Early Masses in Malabar: the St Thomas Christians of India


Not many people know that Christianity in India is as old as Christianity itself, and older, in fact, than many of its European counterparts. Indian Christians are well-integrated in Indian society and have flourished on Indian soil.

India, along its southern Malabar Coast, developed maritime trade links with the ancient Greco-Roman world from as early as the 10th century BC. Roman coins have been unearthed in different parts of South India, providing evidence of this early contact. During this period, the ancient port of Muzaris on the Malabar Coast was a principal export hub for various spices bound for the Greco-Roman world. Muzaris is today known as Kodungallur and was a major port on the Malabar coast until a great flood in 1341, which created a new harbour called Kochi, now the economic capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala. Jewish merchants arrived in the region from the 5th century BC and built settlements in various towns along the Malabar Coast. Even today a synagogue exists in Kochi and a handful of Indian Jews can be found around Jews Street of Fort Kochi.

According to the lively traditions of the St Thomas Christians of India, St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, came to the port of Muzaris in AD 52. The main intention of St Thomas seemed to preach gospel to the Jewish Diaspora in Malabar Jewish settlements. However, Apostle Thomas went beyond this, preaching gospel to local Hindus and gradually forming seven and a half churches, or communities, on the Malabar Coast. Interestingly, all of them were near Jewish settlements. This marked the beginning of a church with apostolic traditions in India in the very first century of Christianity. Its followers called themselves St Thomas Christians. Later, Apostle Thomas died as a martyr in Mylapore near Chennai (Madras) and today a beautiful cathedral marks the site of his martyrdom.

The life and liturgy of the St Thomas Christians have been deeply moulded by Indian culture from their earliest beginnings. Elements of cultural adaptation are evident even in present-day Indian Christian liturgies. The use of the “thali necklace” in marriage ceremonies, for example, is originally a Hindu custom.

Since St Thomas Christians existed outside the Roman Empire they initially had very little connection with the Roman Catholic Church, even though they embraced an apostolic tradition and key characteristics of a Catholic identity. However, after the arrival of a group of Eastern Catholics from Persia under the leadership of a merchant called Thomas of Kinayi in the 4th century, the St Thomas Christians accepted bishops from the Eastern Church in the Persian Empire (known as the East Syrian or Chaldean Church) which was in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. According to Father Placid Podipara, a prominent Indian Christian historian, the St Thomas Christians are “Hindu or Indian in culture, Christian in religion and Syro-Oriental in worship.”

Even though bishops from the East Syrian Church were sent to ordain new priests and administer sacraments to the St Thomas Christians, it was an Archdeacon, a St Thomas Christian priest, who administrated the See of St Thomas Christians. This very unique system within the Catholic Church persisted until the 16th century. This was all to change with the arrival of first European colonial trade visitor to India, Vasco Da Gama, who landed in Kozhikode port (also known as Calicut) on the Malabar Coast in 1498 and was the Governor of Portuguese India for a short period.

Portuguese missionaries who accompanied colonial traders – St Francis Xavier being prominent among them – began preaching in India and converted local Hindus into Christians. A consequence was the foundation of Roman Catholic hierarchy in India and Goa was its centre.

Initially, Portuguese missionaries had a very cordial relationship with St Thomas Christians in the beginning. However, for many reasons, the missionaries perceived St Thomas Christians as non-Catholics or less-than-Catholic. As a result, they decided to turn St Thomas Christians into true“Catholics”. This resulted in the infamous Synod of Diamper in 1599. The synod separated the St Thomas Christians from the Chaldean Patriarch and subjected them directly to the Latin Archbishop of Goa. The St Thomas Christians reacted against these efforts and finally a group of them proclaimed allegiance to the non-Catholic Patriarch of Antioch. This event of 1653 is known as the Coonan Cross Oath and, interestingly, could be considered a pioneering example of the resistance of Indians against colonisation. This group now forms the Jacobite Syrian Church, Orthodox Syrian Church and Mar Thoma Church in India.

The group of Saint Thomas Christians who remained in communion with Catholic Church after Coonan Cross Oath later came to be known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The Catholic Church realised the unique identity of St Thomas Christians only over the course of time and finally restored the Syro-Malabar hierarchy in 1923. In 1926, a group of St Thomas Christians who had left the Catholic fold changed their allegiance in the Vatican’s favour, becoming the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Of an Indian Christian community of 24 million, or 2.4 per cent of the Indian population, today 8 million St Thomas Christians date their faith origins back to St Thomas the Apostle of the first century, showing how Christianity in India has thrived over centuries in harmony with a great culture, and amidst the religions of the world.

Further reading:

Mundadan, A. Mathias. (1984) History of Christianity in India, vol.1, Bangalore, India: Church History Association of India.

Podipara, Placid J. (1970) The Thomas Christians. London: Darton, Longman and Tidd, 1970.


Published in “South Asia Masala” – Australian National University’s official blog on South Asia on November 19, 2009. Web link: http://goo.gl/FrjJnq

(Photo courtesy: Santhome cathedral crypt, Chennai: this is where St Thomas the apostle is believed to be martyred. One of the three basilicas in the world built on the tomb of an apostle. — in Mylapore.)

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