Thursday, April 23, 2009

Saint Thomas Christians

AD 52.

After the Day of Pentecost, the disciples go to different parts of the world to spread the Gospel.

Saint Thomas-the disciple of Christ is send to India. Legend says he arrived in a place called Kondungallur(Muziris)in Kerala, in a Jewish trading vessel in the year AD 52.

According to our oral traditions and sayings, Saint Thomas the Apostle converts numerous upperclass families in Kerala. That he converted 100 brahmin families is one story, and which has widespread acceptance among most Nasrani families in Kerala(who still use brahmin family names).
Some others say most of the converts were from the Jewish traders settled in the ancoient port cities of Kerala.

Anyway, the number of converts is not so numerous, and they manage to survive as a community and preserve their faith for a few centuries, this they would have found extremely difficult, as they had no contact with the rest of Christendom and were a small community of christians with no established notion of a "Church" per se.

However the christian community in Kerala witnesses a resurgence in AD 345, thats when supposedly around 72 families of Persian Syrian Christians arrive here, fleeing from persecution in their homeland. They were led by a wealthy trader called Knayi Thomman and also had a bishop with them.

The new arrivals were a small minority and called "Southists" by the resident christians(since they settled south of some river), who were thus logically called as the "Northists". The "Southists" or the "Persian immigrant Christians" are more well-known as the Knanaya Christians" in Kerala today.
Yes, the descendants of these Knanaya people are still visible in Kerala today, and most of them are Orthodox Syrian Christians. Though they claim Persian ancestry, some of them are as black as charcoal with distinctive dravidian feautures, while a few have semitic looks. For a community who claim racial purity, theyd have to admit their ancestors had marital relations with the locals.

Until 16th century.

The Saint Thomas Christians began to have converts from all castes and races of people in India.

The culture of the Saint Thomas Christians was predominantly hindu, but with certain Jewish traditions as well. Their Churches were modelled after Hindu Temples and Jewish Synagogues. They borrowed from the best of both cultures--Indian and West Asian.
They managed to preserve the Oriental tolerance along with the semitic Monotheistic zeal.

According to a historian, the Saint Thomas Christians were Orthodox Christians until around 7th or 8th century AD.
For a brief period between 8th century and 16th century, they were under the Nestorian Schism. That happened because the Persian Church which was considered the Mother Church of the Indian, had witnessed a division over theological definitions.

The ancient Persian Cross which is found in many churches of kerala is proof of the Orthodox Christian past of Kerala, since the inscription under the crosses reflect the Miaphysite theology of the Orthodox, rather than that of the Nestorians.

However, there was not an organised church set-up for the Saint Thomas Christians even then. Not many people were aware of theological differences. The Bible was not printed yet, the Scripture was fragmented into half a dozen different scrolls containing different biblical texts.
Copies of these Scripture scrolls were few, since they had to be painstakingly handwritten on palmleaves.

Many bishops and priests used to come to Kerala from Persia and West Asia, from both Nestorian and Orthodox Churches. A Latin bishop came around 14th century. But all were treated equally by the theologically illiterate Saint Thomas christians of Kerala.
For them, the Syriac language and the Semitic style of the bishop was proof enough for the sanctity of the newcomer.

The relationship with Hindus and Muslims was much cordial and the Christians got royal patronage. A Hindu King called Shaktan Thampuran even built churches for the christians.

Contact with Western Christendom.

By the start of the 16th century, the worldview of the Saint Thomas Christian had been radically changed.

The arrival of the Portuguese colonials in 1498 was a beginning. The Roman Catholic Church in Europe came into active contact with the St.Thomas Christians with this.
The Roman Church ofcourse, in their medieval crusader zeal tried to win the submission of the St.Thomas Christians to the Roman Pope.

However, the fiercely Independent Saint Thomas Christians would not bow to anyone other than the Catholicos of Tigris or to the Patriarch of Antioch; both eastern christian centres.
Their submission had to be won by gold and gunpowder.

Beginning with the Roman Synod of Diamper in 1599, a reign of hellish persecution was unleashed on the Saint Thomas Christians by the Jesuits and the Portuguese colonials. Syriac traditions and worship was forcibly altered. Many historical documents burned and relics stolen off to Europe. Priests were assaulted and their beards cut off. Latin replaced Syriac worship.

In 1653, the Jesuit-Portuguese combine caught hold of a Syrian bishop Ahattallah on his way to Kerala. The St.Thomas Christians who heard the news- 25,000 of them from the mountains, assembled in Cochin before the Portuguese fort, demanding the release of the old bishop.
But the cunning portuguese took him away via the seas to Goa and had him burned to death in the Goan Inqusition Chambers.

The enraged St.Thomas Christians rioted and rebelled against forcible Roman rule. They violently ejected the troublesome Jesuits from their presence and regained control of their churches.

On the fateful day of the Great Revolt, the St.Thomas Christians also assembled under a legendary Cross and took an Oath that day: "We or our descendants to come, will not have anything to do with the Roman Pope or the Roman Church anymore".

Thus proclaiming their Independence and Reviving their old Oriental Orthodox past.

British age.

However the clever Roman Church did not give up and send a second wave of missionaries to re-convert the Saint Thomas Christians. Many of the revolters returned to Romanism.

12 years after the Great Revolt of 1653 (Also known as the Coonen Cross Revolt), the Saint Thomas christians brought the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to ordinate for themselves an Indigenous bishop. All former Saint Thomas christian bishops were either Syrians or Persians.
Since then a special relationship between the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Saint Thomas christians blossomed.

The start of the British Raj in India again spelt trouble for the Saint Thomasine Church. The British were Protestants, and large numbers of British missionaries started coming to Kerala, converting Saint Thomas christians to protestantism and also infiltrating our seminaries and religious schools.
This again caused a split like in the Portuguese age in the Saint Thomas Christian community.

The Syriac Patriarch and the Indian Bishop(Malankara Metropolitan) disagreed on powersharing, with the Syriac Patriarch trying to usurp more authority over the Indian Church. This split the Saint Thomas community further.

Though the Saint Thomasine history maybe seen as "plagued with divisions", in the end it has resulted in a sort of churning of the masses.
The rest were converted to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism in the Colonial age between 1500 AD-1947 AD.

Only a third of the descendants of the Saint Thomas Christians are today Orthodox Christians.
They belong to 2 churches in India: Indian(Malankara) Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox.

Oriental Orthodoxy.

In short, the Oriental Orthodox in India are people owing their origin to the Saint Thomas tradition(first century AD) or to the Syrian immigration wave(4th century AD).

They are the oldest christians in India, and they were lucky to have survived the onslaughts of the Organised Western Churches having Imperial patronage, the last 500 years.
At most, the Oriental Orthodox in Kerala, belonging to both Indian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox Churches, come to 20 lakh members(2 million).

The other Oriental Orthodox Churches of the world are(apart from the Indian and the Syriac):

  • The Coptic Orthodox(Egypt).
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox(Ethiopia).
  • Armenian Orthodox (Armenia).

These 5 churches in Asia and Africa form the Oriental Orthodox Communion.

The Eastern European churches, ie the Russian, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Macedonian Orthodox etc number to around 15 churches and form another related communion of christians known as the Eastern Orthodox.

Both Oriental and Eastern Orthodox share faith, beliefs and traditions to the tune of 99% barring for one dogma regarding the Persona or Nature of Christ.


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