HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN INDIA: PART ONE
The Origins of Christianity in India
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur
The usual histories of Christianity rarely mention the coming of the faith to India at the time of the Apostles. For one thing the early Church in India had little bearing on the development of the Church as such. It is said that its historicity has not been solidly attested by documentary evidence as demanded by serious historians. A cloud of arguments are however trotted out fervidly to support the living tradition of an ancient community in south India, particularly in Kerala. Some of the emerging, soft evidence will be examined in our ensuing study. The present historical assessment is delicately summarized in the words of Shri Sreedhara Menon in his work “A survey of Kerala History”: “There is nothing intrinsically impossible in the St Thomas tradition.”
The many questions, loose ends and glaring gaps make the quest into the origins of the faith in India fascinating. The staunch, enduring tradition of St Thomas Christians has elements which are singular in the history of the Church, the rapid spread of the community and its rich resource of vocations make the study of the early Church in India very attractive.
When did the “ Good News” come to India for the first time ?
The first time the “Good News” reaches India was on the day of Pentecost. In Acts 2, 9 it is said that among the people assembled to hear Peter in their language were devout people from “Parthia”. Parthia is the northwest of India. It was a tradition that this area was assigned to Thomas. The story of the labours of Thomas comes to us again from the “Acts of Judas Thomas “. This is the brief account of its contents.
King Gundnapur of India sent Habien to get an architect to build a palace. Habien took with him Thomas who was sold to him by Christ. Both landed in Sandgrog-Mahoga [Andropolis in the Greek version ]. Thomas converted the royal couple after performing a miracle. Both went to Gundnapur. Thomas got money to build the palace, but spent the money on the poor. Thomas was imprisoned .Gundnapur’s brother Gad, saw in heaven the palace built by Thomas. Thomas was released and the royal brothers were baptised. Thomas went to the Kingdom of Mazdi, baptised the Queen; imprisoned for having preached continence to the women of the place, he died a martyr having been pierced through by lances of the soldiers of Mazdai1.
What hard evidence exists for Thomas coming to India?
No hard evidence is found to attest that Thomas came to India. However coins of Gondaphanes were found. Gondaphanes was King of Kandapur. This has a historical basis. As of now, it is not possible , unless we get hard evidence to get a very precise idea of the state and composition of the original community or communities in India. The above – mentioned story is from an apocryphal work. There is no solid documentary or archaeological proof for the coming of St Thomas to India.
Based on evidence that we will examine, it is not altogether out of place to give some credence to the following reconstruction of the apostolate of St Thomas in India.
Thomas probably reached Taxila by the well-known sea route from Alexandria to the mouth of the Indus. An overland route to Taxila was also possible. He was hospitably received at the court of Gondophareos, for Taxila was a cosmopolitan centre of culture and was accustomed to give ready hearing to teachers from strange countries. His missionary labours were, however, interrupted by the Kushan invasions and Thomas was compelled to flee. He retraced his steps to the mouth of the Indus and there took ship to Muziris, the Roman colony on the Malabar coast, touching at Socotora on the way. He arrived in 52 C.E. and founded the Church in Malabar. Twenty years later he transferred his labours to the east coast and was martyred by brahmins. [H. G.Rowlinson]
What is he “soft evidence” for the coming of Thomas to India ?
- The monsoons were discovered by Hippalus in 45 C.E. Before this time ships did not cross the Arabian Sea. They hugged the coast to Karachi, either from Alexandria to the Red Sea or from the Persian Gulf and reached Broach, Kalayan, Sopara, Muziris and then the east coast of India. They left in July, it took 40 days to reach the Malabar coast. Roman coins of the first century of the common era indicate commerce between Europe and India.
- There were several Jewish settlements on western coast of India before Christ and in the first century of the common era.
- There is a tradition prevailing among the St Thomas Christian community according to which St Thomas came by sea and first landed at Cranganore [Kodunalur] in 52 C.E. ,converted Hindu families in Cranganore, Palayur and Quilon and visited the Coromandel coast and then crossed over to China. He subsequently returned to India, organised the Christians of Malabar and under guides [ priests ?] from the leading families he had converted, and established seven places of worship at Cranganore, Parur, Palayur, Quilon, Kokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal or Nilakal [ all these places were significantly Jewish colonies except the last} Thomas then moved to the Coromandel coast and suffered martyrdom at the Little Mount near Mylapore. His body was brought to Mylapore and was buried in a holy shrine. The details of the above story are from a few songs – the Rabban Pattu - orally handed down from generation to generation. They are also recorded in the traditional song and dance known as the Margam Kalli
- There are two forms of this oral traditions. One form states that the first few familes were Nambuthri brahmins. Another form states that there was a great persecution on the Coromandel coast in the Cola country some families reached Quilon who were Vellalas, agriculturists ranked next to the brahmins. The earliest Christian community was augmented by immigrant groups from Mylapore and the Coromandel coast. The telescoping of events make it difficult to say when this happened. There is an indication of an eight church said to be founded by Thomas at Tiruyankot in Kanyakumari district.
What other “soft evidence” is there of the coming of Thomas to India ?
There is the western tradition, that is, tradition from Rome and Europe which refers to the existence of Christians in India.
- Panthaenus from Alexandria, an Egyptian and a Copt was sent to India towards the end of the second century according to Eusebius..
- David of Besorah journeyed to India in 250-300 C.E.
- In the list of bishops who attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 there is one “John the Persian” who was the Bishop of Persia and Greater India.
- There is a reference to Theophilus [native of the Maldives] who was sent to the Maldives in 354 by the Emperor Constantius. The Emperor heard that the natives of the Maldives and India heard the Gospel in a sitting posture and did other things that were repugnant to the Byzantines.
What was the relationship of the Persian Church and the Thomas Christians ?
Thomas the Apostle founded the “Mesopotamian Church”.. This is also called the Chaldean Church, a name given by Pope Eugenius in 1445. Before Thomas left for India he delegated the mission to his companion Addai, who was one of the seventy Jesus had chosen besides the twelve. The disciple of Addai Mari founded the Church of Seleucia and Ctesiphon. It must be remembered that Jews from Mesopotomia were present at Pentecost. This church suffered persecution under the Persian Emperor Sapor II for forty years. Monastic life flourished and reached its height in the 5th and 7th centuries. Thanks to the schools and monasteries the Church grew in importance. The title of Catholicos was given to Mar Papa in 310-329. With the break between the East and the West at Ephesus in 431 and later at Chaledon in 451 the Church of the East became Nestorian. The Church of the Persia as opposed to Byzantium took on the title of Patriarch.
