Chapter 7: Christianity in India up to AD 1500
The early disciples of Jesus Christ were wandering missionaries. After the resurrection of Christ, the disciples went to different parts of the world to proclaim the Gospel. There was the possibility of an apostle visiting more than one country or more than one apostle preaching in the same country. The expansion of Christianity in the East was not the work of Hellenistic Christian missionaries from Antioch, nor a linear progression from Antioch. It was the work of Jewish Christian missionaries such as Addai in Edessa, Aggai and Mari in Persia and Thomas in India. In the East Syrian tradition, St. Thomas is the great apostle of the East. The Christian churches thus formed were ecclesiastically independent of Antioch or any other centre in the West.
It is difficult to present the early history of St. Thomas Christians in India as a connected story due to lack of sufficient historical records. But we get certain glimpses of the life of the community in the writings of foreign visitors, sometimes in the traditions preserved in India and East Syria, occasionally in casual references by Indian writers, and in a few monuments and inscriptions. No serious archeological work has been undertaken in India in this area.
The Visit of Pantaneus in the Second Century
Pantaneus visited India about AD 180 and there he found a Gospel of Matthew written in Hebrew language, left with the Christians there by St. Barthlomew. This is mentioned by Eusebius, and by Jerome in one of his letters. Born a Jew, thoroughly trained in Greek philosophy, and converted to Christianity, Pantaneus was a remarkable person and the most outstanding Christian scholar of his time. He is reported to be the first principal of the catechetical school in Alexandria and was the teacher of Clement. Clement paid great tribute to his teacher when he wrote, "A truly Sicilian bee, he drew honey from the flowers of the meadow of apostles and prophets and imparted in the souls of his pupils pure knowledge." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.1. p. 301.)
According to Jerome a deputation from India came to Alexandria. Impressed with the scholarship of Pantaneus, they asked Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, to send Clement to India "to preach Christ to the Brahmans and philosophers there." (St. Jerome, Letter LXX, The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (second series), vol.vi, p.150.) About his visit, Eusebius writes:
Now at that time there was a man of great renown for learning named Pantaneus, who had charge of the school of the faithful at Alexandria, where it has been a primitive custom that a school for sacred studies should exist. This school has continued even to our day, and although we understand that it was filled with men of great learning and zeal for divinity, it is recorded that the said person was especially distinguished at that time, in as much as he had come from that sect of philosophers who are called Stoics. Now, it is said that he displayed such an ardent love and zeal for the divine word that he was appointed as a herald of the Gospel of Christ to the nations of the East, and that he journeyed even as far as the land of the Indians. For there were, yes, even still at that time, many evangelists of the word, desirous to contribute an inspired zeal, after the manner of the apostles, for the increase and building up of the divine word. Pantaneus also was one of these, and is mentioned as having gone to India; and the story goes that there he found, in the hands of some persons who had come to know Christ in that land, the Gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his arrival; for that Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and left behind the writing of Matthew in the actual Hebrew characters, and that it was preserved up to the said time. But to resume, Pantaneus after many good deeds ended by becoming the head of the school at Alexandria, where he expounded the treasures of the divine doctrines, both orally and by means of treatises. (Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History, 5:10.)
There are people who argue that the country which Pantaneus visited was not India and the India of Eusebius was in fact Ethiopia or Arabia Felix. It is difficult to accept such an argument. As Stephen Neill points out, "But there is little to be said in favour of this view. When ships in hundreds were going from Egypt to South India. it is unlikely that any one in Alexandria would be the victim of such a confusion." (Stephen Neill, History of Christianity in India, p. 39. Mingana is one of those who deny that Pantaneus went to India. John Stewart observes, ‘ Notwithstanding the high reputation of Dr. Mingana and his well known erudition, one ventures to differ from him in the conclusion to which he has come." (Stewart, op.cit.,. p.106) While we acknowledge the contribution made by Mingana to the study of Eastern Christianity, some of his inferences and interpretations are to be treated with caution.) Jerome is very specific that Pantaneus was invited to preach to the Brahmans and philosophers of India. Moreover, Pantaneus’s pupils Clement and Origen wrote about India as if they knew more of that land than passing myths and in no way confused it with Arabia or Ethiopia. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 38.)
