As expressed in the Marriage Liturgy and  Customs of
The Malankara Syrian Christian Churches of Malabar
Prof. M.M.Ninan

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This is a modified version of the sermon delivered during the marriage of my daughter Preethy with Charley on april 19,1997 in the United Methodist Church, Magdelena Ave, Los Altos, California.

1. Introduction

In this article I am trying to look at the Christian concept of marriage as expressed through the Traditions and Liturgy that is handed down to us through generations in the Mar Thoma churches of Malabar. Historically this church was established by St. Thomas who arrived in the Kerala cost at around AD 52. This church has been an independent church with lot of contact with Syria. The Syrian church with its early translation of Bible helped the Malabar Church in its teachings. The Mar Thoma Churches claims its heritage from this ancient tradition. Among the many beautiful traditions that are handed down to us is the Marriage Liturgy. Traditions described here vary from place to place and from community to community in details. However the basic expressions are similar. (I would be glad to receive communications in this regard from others who have different customs and traditions.)

 Liturgy is a means of communication in its finest form through all the five senses of man and through the intellect and spirit. It is directed to the totality of body, mind and soul. Therefore we look into the Marriage ceremony of the church to see how Christians considered marriage. They are of particular interest in this era when marriage has lost its meaning and degenerated into a contract between two people even between two homosexual individuals. In this article I am trying to show how our fathers thought about marriage and what Christian Church taught through centuries.

2. Image of God - Male and Female

Before we go into the liturgy I would like to look back into the concept of man. Only then will we be able to understand the full implication of the liturgy. Genesis 127 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Three times in the Bible, this verse is repeated- twice in the creation story and once by our Lord himself.  Notice that the sentence is complete without the last addition "male and female created he them".  Evidently God was giving a very important detail in adding this part.  Neither man alone nor woman alone is an image of  God.  God's image is complete only in the combined male and female. But we don't see Eve in the picture until later.  Adam means mankind and he was both male and female together until God separated Eve out of Adam. The reason for this separation was that Adam could not find any fellowship with any other creatures.  So God decided to  separate Adam into male and female.  This again is typical of the image of God.  A monistic God is a Nirguna Brahman - without properties, without qualities.  He is a totality within himself  and complete within himself.  Properties are after all defined only in terms of relations.  This is probably what God meant when he declared to Moses  "I am that I am"  Yet God is not an inert inactive God.  He enters into relationships and has a personality and a character.  This is possible only if God himself is a family - a composite being.  One God, but three persons.  As Saguna Brahman he can be experienced.  What then is the ultimate reality?  What is the relation within the Godhead of Trinity?  Love is the root of this relation.  So we are told in one word "God is Love."  Most people including the Islam have difficulty in understanding Trinity. But the essential point is that if God has to exist and is made known and understood, he cannot be a self existent monistic God. If has to be pluralism. Trinitarian theology is supported by the Bible in its usage of plurals in defining God. A pluralistic God consisting of separate persons in one Godhead cannot exist in a fallen nature. The fallen nature relies of independence and selfishness. There is competition and self-glorification within the fallen godhead. This is what is reflected in the Roman gods and the Hindu gods and the gods of all ancient religions. It is not selfishness, self-glorification nor competition but love that make the relation between persons within the Godhead. It is this image that we humans wear. When the Bible repeats three times "God created man in his own image - male and female created he them." It is these profound relationships that it emphasizes. Out of the three occurrences - twice the following conjunction is seen.

Gen 2:24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.
This was at the time of separation of female principle from Adam. This is considered by the church as the first marriage occasion where God announces the intent of marriage. What God announces here is that even though Adam and Eve were two persons they were to be one in spirit and flesh. In this sense they represented the concept of one in many of the God.

Jesus himself reiterated this idea when he was asked about the law of divorce.

 Mat 19: 4-6 (also Mark 10:5-7) "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

The idea here seems to be that the image of God is not complete in either man or woman but in the marriage. That does not mean they cannot act independently. They can and well within God's plan as the persons within the Trinity act independently. But marriage is indeed the ultimate fulfillment of the image of God in man.

The process of marriage and union is given a threefold step: Leave, Cleave, Become one flesh. The family is a closed unit within itself. It is sacrosanct and have the first priority. In the list of priority it comes just after God. Everything else is subordinate to it. Why because it reflects the image of God.

