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Indian Church History

Part I

Church History - Introduction

Two versions exist about the origin of Christianity in India. One of them says Saint Thomas the Apostle founded it probably with another Christ’s disciple, Saint Bartholomew, almost the same time, but at different places.

Another version holds that merchants and missionaries from Syria, who traded in spices and precious materials, brought the religion to the western and southern shores of India, around fourth century or a little before.

Within a period of 15 centuries, this Church progressively established relations with other Churches in the East and the West. The arrival of Pantaneus in 189 AD shows its connection with the Alexandrian Church.

The Indian Church kept alive its Persian connection until the end of the 15th century. Two immigrations from Persia (Thomas of Cana and Sabriso) and the visit of Cosmas Indicopleutus (AD 522) attest these relations.

These links were further firmed up with a series of European missions led by Franciscan and Dominican friars in the first half of the 14th century.

Franciscan Friar John de Monte Corvino arrived in early 14th century. Then came the mission of Jordanus Catalani de Seveac, a French Dominican friar, in 1321.

Another missionary to reach the Indian shores in early 14th century was Franciscan Friar Odoric de Pordenone. Another Franciscan, Bishop John de Maringoli of Florence, visited India on his return to Europe from a China mission. He reached Quilon in 1346 and left around 1349-50, impressed with the flourishing Christian communities in India.

Organized Christian missions started in the 16th century after the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. Though the Portuguese missioners were happy to see Christians in India, they disapproved certain Hindu rituals the local practiced. The foreign missionaries wanted to correct those errors and bring the local Christians under the Latin systems.

The local people resisted the Latin domination (the Diamper synod 1599). The disquiet grew and a group of local Christians broke away from the Church (the oath at Mattancherry in 1653).

Some stayed with the Latin missioners, as they did not want to desert the "Catholic" faith. Later, they came to be known as the Syrian Catholics. The breakaway section, on the other hand, was known as the Syrian Orthodox. This group later split into several factions.

The Latin Christians in India, who follow the Roman liturgy, are the result of the works done by the Portuguese and other Western missionaries, especially in coastal areas, northeastern hills and interior villages.

A third rite emerged when a tiny section of the Syrian Orthodox Church returned to Catholic fold in 1930. The Pope allowed them to retain their liturgy and traditions. They are called the Syro-Malankara Church.

India has several Protestant Churches such as the Church of North India and Church of South India. Along with the Baptist and the Orthodox Churches, these Churches have formed an association, the National Council of Churches in India.

Evangelists and Baptists are found primarily among tribals and low caste groups in villages.


India in the Old Testament

One can easily trace India’s connection to the Old Testament times.

India was one of the 127 provinces of King Xerxes of the Persian Empire, according to the Old Testament Book of Esther (Esther 1:1). What was then called India must have been a larger portion of land than what we now know as India.

Several references in the Esther on how royal edicts were "written to each province in its own language and system of writing" show the empire had covered a vast land of varied languages and cultures (Esth 8/9).

The Bible also has many references to Ophir, a rich land of gold, peacocks, monkeys and spices. Many Bible scholars agree that Ophir was India and adjoining areas.

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (38-100 AD) linked Ophir with India. According to the records of this celebrated historian, it is possible to conclude that a busy sea trade existed between the Persian Gulf and India from the second millennium BC. What was called India then could be the region covering present Afghanistan to Myanmar or still wider.

The Book of Kings (1 Kings, 9:28) speaks of Solomon sending a team of servicemen to "Ophir." They returned with shekels of gold. The same Book (10:11-12) also speaks about ships bringing sandals and jewels to King Solomon.

The Book of Isaiah (13:12) refers to Ophir when Gods says, "I will make a man more precious than fine gold, even more than the golden wedge of Ophir." Another reference is in 1 Chronicles 29:4. It says the gold from Ophir was among the precious things King David collected for the construction of the temple.

The Book of Job refers to the gold of Ophir twice (Job 22:24 and 28:16). It indicates that the gold of Ophir was the most precious material then available in the world.

Saint Thomas The Apostle

Indian Christians believe Saint Thomas the Apostle founded the Church in India. A reverberating tradition existing among all sections of Kerala Christians along with some historical references assert the Apostle arrived in India around AD. 52.

Ancient Christian writings of Eusebius, Saint Ephrem, Roman martyrology and the "Teachings of the Apostles (Didascalia) mention about Saint Thomas' mission and martyrdom in India.