Pantaneus’s visit to India is historically authentic and there is general agreement among the historians today that he went to South India. The story of Pantaneus’s visit to India is of great importance for an Indian historian. In the first place it tells us that there was in existence at that time a Christian community in South India and that those Christians were fully aware of their Christian responsibility to preach the Gospel to Brahmans and philosophers in India. Further, the finding of a Gospel of Matthew left with the Christians by Bartholomew is very strong evidence to the existence of a Christian community in India in the first century at the time of the visit of St. Bartholomew. It traces the history of the Church in India to the first century. In fact it is an independent confirmation of the Indian church’s ancient and apostolic origin. Secondly the discovery of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew character suggests that the earliest Christians in India were Jewish converts. We have pointed out earlier that the Jewish Christians had a gospel written in Aramaic (Hebrew) known as the Gospel of the Nazarenes as the Jewish Christians were called Nazarenes and this gospel had some relation to the New Testament Matthew. The Jews were all over the Mediterranean world, and in Persia and Arabia even before the destruction of the temple in AD. 70. It seems that the Jews were in India even before the beginning of the first century AD. The Bene-Israel at Kalyan near Bombay traces its beginnings back to the second century BC. (According to Black-Well Dictionary of Judaica (Black-Well, 1992. p. 51), Bene-Israel, the Jewish community in India claim that their ancestors left Galilee because of the persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BC. Stephen Neill says that Bene-Israel at Kalyan near Bombay traces its beginnings back to the period of the second Temple about the time of Christ. G.M. Moraes, an Indian historian is also of the opinion that the Bene-Israel came to India before the destruction of the second Temple.) The arrival of Jews in Cochin might have been little later. It was the apostolic missionary tradition to preach the Gospel first to the Jews. Moreover, it was Judeo-Christianity which came to Asia and in the case of Edessa, and Adiabene, the first converts were Jews. The fact that Pantaneus was a Jewish convert also paints to the possibility that the first Christians in India were Jewish converts. We need to note that according to the Acts of Thomas, the first converts made by Thomas in the kingdom of Gondaphorus in north west India was a Jewish flute girl who knew Hebrew.
Thus the story of Pantaneus’s visit is a strong and independent witness to the fact that the history of the Christian community in India goes back to the first century and the earliest converts were Jews and they were in possession of the Gospel of Nazarenes written in Aramaic, left to them by St. Bartholomew. Just as the Christians in Palestine and Syria were called Nazarenes, the first Christians in India might have been known by that name. (This name is not of later origin as Mundadan suggests. [History of Christianity, p. 174]. Nazarenes or Nazranis was the earliest name applied to Christians.) This community from the very beginning was conscious of its missionary responsibility to the people among whom they lived and late in the second century they secured the services of Pantaneus a famous Alexandrian theologian, for discussion with philosophers and Brahmans in India. The visit of Pantaneus also tells us of the frequent travels of people between India and Alexandria at that time and the mutual awareness of the Alexandrian church and the Indian church of the existence of each other. It also raises the probability of previous contacts between the two churches.
The Indian Church and the Church of the East
When we take into consideration the vigorous trade that was going on between Alexandria and the Indian ports in the first few centuries of the Christian era, it is only reasonable to take seriously the probability of the Indian Christians coming into contact with the Alexandrian church even before the visit of Pantaneus towards the end of the second century. The visit of Pantaneus might have been a consequence of earlier contacts between the two churches. It is also true that the Mesopotamian merchants were in India from a very early date and it is probable that there were Christians among them. L.W. Brown remarks, "it is not unlikely that there would be Persian Christians settling on the Malabar coast for trade throughout the early centuries." (L.W. Brown, op.cit., p.65.) Though small in number, the Christians in India in the first two centuries were not completely an isolated group from fellow Christians in Alexandria or Persia. But we have no evidence of any ecclesiastical relationship which the Indian church entered into with the church in Alexandria, except the visit of Pantaneus. But in the case of the East Syrian (Persian) church, there came into existence some sort of ecclesiastical relationship between it and the Indian church from a very early date, though it is difficult to say when this relationship was established.
