By Ekalokam Trust for Photography
Leo James, Ekalokam Trust for Photography
Indian photographer Leo James photographs the first, second, and third
generation Tamil Christian couples in and around Tiruvannamalai, an ancient town in Tamil Nadu, as part of the
Collective Public Photo-art Project Three Six Five Tiruvannamalai.
An initiative by Ekalokam Trust for Photography (EtP), Project 365 is a cultural collective that generates and fosters meaningful leads and links of a living tradition with its historical and mythical past through a vast and varied photographic archive, which will be a kind of repertory of a collective vestigial memory theatre. The pilot phase of Project 365 was organized in Tiruvannamalai, an ancient town in Tamil Nadu. The Project, with 24 leading and young Indian/International photographers, had been successful in capturing the multi-cultural and pluralistic lifestyle of this town and the Public Photo-art Archive: Tiruvannamalai has a collection of about 3000 photographic images.
Everyday life, rare rituals and unusual scenes as they occur in the second decade of the 21st century form part of this project. It covers the modern Tiruvannamalai town and its medieval temples remarkable for their architecture, native religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism as well as modern religions like Islam and Christianity that have become part of the landscape over several centuries, the local people and their culture on the margins and how they fare today. As part of this project, young Indian photographer Leo James has photographed the first, second, and third generation “Tamil Christian couples” living in Tiruvannamalai.
Ancient Tamilakam (corresponding to modern South India) had maritime trade and cultural contacts with Central Asia, Mediterranean, and Middle East long before the start of Christian era, dating back to the South Indian Iron Age (app. 1000BCE). These cross border infusion of ideas and philosophy later became the gateway for religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam to spread to India. It is said that Jews reached Cochin, Kerala in 526 BCE and over time, through cultural diffusion, assimilated the local traditions. Historians opine that they came in waves, and the early Jewish merchant guilds were active in the local and cross-border trade.
It is said that Thomas the Apostle, came to present day Kerala in 52 CE and travelled to present day Tamil Nadu and died in Mylapore in modern Chennai. Even though there is no historical evidence concurring with this claim, the ancient Christians of India go with the narrative and attest that it was Thomas the Apostle who spread the word among the ancient Jews in India, which led to their conversion to Christianity. It was a period when maritime trade was at its peak – the Romans had discovered the direct route to Tamilakam from Egypt, taking advantage of the monsoon wind - a knowledge that was long known to Indian and Arab sailors.
Regardless of whether St. Thomas landed in the sea port Muchiri or not, the sangam/classical period maritime trade was the only possible route through which Christianity would have entered this ancient land. If St. Thomas did come to India, then in all probability on his way to Chennai he would have passed Tiruvannamalai, which was on the Silk route.
During the medieval period, the Syrian Christian community was further strengthened by the arrival of the Persian Christians and granting of special rights and privileges to them by the local rulers. Mentions about these ancient settlers and traders have also been found in Sangam literature. Starting around the 16th century, there were a large number of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Danish and Italian Christians who started trade expeditions to this part of India and established their trading companies. These traders also were also engaged in peaceful as well as forceful dialogues with the locals on matters pertaining to religion and philosophy.
Roman Catholicism was the first to be introduced. Since the 19th century, Protestant churches have also taken their place in the community. Presently, Christianity in South India has several different denominations. The ancient Christians (Syrian Christians) who were not as interested in propagation and conversation had by this time divided into East Syrians and West Syrians, which are further sub divided into various factions.
The first Danish expedition set sail in the year 1618 CE, and after they failed to arrive at an agreement in Ceylon, their Trade Director Robert Crappe set sail on a scouting freighter - exploring possibilities in Tamilakam. It was a time when the mighty trinity of the Ceras, Cholas, and Pandyas had lost their political power and the decentralized local chieftains/Nayaks were controlling the land. The sailors encountered the Portuguese vessels off the Karaikkal coast and were sunk, with most of the crew killed, or taken prisoner.
The Nayak of the then Tanjore who was on the lookout for trading opportunities was open to Robert Crappe who along with thirteen mariners had evaded Portuguese captivity. They entered into a treaty which granted them the village of Tranquebar (or Tharangambadi), and the right to construct a "stone house" and levy taxes. The bipartite treaty also provided rights to the Tamils to settle in Denmark and involve in trade activities. Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was the first Danish Protestant missionary to come to Tamilakam. He was sent as a Royal Missionary by King Frederick IV, from the Kingdom of Denmark.
