

My point is not that we should start praying in temples. This would be difficult. For instance, I saw this picture in the prayer area of a shop:
How it looks so similar to Christ and His parents:
But for Hindus, they actually believe that their god, Ganapathi , came in the form above, which of course is very hard for me to accept.

Nonetheless, Christianity teaches that all of us are created in the image of God, regardless of religion. This is not to say that I'm advocating a universal religion where all gods are accepted. I certainly believe that there is only one God, the God who humbled Himself such that He became one of us to show His ultimate love. And Christ did say, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), not "I am one of the way's".

On the other hand, this belief must not lead to spiritual arrogance. It is very easy for me to condemn other religions and hold a "me against them" mentality. This is often seen in missionaries today who boldly proclaim: "I am a saved Christian, are you?". Hinduism presents the other side of respecting and seeing God in others. One of my favorite verses in Scripture states: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 13:13). Oftentimes we think that faith is most important in one's life, but Scripture tells us that even greater than faith is love.

In Conclusion

When I first thought about staying in Kerala for over 7 months, I wondered if it was too long. But the months passed by quickly mainly because of the people I have met. I have seen, learned, and experienced much. Some of these I shared with you in my journals. There are other things which are impossible to put into words. This culture has taught me many things about community and relationships. And the friendships that I have gained are invaluable. Love certainly is the greatest of them all.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Journal 7: Man & Nature

My stay in Kerala is fast coming to a close as I have less than a month. I hope to write one more journal after this; therefore I’m at the point where I have to pick-and-choose my topics. There’s so much to say but not enough time and patience to write!

Why is Mother Earth Crying?

Mother Earth is the term sometimes used to describe our home. Why so? The relationship between man and nature is, in a sense, like the relationship between child and mother. Earth is our mother, our provider. We eat, breathe, drink, and live from that which is given for us from our mother. In creation, God makes all things for man first and then he creates man, instructing them “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

Nowadays, nature is in a state of unrest. Weather patterns are constantly changing in an unpredictable and erratic manner. Read the paper or watch the news to hear about a natural disaster taking place in some part of this Mother Earth. I’m writing about this because a month back a strong rainstorm hit Kerala destroying most of the state’s rice fields. It’s not suppose to rain but it rained. Farmers were devastated. Of course the government promised help (to read about Kerala politics, read journal 5) but it couldn’t cover the tremendous loss. So reports such as this heartbreaking picture were seen on the front page:

This farmer could no longer provide for his wife and three daughters, so he chose death over life. Who is to blame?

Speaking of weather changes, for the past several days the climate’s been HOT, extremely HOT. Now when I enter a house or visit a church, the first thing I look for is not my host or God, but a fan! And since the bishop I’m staying with lived in America for a few years, he too can’t survive without an AC in his car. Thank you God!


Each culture has its unique clothing typically based upon their climate. India is usually known for their sari for women. For men, less known clothing is the mundu:
It’s basically a long piece of decorated cloth that’s tied around the waist in a particular way such that it stays on, no belts or accessories required. I stayed away from it since I’m at ease with wearing pants. But then came along three Americans from California visiting Kerala to study the Syriac Orthodox Church. One of them, about my age, asked me about mundu’s. I pretended like I knew what I was talking about. Then he wanted to purchase one. If a Californian’s wearing it, why not me? He showed me the value of appreciating, and more importantly, participating in the culture we live in.

Getting back to the hot weather in Kerala, mundu’s are ideal for this climate. Of course, I wore something underneath, just in case. But then I was told that I won’t get the full effect this way. So after a few weeks, there I was wearing a mundu and nothing underneath (my hands were definitely on high alert)! I must admit that wearing a mundu this way was definitely freeing and cooling.

Our Own Mother

Kerala is going through a cultural transition; some would say a cultural warfare. The old vs. new . . . traditional vs. modern . . . East vs. West. I saw a picture of a family that showed this best. The older daughter is wearing the traditional Keralite clothing while the younger is wearing jeans and shirt. This is the cultural divide. As each year passes, Keralites are becoming more and more like the younger daughter. This change is one of the effects of globalization. Cultures are disappearing into one culture. Clothing, language, food, etc. are very slowly becoming one.

My focus on this current transition is the area of parental care in Kerala. The old traditional way of Keralite culture places emphasize on the family. I wrote on the last journal about how this is so in arranged marriages. Rewind a generation back and the typical household included grandparents, their married children, and the grandchildren, all under one roof. The thinking went something like this: the parents raised their children, so the children have the responsibility in return to take care of their parents. In fact, it was considered a blessing to look after one’s parents until their death.

This is the old; then came the new with each household now consisting of dad, mom, and children. As the numbers decreased and responsibilities increased, there’s little time left for the grandparents. What I’m saying is that the changing culture is changing family dynamics. So now you’ll find certain houses in Kerala with grandparents only. Their grown-up children have built their own houses to meet their own needs. Nursing homes like America have not taken hold here because it’s considered disgraceful. Instead, there’s a trend gradually starting, especially for the middle and upper class, where grandparents are alone with maybe a servant to look after them. I’ve visited a few of these houses on my own and with the bishop. As you can imagine, these grandparents, deep inside, are hurting. This transition basically shows the dwindling relationship between mother and child.

Where am I going with this? Going back to my original point, if children are taking less care of their own mother, what about Mother Earth?

Holy Week

I was able to do a detailed study of the year’s Holy Week services since I had a teacher/translator. An all too common theme that keep coming up in the songs and readings was the profound relationship between man and nature. For instance, on Monday evening, there’s a beautiful song, split into 28 stanzas, that narrates the first murder in the Bible, where the older brother Cain kills his younger brother Abel. A rough translation is given below:

Like killing a young lamb,
Was, oh no, the younger one killed.
When this murder was seen,
The soil cried.

