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Kerala – the home land of Palakkunnathu Family

KERALA, the land of SAINT THOMAS CHRISTIANS, and the home State of Palakkunnathu Family, is one of the most scenic places in India, with lush green vegetation, beautiful streams, rivers, waterfalls, canals and back waters, with tropical sun and abundant rain; with alluring beaches on the West and thick tropical jungle on the East; a beautiful and charming State in India.

Between the Arabian Sea on the West and Western Ghats (mountains) on the East; Kanyakumari (Cape Comerin) (8.0780N 77.540E) the southern point of India on the South and Payyanur (12.100N 75.190E) on the North, was the land known as Kerala. It was also referred as Malankara or Malabar, but this name Malabar should not be confused with the erstwhile Malabar District of British India. Moreover the present day State of Kerala does not include the whole land of ancient days.

Animals & Birds: Elephants, tigers, snakes, deer and monkeys roam around the jungles of Kerala. At the same time it has a large number of domesticated elephants. Peacocks, the colourful pheasants is one of the many birds that move around the jungle and country side. It is written that King Solomon, “had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks (I Kings 10:22; 2 Chronicles 9:21. KJV)

Trees: Coconut palms, Betal nut palms, cashew nut trees and jackfruit trees (the indigenous large sweet fruit tree), grow all over this State. Teak (Tectona grandis) and Anjili (Artocarpus hirsutus) are used for boat and ship building. Sandal wood (Santalum) also grows wild in Kerala.

Vegetation: Rice is the staple food of Kerala. Paddy is cultivated once or twice a year around the country side. Spices grow wild in the jungle or are cultivated. Pepper was exported to the western countries from the ancient days. That made Cosmas Indicopleustes (Indian Navigator), a Christian monk from Alexandria, who visited Kerala in the sixth century, to write down in his book The Christian Topography, Book XI, that “there are Christians in Malé (Malabar) where the pepper grows”.

Culture and Traditions.

1. Political : Before India attained independence in 1947, Kerala was divided into three territories: Travancore State, ruled by a Maharajah in the South; Malabar District, under direct rule of the British in the North; and in between, the Cochin State ruled by a Maharajah. During the seventeenth century, when our fore fathers migrated to central Travancore, those territories were ruled by chieftains of Royal descent or by Brahmins. Ayroor village was ruled by Kovilans (Chieftains) and Maramon - Kozhencerry areas by Brahmins. After 1947, all these areas came under the jurisdiction of the Government of Kerala State, Republic of India.

2. Language: The mother tongue of the people of this land Is Malayalam and so the people are called Malayalees. Malayalam is a phonetic language and has a letter for each sound. That results in having the largest number of letters in any Indian language, and makes it one of the most difficult languages to learn. Earlier documents were scratched (written) on palm leaves or on copper plates. Many of those documents still exist. Pre-school classes prior to 1950 were using palm leaves to begin learning Malayalam language

3. Dress: People of Kerala usually wear white dress as their traditional attire. Traditional dress of both sexes is Mundu, a few yards of white cloth worn as loin cloth. It is tightly tied round the waist and hangs almost to the ankles.

When St. Thomas Christian men attend church functions, they use a Mundu double the length, folded and a fine thin cloth called neriyath to cover their torso. But when they work in the field, the Mundu hangs up to their knees only. A cap made of the petiole of betel nut palm (paalathoppi) or an umbrella made of palm leaves (Thoppikuda), will cover their head from sun and rain.

Till eighteenth century, St. Thomas Christian men used to have Kudumbi a tuft of hair on their head. This disappeared sometimes after 1850.

St. Thomas Christian ladies when they attend church functions, usually wear chatta and mundu. Chatta is a sort of blouse, half sleeve with V-shaped neck. The base of the V-shape is stitched with thread to the shape of a cross. Mundu that they use is double, known as kachamuri. It is frilled in the back in such a way that it forms a fan-like appendage. Moreover they use a neryath the fine thin cloth with golden lining to cover their torso and also to cover their head, while in the church.

