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.
From the conversion of Habel in 1854 to the early 20th century, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in central Travancore grew to accommodate more than 35,000 Dalits—over half of the total membership of CMS. The mass religious movements among the slave castes of Kerala, in which so many Dalits embraced Christianity, have been studied before. Nevertheless, many questions remain. Chief among them: how do we understand the agency and selfhood of an individual believer in an era of mass conversions? The search for an answer to this question led us to the incredible narratives centering on Pathros Velliappan, or Pathros, the Grand Father who lived at Kangazha in central Travancore. In studying these three stories of slave brothers running away to freedom, we find a clear common thread of salvation and Christian faith.
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.