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05 Early Christians in India

Chapter Five

The first Christians to emigrate to India came in 345 CE. They landed at Cranganore in Malabar, then the ancient port of Muziris on the mouth of the Periyar River where it joined the Arabian Sea. They were four hundred refugees from Babylon and Nineveh, belonging to seven tribes and seventy-two families. They were fleeing religious persecution under the Persian king Shapur II. He had driven them out of Syria and Mesopotamia because he considered them a state liability. Rome, Persia’s arch enemy, had begun to Christianise under Constantine,[18] and Shapur had come to suspect the allegiances of his Christian subjects.

The Syrian refugees were led by a semi-legendary figure who is known to history variously as Thomas of Cana, Thomas the Merchant, Thomas the Canaanite, Thomas of Jerusalem, Thomas Cananeus or Cannaneo, and Knai Thoma. Nothing is known about him and his companion Bishop Joseph of Edessa except their names, and this migration of Christians also cannot be treated as verified historical fact. “No deeds of copper plates in the name of Thomas of Cana are now extant,” writes, C.B. Firth in An Introduction to Indian Church History, “… [and] it would be rash to insist upon all the details of the story of Thomas the Merchant as history. Nevertheless the main point―the settlement in Malabar of a considerable colony of Syrians―may well be true.”

K.S. Latourette, the American church historian, in A History of the Expansion of Christianity, supports this view. He does not allow for the possibility of Christians coming to India by any route before the third century. T. Edmunds, the Lutheran church historian of T.B.M. Lutheran College, Porayar, Tamil Nadu, confirms the traditional date of 345 CE for the first migration.

Dr. Mar Aprem, Metropolitan of the Chaldean Syrian Church of the East of Trichur, Kerala, in The Chaldean Syrian Church of the East, writes, “Most church historians, who doubt the tradition of the doubting Thomas in India, will admit that there was a church in India in the middle of the sixth century when Cosmas Indicopleustes visited India. … According to Cosmas, Christians existed in Male and at [Quilon] where a bishop, ordained in Persia, lived.”

Cosmas the Alexandrian was a theologian, geographer and merchant who traded with Ethiopia and Ceylon. He visited Malabar in 520-525 CE, and in Christian Topography gives the first acceptable evidence for Christian communities in India.

C.B. Firth continues, “The second migration [of Syrian Christians] is dated in the year 823, when a number of Christians from Persia, including two bishops, came to Quilon in Travancore and settled there, having obtained from the local ruler grants of land and various other privileges … and this time contemporary evidence is available in the form of five copper plates recording various grants to the Christians.”

What these plates actually say is uncertain as they are inscribed in Tamil-Malayalam, Pahlavi and Arabic, and some of the signatures appear to be in Hebrew. The only date on the plates, that of the fifth year of Raja Stanu Ravi Gupta who ruled from 844 to 885, is debatable.

There is also the controversial evidence of the Persian “St. Thomas” crosses made of black granite, that have been provisionally dated to the seventh or eighth century.

Rev. C.E. Abraham, in an article in The Cultural Heritage of India, writes, “The Persian crosses―or so-called ‘Thomas’ crosses―with inscriptions in Pahlavi, one found in St. Thomas Mount, Madras, and two in a church in Kottayam in Travancore, are evidence of the connection of the Malabar Church with the Church of Persia.”

According to C.P.T. Winckworth, whose translation of the Pahlavi inscriptions has been accepted, they―except for one, which is partly in Syriac― read: “My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chaharbukht the Syrian, who cut this.”

These crosses may be evidence of the connection of the Christian church in India with Persia, but they may also be evidence of temple destruction and the planting of Christian relics in temple foundations―at least the one on St. Thomas Mount may be so considered.

The motif on this black granite slab is cut in relief, and on each side of the cross, which is surmounted by a descending dove, are pillars crowned with supernatural composite animals, or yalis, from whose mouths issue an arch that joins together above the dove.

These yalis are Hindu symbols, not Christian, and Veda Prakash, Director of the Institute for the Study of Western Religions, Madras, asserts that the cross on St. Thomas Mount is an over-cut temple stone. He claims support for this view from the most unexpected quarter. Dr. R. Arulappa, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of Madras, in Punitha Thomaiyar, says that yantra stones in temple foundations were dug up by the Portuguese on three of the four sites in Madras that they associated with St. Thomas and where they built churches―Mylapore, Little Mount at Saidapet, and Big Mount at St. Thomas Mount.