Sun lamented,
Mountains made loud noises,
Nature frightened and trembled
With the first blood on earth.

Now we’ll fast forward to a song for Friday’s afternoon prayer. The cross/tree on which Christ was crucified speaks to us! Listen to one stanza in Malayalam:

Tree says, why do you make me suffer?
My Creator is crucified on me, why, oh, why?
Rain and sun He gave me.
My Nurturer. I now torture Him?!
Alas for those who crucified the Messiah!

Songs like this, found in many prayers, give nature or Mother Earth human qualities: rejoicing, trembling, lamenting. It’s completely Biblical (see Matthew 27:51-4). One sees from this that actions of humans lead to reaction in nature. Is this still true today?

Today’s market economy is mainly about maximizing profit. If you delve into the actual mission of a company, the CEO and top executives are concerned about making stockholders happy, meaning increasing vale of shares, meaning increasing profit. How can I/company make more money? There’s less and less concern about long term effects/consequences.

Let me give you small examples of this in Kerala. Near my uncle’s house is a stream where we always go swimming. So this is the first thing I wanted to do when I got there. But then my cousins told me that they don’t swim there anymore because the water’s becoming contaminated. Local farmers and companies are slowly but surely putting poison into their soil to maximize production, affecting even the nearby stream.

One of the main reasons I loved visiting Kerala when I was young was their food! My taste buds were ready for action when I landed. There’s so much delicious food and with the conversion rate, it’s very inexpensive. A well-prepared meal costs about one dollar. And an even tastier meal prepared at my aunt’s home is free! But who would have thought that even the fruits and vegetables would not be the same? Bananas and my favorite fruit, mangoes, don’t have the same taste anymore, something’s missing.

This is one small example. Add to it pollution, waste build-up, deforestation, etc. and then think about why there’s natural abnormalities. Our mother can only take so much; she eventually has no choice but to react to her children’s actions.


On a more positive note, I was able to spend a couple of days at a monastery called Malecruz, which literally translates to “cross on a hill”. This is one of those places that’ll impact every visitor. Below is a distant picture:

When you reach the top, the weather’s far different. The wind is comforting; there’s an unexplainable atmosphere of peace and stillness. And then there’s this monk:

He lives in this monastery in a small room secluded from society. Eating something light one time a day and taking small naps with no bed in his room, he’s constantly in prayer and meditation. He strictly follows the ancient tradition of the church of praying seven times a day: 6am, 9, 12pm, 3, 6, 9, 12am

One afternoon he calls me into his room. We step in, he says a prayer. As he prepares tea, he leads a song. As I sit on the floor to eat, another prayer. As we clean up, a prayer and song.

Furthermore, this monk is very strict about not leaving the monastery. Now listen to this: he didn’t even leave the monastery to see his mother who had died! Many people passed their judgment on this; I, on the other hand, only want to show the extent of his strictness. It must be mentioned that when he was first told of this news, he said he already knew and was praying for her.

Conversing with him was not a problem. He speaks English far better than I thought. I later found out that he’s well-educated, speaking many languages. People constantly come to see him. No office hours or appointments needed. Just knock, remove your shoes, and he’s always there, day or night, to listen and pray.

During the afternoon’s, he teaches children staying at the monastery during their break. So there I was with six others sitting down, listening to him teach. During prayer, he had them read different selections in Malayalam. If they made any mistakes, he would instantiously correct them loudly. And when he asked me if I read Malayalam, I instantiously nodded no! I knew that if I started reading, he’d get so tired of correcting me that he’d break his vow and leave the monastery!

He repeated the point that each of us has a calling in life. We all have a purpose. We are to first find it and then carry it out.

Before leaving the monastery, I told him of my plans to write about him in my online journal. He quickly responded, “Who am I? I am nobody! A sinner only! It is Christ who matters not me”. That’s humility . . . that’s CHRISTianity. His soft-spoken words are heard loudly because he lives by it. As St. Francis said, "preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words".

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Journal 6

It’s been over a month since I last wrote. For some reason it seems like we skipped a month; I can’t figure out how 29 days went by so fast!

“Job’s Own Country”

I previously wrote about how the state of Kerala is appropriately called “God’s Own Country” because of its remarkable natural beauty. My reflections then turned negative when discussing about Kerala politics. Though this state is filled with political inefficiencies, it nonetheless holds a promising future filled with unprecedented economic growth. The tell-all reason for this is a recent episode with a Dubai-based company that started dialogue with Kerala’s government to build a techno-park city. Politicians of course put roadblocks with constant protests. In any other case, the company would have left immediately. But because of their persistence, both sides eventually came to terms on a project called Smart City, projected to provide 90,000 jobs and costing over $350 million, which is a lot of money in Kerala. Plus, the Kerala Government has worked out a plan to develop IT parks in all districts. Within the next four to five years, the state is set to provide nearly one million new IT jobs.

So why Kerala? From a business perspective, this state is a gold mine. According to a report I read in a major Indian newspaper, salaries are 1/5th of the international average while the state offers the best of professional talent. Is there a better combination that this: more talent for less expense? Furthermore, operational costs are less than 50% when compared to other major IT parks; rent is lower by more than 60%. It makes too much sense to invest in Kerala. The job market will increase tremendously making Kerala, “Job’s Own Country”.