We may wonder why the Indian church came to establish a relationship with the Persian church and not with the church in Alexandria. A possible explanation would be that while Alexandria claimed St. Mark as its apostle, both East Syria and India claimed St. Thomas as their apostle. The Indian church claimed St. Thomas as its founder and the East Syrians had a special relationship with St. Thomas as it was he who sent Addai to Edessa and Aggai and Mari who evangelized Persia were the disciples of Addai. Edessa and Persia always unquestionably upheld St. Thomas as the Apostle of India. However, we also need to note here that according to certain traditions existing in India, St. Thomas, on his way to India, embarked at Basra, (William Yong, Handbook of Source Materials for Students of Church History Madras, The Senate of Serampore College and C.L.S, 1969, pp 26-27.) in the Persian Gulf. In all probability, St.Thomas might have preached in Basra and its neighbourhood; and thus they also claimed him as the founder of their church. This would explain the statement of Bar-Hebraeus (Abu’l Faraj) the great Jacobite scholar and writer of the 13th century about a dispute between Catholicos Timothy I (779-823) with the clergy of Fais (Basra) in about AD. 795. Bar-Hebraeus writes:
It is said that down to the time of this Timothy, the bishops of the province of Ears were wearing garments like secular priests, were eating meat, and marrying, and were not under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos of Seleucia. They used to say: "We have been evangelized by the Apostle Thomas, and we have no share with the see of Mad." timothy however, united them and joined them to him. He ordained for them as Metropolitan a man named Shim’un, and he ordered him not to eat meat, nor marry, and wear white garments made only of wool. He further permitted him to confirm bishops whom he would ordain, without coming for such confirmation to the Catholicos. (Ibid. pp. 326-327.)
There is no local tradition or historical evidence connecting Thomas with the Parthian empire proper; but it is very probable that Thomas worked in Basra and its neighbourhood on his way to India and the first contact of the Indian church was with the church in Basra (Fais), the name of Thomas linking them together. The available evidence indicates that this relationship of the Indian church with the church in Basra existed at least from the third century. The Chronicle of Seert, an important East Syrian document of the seventh century, mentions that Dudi (David), bishop of Basra in the Persian Gulf, an eminent doctor, left his See between AD. 295-300 and went to India where he evangelized many people. (Ibid., p. 27.)
Eusebius of Caesarea mentions the presence of a bishop from Persia at the Council of Nicea in AD. 325. In another account he is mentioned as bishop of Fais. In the list of bishops who signed the decrees of the Council as mentioned by Gelasius, there is one, "John the Persian, on behalf of the churches in the whole of Persia and the great India." A.M. Mundadan accepts the Gelasian list as genuine and authentic’. (A. M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, vol. 1, Bangalore, Theological Publications in India, 1984, p. 79.) The Council of Nicea was called together by emperor Constantine and it was a council of bishops in the Roman Empire. It was very unlikely that a bishop from Persia had attended the Council of Greek bishops, officially representing the whole of Persia and great India. We need to remember that it was only in the Synod of Isaac in AD 410, almost a century later, that the Persian church, with some modifications, accepted the decrees of the Council of Nicea. Moreover, it is very doubtful that the various Christian congregations in Persia became a nation wide community by the time of Nicea so that one bishop could represent the whole of Persia. In all probability the inclusion of ‘John of Persia and Great India’ was a later interpolation to convey the truly ecumenical character of the Nicene Council. However, it shows that when this interpolation was made, the interpolator was aware of the connection between the Indian church and the Persian church (more specifically with the Christians in Fars as Persia was changed to Fars in another document).
When the episcopal hierarchy of the East Syrian Church was fully organized by the beginning of the fifth century (410), the bishopric of Rewardastir was elevated to a metropolitanate and given jurisdiction over relations with India. Rewardastir was strategically located on the direct sea route to India near the head of the Persian gulf on its eastern side and the province included Basra. This arrangement continued till the seventh century when Patriarch Isho-Yahb II(628-643) appointed a metropolitan for India separately. The reason might have been the increase of Christians in India. Mingana mentions that between six and twelve suffragan bishops were also consecrated for India and that the metropolitan of India outranked that of China and that China outranked that of Central Asia. Metropolitans of distant seas such as India, China and Samarkhand were exempted from attending the General Synod of the Church because of the great distance. Instead they had to write a letter to the Patriarch declaring their allegiance to him and informing him of the state of their province.
