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Echoes of caste slavery in Dalit Christian practices

In the mid-twentieth century Dalit migration from the villages of southern princely State of Travancore to the villages in the Western Ghats hills in the north was reminiscent of Exodus, although we are yet to have substantial narratives of the difficult journeys they undertook. In the new villages in the British Malabar where they settled down, they could own small pieces of land and become marginal farmers. One of the surprising things is that majority of the Dalit migrants from Kerala were Dalit Christians. It is worth speculating if the story of Exodus had anything to do with their migration and spatial mobility, which they saw as a necessary escape from the land of slavery that the Travancore was.

The oral history of Dalit Christian migration often alludes to the story of Exodus. However, slave castes ran away into the wilderness to escape even before they came into contact with British missionaries. In the mid-nineteenth century British Missionaries met runaway slaves hiding deep inside the forests of Travancore, forming ‘maroon communities’ in today’s Kottayam district. The Hill tribes inhabiting these forest tracts never disturbed the asylum seekers. In a matter of few years the runaway slaves also came into contact with the Church Missionary Society missionaries and learned the basics of Christian faith and prayers. Reflecting on the experience liberation of African Americans in his seminal book, Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois, refers to liberation from slavery as “the coming of the Lord…. This was the fulfillment of prophecy and legend. It was the Golden Dawn, after chains of a thousand years for the first time.” We may observe a similar coming of the Lord phenomenon in the case of slaves in Kerala.

The experience of Dalits in early twentieth century Kerala shows their multiple engagements with the problem of liberation from the vestiges of slavery and their craving for liberation. The idea of liberation that they learned from the Gospel had a fundamental effect in transforming their lives. Religion became a central site of the experiences of modernity to Dalits. Du Bois observed, “for most of the black folk emancipated by civil war God was real. They knew Him. They had met him personally in many a wild orgy of religious frenzy, or the black stillness of night.” In the stillness of the night in the Travancore villages the slave caste men women and children met for prayers in their slave schools or sometimes in the jungles. These were the places where they met God, transforming such places into sites of liberation and modernity for the slaves.

'A school of untouchables near Bangalore' by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1935). NPG Ax143754. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
‘A school of untouchables near Bangalore’ by Lady Ottoline Morrell (1935). NPG Ax143754. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

As late as the 1940s the descendants of slaves struggled hard to achieve a dignified social life. Dalits in several parts of Kerala faced several indignities, including forcing them out of public roads and preventing them from using white and clean clothes to mention a few. The structural violence of food scarcity was another thing that overshadowed their lives. They had to wage protracted struggles to overcome these oppressions. They faced institutionalized social injustice that continued well into the postcolonial period.

Nevertheless, we come across highly imaginative inversions of the symbols of structural violence, heavily loaded with meanings. Even today, a peculiar practice is part of the observances and rituals of Passion Week in a predominantly Dalit congregation of the Marthoma Syrian Church in the Trivandrum district of Kerala. At noon meals on Good Friday, rice gruel is served to the people in the small holes that are dug into the ground. Usually a piece of plantain leaf is fixed in the hole before the gruel is served that keeps the gruel from being mixed up with earth. In the days of caste slavery slaves used to be fed in such holes, and it remains in the social memory of former slave castes in Kerala as a symbol of oppression and humiliation. In the current context this practice becomes a perfect identification with the sufferings and humiliation of Jesus. The dalits of the congregation wanted their history of oppression to have larger meaning in contemporary life.

Similar inversions of memories and symbols of slavery remind us of the multiple ways in which the modernity of slavery remains with us.

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