The ancient Christians of India were known as Christians of Saint Thomas. They are also known as Syrian Christians, since they have been using Syriac for liturgical purpose with or with out admixture of Malayalam, the language of the people of the state of Kerala, called Malabar in the old days, where they lived and still continue to live today.
Anybody who is born in a Kerala Syrian Christian family are generally termed as Syrian Christians or Nasranis. Syriac Christianity is a culturally and linguistically distinctive community within Eastern Christianity.
The invasion of kerala by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore in the latter half of the 18th century left a deep impact on Kerala polity and society. This invasion of the mysoreans and Tipu in particular is called the ‘Padayottam’ in Kerala. Much of it’s effects are visble deep down in the keralite psyche even today. To understand what effect this incursion into kerala had on the syrian christian community, we need to study the timeline of events during those tumultous times between 1766 and 1790 in kerala.
10 Feb 1766: Hyder Ali along with a formidable force is welcomed into kerala by the Ali Raja of Cannanore. The Mysorean army guided by Ali Raja and his brother seize the palace of the Raja of Kolathiri at Chirakkal. The Raja and his family flee south to take refuge at the English trading station in Tellichery.
15 Mar 1766: Hyder enters the Kottayam (North Kerala) Raja’s territory where the Raja’s moplah subjects desert him and join their compatriots withy the mysoreans. The kadathanad territory is sacked after Hyder’s forces rout the keralite forces.
The Zamorin is helpless in Calicut where Hyder rushes to meet him. Hyder demands 1 crore ( 10 million) gold mohurs from the Zamorin, which he refuses to pay. Desperate and feeling humiliated, the Zamorin commits suicide in his palace. Calicut is stripped of all it’s wealth by Hyder.
Hyder sends missives to Cochin and Travancore asking them to submit to Mysore. Cochin, agrees to pay an annual subsidy of two lakhs of rupees and eight elephants. Travancore, defies Mysore. Hyder is now determined to enter Travancore. However the monsoon sets into kerala.
June 1766: Hyder retires to Coimbatore, and taking advantage of this, the keralites come out of their refuges and retake what they lost to Hyder. The mysorean strongholds of Calicut and Ponnani are besieged by the keralites. General Raza Saib leaves Mudukarai to quell the rebellion in Malabar where he is trapped by the torrential rain that traps him between the rebellious keralites and the swelling Ponnnani river.
Hearing about this grave situation Hyder dashes to kerala with 3000 cavalry and 10000 infantry. The keralites are unable to face this vast army and flee with much loss of life and carnage. To crush the martial spirit of the keralites, especially of the Nairs, Hyder declares that the keralites are forbidden to carry arms. Hyder marches back to Mysore to confront the British alliance which was marching to Seringapatam.
1771: Sardar Khan with his army marches through Cochin and takes Trichur. However the East India company now actively come to the keralites rescue and retake Calicut. Sardar Khan is dead. Hyder sends over Mukhdam Ali to restore order and he with a force of 7000 mysoreans meet the keralites in battle. The mysorean force is routed by the Nairs and English. Makhdum Ali is killed, drowned while fleeing.
The English reach Ponnani and shut themselves up in the fort there, where they are besieged by Tipu Sultan.
7 Dec 1782: Hyder Ali passes away and Tipu is Sultan of Mysore.
11 Feb 1789: Tipu Sultan enters Malabar for the second time. He invests Kadathanad and marries off his son to the daughter of the Bibi of Cannanore.
After the monsoon, Tipu enters Palghat and summons the Cochin Raja to his presence. However the Cochin Raja balks out at the last moment and sends the crown prince, the soon to be legendary, Sakthan Tamburan in his place.
14 Dec 1789: Tipu enters Trichur. Mysorean incursions into the heartland of syrian christianity begin.
5 Jan 1790: Tipu attacks the Travancore Lines and suffers heavy casualties in this process. He falls down into a ditch during the battle losing his royal insignia in the process. He also injures his leg here. Enraged at the turn of events he summons heavy siege battery from Seringapatam and Bangalore and on their arrival demolishes the once impregnable Travancore Lines.
