Saint Thomas Christians

From Academic Kids

Main article: Nasrani

This article deals with Saint Thomas Christian churches and denominations of the Nasrani people

St. Thomas Christians (Malayalam: Nasrani) are a group of Christians from the Malabar coast (now Kerala) in South India, who follow Syriac Christianity. The different groups and denominations within the St Thomas Christians together form the Nasrani people. Their tradition goes back to the very beginnings of first century Christian thought, and the seven churches that are believed to have been established by St. Thomas the Apostle.

Missing image
The Nasrani Menorah also known as the Mar Thoma cross


Nasrani and Saint Thomas Christian tradition

The Nasranis are an ethnic people and in that sense a single community. However the Nasranis have various denominations as a result of Portuguese persecution. As an ethnic community they refer to themselves as Nasranis refering to the common cultural heritage and cultural tradition. However as a religious group they refer to themselves as the Mar Thoma Khristianis or in English as Saint Thomas Christians refering to the various and diverse religious denominations between them in terms of their religious tradition, despite a common ancestory of being the descendants of the early Mar Thoma church or Saint Thomas tradition of Christianity.

These first century churches, according to tradition, were, from north to south: Palayur near Guruvayoor/Kunnankulam, Cranganore (believed to be the ancient Muziris of Pliny, and the Periplus, on the north bank of Periyar River today), Paravoor on the south side of Periyar, Gokkamangalam or Kokkamangalam, Niranam, Chayal or Nilakkal (the only inland church) and the Lakes or Kaayals, and finally Kollam. The visit of the Apostle Thomas to these places and to Mylapore on the East coast of India can be read in the Rambban Song of Thomas Rambban, set into modern writing c. 1500.

History of the Saint Thomas Christian tradition

Modern developments in archaeology, anthropology, numismatics, place-name studies, geography and trade route investigations have revealed evidence of the trading which forms the background to the St. Thomas tradition of Kerala.

The lure of spices attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports — Calicut, Cranganore, Cochin, Alleppey and Quilon — long before the time of Christ. According to tradition, it was on a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Cranganore in AD 52. According to the first century annals of Pliny the Elder and the author of Periplus of the Erythraean sea, Muziris in Kerala could be reached in 40 days' time from the Egyptian coast purely depending on the South West Monsoon winds. The Sangam works Puranaooru and Akananooru have many lines which speak of the Roman vessels and the Roman gold that used to come to the Kerala ports of the great Chera kings in search of pepper and other spices, which had an enormous demand in the West.

There St. Thomas the apostle is said to have begun preaching the gospel to the already existing Jewish settlers in the Malabar coast and other local people. According to the Acts of Thomas, the first converts made by Thomas in India were Jewish people. Historical references shows that the brahmins arrived in South India only in the 9th century A.D; more than seven hundred years after the death of the apostle Thomas. The teachings eventually got integrated into the beliefs and traditions of the local communities, into their family history, into their songs and dances. St. Thomas established seven Christian communities or churches in Kerala. They are in Cranganore, Paravur (Kottakavu), Palayoor, Kokkamangalam, Malayattoor, Niranam, Chayal (Nilackal) and Kollam (Quilon).

In the 4th century, a settlement of Jewish Christians was founded in Kottayam by Thomas Kynai at the behest of the Catholicos of the Assyrian Church of the East. They became known as the Knanaya. Currently, there are no independent Knanaya religious organizations but look either to the Pope of Rome or the Syriac Orthodox Church for ecclesiastic legitimacy. Nevertheless, this community has rigidly maintained its distinct ethnic identity to the present day, vehemently prohibiting intermarriage with non-Knanaya even within their own religious jurisdiction while freely permitting Knanaya marriage between Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

Place in Indian culture

Throughout Kerala, one can find Christian families that are proud to claim descent from ancestors who were baptized by Apostle Thomas. Some details of this combined tradition may be found in songs: the "Rabban Pattu", the "Veeradyan Pattu", the "Margam Kali Pattu" and others that now exist in written records.

St. Thomas Christians were considered high caste, in accordance with the Hindu tradition, with special privileges granted by the kings. The archdeacon was the head of the Church, and Palliyogams (Parish Councils) were in charge of temporal affairs. They had a liturgy-centered life with days of fasting and abstinence. Their devotion to the Mar Thoma Cross was absolute. Their churches were modelled after Hindu temples and Jewish synagogues.

In short, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala had blended well the ecclesiastical world of the East Syrian Church with the socio-cultural environment of their homeland. Thus, the East Syrian Church was Indian in culture, Christian in religion, and Judeo-Syro-Oriental in worship. While the last trait may vary greatly in the present day among different heirs to the Nasrani tradition, their cultural identity as Malayalees has not been lost.

Contact with Western Christianity

In 1498, when the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed on the Malabar coast, there were an estimated two million Christians across the land, and they had 1,500 churches under the jurisdiction of a single Metropolitan who lived in Angamali. The arrival of Vasco da Gama, however, heralded a new struggle for the East Syrian Church. Because the Portuguese, who later established trading posts in Goa, Daman and Diu north of Kerala, moved against the East Syrian Church leading to tragic, ecclesiastical incidents.

According to Joas de Castro, the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa in 1548, the sword of the Portuguese was wielded "mainly against the centuries-old Christians of Kerala". This was because only in Kerala did the laity stand steadfast against Western colonization, and maybe the Portuguese, who were under the Roman Church, considered everything outside Roman Catholicism as heretical, including the native Christians they found in India.

The move against the Syrian Church was followed by the Western Church establishing a European diocese in Goa in 1534. In 1557 Pope Paul IV declared Goa an archdiocese with its supremacy extending from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa to China, and all Christians, including the East Syrian Church, brought under its jurisdiction. The East Syrian Archdiocese of Angamali then became a dependent of Goa.

This Europeanization process led to divisions in the Church, as there was considerable resistance against Western domination. The Christian communities then split into many groups — East Syrian Roman Catholics, West Syrian Roman Catholics, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (in Oriental Orthodox Communion), Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church (in Oriental Orthodox Communion), Mar Thoma Church (those who accepted the Anglican Church and other Protestant bodies), Church of the East (those who accepted the Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East), and the Latin-Rite Roman Catholic Church.

St. Thomas Christian Groups
West Syrian (Antiochian) East Syrian (Chaldean)
Anglican Oriental Orthodox Eastern Catholic Nestorian
Mar Thoma Church Malabar Independent Syrian Church Indian Orthodox Church Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Chaldean Syrian Church of the East
N.B. The Malabar Independent Syrian Church, while Oriental Orthodox in tradition, is not in communion with the rest of Oriental Orthodoxy

Nasrani religious jurisdictions

(in alphabetical order by Communion)

Select bibliography

  • The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India, vol. 2, 1973 has some 70 lengthy articles by different experts on the origins, development, history, culture... of these Christians, with some 300 odd photographs.
  • Another reference volume is the History of Christianity in India, vol.1, 1984.
  • Placid Podipara's The Thomas Christians (London 1970) is a readable and exhaustive study of the St. Thomas Christians.
  • For exhaustive bibliographies cf. the above works and the Indian Church History Classics, vol. 1, The Nazranies.

External link

Catholic Encyclopedia: St Thomas Christians ( ja:トマス派 pl:Kościł malabarski


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