Konkani Speaking Community of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church at Brahmavar
On the 9th of November 2021, with two of my siblings, I visited the renovated St. Mary’s Malankara Orthodox Syrian Cathedral at Brahmavar, Udupi district. This Church is the only Konknni Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (MOSC) in the entire world with 132 years of glorious past as part of the 2,000-year-old (St. Thomas) Indian Church, namely the Indian Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. At times Roman Catholics confuse this church with the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church (JSCC) also known as the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church based in Kerala and is an integral branch of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.
The original church of Brahmavar was built in 1888-89. Now it has been aesthetically fully renovated. It was inaugurated by its supreme head called the Malankara Metropolitan and Catholicos of the East, His Holiness Baselios Mar Thoma Paulose II on 12th January 2018. The Malankara Metropolitan and Catholicos of the East is the head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and he resides at Kottayam, Kerala. Those who belong to this church do not come under the jurisdiction of the Pope and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, they are very faithful to the values of Jesus and to their religious traditions. I have attached here a few photographs of this church building.
The Brahmavar Orthodox Church is centred on a 25 acres’ site and comprises some 850 families. Besides the church on the campus, their education institutions offer courses from KG to PG levels. Saint Mary’s Syrian College popularly known by its acronym S.M.S. Brahmavar was established in 1980. It caters to people of all faiths.
The Church building has a blend of Portuguese, Kerala and modern architecture. The front elevation, rising in the middle, is a reminder of Portuguese architectural influence over the Konknni Christians of Coastal Karnataka.
The huge blue dome above the altar is the influence of Orthodox Church architecture, found mainly in Byzantine Churches. The Front Stone Cross, seven-step stone oil lamp and the 40 ft Steel Flag Post with Golden coat bring in the feel of Classical Indian/Kerala architecture.
Inside the Church, there are stained glass paintings, a key feature of European Churches. The altar is completely decorated with wooden designs by the artisans from Kerala. The entire atmosphere in the church invites reverence, silence and prayer.
It houses the relics of Blessed Alvares Mar Julius and the tomb of Blessed Roque Zephrin Noronha, who were declared as their “Regional Saints” (Blessed) on 6th December 2015 by Catholicos Paulose II of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. “Regional saint” is a step lower than the universal saint, the highest status which is posthumously conferred to any individual by the Orthodox Church.
The Diocese of Brahmavar was formed on 3rd August 2010 by the decree of Baselios Mar Thoma Didymos I. It has 35 parishes: 16 in Kerala; 16 in Karnataka; 2 in Goa (Vasco da Gama and Ribandar); one in UAE. The total number of families is approximately 2800. Brahmavar Cathedral has 6 chapels (Kandlur, Kolalagiri, Sastan, Hosangady, Kurady and Hulikal of Shivamoga district) and 5 Congregations (Mumbai, Mandya, Bangalore, Kuwait and U.A.E) belong to the Konknni community. In Goa, about 120 families belong to this Orthodox Church. The Konknni speaking faithful of this church are now spread out in different parts of our country and in Gulf countries. Once a month they do have Mass in Konkani.
Brahmavar Orthodox Christians have a number of peculiar characteristics with regard to their culture, tradition, lifestyle, and prayer habits. Along with the orthodox feasts (Perunnal), they also celebrate the memorial feast of Metropolitan Julius Alvares (September 23) and Fr Noronha (July 23). Most of the Orthodox prayers have been translated into Konkani and Kannada languages. Their Mass is always solemn. All the prayers are chanted. Their Mass prayers are in simple Konknni and really touch the hearts of the faithful. 12 candles are lit for the Mass. The person who sponsors a major feast is known by the name ‘Pirjent’. He wears a special dress and carries an artistic metallic stick during the procession. They do not keep any statues in their churches but instead place icons and pictures.
