George Alexander – Center for Orthodox Studies (COS)
Chief Consultant – Jeevan Philip
Special Courtesy- Archdeacon Tesfa Michael Williams, Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob
The unknown history of the ancient Nasrani Church of Malankara is worthy of note. For a certainty, the Malankara-Malabar Church definitely had a Pre-Nestorian, Pre-Latin and Pre-Syriac origin, existence and history. An ancient community of indigenous Christians (the Judeo -Dravidian Nasrani Church) existed in Malankara.
This paper does not provide in-depth details or historical analysis regarding the ancient Judeo-Dravidian Nasrani Church. It is an attempt to shed light on the Jewish and Dravidian heritage of the Malankara Nasrani Christians. This article is presented from an Orthodox Christian perspective. It is not a scholastic appraisal of the origins of Christianity in Malankara and it does not discuss each and every aspect on the origins of Christianity in Malankara. This article may have a lot of details that are not discussed by mainstream Church historians. The central idea is to introduce a different perspective on the ‘lost past’ of the Malankara Nasranis.
The Beginning – St. Thomas the Apostle – Facts and Myths
According to Metropolitan Paulose Mar Gregorious (Gregory of the East) one of the most celebrated Church philosophers of the modern era, the arrival of Christianity in
Malankara was the result of the offshoot of Parthian Christianity. The Parthian Empire (247 BC- 224 AD ) extended from Persia (Iran), Belugistan, Afghanistan and some parts of Iraq to Punjab. St. Thomas the Apostle was the founder of Christianity in the Parthian region. St. Thomas entered the Parthian Empire for his evangelical mission from the Roman Empire. Parthian Christianity had close connections with Syrian Christianity in Edessa. Origen of Alexandria commented on the relations between the Parthian Empire and the mission of St. Thomas. From Parthia, the Apostle traveled to Central Asia and the South Indian peninsula. Paulose Mar Gregorios states that the Christianity of St. Thomas was none other than Palestinian-Jewish Christianity. Syrians inherited a lot from the traditions of the Jerusalem Church. At that time, Palestine and Jerusalem were part of Syria. The basis of the Liturgical worship of the Malankara Church is none other than the tradition of the Jerusalem Church. It is important to note that Malankara was not part of the Parthian kingdom. The fact that St. Thomas visited Parthia and India is common to the two traditions.
Stories of Gondophares I (founder of the Indo-Parthian Kingdom in Western Pakistan which was comprised of places like Afghanistan, Balochistan, Punjab, and Sind.) and St.Thomas the Apostle are quite popular. Some of them might have reached to the Southern parts of India, by which the ‘Thomasian’ tradition became popular in South India. Some scholars believe that the Indo-Parthian King Gondophares IV Sases (Gondophares was the name held by a number of Indo-Parthian rulers) met St. Thomas the Apostle. According to the Acts of Thomas, the Apostle was sold as a slave to Habban, who was an envoy of Gondophares. St. Thomas was presented to Gondophares IV Sases as a carpenter.
On one hand, eminent scholars like Dr. David Taylor (Associate Professor of Aramaic and Syriac, Fellow of Wolfson College – Oxford University) support that St.Thomas visited and established his Church in Malankara.
On the other hand, some historians believe that the Christian migration from the Parthian region (St.Thomas was martyred while preaching to Zoroastrians in the Parthian region) to the Southern part of India, brought St. Thomas traditions to Kerala.
Stories (from Egypt) states that Pantaenus the Philosopher (who was a scholar of the Catechetical School of Alexandria) met Christian communities in India (South India) who had the ‘Gospel of Matthew’ or ‘Hebrew Letters’ in their possession. Some scholars believe that Pantaenus traveled to India to find Christian communities and not to preach Christianity. He was invited by the Christians in India due to his scholarly merits. It ought to be noted that South India had strong trade relations with Egypt during the period as well.
St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote a hymn (although attribution of this hymn to St. Ephrem is in question) which discusses St. Thomas the Apostle and his mission to India (He says that the Apostle was martyred and buried and later his mortal remains were taken to Edessa by a merchant). Another tradition states that St. Thomas visited the Southern part of India and from there he moved to Taxila where he established his Church and from there he again moved back to Kerala and established seven and a half Churches. The Didascalia Apostolorum, an ancient Christian treatise modeled on the Didache, states that India and all its countries received their priesthood from Judas Thomas. The Acts of Thomas is an early 3rd-century work that contains a lot of details on the evangelical mission of Judas Thomas to India. However, the Acts of Thomas is not considered a canonical text by the Church.
St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Tours, St.Gaudentius, St.Paulinus of Nola, St.Isidore, St.Bede the Venerable, and Mar Solomon (13th Century), mentions St.Thomas the Apostle and his Indian mission in their respective writings.
Bar Hebraeus (Maphrian of the East – 13th century) regards St. Thomas as the first bishop of the East. According to Bar Hebraeus, the successors of St. Thomas were Adai, Agai, Mari, Ambrosius, Abraham, and Jacob.
The Thomas Ramaban Pattu which is a part of the oral traditions in Kerala is believed to be composed by the first disciples of St. Thomas in Malabar. Possibly a 16th-century creation, it is presently known as Marthoma Geetham.
