19th Century Malayali Dalit Women, Missionaries and the Quest for Faith in Christianity: Vinil Paul

Translated by J Devika

The entry of Kerala’s dalit people into Christianity was made possible by the three missionary organizations that arrived in the 19th century: the London Mission Society (LMS) (arrival: 1806), the Church Missionary Society (CMS) (1816), and the Basel Mission (BM), which reached Malabar in 1836. The missionary archives reveals that the individuals who joined the centres set up by missionaries were mostly dalit women.

Yet it is an incontrovertible fact that the lives and faith of the women who sought the faith have been recorded only as fragments in the missionary archives. The first dalit person to join the CMS was a dalit woman, Kali who hailed from Kochi, in 1827. The conversion of Kali who took the name Lucy has been described in detail by the LMS missionary Sarah Tucker based in Tirunelveli in her travelogue South Indian Sketches (1848). Kali was accepted into the fold on her insistent requests, writes the missionary. Another important name among those who sought a new faith in central Kerala was Kurumba, who later took the name of Ruth upon completing the study of the Scriptures along with twenty-  ezhava (men) at Thrissur in 1850. Ruth’s husband passed away from small pox but she chose to stay in the faith. The BM archives are also rich with accounts of women seeking a new faith. The first locals who joined the mission were two tiyya women, a mother named Mandi and her daughter who took the names of Hannah and Mariam. Such reports are also found from the records of the Anjarakkandi Mission Centre of the BM where the largest dalit population lived. The records speak of a visually-challenged woman, a fully pregnant woman, and others joining the Mission in the 1840s.

The history of  dalit people seeking a new faith as groups begins from Kaippatta in central Kerala in 1854. Habel of Kaippatta along with his wife Rahel, daughters Ruth, Naomi, Leah, and Esther, and his brother Cheradi and sister-in-law were the members of this group. In the later groups seeking the new faith, the majority of seekers are female. But we also encounter many women who leave the faith after joining it briefly. In 1915, the wife of the CMS preacher at Ummikkunnu left the missionary faith to join Poykayil Appachan who was preaching the new faith, of Visible Salvation (Pratyaksha Raksha). There are many instances in the missionary archives that reveal dalit women’s agency in such decisions.

One such significant voice we hear is that of Chelakompil Maria. She was a dalit woman from the place called Chelakompu, and was known as Vattapparayil Maria. Her quest for the faith and death have been described in the missionary journal Jnananikshepam of 1925. She was born in 1842 in a family of agrestic slaves bound to the landowning family of Palakkunnu in Chelakombu.  Later, she and her brother were sold as slaves to the Koyikkal family of Ezhumattur-Thelliyur. She was married there and had five children. Once when she had gone to the Thelliyurkaavu temple for a puja, she chanced to listen to a missionary preaching nearby. She was drawn to the faith, but because her master would have imposed cruel punishments, she had to suppress her desire to become a Christian. After some time, she met an acquaintance from Chelakombu and got to know from him that the missionaries had set up a church there. The next day, early at dawn, she set off towards Chelakombu with her three children. Because she feared that taking the direct road might lead to her capture, she took long-winding routes. On reaching, she contacted the master in the Church and let him know of her desire. She enrolled her children in the church’s school and managed to secure the right to work once more under the earlier landlord family of Palakkunnu. In between, she learned the Bible and completed preparations to join the faith. Later, she reunited with her husband and continued to be a member of the community of faith at Chelakombu till her death. The article in Jnananikshepam is an obituary that praises her faith.

Whatever may be our criticisms of the missionary effort, it is indisputable that it led a section of dalit women towards modern education. From the very beginning, the missions included dalit people in their schools, but the extensive presence of dalit students is evident mainly after the 1860s. In 1852, the LMS Missionary Charles Mead (1792-1873) married the dalit woman Lois Biddulph (1830-1911). It was he who set up the ‘Pulaya Charity School’ in Thiruvananthapuram in 1861 with 12 boys and 6 girls. They were given vocational training. In 1882, separate schools were set up for boys and girls in Thiruvalla which aimed at educating dalits and producing teachers among them. The next year, Mary Baker set up a boarding school for dalit girls in Kottayam which imparted industrial training. Because the students had to leave for her three times a year to help their families in agricultural labour, running the school regularly was difficult. Also, only 15 students could be accommodated there. This school did not last long and Mary Baker’s missionary inclinations were not strong. But the school at Thiruvalla prospered. Education was free there and meals and clothes provided too. The chief aim of missionary schools for girls was to instruct dalit girls on becoming ideal women. The early girls’ school in Kottayam used to be known as the ‘Husband Class’. But as far as backward caste and dalit women were concerned, education was a vital link to modern society. Hygiene, dressing styles, language, reading and other such ideas became available to them through education and through this, the change in dalit life was made evident, which in turn, attracted more dalit people to the faith.

By the end of the 19th century, dalit girls began to appear for the higher examinations. In 1897, eight girl students of the boarding school at Thiruvalla appeared for the Madras Primary Exam and seven of them passed it. This was a first in Travancore, as the missionaries recorded. Education under British colonialism in India is being closed examined at its micro-levels by social science research. Some have observed that the fundamental aim of missionary education was to enable the teaching of the Bible. It is also often argued that the entry into modernity intensified gender discrimination and prioritized the training of girls for modern domesticity. An important aspect of this project was that Christian literature began quickly integrated into the curriculum, becoming a part of modern education.  But despite these criticisms of colonialism, there can be little doubt that they paved the way for the education of dalits in Kerala. That it linked the dalit people who were hitherto excluded from the authority invested in the world of  reading and writing  to this very world, is indeed the dalit facet of the colonial project.

[Vinil Paul is currently pursuing his doctoral research at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has worked on the area of ‘Slavery’ and its abolition in south west India. Through his work he has looked at how British rule globalised Kerala slavery, the transportation of slaves from Kerala to other countries and the association of the region within the Trans Atlantic slave trade or ‘Indian Ocean World’ trade.]

is currently pursuing his doctoral research at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has worked on the area of ‘Slavery’ and its abolition in south west India. Through his work he has looked at how British rule globalised Kerala slavery, the transportation of slaves from Kerala to other countries and the association of the region within the Trans Atlantic slave trade or ‘Indian Ocean World’ trade.

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