The exception to this is in Brahmavar church. Two statues of Our Lady of Milagres are still kept in the church because natives wanted them to be kept as a remembrance of their heritage from their ancestors. They have all the seven sacraments. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Communion are combined and given after 40 days after the baby’s birth. They have the practice of Dedication Ceremony along with Confession to the child between the age of 8 to 12 years. Once in a year, all the faithful have to go for Confession. However, Confession is recommended once a month. Mass is usually celebrated on Sundays and main feast days. On other days except for Friday, if the faithful offer Mass, only one Mass per day is celebrated. They do not use hosts for Holy Communion. Instead, a single unleavened bread is consecrated, broken into small pieces and placed on the tongue of the recipients. To receive communion, the faithful have to observe fast from the night meal till the time they receive the Holy Communion. Holy Communion cannot be received without absolution of sins.
Therefore, before the Mass, the priest lays his hands on each individual and says the prayer of absolution. Women and girls are not allowed to enter the sanctuary. Mass is offered by the priest facing the altar and not the congregation. In the Orthodox churches, the altar is placed in the east and the priest faces the east while celebrating the Mass. However, Brahmavar church is an exception, because the altar is placed facing the west. Previously, Brahmavar church did not have pews and benches. The renovated church has them. For the most part of the Mass, the congregation has to stand. A lot of incensing and participation of the people by reciting prayers and responses is part of the Mass. The entire Mass lasts for one and half hours. In Brahmavar Cathedral and its 6 Konknni chapels and 5 congregations, the language of the liturgy is Konknni.
Since the majority of their priests are from Kerala and do not know sufficient Konknni, though they offer Mass in Konknni the homily is given in Kannada. They have retained the Baptismal Font and Confessionals in their church. Women and girls are expected to cover their heads in the church. They are prohibited to enter the sanctuary of the altar. Most of them do it. They have retained in their liturgy the words of Portuguese origin such as “Besanv, sakrifis, mister, vanjelist, apostol, profet, martir, altar sant, Al’leluya”. They observe all the major feasts of the Roman Catholic Church including the Monti Fest (the Nativity of Our Lady). They use the Konknni Bible in Kannada script published by the Diocese of Mangaluru. Novenas, popular prayers, daily prayers, and devotions of Catholics are still observed by these Konknni speaking Orthodox Christians. During Advent and Lent they abstain from meat and fish and eat only vegetarian food.
Lent is observed for 50 days. During Advent and Lent from Monday to Friday fasting is observed up to 3 pm. June 16 to 29 fasting is observed. Similarly, from 1 to 15 August fasting is done. Every Friday they fast and abstain from meat and fish. Only emergency water is allowed. Children less than 10 years, pregnant women, and sick people are exempted from fasting but if they wish they are free to observe the fast. During Lent, the way of the cross is conducted in the church compound without any statues or images. They still sing Konkani hymns from “Xembor Køntigo” book published in Kannada script in 1890. Most of the Konkani hymns from this book were composed in Goa and their Konknni ancestors learnt them by heart and carried them with them when they migrated from Goa to Karnataka. For the way of the cross, they still continue to sing the famous long hymn “Riglo Jezu Møllyant” in five parts composed by Fr. Joaquim Miranda of Talaulim, Goa, who was a parish priest in parishes of Coastal Karnataka.
In the olden days family rosary was a daily practice. Now it has become less. Masses for the dead are offered on the third and seventh days. Month’s Mind and First Death Anniversary are observed. Marriage engagement, reading of the bans, marriage and social customs are the same as other local Konknni speaking Catholics. Footwear has to be kept outside the church by the laity. Only priests are allowed to wear footwear and a black cap as part of their liturgical dress code. This church encourages Indian culture as far as possible. This community has 5 Konknni speaking native priests at present. The church governance and election of Bishops and Catholicos (Malankara Metropolitan) all are done in a democratic way. At the parish level, all those who completed 20 years have a say, including women. At the diocesan level, women so far have no voice. In a year, two to three times parish meetings are held called ZUNT.