The only image of God on earth as a true picture is the loving unit of family. When the image was broken God took all the pain to redeem it through the cross. When a marriage is broken, when the family is fragmented; we are breaking the image of God. We are making the image of God into an image of base gods - images not only the creatures but also of the fallen creatures. This is what the Bible define as idol worship.

Rom 1:21 - 28 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator -- who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.

All perversions of sex are idol worship and God hates them.

Mal 2:16 "I hate divorce," says the Lord.

The eastern church tradition is vastly different from the western tradition in that the liturgy and ceremony reflects this aspect more clearly. There are no "I will" or "I do" in this ceremony. This is because Eastern Church do not see marriage as a contract between two individuals. Within the marriage individuals cease to exist independently. To maintain the integrity and remain faithful is no more an option. It is a command from the Lord. This is a covenant between God and two people who becomes the image of God. God has everything at stake here. So do the Church of God.

There is no exchange of rings between the couple. The Priest as a representative of God places the ring on the fingers of the couple. Marriage is an election. God has chosen these two people to be his image on earth. This new family, the beginning of the image of God is elected to be the molecule of the fabric the church of God - the congregation of the redeemed - the body of Christ,

Divorce and perversions in sex - homosexuality, lesbianism and idol worship are simply distortions of God's image and breaking up of the body of Christ. This brings with it , its own punishment.

1 Cor. 3: 16 - 18 Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise.

The marriage therefore is a sacrament and a covenant between the sovereign god and unworthy humans elected by grace to be partakers of the divine.

3. Marriage Arrangements inn Malankara Tradition

In the Malankara tradition the marriage decisions are not the matter of individuals. Individuals do not execute them. It is not something two individuals do because they decided to do it. Marriage is not between two individuals. It is a community event. It is not giving and taking, but merging. It is a marriage between two families. In this respect the concept of marriage is totally in divergence with the modern view of marriage. Though the involvement of the persons - the man and the woman - are of great importance, it is not to be confused with the two families concerned and of the church and the community in which the church functions. All these factors are neglected in the modern marriage.

In the traditional procedure of marriage those who know these families bring the proposal to the two families. The first step in the process is the scrutiny of the families by the other to find compatibility in terms of family status, financial status and religious beliefs. All these are factors that contributes to healthy family relations. Every factor has its own weightage and the families will have to make their choices. The next step is the consent of the man and the woman. It is normally assumed that love before marriage is forbidden. However a scrutiny of history will show otherwise. As a rule love within the marriage cannot be substituted for love before marriage. They are two aspects. Men and women at all ages fell in love and then got married. The story of Rachel and Jacob;; Ruth and Naomi are two such wonderful examples. In the Malankara churches history we have the love marriage of Mariam and the Prince of Villar Vattom Pana (of Krangaloor around 400 AD) and their marriage which led to their marriage and Villar Vattom Kingdom became the power source of Christendom in Kerala ,during the coming centuries. On the other hand we have the story of Isaac and Rebecca which is considered as the ideal marriage and is often referred to as the symbol of the marriage of the Church and Christ. Here the trustee brought in the bride. Isaac had never seen his bride until his day of marriage. For that reason the church has not given any preferred way of finding the wife. Whatever be the process marriage is not between two people because they are of age. It is much more than that. It is not a question of consenting people of over 18. It is much more than that.

The consent of the two individuals are important and is given due attention in the church. As soon as the bride and the groom enter the church in that order the first thing they do is to sign the consent. This is to avoid any foul play or cheating. Remember Jacob was cheated by Laban. The official marriage settlement is between the two families in the presence of the representatives of the Church. This is followed by two to three announcements in the churches concerned to verify the status of the two individuals to see whether there are any impediments to this marriage. Unless the bride and the groom sign their agreement at the begining of the ceremony, the ceremony will not take place. Notwithstanding anything said or done, theirs is the final word.

