Deities in Dialogue: Bridging Beliefs and Festive Traditions in Kerala

Exploring tolerance at St. George's Feast, the Sabarimala pilgrimage and an interfaith wedding.  
Kerala Saint George Epiphany celebration Kuzhimattom’s St. George Orthodox Church
Many temples in Kerala have daily processions around the outer sanctum, with a priest carrying the deity, and led by a troupe of musicians playing the chenda (drums), nadaswaram (wind instrument), and gong. Photo: Shanavas P N

I was expecting more merriment from the Feast Day of Saint George. It was the annual Perunnal (Epiphany celebration) of Kuzhimattom’s St. George Orthodox Church, of which my cousins were ardent parishioners. They baited me with promises of street food, drummers, and fireworks, neglecting to mention that we would first have to walk in an endless procession, holding candles and chanting Malayalam prayers.

Interminability is a hallmark of Indian religious ceremonies, and generally I’m a good sport about spiritual marathons. I entered the ladies’ line (the men had their own) and began to march through the dark evening. Before I knew it, the candle was drooling wax over my hands. I yelped and switched hands, looking around to see how other worshippers around me were dealing with the situation. The woman in front of me had wax-webbed fingers, her face fervent with prayer. My cousin snickered at my tender “foreign flesh”. Unwilling to wimp out, I held fast to the candle as it repeatedly mortified my knuckles.

Just when my pain threshold was reaching its peak, I noticed a strange something about the house to our left. In the middle of the yard was a wooden chair. On the seat was a propped picture of Saint George slaying a dragon. I’d known that painting from my youth, as a wall-sized tapestry that hung in the nave of the church that was our destination. Two doors down, another house also displayed a picture, this one of Jesus.

My cousin told me that these were the homes of Hindu families. Every year they set out these icons on chairs to greet the procession. The rest of the festival is something of a blur but the image of the seated Jesus remains sharp in my mind. Far more wondrous than fireworks was this gesture from the sidelines, an act that seemed to cheer us for the very beliefs that weren’t theirs.

Mother Mary Multiple Faith Kerala

A sari-clad Mother Mary and turbaned Joseph are commonly seen in Kerala where elements of local culture and custom are assimilated within Christian practices. Photo: Vladj55/Shutterstock

Kerala is a microcosm of all the world’s major religions, with thriving populations of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, among other faiths, and a diminishing number of Jews. For thousands of years, these groups have not only cohabited in relative peace, they’ve also managed to avoid melting into a homogenous pot. Throughout my travels in Kerala, I’ve been fascinated by its syncretic traditions, which do more than tolerate another faith: they justify the existence of multiple faiths.

Back in January, a few relatives and I attended the Gaja Mela festival at the Dharma Shastra temple in Elamgulam. Every year, the festival features cymbals, chenda drums, violinists, and hundreds of spectators, many of whom come not only to pray, but to witness the procession of seven decorated elephants. Spectators of all religious persuasions are welcome to enter the maidan, where stalls seem specially geared toward the child customer, with tables of neon bouncy balls, water guns, and all manner of inflatable doodads.

As non-Hindus, my relatives weren’t sure if we were allowed to venture up the stone steps to the temple, where the puja was taking place. Nevertheless I joined the women’s side of the worshippers and watched as the elephants were blessed one by one. One woman tapped me on the shoulder. Caught out, I prepared to apologise and shrink away. Instead the woman summoned me to stand in front of her, where I could get a better view of the priest as he showered an elephant with rose petals. All around me the women chanted Swami, Swami in fervent waves.

Gaja Mela festival Dharma Shastra temple Elamgulam Kerala

Processions of richly decorated elephants are an important part of annual celebrations at temples in Kerala. Visitors of all religions are welcome to the Gaja Mela in Elamgulam, a multi-ethnic town in Kottayam district, home to Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Photo: Nishith Ramachandran

Orthodox Thrissur Pooram Kerala

Thrissur Pooram is one of the largest festivals in Kerala. Celebrated each year at the Vadakkunnathan Temple at Thrissur, it is a mass festival that unifies ten temples in the area. It has become a secular occasion that many Keralites, including Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, participate in. Photo: Olaf Krüger/Imagebroker/Dinodia


After the blessings, I met Ana Babu, or “Elephant Babu”, owner of one of the festival elephants. In fact, Ana Babu owns seven elephants that he rents out to various functions and religious festivals. An Orthodox Christian, Ana Babu is an encyclopaedia of elephant knowledge and an expert on Kerala Hindu customs. Hands behind his back, he sped from factoid to factoid. One stuck out: for most Hindu festivals in Kerala, including this one, the temple priests must secure the ceremonial oil only from a Christian home. Though he didn’t know exactly what the tradition signified, it had been in place for as long as anyone could remember.

I confess I have a selfish interest in syncretic traditions, due to my own marriage. I am Christian, and my husband Jain. Four years ago, as we began planning our wedding, we set out to create a ceremony that would flow seamlessly from custom to custom, under the guidance of a Christian priest and a Jain officiant. My husband and I wanted to create a ceremony that would somehow reflect the life we hoped to live, wherein our different beliefs weren’t compartmentalised but set against one another, as if in dialogue.