The East Syrian Church namely the Chaldean Church became Nestorian. The Egyptians [Copts] Ethiopians, West Syrians [Jacobites] and Armenians were Monophysites. Not surprisingly these churches developed on their own. The tendency to become national was heightened by the Synod of Markabta Tavyage  and the Synod of Seleucia-Ctesiphon . The church made peace with the their Sassanid [Persian] rulers, developed its own theology, canon law, liturgy and mission life. Edessa had a big part in this development. Edessa was closed as a school in 489. Nisibis under Persian control became the stronghold of Nestorianism. Seleucia-Ctesiphon on either side of the Tigris, the twin cities, was the capital of the Persian Empire. The bishop of this place wanted to be the primate and this was resisted.
Given the above background, we pick up the story in India. After the death of Thomas, Malabar was without a preacher and a leader for 93 years. One night in Edessa the Metropolitan saw the plight of the Malabar Christians and he told his people that a certain Thomas was sent to Malabar. He met the Christians in Malabar and returned and reported to the Metropolitan and expressed his readiness to sacrifice his life for the Christians of Malabar. Thomas came back with a batch of priests, deacons, men and women in 345 at Malia Kara. They built a church and a town at Cranganore. This is the story of Thomas of Cana
What the historical documents do we have of Christianity in India before the Portuguese era ?
Historical documentation starts in the fourth century.
- Cosmas Indicopleustus [6th century, an Alexandrian] in Topographica Christiana speaks of Ceylon, also of Male and perhaps Quilon, where Cosmas found a bishop appointed from Persia.
- The Persian Cross and its imitations venerated at the Big Mount in Mylapore are signs of the ancient relations with the Persian Church.
- In the 8th or 9th century one or two colonies from Persia landed in Quilon, Bishops Sapor and Aprodhit came with them. They are venerated as saints.
- Patriarch Isoyabb [650-660] wrote to Bishop of Riwardasshir that “not only Persia but also India… were deprived of priestly succession”
- Patriarch Sliba Zoha [714-728] raised the Indian Church to the Metropolitan dignity. This title is confirmed down the centuries.
Under the Chera rulers the Thomas Christians were well protected. In the early centuries Cranganore was one of the principal centres. With the invasion of the Arabs the situation changed , Angamale rose in importance.
- The list of Bishops are: Mar Thomas, Mar Sapor and Mar Aprodhit, Mar John, Mar Thomas, Mar John, Mar Paulos, Mar Jacob, Mar Yaballaha, and 1490 Mar Thomas and Mar John.
What change took place with the Portuguese coming to India ?
In 1534 the jurisdiction of Goa extended from the Cape of Good Hope to China. This immense territory technically came under the Padroado, that is the patronage of the King of Portugal. The ancient Malabar Church came under the Chaldean Church for its jurisdiction and rite. Hence the conflict with the Portuguese regime, both civil as well as ecclesiastical. The following is a brief account of their relationship:
In 1490 we have two Chaldean bishops in Malabar, Mar Thomas and Mar John. They were well received by Albuquerque ,the Portuguese Viceroy. After Thomas came Mar Jacob. Mar Jacob wrote to the King of Portugal defending the validity of the sacraments by the Syro-Malabarians. However he permitted boys of that church to study in the latin seminary of the Franciscans at Cranganore and with the Jesuits at Cochin.. St Francis Xavier himself attests to the faith of the St Thomas Christians. Mar Jacob died in Cochin in 1552.
In 1552 the Chaldeans elected John Sulaqa as Patriarch. He was sent to Rome ordained and installed as Patriarch.. Abdiso the successor too was confirmed in like manner by Rome. Those who opposed John Sulaqa abandoned communion with Rome and today are the “Nestorian Church” in Trichur.
After Mar Jacob the Syro-Malabarians had no bishop. Mar Joseph, the brother of John Sulaqa , was nominated Metropolitan of India and he with Mar Elias came to India with letters from Rome. They were arrested by the Portuguese, taken to Mozambique and later brought to Bassein.[Bombay] At Bassein they edified the Portuguese, learnt to say mass in latin and after extracting from them a promise were sent to Malabar. Mar Elias went to Rome. The Portuguese authorities did not accept the jurisdiction of Mar Joseph given by the order of Patriarch Abdiso. .In the meantime a certain Mar Abraham, a convert, went to Patriarch Abdiso, who sent him to the Pope, was ordained and named Metropolitan. The Pope directed that the diocese be divided between Mar Joseph and Mar Abraham, and Angamale was assigned to Mar Abraham. Mar Joseph died in Rome in 1569.
Mar Abraham , Archbishop of Angamale, took charge of his flock. In 1575 he was invited to take part in the Provincial Council at Goa. Mar Abraham did not go, naturally because he was twice arrested by the Portuguese. .He however sent his profession of faith…In 1579 Mar Abraham wrote to the Pope to free him from the vexations of the Portuguese .In 1583 he celebrated a synod prohibiting marriage of priests, corrected liturgical books, entrusted the Jesuits the direction of the seminary at Vaipicotta and also named Archdeacon George, bishop of Palayur, his suffragan. The Pope confirmed this election. But Archdeacon George did not accept the office. Archdeacon died in 1584 and after him came Archdeacon George of the Cross.
Mar Abraham died in 1597. Archdeacon according to custom took up the administration of the vacant see. Archbishop of Goa Alexis Menezes nominated Fr. Roz, S.J.Administrator, then cancelled the appointment and re-nominated Archdeacon George but gave him Jesuits as Councillors whose consent was necessary in administrative matters. The Archdeacon refused this condition. The Archbishop relented and insisted on the Archdeacon making the profession of faith. The Archbishop undertook a visitation of Malabar. He preached openly against the schismatic church in Babylon, administered sacraments of confirmation and ordination in the latin rite. The Archdeacon frightened with excommunication and deposition yielded and accepted all that Archbishop Menezes dictated to him.
What is the story of the Apostle Bartholomew and India ?
The story of the apostolate of Bartholomew in India came through Eusebius of Caesarea and St Jerome. The two reports refer to the visit of Pantaenus in the 2nd century. The Coptic Church of Alexandria elected Pantaenus to visit the mission in India. Pantaenus reported that he found that Bartholomew one of the twelve apostles, had preached according to the Gospel of Mathew, in an area called Kalyan, an ancient port, identified as present day Kalyan at the end of the Thana creek in Bombay. This is supported by Cosmas Indicopleueutes. However there is no Indian tradition, as we have for the St Thomas Christians in south India.
What is the importance of Mylapore in the history of Christianity in India ?