We get a glimpse of the relationship between the two churches in the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes (the Indian navigator) which was written about A.D. 547. Cosmas was probably a native of Persia and a Nestorian. His commercial interests carried him into seas and countries far removed from his home. "I myself made voyages of commercial purposes in three of these gulfs -- the Roman, Arabian, and the Persian, while from the natives or from sea-faring men I have obtained accurate information regarding different places", he wrote. His book, Christian Topography is essentially controversial, his purpose being to refute from scripture the pagan cosmography. His arguments are absurd in the extreme. According to him, the figure of the universe can best be learned from a study of the structure and furniture of the Tabernacle which Moses prepared in the wilderness. In dealing with the fulfillment of the prophecy and the expansion of the church throughout the world, he speaks of Christians in Ceylon and India thus:
Even in Taprobane [Ceylon] an island in further India, where the Indian sea is, there is a Church of Christians, with clergy and a body of believers, but I know not whether there be any Christians in the parts beyond it. In the country called Male [Malabar], where the pepper grows, there is also a church, and at another place called Calliana [a place near Bombayl, there is moreover a bishop, who is appointed from Persia. In the island, again, called the island of Dioscorides [Socotora], which is situated in the same Indian sea, and where the inhabitants speak Greek, having been originally colonists sent thither by the Ptolemies who succeeded Alexander the Macedonian, there are clergy who receive their orders in Persia and are sent on to the island, and there is also a multitude of Christians. (J. W. McCrindle (ed), Christian Topography of Cosmas An Egyptian Monk. Burt, Franklin Publisher, 1967, Book III, 64.)
In Book XI, Cosmas specifically speaks of Ceylon thus:
It is a great mart of the people in these parts. The island has also a church of Persian Christians who have settled there, and a Presbyter who is appointed from Persia and a Deacon and a complete ecclesiastical ritual. But the natives and the kings are heathen. In this island they have many temples. (Ibid., Book XI.)
The account of Cosmas speaks of Christian communities in Ceylon, Malabar, Calliana, and Socotora with bishops appointed from Persia. In the case of Ceylon there was a church of Persian Christians. The account attests to the fact that by the middle of the sixth century the churches in the above places had maintained a connection with the church in Persia, which by this time had become Nestonan and that there were Persian Christians residing in Ceylon and they had a church of their own. Though Cosmas did not mention it, there were Persian Christians residing in India also.
Because of this Persian connection, some historians such as LW. Brown and some other western historians have drawn the wrong conclusion that the Indian church was a daughter church of the Persian church and the early churches of Malabar were connected with colonies of foreign traders. In this connection, the observation made by S.H. Moffett is significant. After noting that by the middle of the sixth century, the Indian church was organized and well established with bishops, clergy and believers, and that it was strongly related to and dependent upon the Persian church, he says:
But two other important facts must be recognized as modifying that general picture. For one thing, it was not a daughter Church of the Persian hierarchy. It already had a long history of its own. Ever since the ancient, third century Acts of Thomas, Persians and Syrians had been unanimous in recognizing the apostolic, independent origins of Indian Christianity. Moreover, however dependent the Indian Church structure later became on the Syrian Persia, the fourth-century report of Theophilus the Indian is evidence that at least two hundred years before Cosmas it had already begun the indispensable process of accommodating Christian practice to Indian ways. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit., p. 269. The visit of Theophilus the Indian will be discussed later.)
Migration of Persian Christians to Kerala
Apart from the ecclesiastical relationship that had been established with the Persian church, there were at least two important waves of immigration of Persian Christians to India, one in the fourth century and the other in the ninth century, which strengthened the already existing communities in India. (Mingana writes, "We do not deny that the persecution of Sapar gave a stimulus to the emigration of more Christians from southern Persia to India; and indeed there is every possibility that such an emigration did actually take place: but we do make that there is also every possibility that a Christian community of comparatively important size existed before that time in India, and it was more the existence of this community that attracted co-religionists from Persia in the time of persecution than the bare sword of Sapar." pp. 439-440.)
Different versions of the traditions about these immigrations exist both in East Syria and India which are of a later origin and are clouded with discrepancies. Yet we might be able to discover in these versions certain historical facts.