4. The Dowry System

Malankara Syrian Chrsitian Community lived among the Brahmins and the Nairs who followed the Marumakka thaaym. In this system all property belong to the women and are tranferred through the mother. However mother is not the head of the family - the mother's eldest brother is. It was the maternal uncle (the Karanavar) who lived with the nephews. His own children were taken care of by their maternal uncle. Even though most of the early powerful Christians came from the Namboodiri Brahmins, they followed the Patriarchial system, where the headship and properties were transferred from father to children and the children were brought up by both the parents living together. This indcates that the conversion of the early christians were a drastic change and the preservation of faith could not have been possible without a change. Since the leadership to the conversions and the leadership of the early churches were by men, Patriarchial System was their only choice. In this system women got married and moved away from their home (instead of the Hindu custom of men visitng the women) to raise their families in the faith. Initally the property of the family was divided among the children - both boys and girls equally. However it became difficult for the girls' husbands to come back and take care of the land and properties. They often lived very far from the girls' family. This must have also led to disputes and problems between the borthers and sisters over boudaries etc. The best solution was to pay the girls the value of the properties for which they have the right. Thus dowry was the share of the women from their family. She took it with her into the family to which she entered.

Like any other sytem of property transanctions, dowry systems were also grossly misused. It became a criteria to determine the social level and the grooms and their parents looked for girls who would bring more money into their family. This has led to horse trading and dowry (originaly the girl's portion) became more than the real value of the girl's share for poor and much less for the very rich. As a result the poor christian parents found it difficult to find boys to marry their daughters and the rich christians cheated their daughters by giving little to their daughters. In every generation there had been young men and women who stood against the misuse of dowry. But in a sinful society it avails very little. As a result of these struggles several court cases arose and the supreme court of India has made several rulings in this regard. Accordig tot he law of the country the girls are entitled to their share and dowry is not counted as a substitute.

5. The Bride is ready.

Once the wedding date is settled between the two families in the presence of the represetatives of the parishers of the two churches elaborate preparations are made. Invitations are sent out to all friends and families. Traditionaly the invitation is for the entire families. The close relatives are to be invited by the bride or the groom in person in the invitees home. Normally close relatives and immediate families arrive several days before the function and helps in the preparation of the festivities. When relatives and friends of the bride come to visit they bring presents in the form of money. This way the entire community bear the burden of the marriage. The amounts brought in as present are carefully noted by the head of the family and is dutifully returned when there is a girl marrying in that family. The whole concept was that the daughter of the community is given away in marriage. These old norms are dying out due to changes in economic and social structures.

On the day of the marriage, the bride or the bridegroom is made ready by her friends and relations.

The Bride is getting ready.

Before the bride or the groom leave home to the church all those who are present gather together. They have to honor all those who have helped them to grow into mature adults, with presents. This is known as Dakshina. Dhakshina is normally a token present of One coin placed in a pair of beetle leaves. The bride or the groom give this to the elder with both hands and touch their feet for blessing. They in turn bless them and pray over them and take upon themselves any curse or bad luck these new bride or bridegroom may be carrying. Among them are the elders of maternal family, Paternal family, Church and Community - aunts, uncles, teachers, spiritual leaders etc.. The Word of God is read and Prayed over the bride or the bridegroom. Mothers do not normally go to the church. They stay behind to take care of the arrangements. In the days when carriages were rare and when marriages were early, brides were carried by brothers to the church. Later they were taken in ornated ox carts - called mani vandi = bell cart which ring melodius sounds as they go through the rough road. Now these are replaced by ornated cars.

These blessings shall come upon you...............................Thaks be to God................

Leaving home for Church for the wedding is a time of mixed joy and sorrow for the bride. They leave farewell to every member of the family before they step out. Supressed tears and sobings are the norm. The bride and the bridegroom usually walked in with their friends in accompaniment. The closest friend providing the umberla shade.

Leaving Home to make her own home ..................................Mum's last minute advise.

6. The Marriage Ceremony

The bridegroom enters the church and stand facing the altar. The bridegroom then enters and stand by the groom. Before the service begins the bridgroom and the bride will have to sign their agreement to this marriage. To a question "Do agree to this marriage?" they will have to write "yes" amd then sign the register. Only then the marriage is conducted. Marriage itself consists of two parts. First part is the blessing of the rings. This is the betrothal ceremony. The second part is the crowning ceremony. This is the marriage ceremony. We shall see the great symbolisms in the Liturgy as we go through the Liturgy.

6. Church: Witness and Trustee

Church is the witness to the marriage. But the Church is also the trustee of the marriage. The Church does not perform the ceremony and leave the couple to fend for themselves. It is the responsibility of the Church to nourish, protect and mature this family in the image of God. Church is a trustee. This aspect is evident as we come to the end of the ceremony. It is not finding a priest somewhere in some place and getting the ceremony done. There is no meaning for such a ceremony.