Tipu continues his victorious march forward into Alwaye where the monsoon puts a dampener to his activities.
24 May 1790: Tipu leaves Malabar never to return.
September 1790: The British with a regiment of Malabar Sepoys capture the Calicut fort and besiege Cannanore where the Bibi surrenders unconditionally.
Thus ends the series of events that perhaps marked the most tumultous series of events in Kerala history after the Chola invasions of the 11th-13th centuries.
Now let us delve into how the syrian christians fared during this period. The first recorded contact between Mysore and the Syrian Christians happened when Hyder after subduing the Zamorin was at Coimbatore. This was recorded by Tipu’s son, Prince Gholam Mohammed in his narrative of the history of his father and grandfather.
Here, the Jesuit provincial, an Italian, produced a letter from the Archibishop of Cochin, who recommended to him a Malabar priest of the community of Christians of St. Thomas, whose diocesan the Archibishop was. He was deputed, together with three other laymen of his country, to request of Hyder the permission to keep fire-arms, under the pretence that, by not being armed , they ran the risk of being robbed by the Nairs, and the soldiers of Hyder.
Hyder replied “You people (The Syrian Christians) have been disarmed, because you assasinated each other, being always at enimity on account of your different castes: I shall take care to place safe guards in the country, to prevent my people from molesting you, and I shall send troops sufficient to disperse the Nairs.”
Hyder was of course, referring to the divisions in the Syrian Christian church on account of the split into the Roman Catholic and Jacobite groups. We know from the narrative, that the syrian christian deputies who came to Coimbatore were stout men, with a ferocious air and manners. They had the figure of a small cross above their nose punctured in the skin, and a large scar on the right cheek, caused by a recoil of their muskets.
Thus ends Gholam Mohammed’s narrative about the meeting here. It is interesting from several perspectives. Firstly it shows us that the same dissensions that trouble the Syrian church in India today was there then too, albeit in a more violent form. It also shows that the Syrian Christians had among them armed warriors especially adept in using the matchlock. This could be on account of their close contact with the Europeans. Portuguese historian Gouvea says that “Christians had supplied the Raja of Cochin with an army of 50000 gunsmen”. It is very probable that in the keralite forces opposing the mysoreans, the syrian christian militia also played a useful role along with the Nairs. We must also compliment Hyder Ali for his knowledge of current affairs. No wonder, the British regarded him and his son as the greatest impediments to their dreams of an Indian Empire.
There is also an interesting account of a loan advanced to Brigadier-General Richard Mathews, Commander-in-Chief of the East India Company’s Bombay Council who was sent to capture Mangalore from the Mysoreans. This loan of 3,30,000 rupees was said to have been advanced to him by the Syrian Christian community as he was short of funds to effect the capture of Mangalore.
Brigadier-General Mathews would later be taken prisoner by Tipu and would die in captivity in Seringapatam in 1783, where in his last testament-recorded on 4 pewter plates found after Tipu’s death in 1799 and Seringapatam’s capture, he begged the British government to look after the Malabar christians. The syrian christian community was even then a prosperous community and had several merchants rich enough to advance that kind of a loan to the British. This being said and written, I have my doubts about if the Malabar Christians referred here are from the Syrian Christian community or from the Goan-Konkani Catholic diaspora who inhabited Mangalore.
Now let us look into the issue of the damage done to Syrian Christian life and property during the Mysorean invasion of kerala. There is no doubt about the fact that Tipu’s soldiers did great damage to several Christain churches and seminaries that they encountered in kerala.
The old Syrian christian seminary at Angamaly was razed to the ground by Tipu’s soldiers. Before the armed soldiers entered the building some priests showed the presence of mind to collect many of the valuable manuscripts in the seminary and load them into a boat so that they may be saved. However the boat sunk during the course of the journey and the manuscripts were lost for ever. The old seminary at Angamaly had been at the center of Nasrani religious education for several centuries and was relocated to kottayam after it’s destruction, where it exists to this date.