During these meetings, people elect treasurer, secretary and one representative of each ward, in total 15 members to govern the affairs of the parish or chapel. Their tenure is for one year. If their performance is satisfactory to the community their tenure could be extended for one more year. After two years they cannot continue as Parish Committee Members. After a gap of one year, they could be re-elected. The financial matters and the church property are totally managed by the elected committee. Each family is expected to contribute a minimum of rupees 600 hundred per year to the maintenance of the church. The priest gets his fixed stipend from the diocese. People are free to give voluntary donations to their priests. These Konkani speaking faithful are devout and generous people.
Due to marriage relationships, many Malankara Orthodox Church members have returned to the Roman Catholic Church. Today there are around 850 Orthodox Christian families surviving in Brahmavar Malankara Orthodox Cathedral. They have married clergy. But they have to marry before their diaconate. However, the bishop is chosen from the celibate priests only. Due to historical and ego problems, the Konknni Catholics of the Brahmavar area got divided into Roman Catholics and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Christians!!! It is a sad part of history but we have to accept the reality.
The little known Brahmavar Orthodox Community deserves a very special status in the history of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The Indian Church which for centuries had been confined within the boundaries of Kerala obtained a national outreach when the former Roman Catholic Priest, Antonio Francisco Xavier Alvares (1836-1923) from Verna, Goa and his community united with the Mother Orthodox Church.
For those who do not know the historical background of this church and its members, I give here below a brief history of it. On the 9th of July 2021, I shared this history in my WhatsApp group. Now I have corrected, edited and enlarged it. I got a lot of information about their liturgy and church governance from Fr. Lawrence David Crasta the priest in charge of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Christians at Kolalagiri of Udupi district. I am grateful to him.
Konkani’s (Konkani speakers) migrated from Goa to coastal Karnataka and Kerala from the 13th century onwards for various reasons. Catholic Konknnis migrated from Goa to Coastal Karnataka from 1570 onwards. They were under the Goa Archdiocese and served by the clergy of Goa. Goa archdiocese was under the jurisdiction of Padroado, namely, the Portuguese King or Queen appointed the bishop and supported the maintenance of the clergy.
Brahmavar is a small town located in the Udupi district in the State of Karnataka in India. The town is 13 kilometres away from Udupi. In the year 1678, a Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Our Lady of Milagres was established in Kallianpur by the Padroado Missionaries who were under the authority of the Portuguese king or queen. The Church was destroyed by Tippu Sultan in 1784 but was reconstructed in 1806.
In the 19th century, a few prominent Catholics residing in Mangaluru city wrote to Propaganda Fide of Vatican and complained that the diocesan priests from Goa have neglected and not rendered their service to local Catholics who are inhabitants in Coastal Karnataka. Rome intervened and segregated the Dakshina Kannada district of Coastal Karnataka from the jurisdiction of Padroado and brought it under the Propaganda Fide and began to appoint bishops and priests. Local Catholics who were used to the clergy from Goa wanted to be under the Padroado jurisdiction. But finally, most of the parishes accepted the jurisdiction of the Propaganda Fide.
The power struggle between the Portuguese missionaries and Propaganda Communities had its effects on Brahmavar. The majority of the people supported the Portuguese Missionaries and the Padroado Community. They strongly opposed the Propaganda Fide’s interference. Those who supported the Propaganda Fide built Mount Rosary (1856) Church, which is only one kilometre away from the Milagres Church of Kallianpur.
