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India - Syro-Malabar Christian

The Christians of Malabar were originally simply one of the many missions throughout Asia founded by the East Syrians or Persians, dependent on the Katholikos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. They followed their mother Church into Nestorianism, used the same rite as she did, and were merely a distant portion of the Nestorian Church. Later came relations with the Jacobites. But again the Malabar Christians who submitted to the Jacobite Patriarch became simply Jacobites in India. In no case had Malabar itself anything to justify reckoning it as a special Church, except its geographical position. Secondly, in its history the only important event is its reunion with Rome under the Portuguese in the 16th century. The majority of these people are still Uniates.

When the Portuguese fleet under Vasco da Gama sailed into East Indian waters in 1498, the sailors found flourishing Christian communities established along the south-western coast of India, from Calicut down to Cape Comorin. These people had a hierarchy under a Metropolitan, churches and shrines. Their services were in Syriac. They said that they descended from Christians converted by the Apostle Thomas ; they called themselves with pride the " Christians of St. Thomas."

This is the local tradition, still firmly held by all the Malabar Christians, whether Catholic or schismatical. They hold, as a point of honour, that they are an apostolic Church ; they show still the tomb of St. Thomas, and are exceedingly offended by the other account of their origin, namely, that their Christianity comes from Nestorian missionaries. This brings us to a muchdiscussed legend, that of the alleged Indian mission of St. Thomas. There is a considerable literature, Syriac in source, which tells (with variants) a detailed story of the journeys of St. Thomas the Apostle throughout Asia. Some versions make him go as far as Pekin and found a Church in China. In all, he appears as an Eastern parallel to St. Paul in Europe.1 As his companion, in many versions, St. Bartholomew appears. The constant root of the story is that St. Thomas came to Parthia, converted a Parthian king named Gondophares, or Gundaphor, who reigned over part of India, that he established a nourishing Church in this king's domain. There are many additions ; the story is full of fantastic details.

The Apostle is said to have preached the gospel in the island of Socotra, to have then passed over to Cranganore on the western coast of India, where there were many Jews, to have converted Jews and heathen, built churches, and left a hierarchy ordained by himself. Then he went across India to Mailapur (now a suburb of Madras), preached there, Wes attacked by the Brahmins, martyred by being stoned and pierced by a javelin on a hill still called St. Thomas's Mount, and was buried there. Later, his relics were taken to Edessa.

A rather better case than might be imagined can be made for an Indian mission of St. Thomas. Not only from these Ada Thoma, but from a great number of apparently independent sources, we have a constant tradition that he preached in India. It is true that "India " is a very vague term in early Christian literature. It may mean Arabia or even Ethiopia. Yet, at least in many of these, it is clear that India is meant.

But even if admitting in general a mission of St. Thomas to Parthia and to a state in Northern India, this still leaves his alleged foundation of a Church in Malabar very doubtful. It is a far cry from a Parthian kingdom in North India to the south-western coast. To deduce that St. Thomas was in Malabar, because he was at the court of Gundaphor, is like saying that St. Paul came to Britain because he was in Spain. On the other hand, the tradition of Thomas in India would naturally be appropriated by any Christian communities in that vast land. The apostolic origin of Malabar Christianity is a very doubtful legend.

The "Christians of St. Thomas " are right when they protest against being described as a Nestorian mission. It is certain that their Church was founded by East Syrian missionaries ; but there is every reason to suppose that this was before the East Syrian Christians had turned Nestorian. Indian Christianity was always dependent on the people who became the Nestorian Church, so India followed its mother Church into heresy. But there was Christianity in India (and along the Malabar coast) before Nestorius.

These Indian Churches were connected with the Christian Church in Persia as far back as the Council of Nice (AD 325), when a bishop named John signed the decrees as "Metropolitan of Persia and Great India." Cosmas, the Alexandrian merchant, who visited India about AD 529, relates that the Christians in Ceylon had a presbyter over them ordained in Persia; that there were then Christians in Malabar; while at a place called Calliana (supposed to be near Bombay) there was a bishop who came from Persia, where he was consecrated. These Christians were then subject to the jurisdiction of a Persian ecclesiastic who claimed to be Metropolitan of India.

At the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) the Patriarch of Seleucia or Babylon, and his suffragan, the Metropolitan of Persia, gave in their adhesion to the cause of Nestorius, regarding him as unlawfully deposed. From this time the Churches under the Patriarch of Babylon and the Metropolitan of Persia were regarded as Nestorian in creed, and hence the bishop sent out to India would belong to the same section of the Eastern Church. Jordanus, a Dominican friar, connected with a Papal Mission to Persia, met with Nestorians at Tanna, near Bombay, and, travelling further south, he found them in large numbers (AD 1324). Oderick; the monk, visiting St. Thomas's Mount, AD 1330, tells us that, adjoining the church where St. Thomas was supposed to be buried, there were "fifteen houses of the Nestorians, who are Christians, but the worst kind of heretics."

The connexion of the Jacobite Church with Malabar does not appear to reach further hack than 1665. It was brought about under very peculiar circumstances, and the jurisdiction which was then undertaken belonged by right, if any, to others who had held it for a thousand years and more. At length, the power of Portugal being on the wane, the Patriarch of the Jacobites, thinking it a favorable opportunity to increase his power and wealth, sent them out a certain Mar Gregory, styled Patriarch of Jerusalem (AD 1665), two years after the Dutch had wrested Cochin from the power of Portugal. As these Indian Christians were not well versed either in Church History or theological niceties, and as, moreover, there were then more points of agreement between them and the Jacobites than between them and Papal Rome, they welcomed Mar Gregory as a deliverer, and gladly transferred their allegiance to him, although a monophysite in creed. After this, several attempts appear to have been made by the Nestorian Patriarchs to regain their lost footing in Malabar, but, possession being nine points of the law, they all proved unsuccessful.

The bishops then were generally illiterate, little versed in Scripture, and thoroughly ignorant of ecclesiastical history. They scarcely ever preached, and their episcopal visitations were confined to occasional ordinations and the collecting of tithe from their several dioceses. All of them could read the Syriac of their Rituals, but few thoroughly understood it. The lower orders of the clergy were more illiterate than the bishops, their education being confined to a bare perusal of their service books. From their indigence, or love of gain, they often followed trades, or engaged in mercantile speculations. None were able to preach to the people, while pastoral visits, and catechizing of the young, were quite unknown.

In the 1850s the Jacobite Patriarch of Syria sought from the British Government, authority to exercise spiritual rule over all the Churches of the St. Thomas Christians scattered throughout the Native States of Cochin and Travancore in Southern India, so that, with the power of England to support him, the native princes of these states may be compelled to recognize whomsoever he may appoint asMetran or Bishop, and to disown, and use physical force in ejecting, any whom he may be pleased to recall or depose.

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Page last modified: 26-10-2011 18:39:15 ZULU