The dove-and-cross motif of this stone has been described by one writer as Manichaean and by another as Nestorian. Fr. Herman D’Souza, in In the Steps of St. Thomas, quoting Francis Gouvea on the sixteenth century Portuguese “excavation” at St. Thomas Mount, identifies the motif with that used by the Knights of Aviz in Portugal.

The solution to this problem of the origin and identification of the Persian crosses and all other relics associated with St. Thomas is to have them examined by independent forensic experts. If the Bishop of Turin could surrender the famous Shroud of Turin, alleged burial cloth of Jesus, to scientists and accept their verdict that it is a mediaeval fake, then the Archbishop of Madras should be willing to do the same with the various St. Thomas relics in his possession.

But to return to the immediate problem of the origins of Christianity in India.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its article on the Christians of Saint Thomas, says, “The origins of the so-called Malabar Christians is uncertain, though they seem to have been in existence before the 6th century AD and probably derive from the missionary activity of the East Syrian (Nestorian) Church―which held that, in effect, the two natures of Christ were two persons, somehow joined in a moral union―centred at Ctesiphon. Despite their geographical isolation, they retained the Chaldean liturgy and Syriac language and maintained fraternal ties with the Babylonian (Baghdad) patriarchate.”[19]

Edward Gibbon, writing about the Syrian Christians of Malabar, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, says, “The difference of their character and colour attest the mixture of a foreign race. … Their conformity with the faith and practice of the fifth century world equally disappoint the prejudices of a Papist or Protestant.”

And Leonardo Olschki, in Marco Polo’s Asia, declares, “The Nestorians in India … venerated St. Thomas as the patron of Asiatic Christianity―mark, not of Indian Christianity.”

St. Thomas, then, was not the Apostle of India―as he was designated by Rome in 1953―but the Apostle of the East, and the Church of the East was historically the first Christian church in India.

18. Nobody knows whether Emperor Constantine formally converted to Christianity or not. Some say that he declared himself Christian in Gaul, and others that he was forcefully baptized on his deathbed. What is certain is that he patronized the new cult for political reasons and became its saviour when he called the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, where Christianity was officially recognised in the Empire. He retained the title and position of pontifex maximus during his lifetime and therefore can be called Christianity’s first pope, as the bishop of Rome, whom he elevated, would assume this office and title after him. Joseph McCabe, telling the horrific story of how Christianity was imposed on the Empire, in The Testament of Christian Civilization, writes, “Constantine, natural son of a rural tavern-girl and a Roman officer, waded through rivers of blood to the throne, and he was driven from Rome to Constantinople by the scorn of the Romans because he ‘put to death, first his excellent … son, and then the son of his sister, a boy of promising character, then his wife and a number of friends.’ This summary statement of a terrible crime, which Eutropius makes … is confirmed by St. Jerome … and not now disputed.” Mgr. Duchesne, describing the character of the second Christian emperor, Constantine’s son Constantius, in History of the Arians, writes, “He slew his uncles and his cousins. He had no mercy on the father-in-law whose daughter he had married, or on his relatives in their affliction. He treated his brother infamously … and he delivered his wife to the barbarians.” McCabe continues, “Thus the rule was made safe for the three Christian princes and the bishops. Then the eldest son fell into civil war with the youngest and was slain; Constans, the youngest, proved a monster of vice and tyranny and was assassinated; Constantius, now sole ruler, adopted what some still call the vile heresy of the Arians … and he turned the Era of Religious Peace which his father was supposed to have inaugurated into an era of such red-hot passion, murder, and torture on religious grounds as the world had never seen before. … It is ironic that the repulsive struggle that fills the first half of the fourth century should have turned upon the question whether Jesus was God or was merely so beautiful a character that he was ‘like’ God. Still more ironic that the first emperor upon whom the bishops prevailed to adopt the policy of coercion should have adopted also the Arian heresy and applied in its favour the principles of violence, which was, they assured him, consecrated by the interest of religious truth. However that may be, Constantius, surrounded by the vile and unscrupulous eunuchs with whom Constantine had filled his court, made ten times as many Christian martyrs in twenty years as the Pagan emperors had made in two hundred and fifty, and introduced methods of savagery which even the Goths and Vandals would not emulate.”

19. The correct name of this church is Church of the East (because it was geographically in the Persian Empire, east of Jerusalem and Rome), but it is known by a variety of names, some of which are Church of Assyria, of Mesopotamia, of Tigris, of Babylon and of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. According to tradition it had been established in the second century by Aggaeus the disciple of Addai of Edessa. It was not recognised as a senior church by the Church of Fars in Persia, which had been founded by an apostle, St. Thomas.

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