Camoyans was a traveler from Portugal who visited India in 1553. In his book entitled ‘Luciyads’ he states that St. Thomas was stabbed to death by a person with a dart while preaching the Gospel.
Isidor Sevil (648 AD) an earth scientist, states that “St. Thomas spoke gospel (sic) to the natives of Persia, Hercania, Mediya, Bactriya, and India”.
The family called Kalathu Naga kept a document (AD 52) stating that St. Thomas came to their village (Chvakattu) as a hermit. Some traditions state that he was called by the name ‘Muthappen’ and people in Kerala sentimentally refused to send him to Mylapore. A.J. Klijn in his account states that the King of Mylapore locked up his wife to protect her from the magical rituals of St. Thomas. Fr. Jose Kochuparampil (former director of Mar Thoma Vidyanikethan) is of the opinion that the Apostle visited Kerala and that he arrived in a ship. Although, he said that the story associated with St. Thomas in Malayatoor may be a myth.
According to Xavier Koodapuzha ‘Charition’ is a drama believed to have been authored in the first and second centuries with references to St. Thomas. Fr. Matthew Swehla in his article ‘Doubting Thomas’ states that according to the Church traditions, St. Thomas established Churches in Ethiopia, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia (Iran), and India.
Socotra is a Yemeni island located between Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea. Legend states that St. Thomas
established a Church in the island. On his way to India, the Apostle was shipwrecked and he used the wreckage to build a Church. It is a fact that Socotra was inhabited by a large number of Christian population who were faithful of the Church of the East. Christianity survived until the beginning of the 16th century.
A number of scholars differ in their opinion regarding the visit of St. Thomas to Kerala, especially due to the absence of physical evidence. Many of them point out the lack of evidence (literary and non-literacy) to oppose the traditional belief that St. Thomas landed in Kerala.
Rev. Dr. G. Milne Rae (Madras Christian College) challenges the mission of St. Thomas in Malankara stating that it is a fictitious account. He is the author of The Syrian Church.
Marco Polo was the first writer to state that the tomb of St. Thomas is on a seashore. According to the author, the tomb of the great saint is located in an area (not specified) between Ceylon and India, a place with less population. Marco Polo’s Indian account itself is in question as recent studies have raised doubts about the authenticity of his visit to India. Studies state that he collected and recorded all information from merchants, traders and travelers and that he has not actually visited the East.
Dr. Rajan Gurukkal, the former Vice-Chancellor of MG University refutes the legend of the Thomasian evangelical mission to Kerala. Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Coorilos of the Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church stated that St. Thomas did not visit Kerala (some sources states that the Bishop only busted the theory of ‘Brahminic Conversion’ by St. Thomas and that he did not deny the mission of St. Thomas to Malankara). Fr. Paul Thelakkat of the Syro Malabar Church made a similar statement where he denied the missionary visit of the Apostle to Kerala. His claims were refuted by Bishop Sebastian Vaniapurakal.
Historian MGS Narayanan is of the opinion that St. Thomas did not visit Kerala nor that he converted upper caste Hindu families to Christianity. According to him, there was no human presence in the areas that the Apostle had visited. Orientalists like Koenraad Elst state that the story of the arrival of St. Thomas in India is a myth.
Thomas of Cana
Authors like Ishwar Sharan argue that Christianity arrived in India, (especially in the Southern part of India) with the arrival of Thomas of Cana 345 AD with 72 Syrian Christian families and their Bishop Uraha Mor Joseph of Urfa. They also argue that there are no records of Christianity in India prior to the arrival of Thomas of Cana. However, some Independent scholars doubt that Thomas of Cana was actually a Christian. They think that he was a Manichean from Persia or Ceylon. Researchers also point out the absence of the historical evidence to refute the arrival of Thomas of Cana. The authenticity of the story of Uraha Mor Joseph of Urfa is under scrutiny as well. Contemporary DNA tests of Knanaya Christians call the legality of the legend of Thomas of Cana into question.
Barthuma (Sons of Thoma) in Pakistan
The late P.V. Mathew, an author, and researcher, states that a unique nomadic tribe (the Fakir community with a Hindu outlook) by the name Barthuma (Aramaic) existed in the Thatta region of Sindh Province of Pakistan. Rev R. A Totter, an Anglican Missionary, once had an encounter with them. During the encounter, they showed him the original copy of the Gospel in their possession but were reluctant to hand over a copy. They might still be wandering in the deserts of Balochistan or elsewhere. We are not sure about their fate.
It is also interesting to note that the ‘Brahuian’ people who live in Pakistan speak ‘Brahui’ which is a Dravidian
language. There are over 2 million Brahuin people in Pakistan. The majority of them are found in Balochistan, whereas others live in Afghanistan.
Bardaisan (154 AD–222 AD) the Gnostic Bishop (formerly a Syriac Orthodox Prelate) in his book ‘The Account of India’ (which he wrote after interviewing wandering Monks from India) states that there were Christian tribes in India (probably in the Northern part of India including present-day Pakistan). These tribes claimed that they have been baptized by St. Thomas. They even had books and the holy relics of the Apostle in their possession. We cannot completely deny a possible migration of the Thomasian Christians from the Parthian region to the Southern tip of India.