I, for one, am not too happy with these changes due to, I admit, selfish reasons. I like present-day Kerala with its natural beauty and old-style of living. But even Kerala today is far different from five years ago. It’s becoming modernized and Americanized. I’m not against this; it’s only that America already offers this to me. I like my Kerala to be the so-called “underdeveloped” state with its villages, fresh air, and open environment. I know it's selfish because if I were to tell a young Keralite that they should go back to villages and farm, they’ll probably teach me a couple of new unpleasant words! Opportunities . . . new jobs . . . income growth . . . economic prosperity . . . all this they say will make Keralites happier.

Arranged Marriage

When I first told some people that I’m going to Kerala for 7 months, their response was that I’m going in order to get married. I protested. Now after 5 months my focus has turned a bit towards it. The traditional way to marry in Kerala is through arranged marriage. It's a far different concept from the American way. Arranged marriage has many meanings according to whom you ask. The typical thought that comes to mind is: parents arrange and son/daughter marries. The first are active, the second passive. So this option is viewed negatively because son/daughter marries whom their parents decide. This may have been true in the past, but times have changed.

In a love marriage, both sides find each other on their own. It’s romanticized everywhere: on TV, books, movies. But in many cases the guy and girl actually come to know of each other through someone else. There are rare exceptions but typically the first point of contact comes from an outsides source, be it friends, colleagues, website, etc. For instance, dating websites are nowadays becoming popular: match.com, eharmony.com. These sites are set up to match one person with another based upon certain criterions. An electronic program basically does the matching. So what I’m saying is that many marriages are "arranged", one way or another. And in the case of arranged marriages, that source is typically the parents. “Parents? What! They’ll be the last ones I ask”, some will say. But should this be so? If there’s open communication between parents and child similar to what exists between close friends, is there then anyone else that knows me better than my parents?

In addition, more people are involved in the entire process of an arranged marriage. The Keralite way of thinking is that families come together in a marriage, not just two individuals. So the families explore each other before proceeding. And then if the son likes the daughter and vice versa, marriage is set by both families. This does go against the “me, myself, and I” mentality. But it must be mentioned here that even love marriages take place in similar ways. If the son/daughter has an open relationship with their parents, families are bound to be involved.

In my case, my parents told me a few weeks back about a girl who lives outside Kerala working as an English Literature lecturer. Once I saw a picture and approved, I was to meet her at her house, as it’s typically done. There’s wisdom behind this. The guy gets to see where she grew up, her parents, and how well she cooks! :) I joke about the last part because it’s usually the local baker who prepares the light food.

Now imagine this: I enter the house with some of my family members, we chat with her parents for 15-20 minutes, and I still haven’t seen the girl! Finally one of my uncles asks about her. Thank you! She enters and I catch a glimpse. Of course I can’t focus on her too much or it’ll be taken the wrong way! :) Then they gave us time alone to talk. It’s a “speed-dating” kind of experience.

On the way back home, my family gave me their opinions of the girl. Then they asked me; I told them that I had to talk with her again. So we met again. As it turned out, we felt that we were not a good match. Whereupon my family said it’s entirely my choice since I’ll be the one living with her. Amen.

Though things did not work out, the experience was definitely worthwhile. If we wanted to continue talking, it was possible, but it’s typically not extended for too long. I came to realize from all this that communication is key in the entire process. I must first be open with my family and then the girl. Once we hear their thoughts, the decision then is entirely up to me. Approached in this way, arranged marriages can be a useful option in finding our lifelong partner.

The last but most important point is God’s role in all this. No matter how much one talks or spends time with another in an arranged or love marriage, one cannot really know the other person until after marriage. It is here that we can give God His place as the unseen guide and silent adviser. With faith and trust, one finds their lifelong partner when it’s ultimately left in His hands.

Spiritual Exercise

If not marriage, then what’s my main reason in coming to Kerala? To get spiritually exercised in my Syriac Orthodox faith. Two years of classroom theology had to be mixed with at least a few months of outside-the-classroom exercises. I wrote previously that Christians are today becoming over-fed and under-exercised. But a classic example against this is the pilgrimage to Manjinikara. This experience is literally and figuratively a spiritual exercise.

When I first saw this picture of one of our church’s Patriarchs (leader), I frankly thought, “who’s this big guy with all these metals”. After coming to Kerala, this is no longer just a picture.

Patriarch Ignatius Elias III

Born on October 30, 1867 in the city of Mardin, in present-day Turkey, this boy was seen one day wearing the robe of his father, acting like a priest. His father hid and heard his boy’s talent and sincerity in singing church songs and thus blessed him. This interest led the boy to the local monastery . . . eventually he became the 119th Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, in 1917.

It was during this time that Christians faced many atrocities from the Muslim Turks. Patriarch Elias took the bold step of personally visiting the Sultan (leader) of Turkey in order to argue for the life and properties of Christians. He convinced the Sultan that Christians in Turkey were not his foes, leading to orders for their protection. Diplomats of the outside world praised the Patriarch’s historic achievement; thus the metals and accolades.

When the Syriac Orthodox faithful in Kerala faced a dispute threatening to permanently split the community, Patriarch Elias arrived in 1931. After 11 months in Kerala, this Patriarch known for his diplomacy could not find any resolutions, and with a disappointed heart, he accepted the invitation of a few faithful to visit Manjinikara, a far-off secluded area in southern Kerala. In seeing the thick vegetation, greenery and distant mountain ranges, the Patriarch conveyed his wish to stay longer. A few days later, on February 13, 1932, the Patriarch feeling dizzy fell to his bed and slept to his death. News spread instantly; faithful from far distances came to this otherwise unknown area to see their Patriarch. When rumors spread that his body would be buried in a more suitable location, the people, especially the leaders of the local Hindus and other Christian denominations strongly argued otherwise. The argument to bury where he breathed his last prevailed.