The Council of Nicea conducted in 325 is a proof for the existence of a Syrian Christian community in India. It is documented that one Bishop John from India along with another prelate from Persia assisted in the synod. The duo followed the Syrian-Chaldean liturgy. If a bishop existed, he had a community, for sure!

Christian groups in Kerala share an ancient literature called Ramban Paatu (song of the priest), which describes the Apostle setting up seven churches after his arrival on a Kerala port. The Margamkali Paatu and some other ancient songs along with the findings of the Portuguese researchers strengthen the belief the Kerala Christian community originated from the preaching of the “Doubting” Thomas.

Some historians quote Acta Thomae, (acts of Thomas) to state that Saint Thomas preached in northern India as well. The book, which some dismiss as a Gnostic writing, says India fell to the lot of Thomas at the division of the Apostles. But he declared his inability to go. Then Jesus appeared and sold him as slave carpenter to Abban, the envoy of Gundafor, an Indian king.

In India, Thomas undertook to build a palace for Gundafor, but spent the money on the poor. Gundafor imprisoned the Apostle, but he escaped miraculously and converted Gundafor. The saint also converted several rulers and others in the region.

However, he was condemned to death. Soldiers pierced him with spears when he was praying on a hilltop near what is now known as Chennai. He was buried in a tomb of ancient kings. His remains were later removed to the West.

It is a historical fact that about 46 A.D. a king named Gondophernes or Guduphara ruled over an area now covered by Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the Punjab, and Sind. This is documented from the discovery of coins.

However, some historians consider the whole thing as the "romancing" of a Gnostic writer, who put historical names and places to a story he had fabricated.

The Bartholomew Mission

A tradition and some historical mentions hold that Saint Bartholomew, an Apostle of Christ, preached in the western region of India, probably in the present Mumbai area.

When Pantaenus, head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, visited India around 180 AD he found that Apostle Bartholomew had preached here before him.

Pantaenus also found the Gospel of St. Matthew written in Hebrew here, which Bartholomew had presented to the people he converted. Celebrated Church historian Eusebius records these facts.

Dispute exists among historians on what was meant by India. Some say India was a name given for a vast land, covering even some of Arabian regions. The Apostolic Acts of Abdias also mentions about Bartholomew's India mission and describes him as great scholar.

According to some other traditions, Bartholomew preached in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycaonia, Phrygia, and on the shores of the Black Sea.

Details of his death are also shrouded in myths and traditions. One tradition says he was beheaded, another holds he was skinned alive and then crucified head down.

But most agree that his end came in Armenia when he converted Polymius, the king of Armenia. The king’s brother ordered the torture and death of the saint.

Scholars date his death at around 62 AD. According to a tradition, Bartholomew’s remains were carried to Rome. They are now inside a church there.

Thomas of Cana

He came for sure. Thomas of Cana and the families that came with him played important roles in the history of Kerala Christians. Historians down the centuries, including Westerners, are careful not to mix him up with Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Around 345 AD, this Thomas came from Cana, or Qanah of present Palestine. He was probably a merchant, or could have been a traveler or a pilgrim to the tomb of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

Thomas of Cana, popular among St. Thomas Christians as Cnai Thomman, is believed to have built a city in Kodungallur (Cranganore) on a place gifted by the then ruler, Xoran Perumal. He also built a church inside that city, which had also Christian houses, green gardens, waterways and fruit trees, according to a Western source.

A local account says Metropolitan of Edessa had sent Thomas to India after he had a vision about the sad plight of Christians there. Thomas came and reported back. In 345, he returned to India with deacons, men, women and children.

The king also granted them certain privileges engraved on a copper plate, which is now known as the Canai Thomas Plate. Some time later, Syrian priests ordered by the Catholicos of Edessa began to govern these people spiritually, and eventually the Christians in India.

According to another source, Canai Thomas was a rich, generous merchant who visited India and learned about the lack of spiritual leadership among Indian Christians. He discussed the matter with his people back home in Babylon and returned with a bishop and two priests. They helped the Christians and the king in science related matters. The king considered them benefactors from Babylon. The following centuries saw bishops from Babylon governing the Indian Church.

Whatever the account, the fact remains --Thomas of Cana and a team of people arrived in India in the fourth century. This team helped local Christians to keep their faith alive.

The Ornamental Umbrella and Sapir Iso

Much of the customs practiced by Kerala Christians during their festivities and marriages could be traced back to a person who lived in the ninth century and two sets of copper plates the then ruler had granted to his community.

