The Church of St. Thomas
It can only be a gift of Grace that
the faith and tradition of a small community of the early Christians in India have remained
alive and vibrant throughout nearly two thousand years. Even amidst eriodic
storm, from one source or another, across these centuries of change, the
community has maintained an inner calm, in the safety of the spiritual
anchor, cast in the original concept of the word Orthodox,
that is the right glorification of God.
The early Christians of India (mainly
on the southern coast) were known as Thomas Christians and indeed by no other
name - until the advent of the Portuguese in the 16th century followed
closely by the British.
That the Church in India was founded
by St. Thomas the apostle is attested by West Asian writings since the 2nd
century (The Doctrine of the Apostle Thomas and the Acta Thomae), both of
which were written at or near Edessa ca 200-250 AD - St. Ephrem, St. John
Chrysostom and St. Gregorios Nazianzen, in the 4th century; St. Jerome, ca
400 AD, and historians Eusabius ca 338 and Theodore, of the 5th century.
Against the background of trade
between India and west asia since ancient times, travel close to the coast of
Arabia was feasible and not uncommon, reaching Malabar, the Tamil country,
Sindh (Scythia) and western India (Kalyan), around the time St. Thomas came
There is a wealth of corroborative
evidence to support, and no good reason to doubt the living tradition of St.
Thomas Christians that the Apostle arrived in Kodungalloor (Muziris) in
Kerala in 52 AD, preached the gospel, established seven churches, and moved
on to other kingdom, returning to Madras (Mylapore) in 72 AD where he was
martyred that year. Writers of the 4th century, St. Ephrem and St. John
Chrysostom knew also about the relics of St. Thomas resting at that time in
Edessa, having been brought there from India by West Asian merchants.
The Church founded by St.
Thomas must have been rather spread out in the
subcontinent, including the North-West, the Western and Eastern coasts of the
peninsula, probably also reaching Sri
Lanka. Tradition associates the ministry of
St. Thomas with the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares in the north and with
king Vasudeva (Mazdeo) of the Kushan dynasty in the south. It was the latter
who condemned the apostle to death.
Among the Early Christians
The Orthodox Church in India
is one of the 37 Apostolic Churches, dating from the time of the disciples of
Christ. Nine of them were inEurope and 28 in Asia
and Africa. Today it belongs to the family of the
five Oriental Orthodox Churches, which include Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia
and to the wider stream of the world’s Orthodox Churches, comprising in
all over 150 million Eastern Christians. It has a strength
of over 2 million members in about 1500 parishes mainly in Kerala and
increasingly spread all over India
and in many parts of the globe. Eastern in origin and Asian in its moorings,
is, at the same time, a distinctive and respected part of the rich religious
mosaic that is India.
Until the 16th century, there was
only one Church in India,
concentrated mainly in the south west. The seven original churches were
located at Malankara (Malayattor?), Palayur (near Chavakkad), Koovakayal
(near North Paravur), Kokkamangalam (South
Pallipuram?), Kollam, Niranam and Nilackel (Chayal). Of the same
pattern adopted by the other Apostles, each local Church was
self-administered, guided by a group of presbyters and presided over by the
elder priest or bishop.
was autonomous then, and is now, like all Orthodox Churches. This is clear
from the fact that no name of any church in India
is seen in the now available list of bishoprics of the Church in Persia
from the fifth to the seventh century.
The early Church in India
remained one and at peace, treasuring the same ethnic and cultural
characteristics as the rest of the local community. Its members enjoyed the
good will of the other religious communities as well as the political support
of the Hindu rulers. The Thomas Christians welcomed missionaries and migrants
from other churches, some of whom sought to escape persecution in their own
countries. The language of worship in the early centuries must have been the
local language, probably a form of Tamil. In later centuries, the liturgical
language mingled with East Syriac received through the churches of Selucia
Links with Persia
The Persian connection of the Indian
Churches has to be seen in the context of the internal dissension and state
persecution of Christians in Persia
from the 5th century. A synod of the PersianChurch
(410 AD) affirmed the faith of Nicea and acknowledged the Metropolitan of
Selucia-Ctesphion as the Catholicos of the East. Not long after, the
christological controversies of Chalcedon,
fuelled by the strains between the Persian and Byzantine empires, swayed the PersianChurch
to declare itself ‘Nestorain’ and its head to assume the title of
Patriarch of the East (Babylon).
From their base in the then flourishing theological school of Nisibis,
Nestorain missionaries began moving to India, Central Asia, China and
Ethiopia to teach their doctrines - probably associating with the work of St.
Thomas the apostle, whom the Persians must have venerated as the founder of
their own church.
