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2,000 Years and Counting

The enduring faith of Thomas Christians in India

Omana Pulikoottil is certain of one thing: No matter what, she will never leave Palayur, her sleepy village in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. After all, Palayur is closely associated with a saint she believes has seen her through the trials and hardships of life. She credits St. Thomas the Apostle with helping her not only to rear her two sons, but also to look after her late husband’s ailing parents, especially in the 24 years since he died of kidney failure.

“All we have are a 10-cent plot, a small house and lots of blessings from Thoma Sleeha,” says the sari-clad woman in her late 40’s, using the apostle’s name in the local language, Malayalam.

“We love our punniyavalan [“saint”] and feel indebted to him,” Mrs. Pulikoottil says as she waits for a priest from her parish dedicated to the doubting apostle. It is a Tuesday morning and the parish will be conducting special devotions to its patron saint.

She grows excited as she narrates blessings to have come to her family through St. Thomas, the man who introduced Christianity to India in the first century. Among other things, Mrs. Pulikoottil’s son was cured of allergies after bathing in a pond where the apostle is believed to have baptized the first converts in India. The Rev. Jackson Koonamplackal says he has heard many such stories after he came to the parish this March, just three months after ordination.

“Those stories have deepened my faith since I arrived here with lots of questions and doubts,” says the 26-year-old priest.

He had studied for a time in Rome, where some scoffed at the idea that St. Thomas had visited India. In time, Father Koonamplackal says, even he began to grow skeptical.

“Doubt is the devil,” he says now. “What I have heard and seen have convinced me of St. Thomas’s presence here.

“I now realize why God had sent me here,” he adds. “This is an opportunity to grow in my faith.” It has grown with surprises that come almost daily.

“Once,” he says, “an old woman asked me to pray for her son who had no child, even after five years of marriage. I prayed for them during Mass. A week later, she told me her daughter-in-law was pregnant.”

But such remarkable events, he says, pale beside the enduring faith of the people he serves. Every day, some 100 people come to the church to recite the rosary and celebrate the Divine Liturgy, beginning at 5:45 a.m. “Many come walking more than a mile. I used to wonder how they could reach the church even in heavy rain and wind,” he says.

His pastor, the Rev. John Ayyankanayil, says parishioners believe it is their duty to preserve the rich legacy of the faith they have inherited. As he explains: “They feel so privileged to be residents of this place where St. Thomas made his first Christian community in India.”

The Christians of Palayur should be proud of their legacy, says George Menachery, an Indologist who edits the St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India and the Indian Church History Classics.

“Palayur is one of the oldest Christian centers in India. It can claim to have had a continuous Christian presence for 2,000 years,” says the 75-year-old professor emeritus.

It is believed St. Thomas landed on India’s coast in 52 A.D. and set up eight Christian communities across Kerala. Among those churches, only three remain, including the one in Palayur. Descendants of these Christians — some 10 million, spread all over the world — are now called St. Thomas Christians or Nasrani (followers of the Nazarene).

Though divided into at least seven different denominations, these Christians represent a unique culture that fuses Syriac forms of worship with local Hindu customs and traditions. Two of these denominations are Catholic: the Syro-Malabar Church, with four million members, and the Syro-Malankara Church, with about 500,000 members.

Professor Menachery says a large number of Nasrani — including Cardinal Baselios Mar Cleemis, the head of the Syro-Malankara Church — have roots in Palayur.

Indeed, Palayur is awash with history. Palayur historian Jose Chittilappilly, who has authored a book on the St. Thomas Church, says the saint came to Palayur because of its flourishing Jewish community in the first century. The parish, in gratitude, has built a memorial chapel as a tribute to the early Jews.

For more than a millennium, Palayur was one of three Christian centers in Kerala. But it began to lose its prominence following a split among the Nasrani in 1653 after a group revolted against colonial Portuguese Catholic missionaries, who had claimed jurisdiction over all of India’s Christians.

Motivated by the spirit of the Inquisition and the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Portuguese denied the authentic authority, privileges, rites and traditions accorded to the Thomas Christians by the Church of the East — founded by St. Thomas in Persia — on whom the Nasrani were dependent for bishops.

The Nasrani affirmed their communion with the bishop of Rome, but they sought to retain their historic ties to the Church of the East. Yet the Portuguese identified communion with Rome with Latin traditions and rites and demanded Latinization as the price of this union, dividing the Nasrani into camps: those who accepted it (later identified as Syro-Malabar Catholics), and those who did not (non-Catholic Thomas Christians).

The two groups vied for control of Palayur until the matter was settled near the end of the 19th century, when a court awarded it to the Catholics.

The region also suffered greatly during the reign of Tipu Sultan, who ruled much of southern India in the late 18th century. Under his regime, armed forces razed Palayur’s church in 1790 and carried out a campaign of forced conversion to Islam. Of those Thomas Christians who did not flee, Mr. Chittilappilly says, many submitted to conversion to save their property and their lives.

The church of Palayur began to regain its splendor after the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Trichur declared it a regional shrine in the year 2000. Despite its modest flock of some 515 families, it is now recognized as a major parish. But the community’s small size belies the enormous faith of its people and the many visitors drawn to it from around the world.

These days, the site could well be thought of as Kerala’s Jerusalem, drawing a steady flow of pilgrims and tourists throughout the year.