7. The Two Alternating Pictures

In the ceremony alternating with the actual marriage ceremony of the two individuals involved is the picture of marriage of Jesus and the Church. This picture is interwoven with the ceremony that at some point you will actually wonder what exactly is going on. The two couples are lost and the liturgy goes on with the adoration of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church. In reply Jesus himself sing of the beauty of the daughter of the Gentiles - the Church of the Gentile world. In a sense these two are identical, because the union of two individuals is the nucleus of the Church itself. The comparison goes far beyond the external parabole. Jesus came to the earth and he selected a daughter of the gentiles as his bride. He fell in love with her. He paid the price of redemption by his blood on the cross of calvary.

8. The Cup Offered

The last supper itself takes up a new meaning in the Jewish context. A man may walk in to a house where he has identified a girl whom he had fallen in love. He will bring with him a jar of wine and a cup. He will bring it out and drink from it and offer the cup to the girl as a proposal. The girl may take the cup and drink from it if she is willing. He may leave the cup on the table and go away to return and see if she has accepted the proposal. If she has taken the cup and drank from it, it an acceptance of the porposal. This is exactly what Jesus did on the night he was betrayed.. The eleven who were with him - all Jews accepted the cup. He has left this cup for all the rest of people on the earth. When you take the cup you have declared your intention to be married to Jesus as part of the Church. This cup is still standing on the table. It is waiting for you.

9. I am going to Prepare a place for you.

On the occasion of his ascension Jesus said, "I am going to prepare a place for you. When it is ready I will come back and take you with me, so that we can be together for ever. He has given a guarantee of his promise in the giving of the Holy Spirit. Just a s Eliazar took every pain to bring Rebecca to Isaac, so will the Holy Spirit take care of the bride in the long journey through the desert of the world.

10. The Crowning Ceremony

In the ceremony you will see that there is a break between the blessing of the Ring - the betrothal and the Crowning ceremony. This is the Church Age. This is the period of grace when the bride of Christ is being prepared. The church will have to grow in maturity and in virtue. The Church will grow in number. This gap represents the gap between the period of ascension of Jesus and to his glorious second coming. The second part of this service represents this glorious expectation. This part is called the crowning ceremony. Why is it so called? It is a representation when the church is crowned as the wife of Jesus in glory - when she is presented to the father and takes her place at the right hand of Jesus. The trumpet will peel, the thunder will roar and there will be music for those who are ready. Behold the bride of the lamb is ready and the marriage of the lamb has come. She will be crowned and will sit beside Him as partners to his divinity. The marriage is a fore taste of this unity that the church will experience.

1 Cor. 2:9 No eye has seen, nor the ear heard, no mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love him

What a foretaste of glory.

In other parts of the Eastern world an actual crown is used in the ceremony and placed on the heads of the couple. But in the Malankara tradition, a real crown is not used. Instead a chain with a cross is used and moved around the head as a crown. This crown comes down from heaven to adorn the bride and the bride groom. Marriage is a great honor and an invitation to be a representative of God himself on the earth. But it is also a covenant of the cross. It is a sacrifice of the self in the two individuals so that God may be reflected to the rest of the world. It is a commitment to the redemption of the rest of the world - another attempt of God to redeem the world from its decay and death.

11.  The Minnu

The Thali as a symbol of a married woman  is prevalent all through India.  The Syrian Christians have also accepted the cultural norm.  This symbol on the neck tells the world that this particular person is not open to porposal.  The Minnu has always been considered sacred both by the Hindus and the Christians.  Violation of the Minnu is adultery.  Traditionally the shape of the minnu is in the form of the Peepul tree leaf.  When the Church was formed early in the first century they have kept the cultural traditions with little modifications.  They have placed a cross on the leaf form.  Leaf itself was made elongated that it has very little resemblance to the leaf. Instead it looks more like a man (with the hook forming the head. The picture above is inexact in that the hook is perpendicular to the place of the leaf) with a cross in his heart. It is a symbol of the perfected man in marriage. The cross is at the center of it. The cross itself is made out of seven small spheres.

The minnu was put on a string made of seven strands of thread taken from the Mantra Kodi the wedding cloth by the brother- in-law of the groom.  Seven evidently symbolizes the seventh day of Sabbath the day of rest.  It looks forward to the marriage ceremony of the Lamb when the Church enters its rest to be with the coming Chris and enters into the joys of the heavenlies.