The Tranquebar Mission was established by Ziegenbalg in 1706. In 1715, he translated the Bible into Tamil and helped setup India's first printing press at Tranquebar (Tharangambadi), with Tamil being the first Indian language to be printed. Ziegenbalg advocated for women's education and abolition of the caste system, and gained the respect of the local people. He established the very first school for girls in Indian subcontinent at Tranquebar in 1707. In 1919, the Tamil congregation of different German, Danish and Swedish Lutheran missions joined together to form the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC).
They started spreading to others parts of Arcot District. In the year 1898, the Danish Mission School was founded in Tiruvannamalai, which is 200 kms from Tranquebar, and the famous Carmel church was established in the year 1914. Within the next hundred- odd years, many other missionaries from other Christian denominations had reached this ancient town.
While most of the Christians in Kerala were wealthy merchants, in many other parts of South India it was the downtrodden and oppressed who were largely attracted to this foreign philosophy. The modern Christian settlers were hell bent to consolidate and increase their numbers, as a means to expand their trade and exercise power over the locals. They slowly and steadily embarked on the mission of converting the masses; picked fights with the local rulers who were not following their theology and worked towards influencing the native traditions.
The challenging living conditions led to the tendency to depend on these charity initiatives. The missions tried to address issues pertaining to social inequality that was prohibiting certain class of people from covering their upper bodies, constructing a stone house, entering temples etc. Education, primarily with the view of enabling them to read Bible, as well as a means to stand against oppression is an area where the contributions of Christianity are noteworthy.
This step towards progress also had another major impact on the local context – the natives lost their indigenous expressions and original traditions that were an integral part of their life and lifestyle. This was indeed the beginning of a homogenization process. The vast majority of the people who were converted were the coastal inhabitants. However, a large majority of the locals, who were already exposed to many other philosophies, saw similarity in Christianity as well, especially the virgin mother cult practice. They opted for the embrace-yet-resist response which is the reason for the low percentage of Christian population in India.
Leo James hails from a Christian family in Quilon, which has been an important Christian settlement since the Sangam period. He knows his lineage, tradition and history, and is aware of the cultural nuances and the unique as well as unifying attributes of the different Christian factions. Through these photographs, Leo has touched the very soul of Christianity, its penetrating presence and everlasting contribution.
The couples intimately hold their partner or stand close together, look straight into the camera and smile. A majority of them are from a generation that has not seen today’s upscale photo-shoots. A few are comfortably at ease, while a few others are visibly tensed. The Annamalai hill, the sacred landmark of Tiruvannamalai is present, at times distinct, and at other times, in the far background, exemplifying their connection to this ancient land. However, prominent Christian symbols that make them stand apart are not visible in these photographs.
Unlike the rest of South India, where Christians have a history of about 2000 years, this temple town has seen only three generations of Christians that constitutes roughly about 2.7% of the total population. A majority of them, are first or second generation Christians and they are yet to completely covert from their traditional practices and lifestyle. Some of them haven’t even changed their names to Christian ones, and continue to follow certain practices from their former religion. A few third generation Christian families have also been included in this series. Objects, animals, and plants that are in the frame become signs of their social and economical background. Their attire, sophistication, posture and confidence becomes the symbolic representation of the level of education and social recognition that the Church has extended.
Subtly, yet strongly Leo’s camera has dwelt on the different strata that make up the South Indian society. These photographs have captured a slice of an ancient town’s developmental history. With globalization and the resultant homogenization affecting and permanently altering every aspect of contemporary life, public photo archives of this kind that preserves the paradigm shift moments are the need of the hour.
This series is part of the Collective Public Photo-art Project Three Six Five Tiruvannamalai.
Curation and text by:
Tulsi Swarna Lakshmi, Founder and Managing Trustee, EtP
Special Thanks to:
Abul Kalam Azad, Director, Project Three Six Five
Dr. V. Selvakumar, Thanjavur Tamil University
Sri Ashok Vajpeyi, Raza Foundation
Sri Akhilesh, Raza Foundation
J Jayaraman, Sri Ramana Ashram
For more information about Project Three Six Five Tiruvannamalai See https://etpindia.org/tiruvannamalai/