Did St Thomas bring Christianity to India long before Western missionaries? In the first of a series of articles Lalit Adolphus looks at the Thomas Christians
PEOPLE in the West normally associate the coming of Christianity to India with the effort of European missionaries, beginning with the age of colonial expansion.
Most people in this country would be surprised if told that Christianity in India is much older than it is in England, and, indeed, much of Europe. Yet that is the case,
Accottling to the tradition of the "Thomas Christians" of South India, it was St Thomas the Apostle who brought Christianity to India a few years after the ascension or Our Lord. According to this tradition, he preached in South India and was martyred at Mylapore near Madras.
The "Thomas Cross", an ancient stone cross (6th-8th centuries) with an inscription which has created problems for historians and archaeologists, is preserved in the church which marks the place where his body is believed to have rested before it was moved to Edessa in the fourth century. It is believed that his relics are now in Ortona in the Ahruni where they are still venerated. In the Roman martyrology the place of St Thomas's death is given as Calamine which has not yet been identified but has sometimes indeed been associated with Mylapore. It is in Mylapore that the Catholic Cathedral of the archdiocese of Madras is located. The present Archbishop of Madras, the Most Revd R. Arulappa. who has done a lot of research on the association of St Thomas with Mylapore, expressed to me his conviction that the Apostle had indeed been the founder of the Church in South India.
He told me that he had come across fresh — and to his mind conclusive — evidence in support of the old tradition, which he intended eventually to publish in a hook.
Be that as it may, Christianity in India is at any rate very old. In his book Christian Topography. written about 547, Cosma-s Indicopleustes, the Alexandrian navigator and geographer who later became a monk, testifies to the existence of a Christian Church in South India. Judging by his description, the Church must have existed there for some time.
This early Church in India had, however. no contact with Rome which, according to all available evidence. was not even aware of its existence. The ancient Indian Church's external contacts were mainly confined to Syria, with which the India of those days carried on considerable trade.
It was the Nestorian Patriarch of Baghdad who sent bishops to the Indian Church, whose language of liturgical worship was Syriac. This Syrian connection explains the name "Syrian Christian" by which the early Christians of India — and their descendants today arc also known.
1ndia's first contact with
western Christianity came with the advent of the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century. The Thomas Christians, whose numbers had always remained very small and who therefore must have felt very isolated in a predominantly non-Christian environment, were delighted at the sudden presence of another Christian group in India. Consequently relations between them and the Portuguese were initially cordial.
But the Portuguese, who were of course staunch Roman
('atholics, were unable to understand how any Christian community could be out of communion with Rome. The possibility that they may never have heard of Rome — and viceversa — was difficult for them to grasp.
Consequently they made attempts to bring the Thomas Christians under Roman obedience. To this end, Alexis Menezes, the (Portuguese) Archbishop of Goa summoned the Synod of Diamper near Cochin in South India in 1599.
At the Synod ,the Thomas Chrisitans renounced Nestorius and entered into communion with Rome, retaining their own rite, liturgy and canon law but subordinating themselves to the Holy See in 'natters of doctrine, much on the lines of the Uniat Churches of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They were 'thenceforth known as the "Malabar Uniat Church".
Relations with Rome, broke down in 1653 but after the arrival of the Carmelites, some two thirds of the Thomas Christiam returned to the Roman fold in 1662,
The subsequent history of thc Thomas Christians in India is one of convulsions and internal dissensions which prevented them from reaching out to the huge non-Christian population of the land and bringing to them the message of Christ. Meanwhile, with the advent of other European powers in India, notably the British. other Christian Churches were established. In the first decades of the 20th century the Anglican Church in India tried to befriend the Thomas Christians, while Rome attempted to regain the allegiance of those who did not return to its fold in 1662.
In 1925 Mar Ivanios, leader of the non-Roman Thomas Christians. announced his submission to Rome and was followed by many others. The result was the coming into being in 1930 of the Malankarcse Uniat Church which celebrates its golden jubilee this
I r. Two years later, on June II. 1')32. Pope Pius XI issued the apostolic constitution Christy Pastorum Principi which created the Syro-Malankarese province of Trivandrum under a Uniat Metropolitan.
The non-Roman Thomas Christians, known as the Mar Thome Church, meanwhile cultivated closer relations with the Anglican Church in India. When the Anglican Church joined other Christian Churches in the country. to become part of the (united) Church of South India in 1947 and of the (united) Church of North India in 1970, the Mar Thome Church, while preserving its separate identity, maintained good relations with the new united Churches.
The Mar Thome Church participated fully in the ceremony of "unification of ministries" held at the inauguration of the Church of North India in 1970. its bishops laying hands on the ministers of the uniting Churches.
The co-existence in India of these ancient eastern Churches ‘sith the western-rite Churches — Roman Catholic and Protestant throws up an obvious question: given the small number of Christians in India, is there room for western-rite as well as easternrite Churches in India? Shouldn't they unite to form one rite, preferably eastern, in order to create the much-needed image of Christianity in India as a native religion of the soil rather than a colonial import?
The answer surely lies in arriving gradually at a synthesis, towardswhich the Churches in India Roman Catholic as well as Protestant --are already moving. They are gradually introducing indigenous Indian symbols and customs into the liturgy without abandoning all the western forms. The Mar Thome tradition might gradually go through a similar transformation giving unity in diversity — to the mutual enrichment of all.