By the 7th century, specific
references of the IndianChurch
began to appear in Persian records. The Metropolitan of India and the
Metropolitan of China are mentioned in the consecration records of Patriarchs
of the east. At one stage, however, the IndianChurch
was claimed to be in the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Fars but this
issue was settled by Patriarch Sliba Zoha (714-728 AD) who recognized the
traditional dignity of the autonomous Metropolitan of India.
There were other developments in the PersianChurch
of potential import to the IndianChurch.
A renaissance of the pre-Chalcedon faith began, led by Jacob Bardeus,
emphasizing the West Syrian Christological tradition of the One United
Nature, influencing the church in Persia
as well. Availing the relatively equable political climate following the Arab
conquest of Syria and other parts of West Asia, a Maphrianate of the
anti-Chalcedonians was established by Mar Marutha, a native Persian, became
the first Jacobite Maphriana (Catholicos) of the East. The jurisdiction of
this Catholicos at Tigris extended to 18
Episcopal dioceses in lower Mesopotamia and
further east, but significantly, not to India.
On the life of the Church in India
during the first 15 centuries, the balance of historical evidence and the
thrust of local tradition point to its basic autonomy sustained by the core
of its own faith and culture. It received with the trust and courtesy
missionaries, bishops and migrants as they came from whichever eastern
Church_Tigris or Babylon, Antioch
or Alexandria, but not from
the more distant Constantinople or Rome.
There were times in this long period when the Christians in India
had been without a bishop and were led by an Archdeacon. And requests were
sent, sometimes with success, to one or another of the eastern prelates to
help restore the episcopate in India.
Meanwhile the church in Persia and much of west Asia declined by internal
causes and the impact of Islam, affecting both the Nestorian Patriarchate of
the East (Babylon) and the Jacobite Catholicate of the East (Tigris). As will
be seen from the later history of the IndianChurch,
the; latter was re-established in India
(Kottayam) in 1912 while the former was transplanted to America
The Colonial Era
The post-Portuguese story of the
Church in India
from the 16th century is relatively well documented. In their combined zeal
to colonize and proselytize, the Portuguese might not have readily grasped
the way of life of the Thomas Christians who seemed to accommodate differing
strands of Eastern Christian thought and influence, while preserving the core
of their original faith. The response of the visitors was to try and bring
under Romo-Syrian prelates, apart from the new converts in the coastal areas
under Latin prelates.
Pushed beyond a limit, the main body
of Thomas Christians rose in revolt and took a collective oath at the Coonen
Cross in Mattancherry in 1653, resolving to preserve the faith and autonomy
of their Church and to elect its head. Accordingly, Archdeacon Thomas was
raised to the title of Mar Thoma, the first in the long line up to Mar Thoma
IX till 1816.
At the request of the Thomas
Christians, the ‘Jacobite’ bishop, Mar Gregorios of Jerusalem came
to India in 1664, confirmed
the episcopal consecration of Mar Thoma I as the head of the Orthodox Church
in India. Thus began the
formal relationship with the ‘Jacobite’ SyrianChurch,
as it happened, in explicit support of the traditional autonomy of the IndianChurch.
History repeated itself in another
form when the British in India encouraged
‘reformation’ within the Orthodox Church partly through Anglican
domination of the theological seminary in Kottayam, besides attracting
members of the Church into Anglican congregations since 1836. Finally the
reformist group broke away to form the MarThomaChurch.
This crisis situation was contained with the help of Patriarch Peter III of Antioch
who visited India
(1875-77). The outcome was twofold: a reaffirmation of the distinctive
identity of the Orthodox Church under its own Metropolitan and, at some
dissonance with this renewal, an enlarged influence of the Patriarch of
Antioch in the affairs of the IndianChurch.
Thus a relationship which started for
safe-guarding the integrity and independence of the Orthodox Church in India,
against the misguided, if understandable, ambitions of the roman Catholic and
Anglican Protestant Churches opened a long and tortuous chapter in which
concord and conflict between the Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches have
continued to alternate to this day.
Three landmarks of recent history,
however, lend hope that peace and unity might yet return to the Orthodox
community, ripen rather unnaturally by divided loyalty. First, the relocation
in India in 1912 of the Catholicate of the East originally in Selucia and
later in Tigris and the consecration of the first Indian
Catholicos—Moran Mar Baselios Paulos in Apostolic succession to St.
Thomas, with the personal participation of Patriarch Abdul Messiah of
Antioch; second, the coming into force in 1934 of the constitution of the
Orthodox Church in India as an autocephalous Church linked to the Orthodox
Syrian Church of the Patriarch of Antioch, and third, the accord of 1958, by
which Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub III affirmed his acceptance of the Catholicos
as well as the constitution.
The fact that the Christian Church
first appeared in India, as elsewhere, as a fellowship of self-governing
communities, belonging to the same body and born into the same new life, may
yet light the path to a future of peace, within and beyond the Orthodox
(Courtesy: The Orthodox Church
Towards the Third Millennium.)