Mylapore or Calamina is the place of the martyrdom of the Apostle Thomas. The story goes that the Apostle used to retire to two caves on a hill a league from the town of Mylapore. One day at prayer opposite a cleft in the rock that gave light to the cave, one of the brahmins who was watching him thrust a lance through the hole. This was the “Little Mount”. .Thomas went to the other cave bleeding, where he died, embracing a stone on which a cross was carved. He was removed by his disciples and buried in Mylapore.
The tomb was known to Gregory, Bishop of Tours, in the 6th century. Pilgrimages were common to the tomb. In fulfillment of a vow King Alfred sent a delegation with gifts to Rome and to India to the shrine of the Apostle Thomas in 883. Marco Polo in 1293 attests to the tomb. It was known among the Muslims. Earth from the tomb was taken to the sick and cures were reported.
Archbishop Marignolli the Papal Delegate also testifies to the existence of the tomb. In 1545 Francis Xavier stayed at Mylapore for four months. He prayed at the tomb for the solution to the doubts that were troubling him.
Describe the Bleeding Cross on the Big Mount?
The cross is said to be carved by Thomas. It was found by the Portuguese when digging the foundation of a new church. The stone on which the cross is carved is a large millstone reverse upwards, rough and unpolished. On it a beautiful cross was carved with an inscription. On one side of the cross was a streak of blood.
There are other crosses like the one on the Mount in Kerala and one in Anuradhapuram in Ceylon..
The inscription that runs around the cross seems to be an old script of Persia, called Sassanian-Pahlavi. Many interpretations have been attempted. The last being of Professor Winnorth, who gave the following intrepretation: “My Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon Afras, son of Charbarbukhet, the Syrian who cut this.”
The cross is said to be not earlier than the fifth century. The language was known in India in the 8th century.
What is the interest in Christianity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ?
In the thirteenth century that last threat of invasions by the barbarians in Europe were the Mongols. To negotiate with them and convert them attempts were made to contact the great Khan himself at Peking. In 1292 John de Monte Corvino, O.F.M. passed through India and reached China. His mission was a great success. In 1307 Clement V erected a new patriarchate with Monte Corvino as its first metropolitan. Its jurisdiction. included India. In 1318 John XXII divided the archdiocese of Persia. India came under Persia. In 1329 it was further divided and Quilon became the first latin diocese.in India. . John Catalani of Severac, O,P. was its first bishop. In 1398-99 the Papal Legate John Marignolli, O.F.M. stayed at Quilon
In 1498 the Portuguese came to India. The Popes gave the kings of Portugal the right of patronage, padroado, the care, responsibility and evangelisaion devolved on them for the churches they established in their territories. They extended the latin rite. Most of the work for the gospel was done by religious orders. Franciscans , Jesuits  Dominicans , Augustinians , Carmelites . Theatines .
Who are some of the important personages at this time in Indian Christianity ?
JOHN MONTE CORVINO,O.F.M. WAS Archbishop of Peking in 1307, died in 1329, was in India for thirteen months near the tomb of St. Thomas, does not tell who the Christians are and seems to suggest that many are Nestorians. [ Can we read in this that they were from Kerala !.]
JORDANUS OF SEVERAC, O.P. was appointed Bishop of Quilon by John XXII in 1328. Quilon is the first diocese of the latin rite in India. He carried among other letters by the Holy Father one addressed to the Nazrani Christians. This is significant. His book Mirabilia Descripta, edited by St. Charles’ Seminary, is an interesting travelogue on India. His work was successful..He was martyred at Thana. The year is unknown. A statue was found when the foundation of a house was dug in Thana in 1564. It is said to be that of Jordan whose was feast was celebrated on 9 April by the order of Pope Leo XIII.
MARCO POLO 1292-1295 visited India and China. He noted that Mylapore was a pilgrim centre for Christians and Muslims.
JOHN DE MARIGNOLLI O.F.M. 1338 was papal legate to China, spent a year in India. He visited Quilon and the Christians of St. Thomas. At Kanyakumari he set up a marble pilar surmounted with a cross overlooking Sri Lanka.
What role do the Portuguese play for Christianity in India in this era ?
The King of Portugal drove the Muslims out of the Spanish Peninsula in 1319. The King was made Defender of the Faith. In 1416 a military Order of Jesus Christ was established to carry the faith across the seas. The King of Portugal was the Grand Master of the Order of Christ. The Popes recognised the potential of this sea-faring nation and their faith, issued over sixteen bulls giving the right of patronage to the King of Portugal.to promote evangelisation, to send missionaries, maintain them and issue and receive letters of jurisdiction.
How did the Portuguese come to India ?
Prince Henry was their great navigator, with the help of the mariner’s compass set sail down the coast of Africa during which he discovered the Congo. He was followed by Bartholomew Dias who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1487. In 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Calicut
The underlying ambition was the search for the mythical Prester John. He was believed to be a Christian ruler in the East. It was hoped that he would liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims who had encircled the Mediteranean. Prester John has been variously identified with the Indies. The guardian of the tomb of St Thomas, Then with Central Asia which was destroyed by Genghis Khan. Lastly Prester John was identified with Ethiopia.
What did the Portuguese do in India ?
The Portuguese established factories [warehouses or godowns} and forts along the coast of Malabar. Calicut was kingdom of the Muslims. The ruler was called the Zamorin. He was in touch with Cairo, Mecca and Turkey. Though a peace treaty was made with the Zamorin which favoured trade, Christianity did not progress here.
Cochin was captured. [Vypin island was formed in 1341 because of an earthquake] Together with Cannanore, Cochin was fortified. The Sultan of Egypt sensing the presence of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean tried to drive out the Portuguese from the Arabian Sea. They were defeated.
Goa was conquered in 1510.
Why did Goa become so important to the Portuguese ?
Cochin was their first headquarters after the capture of Goa it became the capital of the Portuguese in India. Several reasons favoured Goa. 1. Goa was a prize worth a good fight. The Muslims of Bijapur ruled over Goa under Adil Shah . Goa had an opening to the prosperous hinterland, the Deccan. To the north was Poona , with its salubrious climate. To the south was Karwar under the kingdom of Vijanagar. 2. Goa had the best natural harbour on the west coast, a sheltered estuary formed by the rivers Mandovi and Zuari. It was the trading post for the horses from Arabia and Middle East which were in great demand in time of war and also the export of fine muslin cloth, calico and rice. Timber from the ghats were used for ship-building. Goa was the home of sailors. 3. Goa was known as the granary and fruit garden of the west coast. 4. Goa was the home of famous spas, hot springs. 5. Goa was already fortified by Adil Shah who made it his administrative headquarters. 6. The people spoke a distinct language: konkani. 7. Though the Muslims were the rulers they were foreigners, the Hindus: brahmins, kshatriyas and other castes ,were the sons of the soil, tillers of the land.