Manjinikara Pilgrimage

This famous pilgrimage takes place every February to Manjinikara to visit the tomb of Patriarch Elias. Some come by car or bus, while others decide to walk. In this time period with readily available transportation, I thought why anyone would walk hundreds of kilometers. The farthest distance lasts for 7 days . . . 7 days of complete walking. One hour does it for me; I can’t image 7 whole days! And what for?

Soon after Patriarch Elias’ death, miracles multiplied. While he lived, he healed many; after his death, the healings somehow continue. So some took it upon themselves to make a vow to walk to his tomb-site for a particular blessing. This trend grew from some to many.

I honestly did not think of walking to Manjinikara since the bishop was already going in his AC car. But a few days before the main festival, we attended a pre-feast for this Patriarch’s memorial at a chapel. That day’s evening prayer was memorable. The chapel was filled with melodious chanting and singing. There was something special about this festival. The more I talked to others about it, the more my inner desire to walk. With the company of two others, we decided to start our journey from a city about 40 kilometers away.

40 Kilometers, 16 Hours

We started our walk at 6pm when the sun was down. Every hour or so, booths were set up on the roadside for drinks and snacks. These were mainly run by families who also took a vow to do their part by serving. Along the way were motorcars and jeeps decorated with the saint’s picture, playing spiritual songs:

If one could no longer walk, these vehicles were also there to help.

The profile of those who walked was mixed: young, old, male and females. The below picture was taken of an elderly couple:

In the Syriac Orthodox tradition, the marriage ceremony ends with the presiding clergy, representing the church, placing together the hands of the groom and bride, entrusting one to the other. The groom is at that time instructed with the famous lines “if she be thirsty, you must give to drink . . .”; this is basically calling upon him to place her needs first. Now many years later, I see this groom in the above picture holding those same hands of his exhausted bride, encouraging her to keep walking.

After about eight hours of continual walking, we had to rest for a couple of hours. So we found this place:

Now this place was an experience . . . we’re on our way to celebrate the saint’s feast and here were tons of mosquitoes feasting on our blood! After about an hour or so of each one of us thinking that the other is asleep, all three of us stood up declaring our defeat to those pesky little mosquitoes!

We decided to continue our walk throughout the night. At about 6am, we saw groups of people entering and leaving a house; they were serving breakfast! While eating our meal, I thought about how this pilgrimage really brings the community together. Families come together to prepare meals and serve. Churches come together to organize transportation. The surrounding areas come together to organize roads, lighting, and facilities. It’s also interesting to see this small secluded village of Manjinikara come alive during these few days in February, and once the feast is over, it’s back to quietness and seclusion.

At about 10am, we finally reached our destination. When one really struggles to reach a goal, that goal becomes that much more special. The tomb-site was packed:

A few seconds to encircle it and pray:

The church provided everyone with places to bathe and change. Then we slept in the church under a fan; I don’t think I’ve slept like that before! Soon thereafter we left for home by catching the buses organized nearby.

If you want to read more about this saint and pilgrimage, the church recently released a website: http://www.manjinikarachurch.com

The Syriac Orthodox Church teaches that saints are those who lived with God while alive, so they therefore continue to live with Him upon their death. As one grows closer to these saints, they grow closer to God. As one venerates the body of a saint, they venerate God who lived and lives in it. In observing the faith, tears, and spiritual walk of those I saw in Manjinikara, Patriarch Mor Ignatius Elias III continues to bring people closer and closer to God.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Journal 5

"God's Own Country"

This is the slogan given to the State of Kerala. If God were to live on earth, this 15,005 sq. miles of land would be His country. It's a bold statement to make but from my travels around the state, I can only agree! I came to this realization especially when I visited my family in Coimbatore, a bordering state. The difference was like night and day. The old saying that "you only know what you have when you don't have it" came to mind. Kerala is filled with beautiful trees, greenery, cool weather, waterfalls, lakes, mountains; it’s all here:

To give you an example of the natural richness of this land, look at this picture:

In my morning walk, I came across this dying tree; it receives no water so it's withering away. But as it dies, the tree still gives fruit! That’s Kerala.

Man's Influence

Kerala may be God's Own Country, but unfortunately man lives in it. This land that only gives is inhabited by man who takes. For one thing, man abuses this land with trash being thrown at random. Growing up in America, this type of behavior is considered disgraceful, not to mention unlawful. But it’s far different here. Even at church festivals when people are done eating, they simply drop their paper plate and cup. I could not believe what I was seeing!

If you see trash like this, you know some type of function took place. As if to make the situation better, one church made this announcement: "Once you are finished eating, please be sure to throw your plates and cup a few feet away from the church ground"!

This type of behavior has basically become habitual in people's mind. While walking through a village, a middle-aged man a few feet ahead was throwing his trash into the small river in front of his house. He then sees us, turns our direction, and greets us with a pleasant smile! There's no sign of shame in what he did; it's just normal practice.

But then there are public places known for tourism that has trash cans set up.

Now this is what I'm used to. The place was well-kept and clean. For the most part, visitors used these trash cans. As I stood convinced that there needs to be overall change in Kerala’s public policy on cleanliness, a professor and activist in this field gave me a whole new perspective. In Kerala, we throw our trash into the soil where it’s gradually absorbed by nature. Or as it’s done in the West, trash is collected and dumped all at once into a landfill. Which is the better option?