Manichaeans in India
The Manichaean religion (established by Persian-Iranian the so-called Prophet Mani) was quite popular during the early centuries in India. Many of the early Christians in India were Manichaeans. This sect also practiced a distinct form of Christianity. The Eastern Manichaean religion existed throughout India, from North to South, and a missionary unity was even established in Kanchipuram as a result of the direct orders of Prophet Mani. Moreover, Manicheans and Nestorians lived together in China and India. The Indian Manicheans religion was a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas was used by the Manicheans in India. Dr. A. C Burnell is of the opinion that early Christians in Kerala were none other than Manichean Christians. However, some recent independent studies state that even before the advent of the Manichaean religion, a local Judeo-Dravidian Nasrani Christian community existed in Kerala.
According to the great historian of the early Christian Church, Eusebius of Caesarea ‘Mani the mad man driven by the devil himself was a barbarian and tried to represent himself as Christ by saying that he was the Paraclete’. (Mani by L.J.R Ort.).
Evangelical Mission, Tomb, and Relics of St. Thomas
The original burial place and the tomb of St. Thomas is a much-debated mystery. Several places such as Mylapore (India), Patmos in Greece, Iraq, Italy, all claim to have the relics of the holy Apostle of Christ.
Jesuit priest Fr. Francis X. Clooney, a professor of the Harvard Divinity School is of the opinion that St. Thomas arrived in a Roman ship and preached in Brazil. From there he moved to Paraguay and Peru. This is an unusual claim on the missionary adventure of St. Thomas.
Another tradition states that Vasudeva I (the Kushan Emperor) returned the holy relics of St. Thomas to Edessa. It is important to note that the Kushan Empire covered Afghanistan and Northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent, but it did not have jurisdiction over the Southern parts of India.
In 1964 the late lamented Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas (while he was the Archbishop of Baghdad and Basra) located the relics of St. Thomas the Apostle in the sanctuary wall (during renovation works) of the St. Thomas Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Church in Mosul, Iraq. He said:
“Even though St. Thomas enjoyed his martyrdom here in India, and was entombed in Mylapore, we were the Metropolitan of the church (sic) in which the holy relics of St. Thomas have been kept for the past many centuries. One day, unexpectedly, by the grace of God, we were led to reveal the Holy Relics of St. Thomas once again to humanity.”
Parts of the rediscovered relics are preserved at Mar Mattai Monastery, Iraq, the Catholicate Palace, Kottayam and at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Niranam.
The Mylapore story was almost cooked up by the Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries. In 1953 Jesuit priest Fr. Henry Heras (Historical Research Institute, St. Xavier’s College) was convinced that the tomb of St. Thomas was not in Mylapore and that the legend associated with St. Thomas and the mount was a forgery.
P. V. Mathew (author of Acta Indica) believes that St. Thomas visited Malankara-Malabar, but that the Mylapore story was a Roman Catholic invention. He also stated that Mar Ammon who was the disciple of Prophet Mani is the one who was buried in Mylapore and this place has nothing to do with St. Thomas. P. V. Mathew also points out that that Apostle St.Thomas was buried in a mountain cave in the Bahrain islands. Muslims revere this place by lighting lamps. Scholars and historians like Z. M .Paret and A. C.Burnell has mentioned that the Tomb of St. Thomas is in Dilmun (Bahrain) island. A large number of references on the resting place of St. Thomas has been given by Fr. A M Mundadan, C.M.I, in his work ‘History of Christianity in India‘.
Priesthood and Episcopate of St. Thomas the Apostle
There have been some controversies with regards to the Priesthood and Episcopate of St. Thomas because he was absent during the first
gathering of Apostles where they received the risen Christ. Some fathers have pointed that St. Thomas or Doubting Thomas was used as a tool to reaffirm our faith in Jesus Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the greatest theologian and doctor of the Church states, the following on the priesthood of St. Thomas:
“How then, someone may not unreasonably enquire, if Thomas was absent, was he in fact made partaker in the Holy Spirit when the Saviour appeared to the disciples and breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit”? We reply that the power of the Spirit pervaded every person who received grace and fulfilled the aim of the Lord who gave him to them. Therefore if any were absent, they also received him, the munificence of the giver not being confined only to those who were present, but extending to the entire company of the Holy Apostles”.
St. Gregory the Great and St. John Chrysostom, two great fathers of the Church have clearly stated their defense in favour of the Apostle. St Gregory the Great states that it was not an accident or mistake that the Apostle Thomas was not present in the first gathering, rather Christ gave him an opportunity to confirm the faith (in the truth of the resurrection) during the second appearance. St. Gregory the Great states:
“The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples.”
St. John Chrysostom refers to the appearance of Jesus Christ to St. Thomas and other Apostles in his homily (Homilies on the Gospel of St. John). Moreover, St. Thomas was present while Christ established the Sacrament of Eucharist (House of St. Mark) which is one of the most important and core pillars on which the Christian Church is built.
According to the private revelations of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (Roman Catholic Augustinian nun), St. Thomas baptized Magi (the three wise men) and ordained them as priests and Bishops.
The So-Called ‘Persian Crosses’
A number of so-called ‘Persian’ crosses have been discovered in different parts (Mylapore in Tamil Nadu, Kadamattom, Kottayam, Kothaneloor, Muthuchira, Alangadu in Kerala) of India. However, the crosses discovered in Goa and some parts of Kerala are alike. However, the crosses discovered in Pakistan (the Taxila Cross) and Sri Lanka (Anuradhapura) differs in its appearance and structure. Many scholars argue that the crosses discovered in different parts of India are none other than Manichean.
