What is a Syrian Christian wedding in Kerala, and why is it unique? A few months ago I photographed a wedding in south India and wrote a post about it, explaining who the Kerala Christians are, and a bit about the wedding traditions of this culture. Mathew and Shilpa, who got married in Trivandrum a couple of weeks ago, had invited me to be their wedding photographer, and gave me another opportunity to witness and document this wonderful traditional event. The difference this time was that the wedding was conducted by a bishop, which meant a very colorful event and some amazing photo opportunities.
Who are the Syrian Christian people?
The Syrian Malabar Christians are the descendants of the natives and those of the Jewish diaspora in Kerala who became Christians in the Malabar coast in the earliest days of Christianity. They follow a unique Hebrew-Syriac Christian tradition which includes several Jewish elements although they have absorbed some Hindu customs. Their heritage is Syriac-Keralite and their language Malyalam. Much of their Jewish tradition has been forgotten, especially after the Portuguese invasion of Kerala in the early 1500s. A friends once said that “some may claim we are more from the traditional namboothiris (brahmins) of kerala than jewish..but who the hell knows really :)”
Popularly known as Syrian Christians in view of the Syriac (classical form of Aramaic) liturgy used in church services since the early days of Christianity in India, they are also known as Syrian-Malabar Christians, Mar Thoma Nasrani, Syrian Malabar Nasrani or Saint Thomas Christians. This is an ethno-religious group from Kerala, India, adhering to the various churches of the Saint Thomas Christian tradition.
What makes a Syrian Christian wedding unique?
The truth is that it was not so easy to photograph this wedding. The couple stood with their backs to the crowd, very close to the bishop, and in such a way that it was practically impossible to take any frontal picture of them together. The altar area is completely off-limits so there was no way I could take a picture from behind the priests and see the couple’s faces. The bishop himself, dressed in a magnificent gown, wearing a traditional cap and holding a decorated golden staff, was the real show.
For the wedding ceremony, the bride wears an off-white silk sari with a wide border. Her sari ‘pallu’ acts as a veil or she wears a separate veil over her head. She has only very little jewelry on her body. The groom’s outfit would traditionally consist of a white dhoti and a white shirt, but in these modern times not all the traditions are kept. Mathew was actually considering it for a second, but then opted for the relative comfort of a suit. Coming from New York, a suit must have seemed like a good option but I suspect that had he known it would be so hot he might have seriously considered the dhoti option.
As per the tradition, during the wedding the groom presents a new sari to his bride. This sari is called the ‘mantra kodi’. The night before the church ceremony, strands of thread are drawn from this sari by the groom’s sister and twisted to form a cord. On this cord, is tied the ‘taali’, a leaf shaped gold pendant with a cross, inscribed on it. The ‘mantra kodi’ is placed on the bride’s head by the priest and blessed. Not like in a westerns style christian wedding, in a Syrian Christian wedding it is the priest who puts the rings on the bride and groom’s hands to symbolize the bond made before God, a bond that will not be broken.
Immediately after the church ceremony a reception was held at a nearby hotel were the couple lit the oil lamp and cut the wedding cake. A small pooja was later held at the groom’s home and we all had a good laugh as the local photographer was taking some posed pictures of Mathew and Shilpa in the middle of the living room with all the guests still there. What a lovely day.