Medicine in Kerala

Keralites have introduced positive alternatives from this nature-rich land. Medicine for instance is far different from America. Kerala has options, many options. Ayurvedic and homeopothy medicine are common and plentiful; these are alternatives to English medicine, as it's called here. These options, unlike English medicine, have no side-affects since its natural. My eyes were opened to these options during my stay at SEERI, which I wrote about in a previous journal entry. At that time I did not mention that the director and one of the professors at this institution were heart patients who required major surgery. Both of these men chose natural options deciding to change their lifestyle completely by eating only fruits and vegetables. There I am eating my scrumptious meal, chewing on my meat, while these two skinny men are eating bananas for dinner! I laughed at first. But it's been over five years and their heart is back to normal condition. No surgery, just natural healing, according to their words. This treatment is based on the idea that our bodies are designed to heal itself if it’s properly tuned. This tuning takes times and some sort of change in the person's lifestyle, thus the main reason why people choose English medicine; you simply swallow a pill.


I mentioned earlier that this land of Kerala that only gives is inhabited by man who takes. The best example of this is Kerala politics. If you asked me to rate it from one to ten, I'll give it a zero! Though it’s a bit exaggerated, the point remains. Politics in Kerala is horrible, to put it mildly. This state has the highest literacy rate but if education is about building character, as Gandhi proclaimed, then these politicians have learned nothing.

They’re very easy to spot since most of them wear white; it's their uniform. A couple of days ago I came across one of them who wore a slightly torn white shirt. I thought he was not aware of it but later found out that his party members, a major party in Kerala, always tear their shirts as a symbol of Gandhi's simplicity. This is a perfect example of Kerala politics: it's all on the outside.

There's a strange practice in Kerala of parties changing every term. If it’s the Communist part this term, then it's the Congress party next. How is this possible in a democracy? Apparently people have high expectations when its election time and once a party is elected in, a few years into their term the populace are disappointed, so the other party wins the next term. This pattern repeats itself: disappointment follows disappointment. This leads to the current situation where elected politicians have no motivation since they know they'll lose the next term. So they pursue self-interests during those five years.

If you turn on the news, listen to the radio, or read the newspaper, I guarantee that you'll come across something related to politics. They're everywhere! Streets are filled with party stickers. Political rallies are very common, further congesting the already filled roads. One party bickers about the other while making many promises. Then there are all these men who are far too lazy to work, wearing white and following their leader wherever he goes.

The current trend in politics is their efforts to reach youngsters. College campuses are aggressively recruiting party members. A few months back, a college political election turned violent leading to a death of a police officer. The educational realm is being corrupted. Corruption and violence are high in the Kerala politics. If you're elected into office, it's better than winning the lottery (no taxes and low publicity!). Low-level members are violently beaten by the rival party leading to occasional deaths. And at the funeral, their leader comes in his luxurious car, proclaims him a martyr for the party, then exits, leaving behind a family without their father.

My presentation of Kerala politics may be very gloomy. Granted it’s not at the stage where its utter chaos, like other countries, but the system has turned to the point where politician’s first interest is "me, myself, and I". And Keralites have come to accept this. They love talking politics because there's always something to talk about. It starts something like this: "I can't believe . . .", "Now listen to what this politician said . . ."

Talk is plenty in the political world. These parties set up stages in public areas with loud speakers:
They preach even if no one's listening!

Christian Preaching

Though it's an awkward transition from politics to church, there is a connection. One of my pleasant surprises about our church was their annual convention at the end of December. It lasts for one week, ending midnight December 31st with Holy Eucharist. What a blessed way to begin the New Year! Attendance was high for these seven days.

Our churches are running similar conventions throughout the year in different places. Local churches have set up family units, where different areas get together each week at a nearby home. Institutions run weekly and monthly retreats. Diocese runs larger conventions. Basically if you want to hear God's Word, there are plenty of options. This trend is mainly a reaction against Pentecostal churches who initially took people through these get-togethers. So our church began offering it. Our faithful have therefore become well-versed in the Bible. In fact, there’s an excellent Bible Academy run by our church on Sunday’s at the Patriarchal Center. Degrees are given for one-year and two-year courses. It teaches our faithful about the Bible within the Syriac Orthodox tradition. I was quite impressed when I attended one of these classes. This picture shows the first graduates:

They are then certified to lead prayer meetings and conventions run by our church.

Some find comfort in these get-togethers; others are healed. Last week, I attended a convention in the high range area organized for three days according to the Nineveh Lent. Over 10,000 people attend each day.

Some completely fast for these three days, staying at the beautiful church nearby:

Miracles are many: sick are healed, wives become joyful mother, employment is found, etc.

But I want to present another side. As I mentioned, in the overall state of Christianity in Kerala, preaching is everywhere. With independent people starting their own churches, the amount of preaching taking place is immense. You'll see countless advertisements on the road for Christian get-togethers, with a picture of some guy wearing a suit holding a Bible in his hand. Christ did command his disciples to go and preach the Good News; this preaching part is certainly taking place. But has it become, if I may say so, similar to Kerala politics where there's much preaching but little else? I love this quote: "The problem with Western Christianity is that we are overfed and under-exercised". Kerala is also heading in this direction. Let me end with this meaningful illustration:

Three people were discussing some recent translations of the Bible. One said, "I like the New American Version. It is so much clearer than the older versions, and is so much easier to read."

The second said, "I like the King James Bible. It's not only clearer, but it's more poetic, which makes it more suitable for us in prayer."

The third said, "I like my mother's translation best of all. She translated the Bible into actions, which makes it so much easier to apply to daily life."

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Journal 4: Community

For the past several weeks, a common program that we’ve been attending is church anniversaries. I’ve probably taken part in a dozen of these already. In looking into these anniversaries, I see the importance of community. Church, after all, is the place where the faithful come together and become one family or one body, crossing economic/social barriers. This becomes much more noticeable in Kerala. I don’t know of any other place where the far wealthy and the dirt poor will commune together from the same vessel. The one wearing expensive clothing stands next to the one with barely any clothing.