Nestorian, Syriac, Latin Legacy of the Malankara Nasrani Church
Foreign Churches and their historians argue that the ancient Malankara Nasrani Church had relations with various Christians Churches right from the beginning. The Persians (Nestorian/Assyrian), Syriacs, and Latins claim that the Nasranis had connections with their Churches from the beginning. An objective analysis of the origins of Christianity in Malankara will provide a different perspective.
Trade, commerce, and the sea route were vital in establishing Malankara-foreign relations. The Malankara Church had to accept the Nestorian, Syriac, and Latin traditions and legacy in due course of time in history. For example, the Persian-Nestorian connection (some researchers call it an invasion) is estimated to have begun in 1490 (even though many scholars argue that the connection began prior to 1490) These traditions were not associated with the Malankara Church from the beginning. However, the Nestorian, Syriac, Latin traditions associated with the Malankara Church are not denied or refuted, as they came into existence in Malankara as part of the foreign connections, colonial domination, foreign migration, trade, and commerce. It is important to note that Syriac-Malankara relations were not a result of imperial aggression. Contemporary Latin Catholic authors like Thomas Ratheesh acknowledge that indigenous St. Thomas Christians in Malankara existed before the arrival of Latin missionaries. But the beginning, existence, development, history, and soul of the Malankara Nasrani Church were lost in due course. Unfortunately, we do not have the right materials or documents to reconstruct the ‘lost past’ of the ancient Nasrani Church of Malankara.
The Latin Malankara Contacts Before the Arrival of Portuguese
It may be noted that the ancient Church of Malankara came into contacts with the Roman Catholic Church way ahead of the arrival of Vasco da Gama (1498). The Latin-Malankara contacts began in 1291 with the arrival of God John of Montecorvino (Giovanni da Montecorvino) a Franciscan monk (who later became an Archbishop in China), contrary to the belief that the contacts were established in 1498 with the arrival of the Portuguese. Monk John was one of the chief members of the office of the Roman Catholic Church that dealt with the conversion of non-Roman Catholics. In 1272 during the reign of Pope Gregory X, he was delegated by the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, to negotiate unity between Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Later he was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV to preach Roman Catholicism in the East (Middle East, India, China). He was sent to South India in 1291. He and his missionary group landed in Mylapore and from there they moved to Quilon to visit the Malankara Nasranis. According to John of Montecorvino:
“I remained in the country of India where stands the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, for thirteen months and in that region baptized in different places about one hundred persons”.
He was the first to inform the Roman Papacy about the existence of indigenous Nasrani Christians in Malankara. John of Montecorvino was followed by Jordanus Catalani, John De Marignolli and others.
The contacts intensified between 1320 and 1323 with the arrival of Jordanus Catalani (the famous Catalan-Dominican missionary, explorer and the author of Mirabilia Descripta) as well as that of John De Marignolli (Roman Catholic Papal legate to Kollam). Researchers like Jeevan Philip believe that the Malankara Church had a very good relationship with the Latin Church in the beginning, especially during the time of Catalani and Marignolli. Catalani landed in Quilon on his way back to Rome from China. He first visited Gujarat and other parts of India for evangelization and was forced to flee south. He was cordially received by the Malankara Nasranis. Kollam Muthaliar (Muthalali) of the Malankara Nasranis paid money (Fanam) to support the means of life of Bishop Catalani. Catalani was looked after by the Nasranis while he fell prey to dysentery. In 1328, Catalani was appointed as the first Bishop of Quilon which was the first ever diocese of the Roman Church in the whole of Indies). A letter was sent by Pope John XXII to Malankara Moopan urging for ecumenical unity. It is important to note that the office of the Malankara Moopan was revered with extraordinary importance by the Roman Papacy. The cordial relations between the Malankara Nasranis and the Latin Church were upturned by the arrival of the ruthless Portuguese and Roman missionaries.
Aramaic-Syriac – The Language of Christ?
It is generally agreed by historians that Christ spoke Aramaic, to be more specific He spoke the Galilean dialect of the Jewish Palestinian Western Aramaic. The Aramaic language was used in areas from Palestine, and Iran to Middle India. The Phoenician script was initially in use and later the Estrangelo script came into usage. Two dialects based on geographical differences emerged (Eastern and Western Aramaic). People in Palestine (West) spoke Western Aramaic. The language of Jesus Christ was a Galilean dialect of Western Aramaic. The population of Maaloula in Syria speaks Neo-Western Aramaic.
The population centered in Edessa in the East spoke Eastern Aramaic which is also called Syriac. Syriac was split into West Syriac and East Syriac. West Syriac was used by the population living in the plains and it had a Greek influence. East Syriac was used by people living in the hilly areas and it had Akkadian influence. However, it is important to note that the Western Aramaic and East Syriac languages are not mutually intelligible. There are similarities in Western Aramaic words and Kthbonoyo, the liturgical language of the Syriac Orthodox Church and many other Eastern Churches that is used in the West Syriac (dialect).
