In the deep south of India, an Eastern Christian community has flourished since ancient times. Originally a distinctive people united in faith, customs and caste, they are named for the Apostle Thomas, who according to tradition brought the Christian faith to the Malabar Coast of southwestern India after the ascension of Jesus. Today these Christians, all of whom belong to the Syriac Christian tradition, are fragmented into seven churches. The largest, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, each year exports priests and religious to northern India, Europe and North America, as it grows and flourishes.
Though Indian Christianity has often been described as rooted in Western colonization, its presence dates almost 2,000 years. According to the “Ramban Song,” an ancient Indian poem, St. Thomas arrived on the shores of the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala) in A.D. 52. He preached the Gospel, baptized 32 Hindu Brahmin families, founded seven churches and, in the year 72, died a martyr’s death. His tomb, in Mylapore, Madras, remains an important site of veneration today.
Christians and Hindus kept alive the memory of the “holy man,” chronicling the apostle’s deeds and the sites associated with his life and work. Scholars have long debated whether or not Thomas the Apostle founded the church of India. But sufficient historical evidence — including archaeological finds validating the existence of first-century Jewish communities on the Malabar Coast — as well as the existence of contemporary accounts passed from generation to generation by Christians and Hindus indicate the likeliness of Thomas’s travels and deeds.
For more than 1,500 years, the Thomas Christians were fully integrated into South Indian society. While their traditions and liturgical practices reflected their Eastern Syriac roots, other elements of their spirituality and culture, such as the method of praying for the dead, revealed their Hindu cultural heritage.
The arrival of the Portuguese in May 1498 dramatically changed the lives of all on the subcontinent. To support his commercial interests and consolidate his real estate gains, the Portuguese king utilized the missionary zeal of several religious communities of the Latin (Roman) Church, especially the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. The erection of the Latin Catholic Diocese of Goa in 1533 — which claimed jurisdiction over all of India’s Christians, denying the authentic authority, rights and privileges accorded to the leaders of the Thomas Christians — ushered in an age of turmoil.
In 1599, Latin usages were formally adopted by a diocesan synod held in Diamper. The Thomas Christians reluctantly signed the synod’s directives, though most church historians question the legality of the synod. The impositions of Diamper radically changed the nature of the Syriac church of India. Thomas Christians retained a few elements of their tradition, but authority, customs and law rested with the Portuguese hierarchy.
Diamper polarized the Thomas Christian community, culminating with the historic Coonan Cross Oath in January 1653. There, representatives of prominent Thomas Christian communities formally severed their ties to Rome. Eventually, those Thomas Christians independent of the Portuguese pledged fidelity to the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch and today make up the two communities which form the Indian Orthodox Church.
Pope Alexander VII sent Carmelite friars to India to restore calm and church unity. And by 1662 most Thomas Christians returned to full communion with the Catholic Church, forming the core of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Read a full account of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church from ONE magazine here.