What was the missionary policy of Albuquerque ?
When Albuquerque captured Goa in 1510 there were some traces of Christianity There was a reference to a Christian settlement in 1392 at Zuari. Albuquerque adapted wisely a policy sympathetic to the native population. He tolerated Hinduism except for the practice of sati. He respected the village system of communities , land held in common, the local self-government and the position of the gauncars [village leaders] He encouraged trade and broke the monopoly of the Arabs’ trade in horses.
Albuquerque embarked on a unique experiment of colonisation through assimilation. He saw that is was impossible for the Portuguese to govern its Indian territories from Portugal. The Portuguese were reluctant to stay for long periods in India. Since the Portuguese had no intention to expand their territorial conquests they wished to maintain a strong presence in Goa, the headquarters of their civic and military administration, to protect their trading interests. Albuquerque encouraged marriage of Portuguese soldiers with native women after they were converted to Christianity. These were attracted to the pretty, fair, Muslim women. The Hindus at first were scandalised by these mixed marriages. But when the women were treated with dignity and honour mixed marriages increased. In 1529 there were 800 inhabitants in Goa and 1000 children. These children would one day be recruited into the army and administration. This offset the need to send more Portuguese soldiers and officers to Goa from Portugal. Many settled as farmers, craftsmen and artisans and were called figdalgoes or mesticos. These were not generally respected neither by the Europeans nor by the Indians. There were not a few orphans. The others, local-born, with Portuguese names who did not have European blood were called Canarim.
The Portuguese expelled the Arabs and Moors. The Portuguese held the high posts. Lower level jobs were given to trained natives, especially Brahmins because of their intelligence. Brahmins at first prevented conversions, ostracised the converts but afterwards became generally tolerant.
What measures did the Church in Goa take for the propagation of the faith?
In 1541 the Confraternity of the Holy Faith was founded. Its goal was the spiritual and temporal welfare of the new converts. The Confraternity built a college for the education of the clergy, called St.Paul’s College. In the beginning the college was a sort of minor seminary. The catechumens were given residential formation in the faith [ ladies and men in separate houses ] in preparation for baptism. Besides catechism they were taught good manners. However the witness of the Portuguese in Goa was scandalous, they had four or five slave women, were lazy and amassed wealth.
As Christianity progressed it became obligatory to attend catechism classes every Sunday. Albuquerque celebrated the baptisms with great pomp, some were given a house, land, cattle and a dowry.
The Portuguese authorities built a hospital in Goa. This was for the Portuguese. Later health care was extended to others in Goa through the institution called Casade Misericordia It was a sort of MISEREOR or Caritas to take care of the poor, hungry and sick. It was run by the laity [Portuguese]. It was quite ahead of the times with regard to social service.
The Portuguese did everything to create a Christian atmosphere. Christian festivals were celebrated with great splendour . At the same time they applied the doctrine of “rigor de misericordia”.It was held that where God reigned it was an insult to the true God to permit worship of false gods or the worship of idols. This meant the destruction of temples and idols. This doctrine was ruthlessly applied by the Vicar General Miquel Vaz in 1591. No esteem was given to the valuable sculptures that were destroyed. The income of the ruined temples was used by the Confraternity of the Holy Faith.
Give an assessment of the conversions in Goa ?
The mentality towards conversion was governed by the principle prevailing at that time in history with regard to all conquests: cujus regio ejus religio, which means: who ever rules determines their religion. This was followed by every religion.. Those conquered by the King followed or were forced to follow the religion of the conqueror and the places of worship were destroyed and replaced with new places of worship. The Portuguese were no exception to this way of acting notwithstanding the message of Christ. They even invented the doctrine “rigor de misericordia” to justify their barbaric actions.
The Portuguese tried to create a group of people loyal to the Portuguese Empire. They believed that conversions would do that and through mixed marriages there would have a native – born community attached to them. Never the less the Portuguese were far-seeing they did not alienate the hindus who remained in Goa, used them for their intelligence, capital, contacts and shrewedness for business and military needs.
Conversions had an impact on Hinduism. Sati was abolished. The control the brahmins had over education and religion was broken. This led to the questioning of the purity-pollution principle so prevalent in the caste system . This was not altogether eliminated in the mentality of the converts to Christianity nor the caste system. However the Portuguese names given to the converts gave a new identity and brought confusion regarding caste affiliation of the Christians and in some way neutralized caste. However . casteism in Goa in no small measure has proved to be thicker than the purifying waters of baptism.
Conversions have been associated with favours and privileges. It is bad to make generalisations. Systematic catechisis accounts for a fair number of converts especially in the areas called the”new conquests”and because of the painstaking work of the Franciscans, Jesuits and Dominicans and other religious congregations.
The Inquisition had a negative impact on Christianity in Goa and left a permanent stigma on the Church and made it insensitive in its dealings with hindu practices and later in its relation with the Thomas Christians.
EARLY INDIAN CHURCH HISTORY
- What evidence do we have for the coming and apostolate of St Thomas in India ?.
- Trace the history of the relationship between the Persian Church and the Thomas Christians in India ?
- Describe the history of the Bleeding Cross on Thomas Mount at Mylapore.
- What was the impact of the policy of evangelisation by the Padroado in India and in Goa in particular ?
- Give an evaluation of the conversions that took place in Goa .
1 The Acts of Judas Thomas describes the journey and activities of the Apostle in a romantic way. It is an apocryphal account written in Syriac about 200 C.E.
Jesus and India
Most works on and inquiries into the history of Christianity in India begin with the Thomas Christians. Some set out to prove that the Apostle Thomas came to India. Some even work to provide that the Apostle Bartholomew came to India. But the best of scholars today, especially many in India suggest that the prior question is if Jesus himself came to India!
There are two versions of this Jesus in India thesis. One is that Jesus visited the country between the ages of twelve and thirty when the gospels record very little about him. Presumably he did this in the company of his mentor Joseph of Arimethea whose profession was the tin trade which would have taken him to India and as far as Glastonbury in England. Kashmir, Punjab, and Tibet figure prominently in this version of the story. The second version, which does not preclude the first, is that Jesus did not die on the cross but fainted. The aromatic herbs used on his body revived him. Jesus and some of his disciples then fled to Kashmir where he died an old man. There is indeed a tomb in Khaniyar in the northern part of Srinagar preserved with the name “Yus Asaf” on it, which could be a variation of the name of Joseph.