In 1886 a Concordat was signed between the Papacy and the Portuguese King by which the Milagres Church of Kallianpur became part of the Propaganda Fide. Brahmavar Christians petitioned both the Pope and the Portuguese King to reconsider the decision, but Rome did not reply favourably. A number of Catholic families who were in favour of Padroado jurisdiction felt that the response from Rome was not at all satisfactory and it was an insult to them. As a result, many families of the Milagres Church, under the leadership of Fr Roque Zeferino Noronha, protested against the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Later, Fr. R.Z. Noronha too was disowned by the Archdiocese of Goa. Historically speaking. Brahmavar Orthodox Church is a split faction from the Roman Catholic Church. The split was formed under the leadership of Fr Antonio Francisco Xavier Alvares (1836-1923) in 1888-89. He was born in Verna, Goa on 29th April 1836. He was ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in 1869. Fr. Antonio Alvares, who was a Roman Catholic priest of Goa at the time, opposed the Vatican policies and interference of the Government in Church administration. His pro-Independence periodicals which were also critical of the Roman Catholic Church were banned. He was excommunicated. He left the Church with some hundreds of Konknni speaking Catholic families from Goa, who were settled in the vicinity of Brahmavar, and joined the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. He understood the situation in Brahmavar and organised the discontented believers.
A new Church was built for the split group in Brahmavar. Fr Noronha was influenced by Fr Alvares and he was very well attracted towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Fr. Noronha was given the leadership of the Brahmavar Orthodox Church, which had then, a membership of 4,000 families. In the year 1889 on Easter Day Fr. Noronha celebrated the Holy Mass in the newly built Orthodox Church. The split group of the Brahmavar Konknni community has come into existence since then as a part of the Indian Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Presently, they are under the Brahmavar Diocese. During my boyhood days, they were wrongly labelled as schismatics by the local Roman Catholics.
Fr. Antonio Alvares, being a journalist, attracted the ire of the Portuguese rulers because of his pro-independence periodicals, which were also critical of the Roman Catholic Church. He was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church for various reasons. Things came to a head in 1887 when Fr. Alvares, who was already in search of a spirituality rooted in Asian culture and Indian tradition, joined the Indian Orthodox Church, also known as the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. News about Fr. Alvares reached the villagers of Brahmavar who invited him over to address their discontent. Thus the Konknni speaking Orthodox movement was born and a split faction of the Roman Catholic church came to exist in 1888 as Brahmavar Orthodox Church. In 1887 he left Goa and arrived at Kalianpur, near Udupi, a village in South Kanara district. He moved out from there to a nearby village, Brahmavar, took 97 cents of land on lease from a local friend at a lease fee of 50 paise (eight anas those days) per year and built a small temporary thatched shed with coconut fronds for a roof and dedicated it to ‘Our Lady of Miracles’ for worship. He celebrated the first Holy Mass in the said shed in 1889 January.
The same church later came to be known as St Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church. Thus in 1888-89, Fr Alvares founded the Brahmavar Mission. He later procured 14 acres of land from the then British Government at Brahmavar for his mission activities in the name of St Mary’s Syrian Church, adjacent to the leased land. He then constructed a new Church in the new plot acquired by him. Later, the leased plot of 97 cent land was earmarked for the purpose of a cemetery for the new Parish church. The same plot is still used as a cemetery and the temporary thatched shed constructed by Fr Alvares, where he celebrated the first Holy Mass, still stands there as a monument.
On July 29, 1889, Fr Alvares was consecrated as Metropolitan Archbishop of Goa Ceylon, and India (excluding Malabar) with the title Alvares Mar Julius I at the Old Seminary, Kottayam. Soon, Metropolitan Alvares named Fr R. Z. Noronha was the first Vicar of St Mary’s Cathedral. He offered the first Holy Mass on Easter of 1889 at the temporary thatched shed. Later on, Fr Noronha constructed a church in 1889 at the same place.
Fr. Alvares was the first person to reunite with the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Latin Rite in India. He devoted most of his life serving leprosy patients and poor sections of society but he also fought a brave war to protect the Orthodox faith irrespective of the opposition inflicted on him and his followers by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1913, he left Brahmavar and returned to Goa. He had to suffer a lot of persecution at the hands of the Portuguese. He spent the rest of his life serving the poor in Goa. Sadly, he died in reduced circumstances on 23rd September 1923 and was buried in Santa Inez, Panaji, cemetery, without receiving either an Orthodox Christian funeral or the traditional burial accorded to an Orthodox prelate. Today he is regarded as the hero of the Reunion Movement in India. In 1967, his tomb was discovered in St. Inez cemetery and on 5th October 1979, his remains were recovered and moved to St Mary’s Orthodox Church at Ribandar, Panaji under the direction of His Holiness Mar Thoma Matthews I, Catholicos of the East.