Cultural Differences

As a part of this theme of community, I’ve found that hospitality in Indian culture is greatly emphasized. Thought I knew this, as I’m traveling to many places, it becomes that much more visible. When visiting churches, for instance, people go out of their way to ask my name and where I’m from. When I tell them that I live in America, they respond, “I thought so when I heard your reading”! :)

At certain points I get so tired of saying the same things about myself over and over to so many people. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that I’m so popular but to show how things are slightly different in this culture. Another example: we visiting a very wealthy family on a way back from church. They owned a well-known business that bought in so much profit. Their house was practically a mansion. During our visit, they treated us like kings. The family members were practically serving us the whole time. And this was not just towards me; they even treated the drivers with respect. Guests in Indian culture are treated with such honor; this is great for me because I’m a guest wherever I go! :)

While in America we may say “hello” or tilt our head to acknowledge another while walking, whereas in Kerala if someone you know sees you, the initial question is “where are you going?” At first, I took offense to this. In my way of thinking, I thought what’s that to you; that’s not your business. But then I came to realize the cultural difference; they ask this not so much to keep track of me, but as a way of greeting. Strangers have even come up to me and asked where I’m from. It shows, in a sense, a communal mentality.

Now to something that’s even more uncomfortable, holding hands. I would meet someone for the first time and as we’re introducing ourselves, they’d grab my hand and hold it.
Where in America this would be seen differently, Indian culture sees it as a sign of friendly affection. As I initially felt uncomfortable, I thought about why this makes me so uncomfortable; what's the big deal. It’s interesting how socially accepted norms affect our way of thinking. But now I’m getting to the point where I’m grabbing people’s hands, too. So after six more months, I may be doing this even when I get back to America . . .

Public Behavior

Within this communal mentality, there is a contradictory social behavior. Keralites have no concept of waiting in line! For instance, the other day I went to the local store to buy some hair oil. I asked for what I wanted. And as the owner was finding it, someone else comes along to ask for another thing; a few seconds later, another guy pays for his products. I thought how rude! Later when visiting the bank, I came up to the counter and saw that the agent was working, so I waited. A few minutes later, my cousin comes up and asks what I’m doing. “I’m waiting for her to call me”. He responds, “Huh? Waiting? You have to interrupt her with your request or else you’ll be here all day”. It’s definitely a different way of doing things.

Church Festivals

Getting back to my initial point about church festivals, this communal culture is seen most prevalently in these celebrations. In the Orthodox tradition, a church is named after a particular saint and on the memorial day of this saint, the church remembers and celebrates it as a birthday. Death anniversaries are joyfully commemorated because death is seen not as an end but as a new beginning. These celebrations are certainly communal because the entire town joins in. This is the beautiful thing about being a part of one church. In America, with our countless denominations, a church may celebrate on their own, but in Kerala, the entire city celebrates.

In my first journal, I wrote about the many cross towers spread throughout Kerala. These tower are a part of the local church and during these festivals, processions take place towards these towers. One church will usually have towers in different corners of the city, so the faithful at night, holding candles, travel around town to these towers to offer prayer. And along the way, those who own houses and businesses greet them outside with candles, too. The below video shows what I experienced.

Procession Video (52 seconds):

Then once everyone returns back to church, some festivals end with fireworks.

Fireworks Video (51 seconds):

And of course all churches will give a tasty meal before the faithful heading back home (these meals are indeed tasty because when it’s all said and done, you’re sooo hungry!).

Essentially, these processions are a way of spreading the news and blessing of the festival to all. Even Hindus join in the celebration, for they see the saint as another god. The lights and sounds last all day and into the late night. Below is another video that shows the professional drummers who play throughout these processions; they definitely have talent:

Drums Video (1:49):

This kind of faith is far different from the usual “in the church standing for prayer and sitting for sermon” type of setting I often experience. This faith is experienced and lived outside the church building, into the community.

What Can I Do?

The more I thought about this theme of community, the more it became apparent to me that I should do something. After all, I’m here for several months in a country that's growing economically, but along the way, is also leaving behind many. For instance, you won’t guess the number of suicides I read about in the newspapers due to economic difficulties. A father taking the lives of his wife and children, then hanging himself . . . one can only imagine his state of mind to do this!

From my own experience, I know how I’ve often felt the desire to help but don't know who to trust. In this unfortunate world, we can’t even trust those who help the needy. So I felt that I can do my small part in giving you this opportunity. We, who have more than needed, are called to give to those who have few. I want to present to you one unique family in our community who lacks:

This family converted to Christianity about 10 years ago. From that point onwards, they have been very active in church, attending services and activities, much more so than many of those born into the faith! And they live 8 kilometers from church, walking the whole way.

Living in a village outside of town, they recently lost their home during a storm in August. One of their child had to stop studying because of economic burdens. But the worst part is the mother, Sarah, who has a tumor in her womb and needs operation. Her faith is strong; she's definitely the one who keeps the family going. But they've been delaying surgery with medicine so far because of the high cost; surgery will be over Rs. 30,000 (close to $1000). Furthermore, their extended family does not provide any support because of their conversion to Christianity.

Now this is as genuine as it gets.

I looked into the best way for you to help and found an option to pay by credit card through Paypal. This will be the easiest way for you and me to get money to this family. And of course, I will give you much more details of the family if you’re interested. But first email me with your interest and then we can communicate on a one-on-one basis.