Science has taken us to newer heights of knowledge on human origins with the advancements in genetic studies. The Knanaya Christian community (among the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala) is an endogamous group that traces their origins to the arrival of Thomas of Cana (the Syriac Merchant) in Malankara between 4th and 9th Century. Some traditions trace their origins to Jews in the Middle East. A number of DNA tests have been performed by members of Kanayana Christian communities to determine their exact origin. Most of the Knanaya communities are faithful of the Syro-Malabar Uniate Church (organized into the Archeparchy of Kottayam) and the Syriac Orthodox Church in India (organized into the autonomous Archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch and All East). In 2018, Mr. Alex (whose parents are from the two ancient Knanaya families in Kerala – Kuzhikattil and Padinjattumalil) one of the Knanaya migrant Christians (from Kerala) performed DNA analysis in the USA to determine his exact ancestry. The test results proved that his ancestry doesn’t trace its origin in the Middle East or Persian regions, rather it is from India. However, the Knanaya Church dismissed his claims.
The Case of St. Bartholomew
Let us not forget the case of the lost Christians of St. Bartholomew the Apostle in India. Some scholars believe that an indigenous Christian community existed in Malankara even before the arrival of St. Thomas or the spread of Thomasian tradition. St. Bartholomew evangelized Armenia together with Apostle St. Jude Thaddeus. However, some believe that St. Bartholomew came to India before departing to Armenia. Eusebius of Caesarea (early fourth century) and St. Jerome speaks about the tradition of the Apostle Bartholomew in India. However, both made their statements based on the account of Panteneous. Pseudo-Sophronius (an anonymous Greek Orthodox scholar) states that Apostle Bartholomew preached to the Indians ‘who are happy’. Fr. Cosme Jose Costa of the Society of Pilar is of the opinion that St. Bartholomew reached Kallianpur in Karnataka and preached in Goa to Kalyan in Maharashtra.
Fr. H O Mascarenhas has mentioned various oral traditions on the missionary activities of the Apostle in his book, ‘Apostolic Christianity in Konkan’. He states that the Apostle Bartholomew preached in Pakistan and in parts of Goa. He is the patron Saint of Pakistan as well.
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, some independent researchers also believe that the ancient Judeo-Christians of Malankara before the arrival of Mani’s or any other foreigners were Bartholomew Christians.
The Ancient Indigenous Malankara Nasrani Church
An ancient indigenous Christian community existed in the Southern part of India with several unique traits. The ‘Apostolic’ community in Malankara had a Judeo-Dravidian Christian heritage, peculiar traits and were ruled by the Malankara Moopan (presently the Malankara Metropolitan). The basis of the origin of this ancient Christian community shall be considered as a result of the migration of Jewish communities to Malabar. The Jewish- Dravidian mixing formed the genealogy of the Malankara Nasrani community.
It is interesting to note that Theophilos the Indian, the Arian Bishop (who supported Arianism) who was a native of Maldives, visited India, especially Kerala, where he found a group of Christians who practiced distinct ways of worship. The indigenous group of Christians sang and they worshipped in a sitting position (they sat down even when the Gospel was read). Theophilos changed this practice by asking them to stand during worship and gospel readings. He died in 364. Cosmas Indicopleustes was an Alexandrian Merchant and Monk who visited the Indian -Subcontinent. In his work ‘The Christian Topography’ (6th Century) he states the following:
“We have found the church not destroyed, but very widely diffused and the whole world filled with the doctrine of Christ, which is being day by day propagated and the Gospel preached over the whole earth. This I have seen with my own eyes in many places and have heard narrated by others. I was a witness of truth relate: In the land of Taprobane (Sri Lanka), Inner India, where the Indian sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and congregation of believers, though I know not if there be any Christians further in this direction. And such also is the case in the land called Male (Malabar), where the pepper grows. And in the place called Kallia (Kollam) there is a bishop appointed from Persia, as well as in the island called Dioscores (Socotra) in the same Indian Sea. The inhabitants of that island speak Greek, having been originally settled there by Ptolemies, who ruled after Alexander of Macedonia. There are clergy there also ordained and sent from Persia to minister among the people of the island, and the multitude of Christians….”
Caste, Culture, and Ethnic Composition
The story of the conversion of Brahmins to Christianity by St. Thomas is an outdated theory. Brahmins migrated to the South from the North and those settled in Kerala were called Nambudiris. Another argument states that Aryans who migrated to Kerala were called Nambudiris. The conversion of the Kerala Brahmins took place in later stages (after 8th Century). Hence Brahmins were not part of the Nasrani Church in the early stages or at least until the 8th century. The Nasrani Church began and developed as a result of the Judeo -Dravidian Malayali intermixing. The ancient Judeo-Dravidian Nasrani Church of Malankara was not a mere religious group, rather it was a caste-based cultural group with distinct ways of Christian practices. It was a cultural-caste based system which evolved from the very basic teachings of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. This community practiced the basic and original form of Christianity. The mixed Jewish-Dravidian heritage of the Malankara Nasranis is overlooked to a great extent. It is also important to note that the conversion of Brahmins (to Christianity) happened after the 8th century.