The tying of the minnu is traditionally done in the Brahmin community by the sister of the groom symbolizing the reception of the woman into household.  Among the Christians it is done by the groom himself in the presence of the Priest and the witnesses (the Church).  The knot is to be a reef knot - a knot that is almost impossible to unknot.  Marriage is a once and for all commitment and the two are signing this covenant  in this act.  The Priest holds the minnu in his hands and gives the two ends of the strings to the groom who ties the knot.  In the olden days the Priest will inspect the knot to make sure it is a reef knot
12.  The Mantra Kodi

Kodi means new cloth.  Mantra means mystical.  The covering of the bride from the head with a new Cloth is in contrast with the Brahminic tradition.  In the Brahminic tradition this cloth is given in the hand of the bride as a symbol of the promise that he will provide for her.  In the Christian custom it is put over the head as a covering.  This brings in the imagery of bringing the bride into the tabernacle. It reminds of the verse
Gen 24:67  Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebecca. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.
It symbolizes the formation of the family and the mystery of marriage.

At the end of the ceremony not only there is an exhortation to the newly wed, but also to the rest of the community of believers.  The ceremony ends and the festivities begin.

13.  The Festivities

Unlike these days the couple were taken in procession to the home of either the bride or the groom.  Normally it is the groom's house.  Bride's mother and the Groom's mother normally would not go to the Church  but stays home preparing the home for the new couple to come in.  The Bride and the groom are received by the mothers and the members of the household with lighted lamps.  The traditional Nira Para (Full Measure of Rice) and Nila Vilakku ( Tall Bonze Lamp with many Wicks) and Thala Poli (Flower Tray) are always present.  The Kurava (A noise of celebration) is a right the Syrian Christians inherited through an edict of Perumal, the King of Chera. It is a privilege only of the High Class Hindus which is shared by the Christians.

The Festivities take place usually at the front yard of the house which is prepared with a cover  to protect from sun and the rain and is elaborately decorated with leaves and flowers and cloths. The couple  is received and seated at the center of the audience.  The guests of then received with the elder of the incoming family given the VIP seat.  The VIP seat is called Vella and Karimpadam (A black blanket covered with a white sheet).  He is the chief guest.  In olden days the seating was on the floor covered with mats.

The couple is given sweetened milk by the mother or some elder women of the family as a welcome.  Then the couple is excused with the permission of all gathered to enter into the bride chamber.  This is obtained by Priest who presides asking the community for it.  The couple symbolically goes into the house.  The feast starts then.  The traditional Syrian Christian  marriage feast did not allow any form of wine or hard drinks.  The feast consisted of traditional Syrian Christian food laid on plantain leaf.  Here again it is a practice handed down to us that the edge of the lead be bend to double the leaf.  A Syrian Christian has a double share whenever he or she attends a festival as per the edict and privilege given by the Kings of Kerala.  If two leaves and double quantities are too much, we still do not want to forget that privilege.  As a symbol the leaf is bend down at the edge and doubled.

The members and relations of the host family sits down only after the guest family and their invitees are fed and leave the place.

14. Kaccha Koda


The traditional dress of the Syrian Chrsitian women consisted of only white clothes. The upper wears were three parts. The Kaccha muri is a plain while sheet. It is worn with a distictive style with dove tail like pleat at the back. Chatta is the white top. Over this a neryathu is worn. Neryathu is also white with plenty of golden jerry borders. This is a unique dress. This style is fast growing out of fashion since the Indian Independence and Saree has become the national standard.

A Kaccha is a ream of cloth from which four quarters of Kaccha muri (muri means cuts) can be made. After all the guests have dispersed, when only the two families are left behind, the bridegroom officially gives the mother in law a Kaccha symbolizing his sonship in the family. This is done with the permission of all members of the family in a ritual. The Kaccha is cut into four parts and each muri is given to the elder lady members of the bride's extended family. In return the mother-in-law adorns the new son-in-law with a ring or a necklace of gold. The son-in-law has been integrated into the family.


The couple spends the first night at the host home and then goes to the other home.  During the coming weeks, they are being invited by relations and friends for Virunoonu - Dinner - so that the new unit of family is fully integrated into both the families and in the community..

Now as we go through the liturgy I shall try to unfold the great depth of imagery and meaning of each of the portion.