A visitor to Palayur could easily miss its church. Lying on the northern side of a busy road connecting Guruvayur, a town housing Kerala’s most famous Hindu temple, and Chavakad, a commercial center dominated by Muslims, the building looks similar to many of the ancient churches dotting Kerala’s landscape.

An arch at the main entrance announces what sets this church apart: “St Thomas Archdiocesan Shrine Palayur, Founded by St. Thomas the Apostle, 52 A.D.” Two square granite pillars supporting the arch also bear statues of St. Alphonsa — the first woman saint of India and a native of the village — and St. Thomas. Leading to the church is a granite-paved walkway called Mar Thoma Patha. Statues depicting 14 major events in the life of St. Thomas — from being called to be a disciple to his martyrdom — line the two sides of the path, resembling Stations of the Cross in Roman Catholic churches.

The church is built in European and Indian architectural styles. On the western end of the nave is a huge black cross with an octagonal base and eight stone lamps. Jose Chittilappilly says it sits on the same spot where the saint is believed to have first erected a cross.

The church lies between two ponds associated with the apostle. The pond on the western end is called Boatkulam (“boat pond”). It was part of a waterway that brought the saint to Palayur from Kodungallur, some 30 miles south of the church. A huge statue of the saint, some 45 feet, which the church claims is the largest statue of the saint in the world, towers over the pond.

Near the pond is the Indian Christian Historical Museum, a three-story building housing a large collection of relics and artifacts of the cultural heritage of St. Thomas Christians.

Most people prefer to visit a larger pond on the eastern end of the parish grounds. Called Thaliya Kulam (“pond of Thaliya”), this pond is where the saint is believed to have baptized a group of Brahmins — members of the highest caste of Hindu society.

According to tradition, St. Thomas noticed the men taking water in their cupped hands and tossing it into the air, symbolically offering it to Surya, the god of the sun. He then asked them to make the water stay in the air as a sign Surya had accepted the offering. The Brahmins derided this as impossible. St. Thomas then scooped up water from the pond and threw it upward. Water drops remained suspended in the air until they disappeared. Those who witnessed the event were stunned, and many requested baptism. St. Thomas later baptized them in the same pond.

Today, Thomas Christians celebrate their faith through a variety of rituals, most connected to the customs and traditions of their ancestors. The calendar is decked with important celebrations, feasts and devotions.

< p>Many such activities take place on Muppittu Njayar, or “First Sunday,” so named for occurring on the first Sunday after the tenth of every month. After celebrating the Divine Liturgy, parishioners process to the Thaliya Kulam, some 200 yards away. The priest carries a relic of St. Thomas in a monstrance under a canopy. Ahead of him, parishioners carry the saint’s statue, while a trustee leads prayers. The procession continues around the pond, paying respect to the saint.

After the procession, the priest continues another custom unique to this parish — he feeds a grain of rice to babies preparing to eat solid food, a tradition followed in Hindu temples.

Another practice on the First Sunday is feeding rice gruel and vegetable curry to those coming to the church. Joy Chemmannur, a parish trustee, says people take turns sponsoring the meals. “We have a long list of sponsors. The last one may get his chance after a three-year wait,” he says, adding the custom is another adaptation of a Hindu ritual.

One of the most important events on the First Sunday is the celebration of baptism at the Thaliya Kulam. Families arrive from all across Kerala. Godmothers sit with the children in their laps, with godfathers, parents and relatives standing behind. From the baptismal font in the pond, Father Koonamplackal invites godparents to bring the candidates up one by one.

The pastor, Father Ayyankanayil, describes another major annual event: the pilgrimage on the Sunday before Palm Sunday, for which more than 30,000 people travel from various parishes in the archeparchy. The main procession from Our Lady of Lourdes Syro-Malabar Cathedral starts at 4 a.m. and reaches St. Thomas Church 12 hours later.

“Thousands of children, women, young and old men walking in blazing sun has become the biggest proclamation of faith in the Archeparchy of Trichur,” Jose Chittilappilly says.

Parishes also conduct similar pilgrimages on Fridays during Lent, leaving an archieparchial basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows around 9 p.m. and arriving in the early morning. They return home after the morning liturgy. Palayur Catholics support this march by holding vigil in their church, the pastor adds.

In July, the parish observes two important events, celebrating the feast of St. Thomas on 3 July, and commemorating his arrival at Palayur on 15 July. These celebrations have brought a renewed vigor to the parish. Davis Antony, the parish’s sacristan for the past five years, says he has seen it himself, with more young people offering their help and volunteering for church activities.

Mr. Antony says most parishioners have also experienced some personal blessing from St. Thomas. He tells of an incident eight years ago that brought him closer to the church. While alone at the western side of the baptismal pond, he saw an old man in tattered clothes at the other end, near the altar. Thinking that some beggar had come, he rushed to tell him to go to the church. But as he approached, he found that the man had vanished. Mr. Antony says he is now convinced he had a vision of St. Thomas.

From across Kerala, others continue to be drawn to the site, called by a spiritual allure they cannot quite put into words. The sacristan says some parishioners who had left Palayur now feel something is missing. They tell him they want to come back.

Professor Menachery says such testimonies are part of Palayur’s power — and a testament to the deep and enduring faith it inspires, which has truly stood the test of time. That, he explains, is part of what makes Palayur unique.

“It is doubtful,” he says, “whether there are many places in the world that could claim a similar continuous Christian presence for nearly two millennia.”

Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.

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