The more time I spend in Kerala, the more different it seems from the north of India. The people look different, the food is different, even the clothes are different. And most striking to me, is how religion in the South, particularly in Kerala, is unlike much of the rest of the India.
For starters. Kerala seems to have managed to find a way for its various religious adherents to co-exist peacefully. One of the big roundabouts in Trivandrum has a massive cathedral, impressive mosque, and humble temple all within spitting distance of each other. No one has to sneak in, no guards are visible, and traffic bustles along as if this were some every day scene.
But in India, and much of the world, this isn’t ordinary. Religious and ethnic groups the world over collect in their little groups, and tend not to mix so overtly. Not so in Kerala, where “syncretism” seems to the catchword.
The theyyam is a great example – it seems to pre-date established Hinduism, reaching back to some murky roots of animism and shamanism. But it’s managed to incorporate Hindu deities (many of whom I’ve never heard of before). Granted, Hinduism is a religion that easily lends itself to consilience – explanations of the divine tend to revolve around so-and-so being an incarnation of Shiva/Vishnu/Parvati.
More interestingly, theyyam also includes some popular Muslim figures, many of whom who have been deified themselves. Not something you see everyday. And then there are the various warriors, wronged women, ghosts, etc, incorporating an astonishing complexity of social justice as well. Af ter all, unlike the rest of Hindu rituals, the theyyam is dominated by lower-caste families, and not Brahmins.
But there is more. The Sabrimala temple plays host to a massive pilgrimmage every year to honor Ayappas, a god not mentioned in any Vedic texts, but revered by Malayali Hindus all the same (some stories of course claim him as an incarnation of Vishnu).
Kerala has its history of religious violence, but always perpetrated from the outside. The Christians trace their history back to St Thomas, who visited India after Jesus’s death (which means Christianity came to India before Europe). In the 4th Century, they aligned themselves with the Syrian church. When the Portuguese came centuries later, they brought Roman Catholicism in all its violence with them, converting by the sword, so to speak. Eventually religious fervor calmed, and today both Catholics and Syrian Christians worship peacefully.
Islam has a strong presence in Kerala as well, with strong ties to the Middle East. There are madrassas here, and also Dubai’s own religion – capitalism (which melds seamlessly with communism here). Kerala is the would-be poster child for utopia.