Sacred Kerala—A Spiritual Journey
By Yoginder Sikand
24 June, 2009
Name of the Book: Sacred Kerala—A Spiritual Journey
Author: Dominique-Sila Khan
Publisher: Penguin, New Delhi
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand
The southern Indian state of Kerala has a unique population mix. A little less than half of Kerala’s inhabitants are Hindus, who belong to various castes. The rest are Muslims and Christians, in roughly equal number, and a miniscule number of Jews, who form India’s oldest Jewish community. In contrast to much of north India, inter-community relations in Kerala have always been fairly harmonious, although the situation is beginning to change today. At the popular level, economic and social ties and inter-dependence between Kerala’s different religious communities have given birth to a strong sense of Malayali identity that transcends religious boundaries. This has been facilitated by the use of the Malayalam language by all of the state’s communities as well as a long-standing tradition of religious overlapping or shared religious identities, which is what this fascinating book is all about.
The author, a Jewish woman of Romanian origin, born and brought up in France, married to a Rajasthani Muslim and deeply interested in India’s ‘folk’ religious traditions, herself exemplifies the notion of shared religious traditions that defy neat categorisation. Her own personal location, she says, led her to undertake a series of journeys to Kerala to explore the state’s rich and living legacy of popular religiosity that brings together people of different religious communities, as officially defined, in common worship and devotion.
The central argument of the book is that in large parts of Kerala, and, indeed over much of India, the notion of religious or communal identities as neatly-bounded, homogenous and clearly set apart from, or even in contradistinction to, other religious communities is misleading. Textbook definitions of Islam, Hinduism and Christianity, that see them as wholly independent religions whose followers are neatly separated from each other, Khan argues, conceal a vibrant historical and still living tradition of overlapping religious traditions and identities, or what, for want of a better term, can be called ‘syncretism’ or ‘liminality’. These shared religious traditions and religious spaces, the author contends, can be seen as containing the seeds of a truly universal spirituality that transcends narrow creedal boundaries.
As an ethnographic account of numerous shared religious traditions and spaces in Kerala, this book excels. Khan describes, making no effort to conceal her passion for such traditions and spaces, unique ceremonies that bring together village Hindus, Muslims and Christians throughout Kerala. She talks of generous land grants made by various Malayali Hindu rulers to Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities to build their shrines. The cults that have emerged around these shrines continue to survive, hundreds of years after they emerged, brining together people of different faith communities in common worship and celebration. At the annual Chandankulam festival in a remote Kerala village, for instance, devotees of all faiths gather at a Catholic church, proceed to a Bhagvati temple and then finally congregate at a mosque. Pilgrims undertaking the strenuous journey to the shrine of Ayyapa at Sabarimala must first visit a mosque, and, after completion of the pilgrimage, often visit the shrine of a Christian saint. Ayappa, one of the major Malayali Hindu folk deities, is believed to have been a close friend of a Muslim named Vavar, and also of a Christian priest.
A fascinating example of religious bonhomie associated with traditional Kerala is a unique royal structure. Outside Cochin lie the ruins of a palace built by the state’s Prime Minister, surrounded, in each of the cardinal directions, by a church, a mosque, a temple and a synagogue. Negating the oft-held notion of religions as wholly separate from each other, numerous local Hindu goddesses in Kerala are considered to be sisters of deceased Christian and Muslim saints, and the festivities associated with the former also involve offerings at the shrines of the latter. All over Kerala, especially in the Malabar region, Christians and Hindus flock to the shrines of Muslim missionaries and saints in the hope of assistance to have their wishes met. A Jewish grave in Cochin attracts scores of Hindu and Christian devotees every Friday. And so on.
Khan travels across the length and breath of Kerala to uncover dozens of such shrine-based religious traditions that, take together, present a vastly different picture of community identities and inter-communal relations from the conventional image of them having no significant overlaps in terms of belief and practice.
Another focus of this book is on the rich internal diversities and divisions within what are ordinarily seen as homogenous religious communities. In the Hindu case, the variety of cults and the diversity of castes is, of course, well known. But, even among communities in Kerala that subscribe to one or the other monotheistic faiths, sectarian, caste and other divisions remain stark, thus forcefully negating the notion of Christians, Muslims and Jews as being monolithic communities. Khan talks of the numerous Christian sects and caste-based communities in Kerala, some, such as the Syrian Christians, that follow a range of local practices in common with the Malayali Hindus. Among the miniscule Jewish population in Kerala, till recently a rigid barrier divided the so-called ‘white’ Jews, of European or Arab origin, from the ‘black’ Jews, who considered themselves to be descendants of the original Jewish settlers in the state. Among Kerala’s Muslims, Khan says, sectarian differences remain acute--the ‘Sunnis’, followers of local Sufi traditions and associated with the Shafi school of jurisprudence; the Jamaat-e Islami, a puritanical Islamist formation; and the Nadwat ul-Mujahidin, a vociferous critic of a host of popular customs associated with the ‘Sunnis’ and many Hindu followers of the Sufis, which it brands as ‘un-Islamic’.
Khan admits that, in recent years, Kerala has witnessed the emergence of a number of right-wing communal and religious ‘fundamentalist’ movements, among Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Typically, she writes, these movements see the state’s rich legacy of shared religious traditions and spaces that bring together people belonging to different religious communities, as ‘superstitious’, ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant’. These movements have had a major impact on Kerala society, and have succeeded in making communal divisions much stronger and clearly-demarcated. These constitute a fundamental departure from Malayali tradition, which Khan characterises as inclusive and open, at the same time as she is cognizant of the deep-rootedness of caste discrimination in Kerala historically.
This book tells a fascinating story of alternate, more accepting and accommodating ways of imagining religion, spirituality and community identities. It is a story of vast numbers of ‘ordinary’ people, whose voices are little-heard, but who carry on in the footsteps of their forefathers in celebrating forms of spirituality that, in effect, bitterly critique the politics of religious exclusivism.