Any help will mean much for this family. Hope you are all doing well.

(As an FYI, I’ll be writing these journals on a somewhat monthly basis since I’m finding it more difficult to get time for it.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Journal 3

During a casual conversation with my teacher, the bishop informed me that for 10 days he’ll be in Dubai for a church anniversary. So I could stay at my family’s house . . . but then I thought this would disrupt my main intention, so I asked him about other options. This is when he told me about St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute or SEERI.


Christianity in Kerala is unique in that all seven churches share the ancient Syriac patrimony. In fact, these churches bear the identity in their name in some way, no matter if it’s the Roman Catholics, whose majority members are called Syro Malabar, or the Protestants, whose majority are known as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Though unfortunately only one church, the Malankara Syriac Orthodox still stands with the Syriac Patriarchate, the other six churches do not deny their common origin at least in name.

SEERI was formed to keep this identity and language alive in Kerala. Courses are offered in Syriac language, literature, history, patristics, spirituality, etc. Most of the students take the two-year master’s program in Syriac language and literature.

I was pleasantly surprised by the positive atmosphere of this institute.

Prayers are set in the morning, afternoon, and evening with food thereafter, all in a timely and orderly fashion. Noon prayer is completely in Syriac; I could not but notice how our prayers come from this ancient language.

The students were all too friendly, making me feel right at home. My first contact was with one of the sisters. When she was introduced by the director as a PhD student, she kept a very serious face. I jokingly commented to the deacon who came to drop me off that all her studying has made her stiff-necked . . . then to my surprise, her true personality came out amongst other students. She laughed and smiled, always the one with comments. It just shows how first impression may not be that accurate.

Syriac Studies

My intention for the next ten days was to read as much as possible on Syriac literature since exposure to Syriac fathers was limited during my two years in New York.

The Syriac Church is often referred to as the hidden pearl. How true this is! The text I read, thought limited due to my command in English only, was rich. These writing ranged from the 4th century till the 13th. One of the fathers I want to briefly introduce to you is someone who is truly a genius: Mor Gregory Bar-Hebraya.

Bar-Hebraya (13th Century)

If there’s someone who had knowledge on every known subject, he’s the one! Just to give you an idea: he wrote on Greek philosophy, completed an encyclopedic history of the world up to his time, wrote on hundreds of subjects on church teaching, plus he learned and practiced medicine on his own. And then there’s astronomy; by astronomical calculations, he accurately predicted the year he would pass away! This exceptional bishop did all this while successfully reorganizing his diocese after Mongol invasions.

To give you a taste of his writing, one of his books translated to English is on the subject of prayer and fasting. He writes about how true prayer is union with God that brings ecstatic joy . . . think about that, prayer bringing indescribable joy. He then says:

“For him who does not know what he says in prayer, keeping silent is much better than speaking.”

He tells it like he sees it.

My ten days in SEERI was not used just in reading books, but as things worked out, one of the students became a great friend.


His parents chose the appropriate name, Zaki. He’s small in statue like Zacchaeus of the NT (Luke 19) and like him, he’s very much giving. He comes from Turkey, the area where Syriac Christianity began. Having been born in a village, then lived in a monastery for schooling, and thereafter worked for Bible Society amongst hostile Muslims, he had so much to share. And this is stuff you can’t find in books.

Since he's been in Kerala for twelve months, Zaki knew the city well. In fact he knew of places the locals don’t even know about! Now imagine this: a white Turkish man guiding and directing a Keralite all around town! That’s me and Zaki; he led and I followed. Along the way, he introduced me to many things. For instance, we made regular stops at a roadside area that sells tender coconuts. For 12 rupees, you first drink the sweet water and then they break the coconut into two so we can eat the inside. We must have had one every day!


One of my primary goals is to learn the Keralite language, Malayalam. This is the language that’s spelled in English the same both ways: Malayalam. I try to learn mainly by reading newspapers. In fact, one the common sights every morning in Kerala is people reading the newspaper; if you look at the front porch you’re bound to see it. By reading the paper, I get to accomplish two things at once: find out what’s happening around the world while practicing the local language.

While on this topic, Zaki shared with me about how he knows many languages from his extensive travels. When he decided to spend two years in Kerala, he thought he could learn another language. But as he puts it, there's not a harder language in the world! After 12 months, he still can’t speak Malayalam; it’s too difficult to pick up. At least this made me fell much better because my progress is slooooow; now I know it’s not just me!


On Sunday, Zaki and I decided to attend service in Manarcad Church, only a few kilometers away. This cathedral is one of the famous churches in Kerala, declared recently as a pilgrimage center. Their anniversary from Sept. 1-8 brings an incredible number of people every year. You have to see the altar at this church (its looks so much better in person):

When Zaki went up to do one of the readings, all eyes were on him because, of course, he stood out. He took the church back in time with his Syriac chanting.

Beyond the history, beauty, and fame of this church was the much more awesome experience of celebrating Eucharist with full participation of the congregation. The choir quietly led (without all the annoying background sounds) and the faithful followed. This is what our liturgy calls for: everyone chanting and singing with one voice. As the songs were sung in unison, the church really became the church, the One Body of Christ.

Travel to High Range

We enjoyed our company so much that Zaki decided to come a few days with me to stay with Bishop Aphrem. And we planned it so that our visit to his diocese in the High Range Area was that same day.

During this time together, I was the teacher of Malayalam to Zaki. The student has become the teacher! He had much to share about the Syriac Church in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. It is but a miracle that Syriac Christians still survive in this area. Throughout these conversations I could sense his deep love and devotion to his church despite its shortcomings. This is what being faithful is all about; loving the church despite its negatives while at the same time working towards its progress.