The name “Issa”, the Muslim name for Jesus features in some of these theses. Much of this comes from the work of a Russian journalist Nicolas Notovitch whose book The Unknown Life of Christ was published in English in 1895. The proposal here is that Jesus escaped from his family because he did not want to marry and came to India where he learned a large number of Buddhist practices. He then returned to Israel where he was crucified but his disciples then carried his message throughout the world. Notovitch claimed he had this information from a Pali manuscript found in a Buddhist monastery he visited. The book was not well received by scholars including Max Müller who called it a work of pure fiction.
A second source of the Jesus in India thesis is a long Sanskrit text published in 1897 published by the Srivenkata Press in Bombay. In 1903, Theodor Aufrecht unmasked this publication as a “literary fraud”, proving that it is not an ancient purana but written by some unknown pandit in the late nineteenth century.
A third source of the legend of Jesus in India comes from the Muslim Hazrat Ahmad. This book suggests that Jesus did not die on the cross but was revived in the tomb. He fled from the scene, came to India, and went to preach to the ten lost tribes of Israel which the author identifies with many of the Tribals in Afghanistan.
There is very little hard evidence that Jesus was in India at all. Would it change the Christian faith if it were proven to be true? It would not. Scholars are generally agreed that there would be some mention of India and Jesus before the nineteenth century if there were any credibility to his being in India.
It seems that some confuse the fact that the teachings of Jesus were known in India before the colonial era with his having actually visited the country. It is true that there are Chinese and Tibetan references to the teachings of Jesus and there is a record of a Buddhist teacher named Ye Su. We know that in the early centuries of the first millennium that Christianity had spread to Asia but that does not confirm that Jesus lived there.
Perhaps the best way to end this discussion is to quote from a letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to his daughter Indira in 1949.
All over Central Asia, in Kashmir, Ladakh, and Tibet, and even further north, there is still a strong belief that Jesus or Isa traveled about there. Some people believe that he visited India also. It is not possible to say anything with certainty, and indeed most authorities who have studied the life of Jesus do not believe that Jesus came to India or Central Asia. But there is nothing inherently improbable in his having done so.
Cf. Kersten, Holder. 2001. Jesus Lived in India. New Delhi: Penguin Books India and Benjamin, Joshua M. 2001. The Mystery of Israel’s Lost Tribes and the Legend of Jesus in India. New Delhi: Mosaic Books.
The Search for the Historical Jesus
It may come as a surprise to many that over the years there have been those who have doubted that Jesus ever existed. One of the major positions in this regard is that Alexandrian Jews, concerned about the increasing violence of Jews in Jerusalem and the potential for their wiping themselves off the face of the earth, put together a composite of a non-violent messiah whom they name Yeshua, offering the Jerusalem Jews an alternative to their annihilation. There have been many in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who have posited that Jesus is a construct of a faith community rather than a real human person. There are some who would say that this myth or truth of the inspiration derived from his teaching is far more important that whether or not he really existed.
It is perhaps interesting that this is happening now in what some scholars are saying is the most ahistorical of generations ever. The fact is that the bulk of Christians believe that the reality of the history of Jesus is important for their own faith. Without this history they believe they would have a philosophy, not a religion. The fact is that historical studies of Christian scriptures have made clear to us that they are not accurate and reliable biographies of him produced by eyewitnesses. They are not histories in the modern sense of reporting accurate details. They are testaments or witness literature, commentaries on how the followers of Jesus in various localities in the Mediterranean world remembered Jesus and worked to live out their understanding of him.
A key participant in this search for the historical Jesus was Albert Schweitzer who published a summary of the work done up until 1906. This was before he left theology to study medicine and spend the bulk of his life ministering to others in this way. Schweitzer lamented the lack of knowledge of just how Jewish Jesus was. Later the scholar Rudolph Bultmann claimed that the gospels tell us more about Christianity than about Jesus. In 1959, Anglican Bishop John M. Robinson published his book, A New Quest for the Historical Jesus, which prompted a large number of highly qualified scholars to establish criteria of historical reliability which help us to understand what in the gospels can be traced to the historical Jesus. The work of the Jesus Seminar continues this quest today.
Thanks to the work of all these scholars we have at our disposal today a picture that avoids both fundamentalist and literal readings of the gospels as simple historical records. We see in the gospels testaments of communities of faith based on the history of a man who transformed the lives of those who believed in him.
Today, most scholars would agree that the following are the basic historical facts connected with the life of Jesus:
- Jesus was born about 4 B.C.E. He was born before the death of Herod which occurred in 4 B.C.E. He could have been born as early as 7 B.C.E.
- His childhood and early adulthood occurred in Nazareth, a village of Galilee, north of Palestine. This was close to the city of Sepphoris.
- Jesus was baptized by John, a charismatic kind of preacher, who announced the imminent coming of the “reign of God”. This baptism constituted some kind of transformative event in the life of Jesus and thrust him into a new stage in his life.
- Jesus, too, preached about the “reign of God” but he differed from John in this his image God was not that of a judge but as a loving Father or loving parent.
- Possibly after the imprisonment of John who was subsequently executed Jesus began to teach in the village of the Galilee. He seems to have avoided the towns.
- Jesus called some Galileans to work with him. Some were fisher folk but others came from different occupations.
- Jesus exercised a healing ministry that attracted many to him.
- Around 30 C.E. Jesus went with his disciples to Jerusalem for the Passover, the most important religious and national feast of the Jews.
- Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem caused agitation in the city and a disturbance in the Temple area.
- Jesus celebrated an important final meal with his disciples around the time of the Passover.
- He was arrested and brought to the Jewish authorities for interrogation, to the High Priest in particular.
- His disciples ran away at this time.
- Jesus was executed just outside the precincts of the city by order of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate.
- Some of his disciples had an experience of Jesus alive (“risen”), of his living presence after his death. The exact nature of this experience cannot be explained.
- The disciples believed that Jesus would return to inaugurate the reign of God.
- The disciples formed a community to prepare for Jesus’ return and to convince others to join them in their conviction that Jesus was the Messiah of God.
Background of the History of Jesus
Jesus’ historical existence is important and central to Christian faith. Christ is not another name for God. Christ is a qualifier of the man Jesus, who has been revealed to us as the messenger of God. It is important to look at the background of the history of Jesus to understand him better.
Palestine where Jesus grew up and became in some measure a public figure had been occupied for a long time by the Romans. The Roman Empire controlled much of the regions around the Mediterranean and to the north and east of it. Palestine or Israel was divided into different areas under different forms of authority. There was a small but powerful elite wresting whatever power it could from the Romans and the mass of farmers. The bulk of these farmers were landless and many were destitute. There were also fisher folk, artisans, petty merchants and public servants most of whom had little control over their lives. People were heavily taxed both by the Romans and by those who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. Crime abounded.
