Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 30, 1999
The unique church of southwestern India
By MAUREEN McMANUS
Special to the WCR
In Kerala, a narrow strip of land, tucked away in the southwest corner of India, the Hindu religion prevailed for many centuries. Then, according to oral legend, St. Thomas, the doubting apostle, landed at Cranganore on the Kerala coast in 52 AD - long before Europe heard of Christ.
It is thought that Thomas found a great number of Jews in Kerala to whom he preached the Gospel. Ancient narratives tell that Thomas travelled to India and back several times and was killed by a fanatic local man at Mylapore near Madras.
In the seventh century, because Muslim powers put Christians in jeopardy, the bones of St. Thomas are said to have been taken by Christians to Chios, Greece, and from there in 1258 to Ortona, Italy, where they rest today.
According to information from Kodungallur (the present-day name for Cranganore), when celebrations took place in Kerala in the 19th century to mark the occasion of St. Thomas' arrival in India, "the Holy See offered a befitting gift to St. Thomas Christians in Kerala . . . the bone of the right arm of the apostle, now in a shrine at Kodungallur, where thousands throng to receive the blessing of that hand which touched the wounds of Jesus Christ."
Dr. C.T. Mathew, a member of the Syro-Malabar Church in Calicut, Kerala, pointed out that in the first century of the Christian era, there were trade relations between the Malabar coast of India and the Middle East.
"The trade was in ivory, spices and sandalwood," he said. "It is believed Solomon's Temple was built from wood exported from India."
Mathew added that "Jews existed in Cranganore before the birth of Christ, so St. Thomas may have come to spread the word among the Jews, and local people could have been converted to Christianity by St. Thomas."
Indeed, a leaflet on Kerala's Jews from the 400-year-old synagogue at Cochin, Kerala, indicates that "a Jewish merchant named Habban accompanied St. Thomas to southwest India in 55 AD and St. Thomas was welcomed by a Jewish flute girl. He stayed in the Jewish quarter of Cranganore and some Jews are said to have been baptized by him."
However, Mathew stated: "There is no authentic record or historical evidence to prove the coming of St. Thomas to Kerala except tradition. There is historical evidence of the presence of Christians and Jews in Kerala from the second century onwards."
"The early liturgy was East Syrian," he explained. "For the next 15 centuries Christianity remained as a nucleus in Malabar."
Mathew added there are no records to prove that Syrian Christians held any important positions before the coming of the Portuguese. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut in 1498, he found Christianity was already there.
"The Portuguese church was established with its centre at Goa," Mathew said. "It was Latin by rite . . . and conversions took place among fishermen also."
The Syrian church is today the largest Christian community in Kerala.
"In the Syrian church we are all St. Thomas Christians," Mathew noted.
Dr. Mathew asserted that "all the Christian churches which exist are constructed using laterite stone - a clear indication that these were built after the 1800s," infering that early churches were "makeshift arrangements using mud walls and palm-leaf roofs."
But Deepu Ravi pointed out in his thesis on Kerala architecture that "most of the early churches in Kerala were either previous temples converted to churches, or new churches built in the form of Hindu temples." Later, with the advent of Portuguese and Dutch influence in India, their European style of church architecture was introduced.
Ravi also stated: "Before the Roman emperor Constantine formally recognized Christianity (in 313 AD) the first Christians had synagogues as their places of worship. When they severed their Jewish ties, they met for prayer and fellowship in whatever rooms could be made available to them by members of the church groups."
At the end of the 20th century, 30 per cent of the population in Kerala is Christian, according to Lalichan Zacharias, a Catholic member of the Syrian Church in Cochin.
"The majority are Catholic, then Anglican, then other groups," he said. "The literacy rate in Kerala is almost 100 per cent, and that is mainly because Christian missionaries started the first schools."
It is interesting to note that the Catholic Mother of God Cathedral in Calicut has a record of its first vicar being Pedro de Cavilham in 1498 - the year Vasco da Gama landed at the port. In 1996, Father Tom Arakal became its latest vicar.
"The congregation has dwindled because of emigration." Arakal said. "We have 700 members in 1999 . . . 15 to 20 years back there were 1,000 families."
Following India's independence in 1947, many British families emigrated to Canada and the U.S., Arakal said.
Because Kerala is still a trading area, its Christians live in harmony with their Hindu, Muslim and Jewish neighbours, and the state is among the most progressive in India.
(Maureen McManus lives in High River, Alta.)