The high range area was quite beautiful, especially in the morning as the fog settles in:

That morning we both climbed to the top of that mountain, all the way up to the source of its waterfall. The journey was tiresome, sweating the whole way; at some points I thought I can not go any further . . . but once we got there, it was all worth it:

At the first level:

Mid-way (the stick was quite helpful!):

At the very top:

Now this is why they call Kerala, God's own country!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Journal 2

I planned to stay at my uncle’s house for a few days to adjust to the time difference. I found that the ideal time to land in India is early morning. This way I have no choice but to stay awake all day in order to meet everyone and get settled. Then once night approached, I had no problem sleeping. My body adjusted to Indian time rather quickly.

After a week with my family, the bishop I will be learning under, H.G. Aphrem Mathews, instructed me to meet him at the Patriarchal Center in Puthencruz, only a few minutes away. When I first saw the new center of our church, I was taken aback. What a grand structure! The view from the front entrance was captivating:

The two side portions are still being built. Once its done, it’ll be one of the largest religious centers in the state.

My thought then turned to meeting my teacher. Though I’ve spoken to him in New York, most of the things I know about him come from others: he’s unpretentious, sings beautifully, very knowledgably, speaks English well, and funny. Now I have 7 months to find out if it’s all true! The first quality was proven true instantaneously: his presence made me feel comfortable and relaxed. Whereas some come across as being formal and “by the book”, Bishop Aphrem was friendly and for a lack of a better word, down-to-earth.

Why Visit Kerala?

After finishing my formal education in New York, I wanted some practical/hands-on experience of our faith and culture. Reading it in book versus being there are two entirely different things. Thus this decision to go to Kerala. The state of Kerala is unique in that most of the Christians in India live here:

This faith miraculously survived from the days of the disciples amidst the otherwise large population of Hindus and Muslims. This was the reason why I wanted to visit this state; Christianity is ancient, mature, and well-preserved. Plus it's where I come from.

First Church Visit:

I got my first taste of my Syriac Orthodox faith when we visited a small village church with Bishop Aphrem for their anniversary. As a side-note, Bishop Aphrem is in charge of the high range region within Kerala. These are areas outside cities, mostly mountainous. And it somehow worked out that this place is also very beautiful. But the way to this particular church was not so beautiful. I had my suspicions when I saw that we would be traveling by jeep, not car. As the bishop put it, we’ll be well-massaged once we get to church! Though it was a few kilometers away, it took us over an hour, so you can image the condition of the roads.

As we drove into church, you should have seen and heard the welcome! Everyone was waiting outside while a band played songs. Fireworks were going off in the background, church bells ringing. What a grand welcome! I had to remind myself that it’s not me that they’re welcoming. :)

People in villages and rural areas are often perceived to be “under-developed” and poor. As I saw these people, they did, yes, look poor on the outside, but they were rich and “developed” in many other ways. For instance, though they may be uneducated according to our modern standards, their faith was firm. I spent two years learning graduate level theology, but these people know God in many more ways. If you asked me why, I could only reply, “come and see”.
Furthermore, they honored the bishop not because he’s Aphrem Mathews but because he’s God’s representative. It’s not so much the person they’re honoring but who he represents. Their faith was alive.

As service started, the church choir caught my attention. Consisting of a few girls . . . and before you jump to any wrong conclusions, these girls caught my attention because they were children with loud, confident voices; voices still innocent. Hear and see it for yourself:

After service, the congregation was all too friendly. No sign of pride, but humbleness only. They went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. As the bishop’s deacon put it, there’s something fulfilling about the services and overall atmosphere in these small churches that you won’t get elsewhere.

Different Yet Similar Experience:

A few days later, I got a taste of another church anniversary in a much larger scale. Our ancient church is called Syriac Orthodox because of its relationship with the Patriarch of the Syriac Church in Antioch. And when I say Patriarch, I do not mean the one person. Much more than the person is the way of life or identity he represents. Who and what I am comes from this ancient Semitic faith and tradition. This faith, as Scripture tells us, began from the days of the disciples: “And they were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26).

A testament or proof of this handing down or 'traditioning' of what we hold dear is the grand feast of one of the Syriac bishops who came to Kerala and died in Kerala, Mor Baselios Yeldho. He came at the age of 92 (92!) when the church was facing difficulties, traveling a far distance, especially on foot through the forest after arriving in India. Four others traveled with him but only two survived the dangerous journey. He soon died thereafter in 1685.
The memorial anniversary for this beloved bishop takes place in Kothamangalam Church where he is buried. People from all parts of the state travel to this church just to see and pray in front of his tomb. I witnessed this crowd. The entire city is decorated, as is the church:
All transportation leads to this church. Streets were blocked off around the church for people on foot only. I went in the early evening and then at late night of the same day. People never stopped coming. Many walk from far distances as a group or pilgrammage. After walking many kilometers, they then have to fight through crowds and then finally for a few seconds, they get a glimpse of the bishop’s tomb.

I was told that many of these people are Hindus, who also see this bishop as someone extraordinary. To this day, there is a Hindu family, healed by this bishop on his way to Kerala, who from that generation onwards lead the inaugural procession with a lighted lamp. In addition, elephants come to the church during the feast and bow down before his tomb! More importantly, you should see the faith of the people as they approach his tomb:

I observed parents coming to the tomb with their child, whispering to them special prayers to be repeated. Men and women, young and old, stand with tearful eyes of supplication. Some bow down. Others simply stand in reverance. This is faith in action!

When it comes down to it, no matter if the place is a small village church or a grand cathedral, God hears those who come to Him with a broken and contrite heart.