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How Basel Mission modernized North Kerala?

Deepa Thomas September 13, 2020
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Did you know social reform movements in North Kerala were heralded by few protestant missionaries from Basel? Tyndis Heritage Travel looks at how the Malabar area of Kerala was modernized by Basel Mission way back in 19th century.


History of Basel Mission


Basel is a city in Switzerland bordering Germany and France. In the face of a military threat from the dictatorial French ruler Napolean Boaparte, few devout men took a pledge to dedicate their lives for charitable activities if their city was saved from war. As their prayers were answered, in 1815 those men founded Basel Evangelical Mission (BEM) and committed themselves to work for the development of human society across the world.


BEM Arrives in India


In 1833, when the British Government’s East India Company Act was revised, they opened the doors to non-British Missions to start its stations in India. Consequently, three missionaries from Basel landed in coastal Calicut on 21st August 1834. Basel Missionaries’ spheres of operation were mainly around Kannada and Tulu speaking South Kanara & Coorg, Malayalam speaking Malabar and Bombay Karnataka where Kannada and Marathi influence were strong. Here in this blog, we have mentioned the charitable activities Basel Mission carried out in north Kerala.


When these missionaries arrived in India, lower caste people were tormented from agricultural bondage, debt and social boycott at the hands of high caste landlords. As Basel missionaries treated all people on the same ground, fascinated the lower caste people towards mission activities.


Educational Institutes by Basel Mission


Basel missionaries understood that to propagate the Christian message from the Bible among the non-Christians they had to first educate them. They believed that education can bring changes in the caste system prevalent in the society and create a confident Christian community. Thus, they chose to start vernacular elementary schools in every station they settled. The institutes established and run by the Basel Mission admitted all irrespective of their caste or religion.


basel mission school

Basel Mission School in Thalassery


  • In the Malabar region, the first mission school was founded in 1839 at Tellichery, in 1841 an English school was established in Cannanore, in 1864 a vernacular school for non-Christian boys opened in Chombala and Calicut, and a Franco-vernacular school was opened in Mahe in 1881.
  • In 1866 the BEM started a high school at Palakkad (that later became the well known Government Victoria College) and colleges like BGEM and Malabar Christian College where the students belonging to the lower caste could get a college education.
  • The girls at school were taught reading, writing, sewing, and knitting.
  • The mission opened schools for adults too at Calicut and Tellichery.
  • By 1900, with the support of the British, about 48 Basel Mission schools were functioning in different parts of Malabar – Kasaragod, Taliparamba, Melparamba, Ottappalam, Vaniyamkulam, Vadakara, Koyilandy, Koothuparamba, Kannur, Payyanur, Palakkad, Vadakancheri, Kozhikode, and Tellichery to name a few.

Though the primary aim of the Basel mission was to convert people to Christianity and train them to be missionaries, their contribution in the field of education in Malabar is praiseworthy. The lower caste got a chance to receive education and English education helped the people to improve their knowledge of the world and imbibe modern western ideas. To entice non-Christians, they provided scholarships and loans to deserving Christian students for higher studies. This led many students as well as teachers trained at these schools to convert to Christianity.


Church, Hospitals and other Charitable Services


  • In 1892, Dr. E. Lieben Darfer opened the first Mission hospital at Calicut. In 1903, a leprosarium was started at Chevayur near Calicut for those who had been rejected by society. Later Mission dispensaries were opened at Codacal, Vaniyamkulam, and at Sultan Bathery in Waynad district for medical work among the tribal people.
  • The CSI Church built by the Basel missionaries in 1842 is situated on the eastern side of Mananchira Square, Calicut. Designed using a combination of European and Kerala architectural styles, the church is considered the biggest Basel Mission church in Malabar. There is a three-tiered turret on top of the entrance porch and a series of rooms roofed with tiles. A pipe organ gifted by St Aidan’s Church in Cheltenham, England, is still kept in the church. Gradually, the Basel Missionaries built buildings for orphanages at Chombala and Parapperi, boarding schools at Calicut, Tellicherry, and Cannanore, residences for the missionaries, a cemetery for the community, Churches, seminary, and home for the aged, widows, and the poor.

Job Opportunities by Basel Mission


Concerned about the social and economical backwardness of a large number of people who got converted to Christianity, the missionaries realized they had to create some remunerative jobs rather than just educate people.


