Sunday, April 26, 2009

St. Thomas in India

When 16th century European priests arrived in southern India to introduce Christianity, they were told that a more famed Christian missionary had been there first. In the districts of Travancore and Cochin, there was already a community of Indian Christians with a tradition of loose communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The man who first converted them, the Indians said, was none other than St. Thomas the Apostle (the "Doubting Thomas"), who reputedly arrived in India aboard a Roman trading vessel in 52 A.D.

Whether St. Thomas actually preached under the palm trees of Travancore and Cochin is a point that historians have neither proved nor disproved. But nowadays there are 2,357,000 Indian Christians in the area, and for the past month, giving St. Thomas the benefit of the doubt, they have been celebrating the 1900th anniversary of his landing.

Three Drops of Honey. According to tradition, St. Thomas made his first conversions by a miracle. At the village of Palur, he found some Brahman priests throwing handfuls of water into the air as they performed their purification prayers. Thomas threw some water into the air himself, and it hung suspended in the form of sparkling flowers. Tradition continues that most of the Brahmans embraced Christianity on the spot, and that the rest fled. To this day, no orthodox Brahman will take a bath in Palur.

Although St. Thomas was later killed (one legend says he was pierced by spears), the religion founded by him or later missionaries took firm hold. By the sixth century there were Indian churches in contact with the Christian bishops of Syria. In 883, King Alfred the Great sent an English bishop to make an offering for him at St. Thomas' shrine in Mylapore. But contact with the West was precarious, and by the end of the Middle Ages the Indian church was practically forgotten.

In their isolation, the Indians developed surprisingly few originalities of dogma. But they did intersperse their religious rites with local Hindu practices. Like Hindus, Indian Christian women have always worn large gold earrings in the upper part of their ears. The Christians preserve Hindu-style observances for birth, marriage and death, e.g., when a child is born, its father pours into its mouth three drops of honey in which gold has been dipped.

Festive Coconuts. The Portuguese, during their rule in India, tried to stamp out native Christian practices and enforce strict conformity to Latin rituals. In reaction, many Indian Christians broke away from Rome. Called "Jacobites," after Jacob al-Baradai, a 6th century Syrian bishop, they now number 800,000. Another group, the St. Thomas Christians (membership: 200,000), broke away in turn from the Jacobites, under Protestant influence, in 1837. About 1,000,000 "Romo-Syrians" have remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church, although they use Syriac and their native language in their liturgy.

For the last month, each of the Christian groups has been having a separate celebration for St. Thomas. Jacobites and St. Thomas Christians held observances at Kottayam and Trichur. Last week the Romo-Syrians held the biggest celebration. Led by a special papal delegate, Australia's Norman Cardinal Gilroy, 50 archbishops and bishops gathered at Ernakulam, the old capital of Cochin. After the cardinal's special train, decorated with festive bunches of coconuts and bananas, pulled into the station, a crowd of 100,000 led the visiting clergy to Christnagar (Christ town). As the cardinal passed through the streets, fireworks were set off and Christian youths sang long recitatives, to the accompaniment of harmonicas and cymbals, about the mission of St. Thomas the Apostle to their country 1900 years ago.


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