The Jewish, and Dravidian Heritage (Judeo-Dravidian Mixing)
I am unsure to what extent has the Christian historians have shown interest in the Judeo-Dravidian Christian heritage of the Malankara Nasranis. Even Though Malankara Nasranis have a rich Judeo-Christian heritage, it is not limited to Jews. We need a thorough inquiry into the Buddhist, Jains and other kinds of heritage pertaining to Malankara Nasranis as well. However, these aspects are not something that has been put under scrutiny in an extensive manner. Fr. Dr.Jacob Kurien in his article ‘The Jewish Heritage of Malankara Nasranis’ states that even though Nasranis mixed a lot with Jews, both parties (Jews and Nasranis) were cautious enough to maintain their own peculiar identity and culture. Moreover, Nasranis might have shown more interest in mixing with Hindus and other local Dravidian ethnoreligious (Buddhist, Jains, and others) groups. The Buddist and Jains during the time were mostly Dravidian converts. The Dravidian groups such as Hindus, Buddhist, Jains, and other minority groups have mixed with Jews. Hence the Judeo-Dravidian mixing provided the strong ethnic base for the Malankara Nasrani Church during the first few ceand their
Proto-Orthodox Christianity in Malankara
Proto-Orthodoxy or Proto-Orthodox Christianity is a term coined by Professor Bart Denton Ehrman. Proto-Orthodox Christians were early Christian communities who were the forerunners of later Christian Churches. Several beliefs and several Christian communities existed in the early centuries after Christ, namely the Ebonites, the Gnostic’s, the Marcionites, and the Proto-Orthodox. These groups fought each other and Proto-Orthodoxy survived (as it was well organized and their Christology, doctrines and apologetic’s were more convincing) and it became the dominant form of Christianity. For example, the Proto-Orthodox believed that Jesus Christ was Divine and Human within the same person. Some of the Independent researchers like Jeevan Philip believes that the indigenous Church of Malankara was ‘Proto-Orthodox’ Christians. A form of Proto-Orthodox Christianity existed in Malankara. This Proto-Orthodox Christianity was Pre-Nicene in its origin and existence. It was the basic and original form of Christianity which was derived from various existing beliefs and practices during the time.
This indigenous Church remained untouched by foreign elements at least until the 8th to 15th centuries. Unfortunately, we do not have details about this lost part of the Malankara Church. The Judeo -Dravidian Malankara Nasrani Church was quite different from the generally accepted form of evolution and development in the modern Christian Church. This was because of the peculiar geographical existence and evolution of the Indian Sub-continent.
Episcopacy and Leadership – The Malankara Moopan Model
The Judeo -Dravidian Nasrani Church of Malankara had two different types of ecclesiastical offices. The major ecclesiastical authority was the Malankara Moopan. In the early days, the liturgical gathering was presided by a Kohane (Priest or Moopan). A Kohane is a person having Kohanoosa (Priesthood). The second office was Shemshono (Deacon). As the number of faithful increased, the number of Kohanen increased as well. There arose a need to oversee Kohanens. Hence, Reesh Kohne (Presbyter or Bishop, also known as Kashiha or Malankara Moopan) was elected. Kashiha and Episcopa were the same during the early Christendom. The Malankara Moopan was the chief custodian of the Judeo -Dravidian Malankara Nasrani community. Parishes were managed by Palliyogams or Pothuyogams in later stages as the Nasrani community began to develop and organise themselves into parish Churches.
The Attire of Malankara Moopan
From the excavated pieces of evidence (especially statues) we can clearly state that the Malankara Moopans wore simple attire. They wore a dhoti (mundu) probably with a white color with a belt. They used two staffs- one with a cross (mounted on the top) and a plain one. Moopans used a thick pectoral cross (probably made from metal or wood) which was tied to a chain made of basil seeds. The Moopan used a local skull cap similar to that of the modern Zucchetto (phiro). It is important to note that there might be regional differences to the attire of Moopan.
Malankara Moopan Statue -Pallivanaperumal Claims
Writers like S N Sadasivan in his book A Social History of India has argued that the excavated statue is of Pallivanaperumal (Pallivanavar), who was the last Buddhist emperor of Kerala. The outlook and attire of the excavated statute do not suit the arguments of S N Sadasivan that Pallivanaperumal was the last Buddhist King in Kerala. Some writers have argued that the Pectoral cross (on the statue) worn by Malankara Moopan was none other than a ‘Buddhist Cross’!. They have mistakenly understood ‘Padma Dalangal’ (lotus flower) as the Buddhist cross and have failed to differentiate the Christian cross from Buddhist structures. Pallivanaperumal is none other than the Malankara Moopan. The statue of Malankara Moopan was accidentally excavated from the floor of an old Mandapa (ornate gateway or shed) outside the surroundings of the Pally Bhagavathi Temple in Neelamperoor. This statue is said to be preserved in one of the Hindu Nair houses in the area. Unfortunately, this statue is not available for further studies and research. Z. M. Paret has written a historical account titled ‘Pallivanaperumal’.
Malankara Moopan to Archdeacon
The transformation of Malankara Moopan to Archdeacon (Jathikarthavian in Malayalam) was indeed painful. The position of Archdeacon was probably Manichean in its origin in the Indian Context. The rank of Archdeacon is common in various Christian Churches was unknown to Malankara Nasranis until the Nestorian-Persians ‘bestowed’ it upon the Malankara Moopan who was the local leader of the Malankara Church. The rank of Archdeacon was the result of colonization of the Malankara Nasranis. The priesthood of Malankara Moopan was reduced to the status of a mere Archdeacon (meaning head of deacons or senior deacon although some writers claim that Archdeacon was equivalent to the ‘High Priest’). The office of the Malankara Moopan was a powerful and indigenous Malankara Nasrani institution (with an official priesthood and episcopate) that was bashed and trashed by the Nestorian ecclesiastical-religious dominance and colonization.