Ornaments: Older ladies wear gold ear rings (vaalika), about five cm in diameter, studded with uncut precious and semi precious stones. At the time of marriage, the bride is given a wedding ring and minnu (a golden pendant in the shape of a cross), the first present given to her by her husband. All married St. Thomas Christian women wear these two items always, till the end of their life.

4. Transportation: The mode of transport in earlier days in villages was by following jungle paths or by waterways. Those jungle paths were rugged and not wide enough to use wheeled carts. Only pedestrians and cattle could move along these paths. Slowly better roads were ready and bullock carts began to appear.

Kerala has a number of lakes and rivers that provided water for agriculture and used for transporting agricultural products to the nearby sea-ports. People lived closer to rivers and most of their churches were built closer to a waterway and that helped the believers from distant villages to arrive at places of worship by boats.

5. Villages: There are no such “villages” in Kerala as you see in other parts of India. Houses stand in their own compound, isolated from their neighbours. Villages were near rivers that provided them water for farming, helped them to move from village to village, and transporting farm products to markets near the sea ports.

St. Thomas Christian villages: In earlier days Nazranees lived on both sides of a street, known as Unggaddi or Theruvu, with a church at one end of it. Houses were built in such a way that residents could walk along the veranda of houses to the church without getting wet during rainy season. Traces of such residential areas streets are still seen at Kozhencherry, Chengannur, Puthenkavu, Ranny, Kottayam (Thazathangadi), Kunnamkulam and at many other villages.

6. Houses: Till the middle of the twentieth century, house construction followed a traditional pattern.

Floor level was raised by using stone (granite) or by laterite bricks (Chenkallu). This was to prevent the monsoon floods entering the rooms. The verandah was partly enclosed, extended across the front and sides of the house. On one end was the master’s bed and an easy-chair for him to sit; dining space on the other side of the verandah. In between was the space for use of that family members. The veranda had hanging screens, ‘mada’ on three sides. A bed, probably the only one in the house was kept in the foyer for the master of the house. There was a bed room; a cell (ara) to keep paddy and valuable items; a cellar (Nilavarra) for keeping farm products, a garret (Thattinpuram) for keeping coconuts and other dry materials. The surface of the floor was waxed with cow dung.

Roof was long, low, steep, sloping and thatched with plaited coconut palm leaves. Also it had overhanging eaves to cover the veranda. The palm leaves were replaced once a year. It was low, and had triangular wooden windows at the two vertices for ventilation. It was usual to write the year of construction on this wooden panel.

House Name and Family name: A house that stands on its own compound is given a name usually based on some landmark. If the house is next to a church (palli) it gets the name ‘Palliyathu’, if the house is on the east that is ‘Kizhakkaneth’ (Eastern house), if the house belonged to someone who moved from the north that is ‘Vadakaneth’ (northerner), if that is a newly built house. it is ‘Puthen Veedu’ (New House). Thus if a father and son live in two different houses their house names also will be different. In case the house name is considered as their family name, father and son may have different family names. At the same time this may also result in two persons not related to each other having the same family name, leading to confusion.

The Saint Thomas Christian Community.

1. Christian Church buildings: During the first few centuries the churches were small thatched sheds. Later when permanent structures were built; it had mammoth walls to resist the attack of wild animals including that of elephants. They had rock lamps inside and outside the buildings and also on the walls around the compounds. A church could accommodate around 15 worshippers. Ladies often stood outside the church. Such church buildings were renovated and are still in use in Kerala. When the number of worshippers increased larger churches were built.

2. Naming a child: Names of Nazranee community (Saint Thomas Christians) of Kerala are patronymic for males; metronymic for females, and are mainly Biblical. Girl’s names usually end in ‘amma’. (E.g.: Sarah + amma = Saramma; Marie+amma = Mariamma).

3. Occupation: St. Thomas Christians were employed themselves in farming, trade and in earlier days, helping local rulers as military aides.

4. Wealth: People who lived near rivers and had their own fleet of large boats with sewed planks (Kettuvallom) were considered wealthy. Till around 1930’s Palakkunnathu families had fleets of Kettuvalloms, to carry their farm products to the nearest port, Alleppy.