Fr. Roque Zeferino Noronha was born in Goa on 20th October 1850 at Angediva, but his family was from Cortalim, Goa. After completing basic education, he joined the Rachol Seminary in Goa. After completing his seminary education, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest on 12 March 1881 by Bishop Thomas de Almeda. He served as the assistant vicar of Salvador do Mundo Church. Later Fr. Noronha became the Vicar of Ribandar Church and finally reached Brahmavar, where he was united with the Orthodox Church.
Fr. Noronha was a multi-functional personality. He was a great educator, a spiritual father, writer, healer of ailments by giving free medications, and social reformer. In 1916 he started Cosmopolitan Higher Primary School at Brahmavar. Joining the Orthodox Church gave Padre Noronha great trouble. He was always threatened by the Roman Catholic Church but he was very much loved by the Brahmavar residents. He was very particular and strict about the Orthodox faith, especially the prayers and sacraments. He encouraged many people to participate in prayers through house visits. On many occasions, the Catholic Church tried to entice Brahmavar Orthodox Christians to join the Roman Catholic Church by offering them rosaries, pictures of saints and other valuable gifts, but Fr. Noronha successfully blocked all attempts and confirmed his flock in the Orthodox faith.
He showed great vision in establishing educational institutions and founded a school that was the first basic educational institution in Brahmavar. The school attracted many students irrespective of caste, creed or sex. Fr. Noronha provided great relief for many people who suffered from different kinds of diseases and treated many people, providing them with food and shelter. Hundreds found relief under his care.
Towards the end of his life, he suffered from diabetes. The Roman Catholic community tried to force him to come back to the Roman Church. Two years before his death it is recorded that a cross appeared on his back and on 23 July 1936 Fr. Noronha died. He was buried at St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Brahmavar. It is reported that a large number of people, especially non-Christians, have received blessings by his intercession after his death and even today many still seek favours at his tomb.
Fr. Alvares and Fr. Noronha who were both excommunicated by the Catholic Church in Goa, now have become the heroes and saints of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and their feasts are celebrated. Those who are considered villains in one community are recognised as heroes in their new community. History has many such examples. Saul who was an ardent Jew who hated and persecuted the Christians of the first century has become St. Paul and the great saint of the Christians. Whether Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians or Protestants, all of us are Christians and belong to Jesus Christ and we have to carry on His mission in our own unique way. There has to be unity in our diversity.
ABOUT AUTHOR :
Fr Pratap Naik, S.J., is a Jesuit priest based in Panjim-Goa. He is the director of the Thomas Stephens Konknni Kendr (TSKK), a research institute working on issues related to the Konkani language, literature, culture and education. The institute is based in Alto Porvorim, on the outskirts of the state capital of Panaji, Goa. Fr Naik was one of the proponents for founding the TSKK. The TSKK is named after Thomas Stephens, the 16th century English Jesuit priest missionary who came to Goa in 1579 and lived in the region till his death. Stevens authored the Arte da lingoa Canarim, which was written in Portuguese and was the first printed grammar of what is now called the Konkani language. In 1982 TSKK was registered as a society, and it commenced operation in January 1986 from its former premises at Loyola Hall in Miramar, Goa. Miramar itself is a centre for training young men wanting to become Jesuit priests.
The TSKK focuses on education and research of the Konkani language, literature and culture. Since 1986, Jesuit scholastics training to become priests were sent for a one-month training in Konkani. In 2003, a Konkani postgraduate diploma course was proposed. In 2006, Naik was involved in a campaign to get official recognition for the Roman script of Konkani, along with the Devanagari script, which is the sole officially recognized script for Konkani in Goa.