It was a dialogue that most Kerala Christian priests weren’t willing to entertain. As pluralistic as Kerala may be, interfaith marriage is still taboo among most Malayali communities, both at home and abroad. Though my mother and father had an arranged marriage, they were the first of their families to marry outside their denominations, Syrian Orthodox and Roman Catholic respectively. In fact, my father had to nominally convert to the Syrian church in order to marry my mother, which wasn’t such an affront to his agnostic sensibilities. But of their 14 siblings and oodles of nephews and nieces, my parents were the sole members of our extended family to marry outside their denominations. By marrying outside the Christian faith, I was going ultra-rogue.

I wrote lengthy emails to every possible denomination of Keralite priest in America where I live—Catholic, Orthodox, Jacobite, Mar Thoma—in the hope of finding one who would be willing to share officiating duties. I got a variety of dismal responses. A Catholic priest in Washington D.C. informed me that non-Christian rituals would not be allowed in a Catholic church. One Orthodox priest wrote back: I am very sorry. Your idea is not biblical.

Priest-hunting began to feel a little like dating. The priests I wanted didn’t want me (which made me, masochistically, want them even more). Eventually, I turned to a slightly shady Rent-a-Priest website. These Rent-a-Priests were very available, a little too available, with their ready smiles and open, cloaked arms. But by that point I was desperate.

Sabarimala temple Lord Ayappa Kerala

To reach the Sabarimala temple, followers of Lord Ayappa make a difficult 4 km trek through thick jungle to the top of a hill. The pilgrimage is a communal activity, and men dress in black as a symbol of austerity. Devotees emphasise communal harmony and this is also demonstrated when they visit a mosque in Erumeli as part of the pilgrimage. Photo: Tim Gainey/Alamy/Indiapicture

Somewhere along the way, I phoned the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, the Catholic church where my family and I were parishioners, and spoke to the priest, Bill Fichteman. Father Bill disagreed with the notion that we couldn’t have Jain rituals in a Catholic church. In fact, he volunteered himself to co-officiate our interfaith wedding, so long as the ceremony would include an essential set of Catholic rituals. I wanted to hug my computer with gratitude.

With the help of our Jain officants (my husband’s sister and uncle), we worked on a ceremony. At first, it seemed long and clunky, but over multiple drafts and conversations, we smoothed the transitions and merged the steps that seemed repetitive. There was even some choreography involved: who would walk when and where, each ritual giving way to the next.

This is not to say that the final result was a seamless dance. During the opening procession, my Jain parents-in-law roamed back and forth across the cathedral nave, over strains of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, engaged in a heady search for the candle they were supposed to light. Even I blanked on my own choreography at some point. Was I supposed to walk stage left or stage right? With a discrete little wink, Father Bill tipped his head stage left.

 Muslim warrior Vavar Sabarimala temple Kerala

Visitors to the Sabarimala temple also worship at the Vavar Nada shrine honouring a Muslim warrior and disciple of Lord Ayappa. However, women of menstruating age are barred from entering this temple. Photo: Francois Werli/Alamy/Indiapicture

Our wedding photographer captured nearly every moment of the ceremony on film, save that wink. And yet, like the seated Jesus in Kuzhimattom, it is framed forever in my memory, an acknowledgment that there was an element of improvisation in what we were doing, a sense that we’re human. We’ve been making it up and making mistakes for thousands of years.

I can understand why interfaith marriage is anathema to many in Kerala, and elsewhere in India. In crossing borders of faith, there’s a risk of diffusing or losing the specific, defining essence of one’s religious identity. In a place where difference abounds, that identity is something to be protected.

So it’s surprising to discover moments in legend and history where the cross-pollination of belief has not consumed one faith or another, but rather conjoined them. Perhaps the most famous of these happens during the annual festival that brings up to 50 million Hindu pilgrims to the temple of Sabarimala, in Kerala’s Western Ghats. Sabarimala is dedicated to the Hindu deity Ayyappa, whose close friend was the Muslim warrior Vavar. Vavar and his army were central to Lord Ayyappa’s defeat of the demon Mahisi, so to honour their bond, and the virtue of communal harmony, Hindu pilgrims must first visit the tomb of Vavar and receive his blessings.

It’s possible that the decision to stop at Vavar’s tomb was not, at the outset, a unanimous one. Maybe there were some pilgrims in the group who frowned upon the idea of requesting blessings at a dargah, or others who may have found the act un-Hindu or pointless. It’s unlikely that most traditions arrive smooth and fully-formed into the world. They require imagination and intention from those who create them and a willingness, at times, to chip away gently at the rules until we’ve struck upon something that speaks to the truth of who we are.

Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “Deities in Dialogue”.

  • Tania James is the American-Indian author of "The Tusk That Did The Damage" (Knopf, 2015). She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and son.

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