Easter commemorates the death on the cross of Jesus Christ and his resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion. Christ is the central figure in the Holy Bible comprising the Old and the New Testaments, as accepted by the overwhelming majority of Christians across the world, irrespective of denomination, race or culture. As far as religious observances and festivities are concerned, Christianity has assimilated practices from different regions of the world and has been especially influenced by the languages and prescriptive traditions of West Asia, where Christ is said to have lived and died.
Although the origins of Christianity in India are uncertain, some researchers suggest it may have been established by St. Thomas, one of the disciples or apostles of Jesus Christ. Following the final command of Christ to teach and preach the gospel to all nations (St. Matthew 28:19, St. Mark 16:15), it is said that in 52 CE St. Thomas came in a trading vessel from Alexandria in Egypt to the south of the Periyar river near Crangannore (present day Kodungallur) or Muziris (presumed to be present day Pattanam). Members of his community came to be known as St. Thomas Christians and were affiliated with the Church of the East located in Persia.
It was with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 CE, who came to India in quest of the Malabar spices, that the St. Thomas Christians had their first contact with the West. Equations of colonial powers were slowly changing in India, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation had their reverberations here. The Dutch, French and the British followed the Portuguese and it was ultimately the British who established their hegemony over most parts of India. The British missionaries established the Church Mission Society (CMS), London Mission Society (LMS) and the Basil Mission. These were the new denominations along with Baptist, British Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.
In 1957, many churches in the south, like the CMS, LMS, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist churches merged to become the Church of South India (CSI). A similar merger took place in the north in 1970 to form the Church of North India. Some churches continued their independent existence. Today in India there are primarily the Catholic Church with three major rites—the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara—the Orthodox and Jacobite factions of the Orthodox Church, the Protestant Churches like Mar Thoma, CSI, CNI, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and the Pentecostal Churches. Observances of Easter differ from one denomination to the other.
Preparations for Easter start with the 40 days of Holy Lent, to commemorate the 40 days Christ fasted in the wilderness, and overcame the temptations of Satan, before he undertook his Public Ministry (St. Matthew 4:1–11; St. Mark: 1:12 & 13; St. Luke: 4:1–13). In most Churches, the period commences with Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. In Goa, as in a number of European and Latin American countries the period just before Lent is marked by the Carnival. Preparations for Easter in the Orthodox Churches are more extensive, starting with remembering all the departed the Sunday before the Great Lent. The CNI observes Ash Wednesday by burning the palm leaves used on the Palm Sunday of the previous year and smearing the ashes on the foreheads of the faithful to mark their entry into the 40 days of Lent. Rev. Dr Christopher S. Raj of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Presbyter of the Cathedral Church of Redemption says that the ashes signify repentance and a recognition of the worthlessness of the physical being; the reference here is to what God tells Adam; ‘Dust thou art and unto dust thou return’ (Genesis 3:19).
The first Monday of Lent has a ceremony for mutual reconciliation called ‘Shubqono’ for all members of the parish. The faithful are supposed to abstain from fish, meat, poultry, milk and milk products during Lent. Such abstinence is part of a process of self-discipline which symbolizes the self-purification required on the spiritual journey towards enlightenment (Rev. Fr. Shaji Matthew, Vicar, St. John’s Orthodox Church, Delhi, in conversation). Those who observe Lent are also supposed to fast, visit the sick and give food to the hungry and do charitable actions. There are daily prayers and devotional discourses.
The culmination of Lent is the Holy Week, which re-enacts the series of events ending with the death on the cross and resurrection of Christ. Also called the Passion Week, it starts with Palm Sunday, celebrating the triumphant entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem on a colt, where he was given a tumultuous welcome: roads were paved with olive branches and palm leaves, and there were shouts of ‘Hosanna’ (Hebrew for ‘save us’, uttered as praise and supplication).
On Palm Sunday, a ceremonial procession with the congregation holding palm leaves (some in the shape of a cross) is taken out. In some traditions these processions are within the church premises and in others the procession goes around the town, as in the ‘Shobha Yatras’ or ‘Nagar Keertans’ in north India. The palm leaves are venerated and people are supposed to preserve them at home or bring them back to the church. In the Orthodox Churches there is a special service before a bonfire on Christmas night, when people bring the palm leaves and consign them to the fire. In most parts of India, including Kerala, the palm leaves, which are indigenous to West Asia, are substituted with tender coconut leaves considered auspicious by all faiths.
Maundy Thursday (from the Latin ‘mandatum’, meaning mandated) is the next important day in Passion Week and commemorates the day of the Last Supper of Christ. It is also called Passover Thursday as it continues the Jewish observance of the feast of the Passover with the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb and unleavened bread, as mandated by God through Moses during the captivity of the Jews (Exodus 12:3 & 11).
