NDSP grantee Sanal Mohan has been researching the history of Christianity among Dalits in Kerala, India. In this interview excerpt, Rachel Mathai, a seventy-two-year-old native of Pariyaramangalam village in the Kottayam district, recalls prayers and prayer songs current in the Dalit Christian community of the early 20th century.
Historically, prayer has been used as an effective weapon to resist oppression. Here I wish to share two examples of Dalits using prayer as resistance against caste oppression in Kerala, India.
The first case in point took place on February 10, 1937, in the village Thurithikkara, located in the Quilon district of Kerala where the Salvation Army was actively working among the Dalits. In this village, the Dalits were not allowed to take water from either the common water supply sources or from the landlords’ wells. The Dalits in the village had just one well, which had dried up in the summer.
It was in this context that one Dalit family faced a serious problem of water scarcity on the occasion of the marriage of their son. A person had dug a well in a nearby paddy field, and this Dalit family requested permission to use his water. He allowed the Dalit family to draw water from his well for the wedding. However, they had to walk through property owned by another upper caste landlord, a Nair, to reach the well in the paddy field. Seeing Dalits crossing his property for water, the landlord rushed to the spot with his men and drove the Dalits off his property, depriving them of easy access to water. The disheartened and sorrow-stricken people then approached their empty, dried up well, and began to pray.