ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

In the Footsteps of St. Thomas

Tracing the apostle’s evangelical mission in south India

“St. Thomas definitely landed on this very spot,” says Philomena Pappachan, caretaker of a chapel that marks where the doubting apostle arrived in southern India in the year A.D. 52. Located a few feet from the cemented banks of the Periyar River, the chapel is dwarfed by a grove of palm trees and a 30-foot cutout of the saint, who is depicted with a staff and an open book on which “my Lord and my God” is printed in English.

No archaeological evidence exists to substantiate or refute her claim. Yet for nearly two millennia, countless numbers of Christians and Hindus have believed “the holy man” journeyed through Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and finally India, where Thomas died a martyr’s death in the year 72.

Based on oral tradition, the fathers of the church — notably Clement of Alexandria, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome and Gregory of Tours — all write of his travels, deeds and faith.

In works such as the “Ramban Song,” an ancient lyrical poem, Indians remember Thomas’ miracles and the places where he preached, baptized and founded seven churches. Today, these shrines are major pilgrimage sites for Thomas’ spiritual heirs.

Kerala is a narrow swath of territory on the southwestern coast of India. Known in the local language as the “land of coconuts,” Kerala is geographically diverse. Interlaced with rivers, lakes and lagoons, its western wetlands eventually give way to valleys and hills. Elevations rise eastward, forming the slopes of the Western Ghats, a range of mountains that runs north to south for almost a thousand miles.

Hindu legends claim Kerala surfaced from the waters of the Arabian Sea as a gift from God. A nature lover’s paradise, Kerala’s florae include some of the world’s most coveted spices and produce: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, rice and tea. Faunae include Asian elephants, Bengal tigers, leopards, monkeys, reptiles and exotic fish. And from the region’s abundant supply of ivory, gem stones and rare woods, artisans have fashioned luxury objects that have adorned the brows of kings and the breasts of queens for centuries.

Persians, Jews, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Arabs, Byzantines and Armenians — traders all — pursued these riches. Some crossed through Mesopotamia and sailed from the Persian Gulf. Others set sail from the Red Sea, utilizing the monsoon winds that took them to the “spice coast,” as Kerala was known in the ancient world.

Near the village of Maliankara, not far from the cinder block chapel that commemorates the arrival of St. Thomas, archaeologists have discovered first-century Roman coins, Greco-Roman amphorae and bricks that are believed to be from the great port of Muziris, the primary center of commerce and trade along the spice coast until its devastation in a flood in 1341.

From Muziris, Thomas worked among Jewish communities that, according to some scholars, had flourished along the Periyar River since the seventh century B.C. He also preached the Gospel to Hindus of all castes, some of whom embraced the faith while others adapted his teachings but remained Hindu. Over two decades, he founded churches in Azhikode, Kollom, Niranam, Chayal, Kokkamangalam, Kottakkavu and Palayur. Thomas also erected crosses near Mount Malayattur and Thiruvithancode, which locals today call “half churches.”

Culled from the communities he founded, Thomas ordained priests and deacons to minister to their spiritual and temporal needs. Eventually, the heirs of St. Thomas became dependent on the Church of the East — an Eastern Syriac church founded by Thomas and centered in the Persian Empire. The catholicos-patriarch of the Church of the East regularly sent bishops to southern India to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life.

For more than 1,500 years, India’s Thomas Christians were fully integrated into Indian society. Their liturgical practices reflected their Eastern Syriac ties. Other elements of this tradition — such as the architecture of their churches and their way of remembering the dead — revealed their Hindu cultural heritage.

The arrival of the Portuguese at the close of the 15th century, however, dramatically changed the lives of all Indians. When Vasco da Gama staked his claim for his Catholic king, he found not only tea and spices, but a Christian community that joyfully welcomed the Portuguese as companions in the faith. Sadly, the advent of the Europeans triggered the beginning of division among the sons and daughters of Thomas — who now number more than ten million. Their common Christian faith and their devotion to the doubting apostle bind them ever still.

Sean Sprague is a regular contributor to these pages.

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