Article of the month: April

History of the St. Thomas Christianity in India from 52 to 1687 AD

Article of the month

Icon of Mar Thomas, the first indigenous metropolitan of Kerala

St. Thomas Christians constitute a unique community (currently around 7 million strong), whose native tongue is Malayalam, whose everyday culture and customs are typically Indian and whose language of worship and of high culture has been Syriac for many centuries. In fact, for this high-caste Indian Christian community Syriac had the same social function as Sanskrit had for the neighbouring Hindu high-caste society.

According to tradition, Christianity in Kerala was founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle, who landed on the Malabar Coast, at Maliankara near Cranganore (Kodungallur), in 52 AD. Why precisely in 52 is difficult to say, but this date is firmly held in the present traditio communis of the St. Thomas Christians. For how long the date has been established is an interesting question in itself. The modern Malayalam ballad Thomas Ramban Pattu (The Song of the Lord Thomas), which gives absolutely precise data about the details of the Apostle’s activity, dates his arrival to 50 AD, in the month of Dhanu (December), and his death in Mylapore (Mailapuram) to 72 AD, on the 3rd day of the month of Karkadakam (July), corresponding to the traditional memorial day of the Apostle in the Syrian Churches. However, this apparently reflects a later tradition. Recently we found an earlier tradition in a palm-leaf manuscript belonging to the collection of the Syro-Malabar Major Archbishop's House in Ernakulam, which, among eighteen Malayalam apocrypha, also contains the Malayalam version of the Acts of Thomas. The seventeenth-century redactor's note to this apocryphon dates the death of Saint Thomas to December 21 and says that on that very day the Apostle's memorial day (Dukhrana) was universally celebrated in the Malankara Church.

On his arrival – so tradition holds – the Apostle converted several Brahmin families, from whom a good part of the present-day Nazranies descend, and founded seven churches: Maliankara (Kodungallur or Cranganore), Palayur, Kottakavu (North Parur), Kokamangalam (Pallipuram), Niranam, Chayal and Kollam (Quilon). There is a beautiful story vividly recounted among the local Christians and invoked in many books about the foundation of the Palayur church, not far from Cranganore where Saint Thomas is believed to have landed, and close to Guruvayur, the famous centre of Krishna worship. According to this tradition, the Apostle arrived there and found several Brahmins bathing in a tank and throwing up handfuls of water as an offering to their sun-god. He asked them whether they were able to throw the water up so that it could stay suspended in the air without falling back down, as a proof that their god had accepted it. The Brahmins replied this was impossible. The Apostle performed a miracle and the water remained in the air, proving that Christ had accepted the offering. This convinced the Brahmins, who accepted baptism from the Apostle in the same tank. Their temple was transformed into a Christian church, while those who stuck to their Hindu faith fled from the place. They cursed the land and called it Chapakatt (now Chavakkad) – "the Cursed Forest".

The tradition of Christ's Apostle doing missionary work in India is the principal formative element of the identity of St. Thomas community. At a certain stage of its history, this community entered into intense contacts with the Syrian Christian world. Tradition also tells us that this happened in 345 AD, when Thomas of Kana, a rich Syrian merchant from Persia, also landed in Cranganore, accompanied by seventy families. Their descendants, the endogamous Knanaya community, boast of having preserved pure Syrian blood. Thomas of Kana and the bishops who accompanied him established a permanent contact with the Syrian Church. So, if we are to believe tradition, ever since Thomas of Kana the Malabar Church, consisting of an Indian and a Syrian component, has ecclesiastically and culturally belonged to the Syrian Christian world.

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