It was at the Last Supper that Jesus, the sacrificial lamb for the faithful took the bread and wine, offered thanks to God, and gave these to his disciples as symbols of his body and blood. Jesus also asked his disciples to do this in remembrance of his sacrifice; this was the establishment of the Holy Communion or the Holy Qurbana. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus hinted at Judas’s betrayal and the suffering he would undergo. It was on the same night that Judas identified Jesus to the Roman soldiers for his arrest, trial and crucifixion the next day.
On Maundy Thursday the tradition in many Indian churches is for the families to take unleavened bread as offering, and in homes there is a ceremony of the family elder breaking bread. Another important ceremony in many churches is the reenactment of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples. In Catholic churches, the Church of South India and Church of North India, priests and bishops wash the feet of 12 members of the Church; in the Orthodox churches only the bishops wash the feet of the people.
Non-Christians often ask why the day of the suffering and death on the cross of Jesus Christ is called ‘Good’ Friday? Its spiritual meaning is that Jesus Christ gave his life for the remission of the sins of the whole of humankind. In the Eastern churches it is referred to as sorrowful or painful Friday, and in Malayalam it is called ‘Dukha Velli’, denoting sorrow, whereas in Tamil it is known as 'Periya Velli' (the 'big' Friday). There are processions of people bearing a wooden cross in the church and out in the street, a ritual called the ‘Way of the Cross’. There are discourses on the last seven sayings of Christ on the cross: these include his words asking forgiveness for his executioners, and his last words commending his spirit to God.
Easter Sunday is observed to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion. Churches in India generally hold midnight or sunrise services with the proclamation of the rising of the Lord. After weeks of fasting and abstinence, Easter is a day of joy and celebration.
The observance of Easter in India may vary from one denomination to the other but local cultural expressions cut across all denominations. In Goa, for example, the week preceding the 40-day Lent witnesses the Carnival, where the revelry displays a distinct Portuguese influence. The Carnival is said to have grown out of an ancient Saturn Festival observed before Rome became Christian with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312 CE. The clandestine celebration of the Saturn festival was later integrated as the Carnival (said to be from the Latin words ‘carnem’ for flesh, and ‘liveram’ for taking away, indicating abstinence from meat during Lent). Certain local influences too prevail such as the throwing of coloured powder, which is also a part of Goa’s Shigmo festival heralding the arrival of spring, celebrated in the month of Falgun (February- March).
There are also Christian pilgrimages akin to the one to Sabarimala in Kerala. Also, Malayattoor near Trichur, Kanakamala near Irinjalakuda and the sea shore of Palaiyur near Chavakkad. Devotees wear red ochre clothes and rosaries and carry heavy wooden crosses and utter devotional chants as they walk up Malayattoor and Kanakamala. Palaiyoor on the sea shore is the place where according to legend St. Thomas persuaded local people to accept the gospel of Christ.
‘Nercha’ (Malayalam for ‘offering to gods’) may be a universal concept but it has a special significance in Indian culture. ‘Paithal Nercha (‘paithal’ means child) in the Piravom Orthodox Church is a feast given to 12 boys representing the 12 Disciples of Christ on Easter day, and reminds one of ‘Kanjak’ during the Navaratra festivities in north India when families invite little girls to a meal (Mr. P. Thomas, an elder of the Church, in conversation). On Good Friday all Orthodox churches in Kerala follow up a day of fasting and prayers by serving everyone ‘Nercha Kanji’ (rice gruel), a thoran or dish made of pulses cooked with desiccated coconut, a jackfruit dish, or avial (mixed vegetable). Till steel and plastic crockery came into vogue this was served on banana leaves placed in holes dug out of the sand in the church courtyard.
In India, Easter cuisines vary from vindaloo and sorpatel in Goa, appam and mutton stew or beef fry with coconut in Kerala, biryani and korma in North India, chicken/ pork and rice in many parts of the North East, and so on. Alcoholic drinks are forbidden by the Church but have wide social acceptance in Kerala and Goa. In fact, liquor sales peak during Easter. One of the most popular customs on Easter is the gifting of Easter eggs, which are made of chocolates and marzipan in the shape of eggs or are just painted eggshells. Although the practice of decorating eggshells pre-dates Christianity, the Easter egg itself is said to represent the empty tomb of Jesus from which he was resurrected, symbolizing the renewal of life.
As it is a spring festival, the connection between Christ’s resurrection and the emergence of the earth from the darkness of winter are apparent throughout the festivities. Ultimately, the believer gets closer to the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. As Philip Goldberg writes in the Huffington Post: ‘On the highest level, crucifixion-resurrection is symbolic of the spiritual aspirant leaving behind, or dying to, the egoic self—the individual identity defined by personality and physical form—and awakening to the infinite Self at the core of being, which we share with all of existence’ (Goldberg 2011).
Goldberg, Philip. 2011. ‘The Sublime Symbolism of Easter and the Ridiculous Resurrection of Ayn Rand’, in Huffington Post, April 23.