The fourth century was a time of severe persecution of Christians in Persia under Shapur II. The first immigration of Christians from Persia to Malabar is believed to have taken place during this period. The tradition speaks of one Thomas of Cana, a Nestorian merchant reached Kodungallur (Cranganore) on the Malabar coast in south west India in A. D. 345, bringing with him a group of about 400 Christian families including deacons, priests and a bishop. The Indian Christians received them with great joy and all proceeded to Cheraman Perumal, the king of Malabar, and were favourably received by him. The king granted the Syrian Christians seventy-two marks of distinction enjoyed by high caste Hindus and they received land at Cranganore to build for them a settlement and a church. In some traditions it is also mentioned that the king invested the Christians with royal honours inscribed on copper plates which were in existence till the 16th century but after that the whereabouts of the plates are not known. (Some suggest that the plates were taken to Portugal by the Portuguese.) But the content of the grant is available in various reports. A report based on a version of the plate kept in the British Museum says:
The king not only gave Thomas [of Cana] this town [Mahadevappatanam] but also ‘seven kinds of musical instruments’ and all the honours, and to travel in a palanquin and that at weddings the women should whistle with the finger in the mouth as do the women of the kings and he conferred on him the duty and privilege of spreading carpets on the ground and to use sandals and to erect a pandal and to ride on elephants. And besides this he granted five taxes to Thomas and his posterity and to his associates both men and women, and for all his relatives and to the followers of his faith for ever. (LW. Brown. op.cit., p. 86.)
The St. Thomas Christians have kept many of their traditional privileges in practice, and the songs sung at weddings recount the Syrian history and the royal grants. The town built by the migrants is supposed to be the Christian quarter of Kodungallur which is called Mahadevapattanam. To this day there is among the Syrian Christians a social distinction which is said to have originated in the settlement between those who intermarried with the Indians and those who did not. Those who intermarried were called Vadakkumbagar (Northists) and those who did not were called Thekkumbagar (Southists). About this C B. Firth comments:
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 a considerable colony of Syrians- may well be true; and granted this, it is not unnatural that there should have been a difference of practice among the settlers in the matter of inter-marriage with Indians, leading to a permanent social distinction. (C. B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History. Madras C.L.S. First published in 1961. p. 30. For a detailed discussion of the Northist-Southist division. see Mundadan op.cit., pp. 95-98.)
Though the ecclesiastical relation between the two churches existed at least from the end of third century, the immigration of Persian Christians to Kerala not only strengthened the existing community, but also influenced its liturgical life. AM. Mundadan refers to Jesuit Dionsio as saying that "it was consequent on the arrival of Thomas of Cana that the Christians of Malabar accepted the rites and ceremonies of the Syrian Church." (A.M. Mundadan, op.cit.. p. 106.) This was not a complete acceptance of the Syrian rites and ceremonies. As we shall see later, there was a growth of indigenous traditions in the Indian Church. However, it is most likely that the arrival of the Persian immigrants in the fourth century was the beginning of Syrian influence on the liturgical life and practice of the Indian Church.
The second immigration is dated in the year AD 823 and the tradition claims that the Christian immigrants rebuilt the town of Quilon in AD. 825, from which date the Malayalam era is reckoned. A Syrian account of the 18th century recounts the tradition thus:
In those days and in the days that followed, Syrian Fathers used to come to that town by the order of the Catholicos of the East, and govern the diocese of India and Malabar, because it was from it that the Syrians used to go to other parts until they were dispersed. Then in the year 823. the Syrian Fathers, Mar Sapor and Mar Parut (Peruz) with the illustrious Sabrisho, came to India and reached Kullam. They went to the king Shakirbirti, and asked from him a piece of land in which they could build a Church for themselves and erect a town. lie gave them the amount of the land they desired, and they built a church and erected a town in the district of Kullam, to which Syrian bishops and Metropolitans used to come by the order of the Catholicos who sent them. (Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity p.45.)
The contemporary evidence of this event is available in five copper plates which are still in existence -- three in the Orthodox seminary at Kottayam and two with the Mar Thoma Church at Thiruvalla. These copper plates contain records of grants made to the Christians in Quilon by the king. Among these grants, certain rights are reserved in perpetuity to the Christians in Quilon. Most important of these is the guardianship of steel yard, the weights and the royal stamp. The church is given land let out under certain conditions and also certain families of lower caste are assigned for the maintenance of the church. The Christians have the sole responsibility of administering justice in their territory. The Christians are to enjoy protection from the Venat Militia called six hundred and from the Jewish and Manigrammam leaders. (There is considerable differences of opinion about the identity of Manigrammam. Probably it refers to the indigenous trade guild in Quilon when the immigrants arrived.) In the light of the royal grants, Stephen Neill comments, "The picture which emerges is important. The Christians are clearly a well-established community, accepted and highly respected. The granting of responsibility for the weights and measures is an unusual sign of confidence; it may indicate that the immigrants had a higher level of mathematical and commercial competence than the Indians among whom they had settled." (Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India, p.46.)