  • Printing Press

Thus in February 1846, Dr. Herman Gundert opened a lithographic press and bookbinding establishment at Nettur near Tellicherry. The Mission published a Malayalam fortnightly magazine called ‘Keralopakari in May 1874 for the circulation in Malabar church. The magazine covered world news, weather report, and agriculture news. It was printed by using a letterpress printing method. The introduction of sophisticated printing technology and the publication of textbooks for the schools by the Mission were a great boost to the development of education in Malabar. Gundert also authored texts books in Malayalam, contributing much to the development of Malayalam language and literature.


basel mission printing press

Basel Mission Printing Press


  • Weaving Industry

In 1852 the Missionaries along with local weavers started a weaving factory and dye house (where Khaki cloth was produced for the first time) in Cannanore. Another weaving factory on par with European standard was opened at Calicut in 1859 and smaller branches were set up in the rural areas of Chombala and Tellicherry. The apprentices in this industry were also taught tailoring and embroidery. They imported spinning machinery to India from Europe and it revolutionized textile production and the weaving sector. The introduction of ‘fly shuttle’ increased productivity, the use of jacquard loom enabled to weave a variety of designs and power looms helped in large scale production. The five weaving factories offered jobs to more than a thousand people. Most of the products produced here were exported.



  • Industrial School

The carpentry workshop started in 1852 at Calicut. In 1874, a mechanical workshop was founded by the Mission at Calicut and Cannanore to conduct repair works of the machinery of weaving and tile factories. In time they began to provide technical training to men for jobs like carpentry, black smithy, lock smithy and watch making. Many skilled artisans here made safes and supplied to government institutions.


  • Tile Manufacturing Factory

In the year 1854 the mission set up few commercial enterprises including a tile manufacturing factory. As the tile making industry was the most profitable business ventures of Basel Mission in Malabar, three more factories were opened subsequently. The tile industry offered employment to both men and women and by 1913 the tile factories were employing 2,000 workers and were producing salt glazed pipes, ornamental pottery and about 60,000 tiles daily (including roofing tiles, flooring tiles, ceiling tiles called hourdies and ventilator tiles).


A large number of people lost their occupations during the economic crisis in 1880 following famine and diseases. At this time, the Mission factories absorbed many of the affected people. In the beginning of 20th century, Basel Mission was the largest industrial entrepreneur in Malabar employing both Christians and non-Christians.



Basel Mission meets Opposition


As the Basel Evangelical Missionaries propagated Christian faith, they faced resistance from the local rulers, Mappilas and upper caste Hindus in the Malabar. The upper caste wanted to bring the lower strata under their dominion. At this time in 1898, Arya Samaj and Brahma Samaj made its entry into Malabar as a counter force to the Basel Mission’s activities. The Arya Samaj started Suddhi movement to bring back those Hindus who were converted to other religions and the Brahma Samaj gave more attention to the depressed castes and discouraged people to send their children to mission schools.


Apart from this, the Basel Missionaries had to face the hostility of the French government in Mahe and the Roman Catholic missionaries as they differed in their theological beliefs.


In 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War, all the industrial establishments of Basel Mission were confiscated by the British Government considering it as a German organization. This created a setback for the Basel Mission’s work in India. After the war, the industries were managed under the Commonwealth trust. In 1919, the Basel Mission church stood affiliated to the South India United Church (SIUC) and later joined the Church of South India (CSI) in 1947.


Summing up


The contributions of Basel Evangelical Mission unquestionably brought about changes in the educational and socio-economic realms of Malabar society. Many boys and girls belonging to Tiyya and other lower caste who enrolled in the mission schools acquired new skills and got employment in colonial bureaucratic structures. This led to the improvement of their social and economic positions and awakened a sense of self-respect. These educated youth found the courage to fight against social evils like the caste system, untouchability, superstitions, etc. prevalent in those times. The industries that were set up here led various low castes to achieve a process of social mobility and seek an existence outside their caste-based occupations.


basel mission calicut

Basel Mission Church in Calicut


Basel Evangelical Missionaries created a society of casteless converts who could look at their own habits in a very different way, offered them job opportunities by developing industries, and contributed to modernizing the people in North Kerala. This aspect gives this Missionary a unique place among all the missionary organizations that worked in India.


Please feel free to send in your comments and feedback about this blog or if you are interested to visit the tile factory, handloom centers, and the churches built by the Basel Mission in Malabar; just fill in this enquiry form and our Tyndis representative will get back to you with a storytelling tour package on Basel Mission in Malabar.

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