There were several influential groups. Among them were the priests who depended totally on the written Torah and accepted this as the only source of authority. Some of these were active in the death of Jesus. The Sadducees were the aristocracy and they were allied to the conservative land owners. They adapted to the Roman rule and had massive influence on the lives of the Jewish people. Jesus was very critical of the attitude of the priests. There were also movements of spiritual renewal both popular and elitist. Among the latter were the Pharisees. They accepted both the written Law but also considered oral traditions about its interpretation. They were often allied to the scribes and intellectuals of Judaism. There were two major schools of the Pharisees, that of Hillel and that of Shammai. Jesus is believed to have been a Pharisee himself but from the school of Hillel whose interpretation of the law was deemed “elastic”. The Pharisees in the gospels are presented as generally opposed to Jesus.
The ordinary people lived by faith and hope out of a twelve hundred year tradition in which they kept alive the memory that they were once slaves and had been freed by God from that slavery. They understood themselves as in a covenant relationship with God whom they generally referred to as “Adonai”, or Lord. Their names for God evolved over the course of their history and at the time of Jesus would have been YHWH, the sacred Tetra gammon which should never be said or spelled completely lest it be desecrated. The people believed that as God had acted decisively in terms of them in the past, sending them prophets, and leaders such as David and Solomon, God would do that again for them. So they waited, hoped, prayed, and paid their taxes!
There seem to have been no prophets abroad at the time of Jesus although some thought John the Baptizer was a prophet and others thought Jesus himself to be one. There were popular preachers from time to time. Some of them were Zealots who wanted the violent overthrow of the Romans much as the Maccabees had done earlier in their history. At the other end were the tax collectors who collaborated with the Romans and were generally despised by the people because their salaries were a portion of the taxes they collected from their own people. The priests and scholars kept aloof from the Romans as much as possible but did not dare to confront their military might. The Pharisees in general thought that a strict following of the religious laws of their people would save the people and protect them from extinction until God acted on their behalf. The strict keeping of the laws would actually, in their understanding, bring about this activity of God. There were some ascetics, the best known are those at Qumran, who sought to life in self-sufficient religious communities. Some think they were influenced by Indian monasticism but that has yet to be definitively proven. There were not only Jews in Israel but for many years there was a strong Greek cultural influence. In the north of the country where Jesus grew up there were strong cultural influences of many sorts. We know now that Sepphoris which was close to Nazareth was a multi-cultural city and one in which Joseph and Jesus might have worked.
What prompted Jesus to begin is public mission is unclear. Some think it was that the re-distribution of land which was to take place every fifty years did not happen and Jesus saw this as a massive violation of what the Jewish leadership was for. He began to preach that the much awaited reign of God was at hand. God was not the judge of history but like a loving part. God’s nature was loving-kindness and God’s programme was justice and compassion for all. This God loved all including sinners and Jesus ate with those most despised by his compatriots. Open commensality became the symbol of the new order. Jesus called for a major change in outlook. The summary of his teaching is found in the Beatitudes, a beautiful and accurate translation of which is perhaps best found in that of J.B. Phillips, in 1960.
Jesus was crucified by the political establishment of his time in collusion with the Jewish religious establishment who are reported to have believed that it was expedient for Jesus to die so that he did not rock the political boat. After his death those closest to Jesus experienced him as some way alive. Much work has been done and continues to be done to understand what this being alive was and is. It is not a resuscitated body that is involved. God raised Jesus to a new dimension of life in God. As a result of this raising up Jesus “was seen” by the disciples. Again it is difficult to interpret the “sightings” but they were life-changing for those who experienced Jesus in this way.
Many scholars today suggest that we need to look for “resurrections” in our own lives to get some understanding of the implications of Jesus’ being raised up. When we are men and women of hope despite the power of evil around us, when we have the courage to protest when human beings are being trampled upon, when we say in truth from the heart satyam eva jayate, we can sense resurrection.
The First Christians in India
By way of background to Indian Christians it must be mentioned that throughout the course of history four distinct types of Christian churches emerged. Two belong to the “East” and are generally called “Orthodox” churches. Of these two, the “Oriental Orthodox Group” covers most of Eastern Europe. They use the bible and the first four ecumenical councils of the church for their doctrinal expressions. The other group of “Eastern churches” are rooted mostly in North Africa and Asia and do not use the first four ecumenical councils for their doctrinal expressions. The two other groups of churches belong to the West. They are both characterized by missionary efforts which have resulted in their worldwide expansion. They are the (Roman) Catholic Church and the Protestant or Reformed Churches. In India, it must also be noted, that there are churches which accept the authority of the pope in Rome but keep to their own liturgies and customs which are Oriental and Eastern. In other words, to belong to the Catholic Church does not exclude being oriental or eastern in orientation.
It is not known for certain who the first Indian Christians were although the Thomas Christians of Kerala are the successors of some of the earliest Christians in the country. There are traditions in the West, West Asia and in India that St. Thomas came to India perhaps within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death. The “Malabar” or “Indian tradition” says that Thomas landed in Kodungaloor near Kochi in 52 C.E. He is believed to have died a martyr’s death in Mylapore, now a part of the city of Chennai in 72 C.E. His tomb in Mylapore was known to European Christians in the Middle Ages and was a place of pilgrimage although there is also a tradition that his relics were taken Edessa, the modern Urfa in Turkey, about 394 C.E., and then taken to Ortona, Italy. St. Jerome among other ancient writers mentions Thomas as the apostle to India who is reported to have gone there for the purpose of teaching to the “Parthians”.
The apocryphal Acts of Thomas says that Thomas first went to Gondophorous, a Parthian, who ruled over parts of modern north-west India and Pakistan. There is archeological and numismatic evidence about this ruler that confirms he existed in this part of the world. This tradition says that Thomas then went to what is now known as Mylapore. But the Kerala tradition is that he landed in Kodungaloor. It is known that at this time Kerala was involved in Maritime trade with West Asia and with the Mediterranean. Thomas would have preached first to the Jews in this part of the world and then to others. This tradition says that Thomas started Christian communities in seven places, viz., Maliankara, Palayur, Parur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal, and Kollam. Whatever the traditions, there has been a Christian community in Kerala from the earliest times and they continue to revere St. Thomas as their apostle.
Eusebius, the fourth century Church historian, reports that Pantaenus, a Jewish teacher of the theological school in Alexandria, came to India and found a group of Christians who traced their origins to St. Bartholomew. It is not clear if the India that Eusebius mentions is really India or Arabia. It may be that these Christians were in Kalyan near modern Mumbai, although Kalyanpur near Mangalore is also a contender for this group. There is a sixth century account of a merchant from Alexandria named Cosmas Indicopleustes who claims to have visited India and found Christians in Kalyan and Malabar. If Bartholomew came to India there is no community in the country that traces their origin to him. He is believed to have met a martyr’s death in Derbent on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in Armenia.
