Knanaya (Heb:קנאים, Malayalam: ക്നാനായ, Ar:قينان), literally meaning "Knai people", are an Christian people of early endogamous Jewish descent from Kerala, India. Their heritage and culture is syriac-Keralite, their language Malayalam. Their loyalties are with the Nasrani community of Syriac Christians from Kerala.
It is claimed that the Knanayas (قنانيا)(short form-"kna") are the descendants of 72 Syro-Aramaic Jewish families who fled from Edessa (or Urfa), the first city state that embraced Christianity, to Malabar coast in AD 345, under the leadership of a prominent merchant Knai Thomman (قناي تامن)(in English, Thomas the Zealot) following increasing persecution against Desposyni by the Byzantine Empire instituted by Constantine in 333AD. They built a town in Kodungalloor with a church and 72 houses. The natives called it Mahadevar Pattanam (محاديفر پتنم) meaning "town of superiors".
After Mar Joseph (مار جوسف) had a startling dream in which he saw the plight of the Christian church in Malabar (ملابار) established by St. Thomas, the Apostle, in the first Century. They consisted of 400 Christians from 72 families of various Syriac-Jewish clans. Included in the group was a Syriac Orthodox Bishop (Mor Joseph of Urfa), Bishops and deacons. With instructions from the Patriarch of Antioch, they sailed in three ships headed by a leading ship with the flag of King David. The Syriac-Jews were granted permission to engage in trade and settle down in Kodungallur by the then ruler of Malabar, Cheraman Perumal. The event has been recorded on copper plates given to the community.
Before the arrival of the people, the early Nasrani (نزاريون) people in the Malabar coast included native Indian converts and converted Jewish people who had settled in Kerala during the Babylonian exile and after. They came mostly from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. According to tradition, Kna Jews are also known as Southists (Thekkumbhagar in Malayalam) as they hailed from the southern province of Israel known in the Old Testament as the Kingdom of Judah. The distinction between the northern heavily exogamous Samarians and the southern zealously endagamous tribes of Judea led to the difference among the non-Knanaya Nasranis as Northists and the Knanaya as Southists. The Knanaya (Kanahi people) continue to remain an endogamous group also within the Nasrani community.
The term known as Kanai or Q'nai, (קנאי singular form of Kanahim/קנאים) means "Jealous ones for God". It is claimed that the K'nai people are the biblical Aaronites referred to as Kanahi (overly jealous and with zeal), who came to Saba around 135AD from the southern province of Judea (whence the derives the term southists). They were deeply against the Roman rule of Israel and fought against the Romans for the sovereignty of the Jews. During their struggle the K'nai'im people became followers of the Jewish sect led by Jesus the Nazarene. Many of Jesus' followers had names typical among freedom fighters such as Zealot (Simon Cana), Daggerman (Judas Iscariot), Rock (Simon Peter), Thunderson (James & John) etc.. After the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in 33 CE, the Knanaya intensified their struggle against the Roman rule.
In 345 CE a small group of K'nanaim merchants travelled to the Jewish trade posts at Kodungallur in Kerala and settled there. Their descendants are today known in Kerala as Knanaya Nasranis.
Many of the Jewish customs are still preserved by the Knanaya. Kna people are strictly endagamous and no one may convert to join the Kna people although marrying out is an increasing concern for the shrinking community. That being said there is a big question about whether to allow other Jews into the community as genetic testing indicates was certainly the practice in the past. The Knanaya and other Nasranis as a whole maintained close relationship with the Jews of Kerala, (known today as Cochin Jews) until the Portuguese inquisition of the Jews and Nasranis in the early 1500s. Kna people are also the victims of increasing missionary efforts not only from Protestant groups ecouraging them to give up on their Jewish customs and traditions, but also from some Jewish groups. Kna people trace their Jewish identity back to Archiereus Thomas Jude the brother of James Alphaeus and because of this they have frequently been called St. Thomas Christians. They descend from 72 priestly families descended from the same desposyni that Thomas Jude belonged to. the number 72 has a significance for the 72 nations of the world and each of the 72 families have their own unique family rule. One of the primary questions surrounding the acceptance of Jewish people marrying into the Kna Naya (Kna people) is which rule they could accept such Jews into.
Although grape produce is now consumed as a result of Portuguese influence, this was originally not the case among the Knanaya people. The tradition is preserved in the consumption of Pesaha pal (passover coconut milk) instead of wine on the night of passover along with Pesaha-appam (unleavened passover bread). . This tradition of Pesaha appam is observed by the entire Nasrani people till this day. The bridal canopy is part of the Knanaya wedding ceremony, while the dead are buried facing the east. Thanksgiving blessings which the Knanaya people use which follow the Hebrew formula, Birkat HaMazon ברוך אתה ה' א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, המוציא לחם מן הארץ when initiating a Eucharistic Mass.
The first belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church in India and second to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. . Knanaya are very much conscious about their origin and up until today safeguard their ethnic character by marrying people from within the community regardless of rite. A Knanaya Syriac Orthodox diocese, established in 1910, is administered by an archbishop who reports directly to the Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The Knanaya Catholics and their Jewish identity have been acknowledged by the Vatican under Pope Pius X, by instituting in 1911 a diocese only for the Jewish Christians (Syrian-catholic) of Kerala. This diocese is called the Arch Diocese of Kottayam and is in the district of Kottayam in Kerala.
The approximate population of Kna Jews as of 2001: (divided by different denominations)
The large population of the Knanaya Christian Jews in the United States has sparked interesting debates on the ethical implications of their practice of marrying within the religion. The process of marrying distant cousins has long been known to cause proliferation of recessive genetic mutations which become very prominent in isolated communities. See Founder effect. Experts have predicted that it possible that a novel virus or bacterium can play upon uncommon genetic defects within the Knanaya's and effectively decimate their population.