This man is known variously as Maruvan Sabariso, Maruvan Sapir Iso or Mar Sapir Iso. Some historians say he was a Syrian merchant, while others believe he was a missioner. He was invited to Quilon, present Kollam, probably for business in 825, the year that port city was built. This is the beginning of “Kolla Varsham” or Kollam Era of the Malayalam calendar.

Sapir probably headed a mercantile organization and built a church -- Tharisappally (St. Theresa’s Church) -- as he rose to the level of a local aristocrat over the years.

The first set of Tharisappally copper plates to St. Thereas’ Church, was issued around 849. Ayyan Atikal Thiruvadikal, the king of Venad (southern Kerala), granted the plates.

Among other things, the king granted the Church the custodianship over weights and measures. These rights were granted and then renewed on a set of second plates. It shows the trust Sapir and his community enjoyed with the local rulers.

The privileges

Relaxed import duty and exemption of slave tax were among the privileges the Church enjoyed. The plates also allowed Christians to be among the officials, who inspected the quality of the commodities in the market and fixed customs duty.

The plates speak of another 72 privileges but do not enumerate them, may be because it was taken for granted that every one concerned knew about them.

But the plates speak of ten privileges specifically. They are the privileges: to have a day lamp, spread cloths, use palanquin, umbrella, drum (chenda), bugle, locked gate, arch, arch decoration and arrows. These were obviously the marks of aristocracy of the time.

Even today, ornamental umbrellas, traditional drums and arch decorations are part of most Christian church festivals in Kerala.

Cnai Women

Why do Cnai Thoman women put their fingers in mouth and whistle when their people marry?

"Canai Thomman Christians" is a general term to refer to a group of Christians who trace their origin to Thomas of Cana who had come to Kerala in the fourth century.

These Christians continue as an endogamous group. They reject anyone marrying outside the community. They are also called "Sudistist" or puritans as they do not want to pollute their Syrian purity by mixing with others. The Catholic diocese of Kottayam is exclusively meant for them. This group has members in other Christian denominations too.

Well, why do their women whistle? Thomas and the team received certain privileges from the local rulers some time after they settled in Kerala. These privileges engraved on a plate called the "Cnai Thomas plates."

One of the privileges was to "whistle with fingers in the mouth" as the royal women of the time did during family marriages and festivities. The Cnai women follow a royal tradition even now -- and whistle!

Other privileges included the use of seven musical instruments and permission to speak equally with the king and walk and ride like him. The use of language and roads were restricted in that highly caste-classified society.

Christians alone were allowed to use gold ornaments, especially during marriage. They could sit on carpets and enjoy other honors denied to others.

They were also allowed to use umbrellas, apply sandal paste, ride on a palanquin, ride elephants and use. The king also allowed them to erect pandal -- a make shift thatched shed made of bamboo and coconut leaves -- to accommodate people on special occasions.

Pandals were common in all Christian marriages and parish festivals until some 20 years ago when parish auditoriums and banquet halls began to replace them. Some erect pandal even now.

Where is the plate now?

No one knows. The Portuguese recorded seeing it in 1543. The Portuguese missioners speak of seeing the plate in Cochin as lately as 1599. The Portuguese also sent one of its Portuguese transcriptions to King John III. However, even the Portuguese transcription is missing now.

Some say the original was taken to Portugal by Franciscan missioners, who left a copy in Cochin. A Portuguese historian quoted a local priest named Ittimani as saying in 1601 that the Thomas plate was with "Tarega." It could mean Tharakan, or the one connected with a broker business. No details are known.

Confusion over Plates

The copper plates, although valid historical evidence, have had confusing names, existence and disappearances in history.

The Portuguese records of the 16 and the 17 centuries mention about the Thomas of Cana plates, which are also called the Mar Jacob Plates. They are called Mar Jacob plates probably because Metropolitan Mar Jacob recovered them from where he had pawned them.

The Quilon (Tharisappally) plates and Thevalacara plates are probably the same, according to modern historians. Portuguese Archbishop Menezes is said to have “discovered” the Thevalacara plates during his visit to Kerala in 1599.

Thevalacara, also spelt Thevalakkara, is a village some 20 kilometers north of present Quilon town.

Another account says the so-called Quilon Plates are actually different from the Quilon plates and Thevalacra plates. They are now preserved in Kottayam Old Seminary of the Syrian Orthodox Church and in Tiruvalla (both in central Kerala).