Archdeacon to Marthoma
The office of the Archdeacon was hereditary in nature for a long period of time. They were from the Palamattom (Pakalomattom) family. In later stages, the practice of Archdeacon was put to an end among the Malankara Nasranis. In 1653, the Archdeacon was elevated to the rank of Marthoma (Metropolitan-Bishop), especially in the context of the Portuguese and Jesuit colonial invasions. Marthoma I (Malankara Moopan) was the first democratically elected Primate of the Malankara Nasranis.
The Malankara Moopan position was more than equal to the position of a Metropolitan-Bishop and he was the sole custodian of the Malankara Nasranis. Foreign and colonial invasions of the Malankara Nasrani Christians reduced the ecclesiastical position of Malankara Moopan to the Diaconate. It took ages for the Nasranis to realize that the tricky colonial position of Archdeacon was imposed upon on the Malankara Moopan (Ecclesiastical Superior of the Malankara Nasranis) which was a result of the Nestorian ecclesiastical invasion.
Marthoma to Malankara Metropolitan
The Marthoma (Metropolitan Bishop) Moopan model evolved into the office of the Malankara Metropolitan (a legal title given to the head of the Malankara Nasranis by the government authorities in Travancore and Cochin). It is important to note that the basis for the structural and ecclesiastical development of the office of the Malankara Metropolitan was based on the Malankara Moopan model. The Malankara Metropolitan is none other than the Malankara Moopan.
I have already mentioned some of the unique practices on the ancient Malankara Nasranis. One of the most unique practices among them is one other than the preparation of ‘Kalathappam’ which is a unique Malankara Nasrani Pesaha tradition. As mentioned earlier in this article, the Christians in Malankara sat during their worship until the visit of the Arian Bishop Theophilos the Indian. The funeral and burial practices of Nasranis are unique as well. After the burial, the bed of the departed is covered with white cloth and lighted candles or lamps are placed near the bed for forty days. The practice of Panamvekkal is a unique post-burial practice of the Malankara Nasranis. The naming of children is another unique tradition. Malankara Nasranis use a combination of Judeo-Christian and Dravidian names. The culinary tradition of the Malankara Nasrani has certain peculiarities especially when it comes to fermentation. Palappam or Kallappam are the two the traditional breakfast items in Kerala and Nasranis prepare them using alcohol (Toddy). Malankara Nazarians were excellent traders as well. In the ancient days, Nasranis dominated the pepper trade and many other areas of trade and commerce.
Liturgy and Worship
We do not have much of an idea about the Liturgical forms prior to the Nestorian arrival. The worship led by the Moopan and assisted by deacons should have been simple in its content and structure. Liturgical worship should have included a Gospel reading, preaching, and serving of Communion in the simplest manners. The Nestorians introduced a number of their books and influenced the Malankara worship. During the Synod of Diamper (1599), Archbishop Menezes banned a number of Nestorian books (used by the Malankara Nasranis) which were considered heretical and unchristian in its usage and content.
The indigenous Judeo -Dravidian Nasrani Church of Malankara came in contact with the Nestorian Church (in 1490). The Church of Malankara, even though locally ruled by the Malankara Moopen (later Archdeacon and currently Malankara Metropolitan) had to depend upon the ecclesiastical mercy of the Babylonian Patriarch (Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Patriarch of the East). The arrival of the Portuguese changed the entire socio-religious and political world of the Nasranis. The Church survived the Portuguese colonial invasion even though a small part of the Nasranis were separated and subjugated by the Latin Church. The separated group later evolved into the Syro-Malabar Uniate Catholic Church. This Church gained large adherents as part of their conversion tactics.
It is important to note that Palliveettil Mar Chandy (Alexander de Campo), the first native appointed Metropolitan for Romo Syrians was more interested in money. He demanded money from the Portuguese (reference NattuPathiri by G.Kurien) to oppose and remove the Archdeacon (Malankara Moopan).
In due course of time, the ancient Church of Malankara came in touch with Syriacs with the arrival of Mor Gregorios Abdal Jaleel of Jerusalem (in 1665), Anglicans (in the 19th century) and many others. It shall be noted that even before the arrival of Mor Gregorios Abdal Jaleel, Mor Ahatallah (Aitalaha), the Syriac Orthodox Prelate arrived in India, but he was murdered by the Portuguese (his biography remains obscure). Alexandrian theology was introduced and accepted by the Malankara Church at the Chengannur Synod (in 1686). More separations emerged in later years. The Catholicate was established in Malankara in 1912.