There are also certain inscriptions and monuments surviving from this period which speak of the connection between the Indian Church and the Persian Church. The monuments consist of five carved stone crosses (known as St. Thomas crosses ), which have been discovered in South India, the first at St. Thomas Mount near Madras and others at Kottayam and some other places in Kerala. They are Persian crosses and are dated 7th or 8th century.
The Extent of Christianity in India Before AD. 1500
The Gospel was first proclaimed in the kingdom of Gundaphorus in north west India and in the neighbouring places and then in Malabar and on the Coromandel coasts. Bartholomew was in Kalyan near Bombay. The first Christians were Jewish converts and later the Gospel was preached to other communities in India. South Indian tradition speaks of Namboothiri Brahmans becoming Christians. There were Persian merchants, probably including Christians among them, residing in the chief commercial centres in India. There were several immigrations of Persian Christians, the two important ones being in the fourth and ninth centuries, to Kerala in south India. According to Mingana, the fifth century opens with an Indian Christianity which was in such a state of development that she was able to send her priests to be educated in the best schools of the East Syrian church, and to assist the doctors of that church in the revision of the ancient Syriac translations of the Pauline epistles. He says, "In a precious Colophon to his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Isshodad writes as follows: This epistle has been translated from Greek into Syriac by Mar Komai, with the help of Daniel the priest, the Indian." (Mingana, Christianity in India. p. 459.)
Cosmas in the sixth century, in his Topography, speaks of Christians in Bombay, Malabar and Ceylon.
And so likewise among the Bactrians and Huns and Persians, and the rest of the Indians, and among Persarmenians and Greeks and Elamites, and throughout the whole land of Persia, there is an infinite number of Churches with bishops, and a vast multitude of Christian people, and they have many martyrs and recluses leading a monastic life. So also in Ethiopia, and in Axum, and in all the country round about, among the Happy Arabians who are nowadays called Homeritae, and all through Arabia. (I.W. McCrindle, op.cit.. pp. 118-121; Mingana, Ibid., p. 462.)
Mingana points out that Cosmas’ text is important not only as regards the existence of Christian communities in Bombay, Malabar and Ceylon, but also and ‘especially by the addition of the significant sentence: among the rest of the Indians.’ (Mingana, Ibid., p. 462.) According to Mingana the statement of Cosmas "proves the existence of numerous Christian communities among many Central Asian people and in India." (Mingana, ibid., p. 462.) By the time of Cosmas, Christianity seems to have been widespread not only in Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia and Central Asia, but also in India. In India it was not confined to North West India, or Malabar or Coromandal coast. When Cosmas wrote, ‘the rest of the Indians,’ there is no doubt that he was aware of the vast extent of the country. By this time the East Asian writers were familiar with the geography of India. In the seventh century, when the Nestorian Patriarch Isho-Yahb III (650-660) wrote to Simemon, the Metropolitan of Riwardashir, admonishing him for "closing the door of the episcopal ordination in the face of the many peoples of India", he speaks of India as a country ‘that extends from the borders of the Persian Empire, to the country which is called Kalah, which is a distance of one thousand and two hundred parasangas.’ (Ibid., p. 464.) Referring to the above correspondence between the Patriarch and the Metropolitan, Mingana observes that we can infer from the correspondence that "there was a considerable number of bishops and priests in India, whose sees and parishes were apparently scattered in the vast country to the distance of one thousand and two hundred parasangas." (Ibid., p. 465.)
According to John Stewart there were strong Christian communities all over the continent. Mingana gives a list of no less than thirty six bishoprics, some of them metropolitan sees either on the routes to or in the proximity of India including Afghanistan and Baluchistan. (Ibid., pp. 489-90.) Stewart observes that, "with so many centres of influence it would have been strange if Christian merchants and missionaries from those different centres had not penetrated the passes leading into India from the north and northwest, bringing their faith with them." (John Stewart, op.cit., p.85.) According to him there is a solid ground for believing that a fairly large Christian community existed in north India also from very early times. "The majority of these were undoubtedly Indians by blood and ancestry who had embraced the new faith for its own sake, as proselytes of Christian missionaries from Persia and Mesopotamia." (Ibid., p. 86.) Stewart writes:
Whether their beginnings were due to the teachings of Thomas as tradition strongly asserts, or some one else whose name is unknown, it can be asserted that the missionary activity of the Nestorian merchants, artisans and clergy in the subsequent centuries must have contributed considerably to their development and growth. The fact stated by Prof. Herzfeld in a recent lecture that ‘the whole of north west India was a vast province of the Persian Empire in the third century governed by Persian officials’ must also have been a contributing factor in the spread of Christianity in these regions. (Ibid., p. 86.)
