Family History as a Political Act in Kerala

Nidhin Donald, Jawaharlal Nehru University


The Kerala Council of Historical Research has an ever-growing list of family histories in its collection. I have become interested in these due to my sociological interest in the question of caste and its everyday social reproduction.

The majority of items in the Keralan collection have been authored, printed and published by ‘upper-caste’ Syrian Christians. Divided into several historical churches and denominations, Syrian Christians continue to be a united endogamous group, spread across the globe, with deep pockets in the socio-economic life of Kerala. Syrians have historically attributed their origin to St. Thomas the apostle who supposedly baptized a few high-caste families (primarily Brahmin Namboothiris) in first-century South Kerala. A few historians and, on rare occasions, ecclesiastics have challenged this legend. Nonetheless, this foundational story and its effective dissemination have socially reproduced Syrian Christians as a group superior to the ‘lower-caste’ majority of Kerala.

Family histories or ‘kudumba charitrams’, among other identity products such as websites, play a crucial and popular role in this process. , family histories in Kerala remain a preserve of the upper-caste elite, written with the stated objective of conserving the purity of blood, race, ethnicity and caste. They are political examples of how ‘caste’ as a systemic feature and ‘brahmin’ as its formidable adjective – used in charitrams both as a validating idea and a socio-historical class which ensures positive distinction – are not restricted to Indian Hindus but encompass other groups as well.

A replica of St. Thomas baptizing the Brahmins

Like family histories elsewhere, charitrams are ‘modern’ documents with numerous ingredients. While the foundational legend is a common strand, one also finds specific genealogies of family priests and nuns; biographies of prominent family members; ideal notions of family, community and church; discussions on the crisis of national and global migration; purity of ‘race and blood’ (vamshashuddhi, rakthashuddhi); descriptions of transactions with other social groups; roadmaps for the future of the family, endogamous family directories often with photographs of its members; popular bedtime stories etc. These are not usually projects undertaken by individual family members. They are collective projects which have historically emerged through modern family associations or kudumbayogams. Typically, the association appoints a family history committee, which collects contributions (financial and archival) from family members to aid research and writing. Minute details of such processes are captured in the introductory chapters of the charitrams. In the past two decades, one finds a rapid increase in the number of family associations across Kerala. Almost half of the family histories analyzed in my MPhil dissertation were published post-2000s. The oldest family history in this selection dated back to 1926. The proliferation of printed family histories is a recent phenomenon, partially owing to the advance in digital print technology.

Let me share an example. Kulathakal family history, titled Kulathakal: The History of a Malayalee Syrian Christian Family’was published in 1974, its first edition. The book begins with a short introduction of its own journey. The kudumbayogam or family association of the Kulathakals began in the year 1900. Though many ‘male ancestors’ or ‘pithakanmar’ wanted to put down the history of the family, it was only in 1972 that the kudumbayogam appointed an editorial committee to write the history. The committee took nearly two years to publish the book. In his foreword Rev. Fr. K.T. George, a member of the family, argues that this book would interest not just family members but also ‘researchers’ who are interested in the history of ancient Syrian Christians. He appealed that every ‘household’ or ‘veedu’ of the family should have a copy of this book and that it should be distributed in public institutions such as libraries and archives. Clearly, the charitram imagined an audience beyond the family. Such an imagination is part of most of the family histories.

The Logo of Kulathakal Family Association

Family historians often conceive their work as significant ‘academic’ exercises in social history writing, narrating social changes and continuities from the vantage point of individual families. Although these narratives are anchored in ‘oral histories’ (a source that is in opposition to the written sources that dominate modern historiography), family histories embrace mainstream historiography by‘re-inventing’ this tradition. They recognize how oral traditions achieve a certain measure of respectability when it appears in the form of a ‘printed book’ with the ‘trappings’ of modern historiography. Thus, family history writing is not a process of writing history anew. It is the result of the way Syrian Christian historians and their families have read and interpreted existing histories against their own beliefs.

In historical writing, the process of selection, description and arrangement of facts in terms of relevance is done under one’s own belief about the past. Syrian Christian family histories are full of what can be termed ‘independent facts’. They are not written in a clean canvas. Already existing knowledge within the community and within professional historical accounts are used eclectically to produce a family account.  In doing so, they do not place themselves against legends or against descriptions of historical facts. They attempt a combination of the two in order to arrive at their political aim. The introduction of Chembarathi kudumba charitram qualifies the Old Testament as a vanshavali or genealogy. Similarly, the beginning of the New Testament is also conceived as a vanshavali which proves how Christ belonged to a noble lineage. These qualifications are made to justify the family history project and also challenge the observations of certain ‘professional historians’ who argue that there is an absence of any substantial records on Syrian Christians until the 16th century. Mainstream historians are ‘challenged’ only when their conclusions seem to negate the political purpose of family histories. In other words, the challenge, if any, has not been wholesome or methodological. It has been partial and identitarian. Barring such instances, hardly does the family historian negate the ‘dominant’. It can be argued that the objectives of Syrian Christian family history are not in conflict with dominant historiography.

Unlike Collingwood’s definition of history as a ‘science’ which inquires into our ignorance about definite things – by  formulating specific questions and answering them with the help of historical evidence – Syrian Christian family histories are in a search for the best answers often attained through simple rearrangement of what is already known and hegemonically accepted. Thus, it is not an investigation into the ‘unknown’ wherein the perspectives of the historian are amenable to the sources he deals with. For family histories and their historians serving one’s kind (kulam, vamsam) is a historic task. Printed family history is conceived as an integral part of such a service. Family histories are conceived as documents which produce the ‘best’ kind of history. The Parayathukattil historian has coined the term ‘kudumbaparambaryasatyam’ or ‘true version of the family heritage’ to capture the imposing truth claims of family histories.

Sanal Mohan, an Indian historian, explains the need to distinguish history as a discipline and history as a ‘political act’. Though he makes this distinction in the context of Dalit history writing, it informs my present discussion on upper-caste Christian history writing. The ability to validate contested legends as ‘true’ history of a people is primarily a political ability. An important aspect of Syrian Christian historiography is their ability to legitimize their claims in a canvas beyond the local. Influential control over technologies of printing and communication, historical and continuing influence over resources such as land, bureaucracy, judiciary, press, academics, new modern lucrative professions produced by neo-liberalism etc. play a very important role in summoning and reproducing such abilities.  It is highly inadequate to simply provide a ‘spiritual’ explanation to the powerful continuity of the St. Thomas-Brahmin legend in India. Beyond the spiritual, one needs to perceive such legitimate continuities as ‘political acts’. In fact, the legend, invoked as ‘true knowledge’ plays a pedagogical role in perpetuating the status of the community and even enhancing them in changing contexts.


Read our Community Exchange post on how
family history is taught at the University of Tasmania


About the Author: Nidhin Donald is presently a doctoral scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This write-up is based on his MPhil dissertation titled ‘ Syrian Christian Kudumba Charitrams of Kerala: A Sociological Enquiry.’ He is currently working on Syrian Christian family websites and videos to understand shifts in identity work among communities with the emergence of new digital platforms. He regularly contributes his writings and illustrations to the online anti-caste portal Round Table India.

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