The Latin-Portuguese Subjugation and The Modern Nasrani Christians
I take the personal liberty of an author and a researcher to consider the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East (Malankara Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church), the Marthoma Syrian Church and the Thozhiyoor Church as the modern successors to the Judeo -Dravidian Nasrani Church. I have not considered Syro-Malabar Church and Syro-Malankara Churches for two major reasons. (1) The Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Churches have come into existence as a result of the colonial attempts made by the Roman and Portuguese missionaries over the Malankara Nasrani Christians. (2) Both these Churches by tradition have gone far away and alienated themselves from the Malankara Nasranis. The two Uniate Catholics Rites in Malankara lost the real essence of the Malankara Nasrani cultural heritage. The Syro-Malabar Church itself is divided over the East-West practices. However, the Uniate groups constantly attempt to claim the legacy of the Malankara Nasranis using ‘historical gimmicks’.
So what about the foreign influences of Malankara Nasranis? For this, we need to differentiate between foreign relations and colonial domination. The changes that took place among Malankara Nasranis as a result of their foreign connection are different from that of the creation of two Roman Catholic colonial Uniate Roman Rites in Malankara. The Nestorian colonial and ecclesiastical invasion changed the face of the Judeo -Dravidian Nasrani Church, but it did not split the Malankara Church. The Syriac-Antiochian relations were not a problem for the Malankara Nasranis until administration and power struggle became evident (in the later stages). It is important to note that the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch allowed Nasranis to continue their local practices and traditions.
The Latin colonial invasion injected a number of practices such as. Novel and alien practices like First Communion and forced celibacy of priests were introduced. They made changes to the feasts by banning the memorial feasts of Mar Sabor and several others and they introduced feast days of Latin Saints. The Latins banned Nasranis from giving Jewish names to their children and forced them to use Latin and Western names. Changes were applied to the interiors of the Nasrani parish churches by introducing podiums and other Latin structures. Nasrani Churches were rather simple in their structure and outlook. It comprised of a simple Altar with a cross, and mural painting (in some churches), traditional Kerala lamp (Nilavilakku), Haikala and Poomukham. On the whole, the Latin Portuguese Roman Catholic leadership did everything that could erase the indigenous identity (including their traditional attire and dress code) of the Malankara Nasranis. They had to suffer these colonial religious practices right from the Synod of Diamper in 1599 until the Oath of the Leaning Cross in 1653.
“By the Father, Son and Holy Ghost that henceforth we would not adhere to the Franks, nor accept the faith of the Pope of Rome, nor any foreign rule.” – From the historic event of Leaning Cross Oath in 1653.
The Marthoma Syrian Church which has Anglican and Protestant learnings still maintain the Malankara Nasrani heritage, customs, and traditions. They have kept themselves away from diminishing the Judeo -Dravidian heritage. The Thozhiyoor Christians have maintained the Malankara Nasrani heritage in their customs and practices as well.
The Fading Identity of Malankara Nasranis
The true identity of Malankara Nasrani is under question over centuries. The foreign ecclesiastical invaders, imperialists, and traders tried a lot to demolish the very identity of the Malankara Church. They succeeded to a great extent in undermining the real cultural essence and Christian heritage of Malankara Nasrani. Foreign ecclesiastical connections bought drastic changes in the socio-political and religious lives of the Nasrani. The Nasrani wholeheartedly welcomed the Latins, the Nestorians, the Syriacs, the Anglicans. Who did they not welcome?! The modern Nasrani is confused about his indigenous origin, as he is strangled with a lot of distorted versions of the Malankara ecclesiastical history.
Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob, a leading theological scholar (faculty at the Holy Trinity Theological University, Ethiopia) has raised his concerns over the modern identity of Malankara Nasranis in his paper ‘Ministers of the New Covenant’. Due to globalization and excessive modernization of the society, there is a trend among Nasranis to incline themselves to the Western model of prosperity gospel which is a pseudo-Christian version of consumerism. He writes:
“The question of the indigenous identity of our Church is nothing new, but has barely gone beyond basic discussions which were inadequate to produce any fruit”.
Father Jossi puts forward a very important question. He is concerned whether the Malankara Church has actually made any sort of efforts to address the problems of modernity and influences of the West. He lemeds that the Malankara Church in a way is forced to carry the ‘cultural baggage’ of other traditions. This question is very important in the context of the lost Judeo -Dravidian heritage of the Malankara Nasrani Church. Are we still in the ‘Babylonian captivity’?
An Urge to Regain the Judeo -Dravidian Nasrani Roots
As a remedy Fr. Jossi proposes that the Malankara Nasrani Church must engage herself in a serious task of re-exploring her original identity of the Marthoman Nasrani tradition without compromising the current liturgical practice, theological and dogmatic positions.
The Malankara Church must take up serious efforts in developing a theological and spiritual system which is deep-rooted in her Jeduo-Dravidian Nasrani origins.
Several scholars and faithful debate a lot on the historic mission of St. Thomas in Malankara. What is important here is that the seeds of ‘Apostolic Christianity’ were sown in the Malankara soil. The seed of Christianity sprouted and grew into a large tree that was nourished by the indigenous Judeo-Dravidian Nasrani culture.
We are not in a position nor have we adequate materials to reach a definite conclusion on the in-depth nature of the Judeo -Dravidian Malankara Nasrani Church. What we have is certain glimpses from the past. A constant effort with, detailed, dedicated and intense research studies are required to reconstruct the indigenous past of the Judeo -Dravidian Malankara Nasrani Church.
Interview with Jeevan Philip
Interview with Fr. Dr. Jossi Jacob
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