Among all the Christian communities presently alive in India, the Christians of Kerala are generally considered the earliest and most vigorous of them. About thirty percent of the entire Christian population of India lives in Kerala. At the time of the last census they numbered about six million. It needs to be remarked that this community is not uniform either sociologically or theologically.
It is likely that the communities in Kerala had trade relationships with West Asia. Two groups of immigrants affected the Christians in Kerala. One came in the fourth century from “Persia”, probably modern Iraq. They were under the leadership of Thomas of Cana. He is variously portrayed as merchant, traveler, and pilgrim. He is reported to have brought priests and bishops with him from Syria. Thomas of Cana may have provided the contact between Indian Christians and Syrian Christians to the extent that the Indians came to be known as Syrian Christians and part of the Syrian Church.
There are today two endogamous groups of Thomas Christians, the “northists” and the “southists”. Factors of purity and nobility are associated with the division. Those from the south claim descent from Thomas of Cana and maintain that they kept their purity by not associating with other Christians. Those from the north claim descent from Thomas the Apostle.
A second immigrant group came directly from the Syrian Church in the ninth or tenth centuries. They settled in Kollam. Two of their bishops are believed to have been Armenian. Armenia was the first country to become officially Christian in the fourth century.
Other groups likely came to India from West Asia which was deeply Christian at the time. Indian Christians, like others outside of Rome, were considered part of the church of “Persia”, a general description which included the areas between the Indus and the Euphrates. The principal bishop of this area resided in Antioch in Syria. Eventually Seleucia-Ctesiphon acquired its own importance and the residential bishop there called the Catholicos or general bishop had jurisdiction over Indian Christians.
Socio-Religious System of the Thomas Christians
The social status of the Thomas Christians was high. There is a tradition among them that the first converts were Namboodiri Brahmins. There is no hard evidence to prove this contention. It is also difficult to know if the caste system had spread to the south of India at the time of their conversion. There is a consensus that they were of Dravidian stock. It is fair to say that they were and continue to be highly regarded by their neighbours of all castes. They lived in the towns of Kochi and Kollam and in the rural areas of Angamali and Kottayam. Some lived in the mountains and forest areas. They engaged in agriculture, trade, and military service. They were organized into clans, the basis of their social lives.
The link with the East Syrian Church continued for centuries. They followed their theology, ways of worship, family laws and customs. They were organized into parish assemblies and general assemblies. The role and influence of laity was considerable. Their bishops came from the East Syrian Church. The main function of the bishops was to ordain the elders or “cathenars”. These men did not have much theological formation. All theological literature and worship was in Syriac and ordinary priests would not have known this language apart from its use in worship services and translations of the bible. It appears that the priests were married and heads of families and that priesthood was passed on from father to son within the family although there is some evidence that this was not completely automatic and that ordination was required.
An important ecclesiastical figure was the archdeacon. They were the chief assistants of the bishops in local administration. They were according to the Canons of the Eastern Church, inferior to bishops but superior to priests. The archdeacon of India therefore had great power. He was the chief of the priests and shared the authority of the bishop and his office was for life. He approved priestly ordinations, gave ecclesiastical dispensations, and appointed or removed local ecclesiastics. Internal disputes of many sorts were referred to him. The succession of archdeacons was in Kerala and within a family, that of the Pakalomattams.
The Thomas Christians are part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. There are a large number of churches with very similar names giving rise to much confusion even among Christians themselves. The two Catholic Oriental traditions which accept the authority of the pope of Rome are the Syro-Malabar church and the Syro-Malankara church. The first is presided over by a major archbishop in Ernakulam and the second by a (Catholic) archbishop of Trivandrum.
Among the Thomas Christians is the Mar Thoma Church, closer to Protestant than Catholic traditions. They are highly influential in many parts of the country. They came about through a reform movement in the eighteenth century undertaken by Anglicans in Kerala. The translation of the bible and liturgy into Malayalam accelerated this reform. Its most outstanding leader was Abraham Malpan.
The Mar Thomas church is progressive. It took to English education very early during the period of the Raj. Members have established themselves in urban centres and in professional and political life. Among their most well known members is M.M. Thomas who died in 1996. He was an intellectual, freedom fighter, lecturer, political, social, and Church activist. He was moderator of the World Council of Churches in Geneva from 1968-75. He lectured and eventually became director of the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society. He was appointed governor of Nagaland in 1900 but resigned two years later over what he considered an unjust diktat for the people of this part of India.
Thomas Christians were not mission minded. They remained in their isolated ethnic enclaves and came into conflict with “Latin” missionaries over this approach. In the twentieth century they have emerged as a powerful force throughout India now taking their churches to parts of the country where they have not been traditionally. This is causing some tension among the Christian churches already established in these other locations. Many of the Thomas Christians are trying to abandon their monocultural and ethnic characters in favour of including all Christians who want to worship Jesus within their communities. Large numbers of bishops, priests, and sisters came and come out of Kerala not just to serve India but world-wide.
It needs to be remembered that significant portions of Christians in the south of India do not come from the Thomas Christians but are the results of efforts made by the Portuguese and other European merchants and the missionaries who came with them or were subsequently sent to be of service to them and to new converts. Eleven of the twenty-seven dioceses in Kerala are “Latin” rite. Generally speaking, these dioceses are working at adapting to the Indian cultural and social realities.
It probably needs to be remarked that for most Christians the church is neither a building nor its authorities but the people in it, a community of persons, rich and poor, whose duty is to keep alive in the world the memory of Jesus Christ, his person and his message. This is a message not just for Christians but for the whole world because his message and person are believed to be a blessing for all.
The Arrival of the Portuguese
Indian Christians lived their faith for around fifteen centuries. They were untroubled in their ways of thinking and worship but were distinct from their Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, and later Muslim neighbours. Some critics say they were so much a part of Indian life that they lost the prophetic power of the Gospel to transform society. They were not a large community. A sixteenth century estimate is that they were between one and two lakhs numerically.
On May 20, 1498, a group of fisher folk at Kozhikode in North Kerala watched as four sailing vessels arrived. A small boat was lowered from one of them and a group of heavily armed men introduced themselves as messengers of King Emmanuel I of a land called Portugal. Interestingly, two Muslim Tunisians who were on a business trip to Kozhikode joined the onlookers and then were asked to speak to the captain of the vessel since they knew Spanish. The captain was Vasco da Gama. The Muslims are reported to have said to him, “The devil take you! What has brought you here?” The captain is reported to have replied, “We have come to seek Christians and spices.”