A contemporary account of the mysorean army at the doors of Alwaye has come down to us through Father Bartholomew who was on the spot then. He says that the mysorean army halted on the sandy basin of the Alwaye river. They planned to cross over the next day. The monks at the Catholic monastery of Verapoly began to pray for deliverance from Tipu’s wrath. What happened then was really miraculous. The mysoreans with their weapons were sleeping along the broad sandy banks of the river in April when a torrential downpour swelled the river and washed away the troops and their arms. Mir Hussein Kirmani, a contemporary of Tipu and a camp follower writes of this incident “The army that came to swallow Travancore was swept away into the Arabian Sea”. That was the farthest in kerala that Tipu could get to.
However by then much damage was done. Along with the old syrian seminary at Angamaly, many churches in the Malabar and Cochin were damaged. The Mor Sabor church at Akaparambu and the Martha Mariam Church attached to the old seminary at Angamaly bore the brunt of the mysoreans. Whatever remained of Syrian Christianity in Malabar since ancient times was destroyed. The Syrian Christian community had to flee Calicut and even towns like Arthat in Kunnamkulam. Several lives were lost too.
Tippu Sultan’s army set fire to the church at Palayoor and attacked the Ollur Church in 1790. Further the Mysoreans destroyed the Arthat church and the Ambazhakkad seminary was also destroyed. Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar, the author of malayalam language’s first travelogue and Governor of Kodungallur had his office at Alangad but he and others had to flee from there following the invasion of Tippu Sultan and they set up the office at Church at Vadayar and later at Ramapuram.
When Tipu Sultan invaded Guruvayur and adjacent areas, looting Temples and Churches, a large number of refugees came to Kunnamkulam headed by Rev. Father Pulikkottil Joseph Kathanar, Vicar of Arthatt Church. Thus Kunnamkulam received a large influx of syrian christian refugees and is today regarded as a centre of this community.
The Kanjur church has a mural which depicts a battle scene where the army of Tipu Sultan on the one side is shown fighting those of the English East India Company, aided by local militia, in all probability malabar sepoys, on the other.
The biggest loss to the Syrian christian community was not the damage to their institutions alone, but the indiscriminate destruction of coconut, arecanut, pepper and cashew plantations by the mysoreans when they swept through kerala. Most of the syrian christians were landed farmers and their prosperity derived from the land they farmed.
Tipu Sultan has been praised by several contemporary and later historians for his religious tolerance and respect for other faiths and cultures. Whether these atrocities had Tipu’s sanction or were committed by bloodthirsty soldiers looking for plunder is for historians to judge and out of the purview of this article. However being aware of Tipu Sultan’s administrative talent and tight control over all spheres of his goverment, I am sure that Tipu would very well have been in the know of things happening in the Malabar.
Sakthan Tamburan, the ruler of Cochin also helped the Syrian christian community in a great way to get through the mysorean calamity by encouraging Syrian businesses, plantations and emigration to new centres like Kunnamkulam, Chalakudi, etc. Colonel Macaulay, the British resident at Travancore was also helpful here.
The invasion of Hyder and Tipu led to the decline of the old feudal order in kerala and to the introduction of modern progressive ideas about state and government. The British had emerged supreme in the power game in kerala and this was also of great benefit to the syrian church in India as Englishmen like Claudius Buchanan and Macaulay strove to revive the spiritually degenerating syrian church in kerala.
In the end, the syrian christians like their brethren among the hindus and jews recovered from this nightmare and continued trying to live their way of life as they had known for almost two millenia since the advent of St. Thomas in kerala. But then, nothing would be same again.
References: Wilks – Conduct of the war with the Late Tippoo Sultan
G. Mohammed-History of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan
K.L. Bernard-Kerala History
Indian Church History Classics, Vol. I, The Nazranies
D. Forrest-The Tiger of Mysore
I first posted this article back in 2007 at the NSC website: http://nasrani.net/2007/05/06/the-tiger-and-the-syrian-christians-tipu-sultans-padayottam/