Over the years this reply has been reported as “We have come to seek souls and spices.” It has also been reported as “We have come to seek pepper and souls.” Contemporary authors like Leonard Fernando, S.J., say that this has been grossly misunderstood. The Portuguese did not come with missionary zeal but came expecting to find Christians and primarily to break the Muslim hold on the spice trade. The making of Christians did eventually become an imperial priority and it surely was so fifty years later by the time Francis Xavier came to India.
Many generations of patient research had made it possible for the Portuguese navigators and geographers to chart the seas around Africa. They had sailed along its west coast and then around the Cape of Good Hope. In a ten month expedition, Vasco da Gama sailed to Mozambique and what is now Kenya and then crossed the Indian Ocean to reach Kerala by-passing the Muslim controlled areas of West Asia. The Portuguese, like other Europeans of this time, thought there were Christians in India and in fact believed there was a Christian kingdom there with which they wanted to make contact. Some believed this was the kingdom of Prester John, the priest and king believed to be a descendant of the magi! Emmanuel I wanted da Gama to find them and establish relations with them.
The Christians on the shores of Kozhikode we intrigued with the crosses they saw on the Portuguese. They welcomed the sailors as fellow worshippers and set about receiving them into the community. The Portuguese hoped to use the local Christians as intermediaries to get the spices they wanted and to provide wealth to the Christians themselves in terms of this prosperous trade. The Portuguese adventure must be seen against the fierce animosity between Christians and Muslims in fifteenth century Europe. For more than 500 years the Iberian Peninsula had been ruled by Moorish overlords from Cordoba. They established a brilliant civilization made up of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. However the local Christian population organized and managed to push the Muslims out of their territory in 1492 at the battle of Granada. The Mediterranean was a battle ground until 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto when John of Austria won a resounding victory over the Turks.
The rivalry between Muslims and Christians extended to commerce. Spices and precious stones came to Europe from Asia via Muslim controlled lands. Sailing around Africa to India was seen as a way of breaking the hold on these commodities. The Portuguese who arrived in Kerala were thus far friendlier toward the Hindus whose religion they really did not like than they were to the Muslims they found there or to any other Muslims in India.
There were three other important ports in Kerala when the Portuguese landed, Kannur, Kochi, and Kollam. There were large concentrations of Christians here but the Muslim traders were undermining their traditional social and economic condition. Vasco da Gama sought to establish relationships with the local Hindu leader seeing the Muslim as their mutual rivals. The relationships with the Hindus soon soured. But da Gama returned to Portugal where he was heaped with honors and where he mistakenly told officials that Christians were dominant in India.
In 1500 an expedition of thirteen ships was sent to Koshikode by the merchant-king of Portugal. The new arrivals were massacred by the local ruler when tension arose between them. Vasco da Gama returned to India in 1502 and entered into agreements in Kochi and Kannur with the officials there. Forts were erected in both cities to protect these Portuguese outposts. They were often called “factories”.
There were frequent fights with local rulers until Alfonso de Albuquerque became the Portuguese “Governor of India” in 1509. In 1510 he captured Goa, a valuable port where the Muslim north and the Hindu south met. Goa would become the centre of the Portuguese trading empire in the East. Meanwhile the pepper trade and the greed of the Portuguese began to affect adversely Christians in other parts of India.
The Kerala Imbroglio
The rifts between the Indians and the Portuguese widened. The Portuguese knew the Latin Rite expression of Christian worship and were confused by some of the Indian practices, for example, the giving of a thali around the neck of the bride by the groom in the Indian Christian practice rather than the giving of a ring in the western tradition. The Portuguese saw this as a degeneration of the Catholic faith. They also thought Indian Christian churches looked more like temples than churches in their homeland. But most of all, Indian priests were married! The Portuguese felt they had to bring Indian Christians to the right way, which meant the Latin way. When the Portuguese heard the name of Nestorius mentioned in Indian liturgy, they were convinced that the Indians were Nestorian Christians who had been denounced as heretics at the Council of Ephesus in the fifth century.
There were several ancient rites in the church at this time but the Portuguese seemed not to know of them nor did the priests who came with them in their commercial endeavours. Another major factor causing problems was the structure of the Portuguese Padroado. In the fifteenth century the popes had divided the known world between Spain and Portugal giving each jurisdiction to appoint bishops and to promote Christianity in the West and the East respectively. The Portuguese decided that they had papal authority to bring Indian Christians into the Latin Rite as practiced in Goa. The Syrian Christians resisted believing that the Portuguese had no legal jurisdiction over them. This “Westernization” or “Latinization” resulted in splits, quarrels, and tensions that have lasted until today.
The Padroado system caused confusion within the Latin rite itself as Christian missionaries from countries other than Portugal made their way to India. The Portuguese claimed authority over all that was happening in terms of Christians in India because of the terms of the Padroado. The Padroado was abolished only in the mid-twentieth century.
A third difficulty was that newly arrived priests and laity thought the Indian Church was heretical, Nestorian in particular. Recent research has proven that not to be the case. Theological niceties of this sort did not affect the laity but priests began to seek out “Nestorian tendencies” in the Indian churches and replace them with Latin practices.
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries there was much confusion among the Thomas Christians in terms of the Indian church authority structure. Initially the archbishop of Goa insisted he had authority over them. But the patriarchs of the two East Syrian churches in West Asia – one in union with Rome and one autonomous – continued to send bishops and priests to the Thomas Christians. The Portuguese played one against the other. The Portuguese forced Mar Abraham to convoke a synod at Angamali which supported “correcting” the Syrian liturgical texts.
The Archbishop of Goa Alexis de Menezes forced Archdeacon George who took over after Mar Abraham’s death to break relations with the Syrian Church in and in 1599 at the Synod of Diamper issued 200 decrees involving the westernization of this church. Some modern historians and theologians consider this synod illegitimate.
The next three bishops of the Syrian church were Latins. But in 1605 the patriarchate of the East Syrian Church sent Mar Atallah to India. The Portuguese imprisoned him but the people rose in rebellion when they thought he had been killed and vowed never to follow the “Paulists”, the name given to the Jesuits because of their connection with St. Paul’s College in Goa. A group of Carmelite missionaries eventually came into this area and finally ordained as Bishop Chandy Parampil, probably the first duly ordained Indian.
Without going into great detail about the subsequent history of these churches, there are now in India three churches within the communion of the Catholic Church, the Syro-Malabar, the Syro-Malankara, and the Latin. There are, of course, several others outside the Roman communion.