Stewart further points out that if the Persian refugees during the persecutions under Sapor II in the 4th century and Yezdegard and Bharan V in the 5th century and bands of earnest missionaries from the monastery of Beth-Abhe and other centres carried the Gospel to other provinces of the Persian Empire, it is inconceivable that the province of India would be left untouched. Assemani, Osorius and Jarricus who -- wrote a century after Cosmas speak of numerous Nestorian communities in the regions along the river Ganges and also in central and eastern India. (Bulletin of the John Rylands Library vol. 2, p. 486. See also John Stewart, op.cit.. p. 89.)
We do not have detailed and in some cases reliable accounts of the various Christian communities in India. Yet the available evidences indicate that there were Christian communities scattered throughout the country in the early period. It will be a great mistake to think that Christianity in the early period was only found in south India. Some of these Christian communities continued to exist in North India in the medieval period. John Stewart points out that in Wiltsch’s Geography and Statistics of the Church, Patna is mentioned as a seat of a metropolitan in AD. 1222. Marco Polo who visited India at the end of the 13th century states that there were in Central India, six great kings and kingdoms, and three of these were Christians and three Saracens. (Yule, Book of Ser Marco Polo [revised by Cordier], vol. ii, p.427.) According to Polo, St. Thomas preached in this region and, after he had converted the people, went to the province of Malabar. John Stewart says that Abder-Razzak, who visited India in AD 1442, mentioned that the Vizier of Vijayanagar in Deccan was a Christian, his name being Nimeh-Pezier. (John Stewart, op.cit., p. 192.) Nicolo Conti, a Venetian Merchant from Italy who visited India in the 15th century wrote that he visited Mylapore where he found thousand Nestorians and these Nestorians are "scattered all over India as the Jews among them." (Medlycolt. op.cit., p. 95.)
It is very difficult to verify the truth of the above statements coming from various sources. It is also difficult to get a clear and precise state of Christianity in India up to AD. 1500. However, all these pieces of information from various sources, though very scanty, point to the fact that there were scattered communities of St. Thomas Christians (Nestorians as they were referred to in some of the documents) in different parts of the continent. Marco Polo speaks of St. Thomas preaching in Central India, a tradition which might have existed in Central India at the time of his visit.
Church historians are in general agreement that there was a concentration of Christians in South India. Speaking-of the diffusion of Christianity in medieval India, E.R. Hambye, a Roman Catholic historian writes:
The majority of its faithful was concentrated in Kerala, more precisely between Cranganore in the north and Quilon in the south. Syrian Christian communities were also found scattered along the west coast, in Goa, Saimur (Chaul), Thana, Sopara, Gujerat and Sind. The east coast of Mylapore had also such a Christian community close to the St. Thomas’ shrine. It should also be noted that scores of stones marked with a cross have been found on the southern slopes of Nilgiris. This relatively wide, though sparse, diffusion extended up to Kashmir where near Tenkse, on the eastern side of Leh, rock inscriptions still bear witness today to a settlement of Syrian Christians, which existed there around AD. 800. (H. C. Perumalil & E. R. Hambye (ed), Christianity in India, Prakasam Publications. Alleppey, 1972. p. 32.)
St. Thomas Christians and Missionary Activities
How did the Gospel spread in India? The early stages of the growth of Christianity in India did not seem to be spectacular. Yet we know that in the medieval period, Christianity was diffused throughout the country. There are a number of instances where the East Syrian missionaries came to India for evangelistic purposes. David, Bishop of Basra left his see in AD 295-300 to go to India where he evangelized many people. According to John Stewart the spread of the Gospel in north India was due greatly to the efforts of the missionary activities of Nestorian merchants, artisans, clergy and the monks of the Beth-Abe from Persia. There is no doubt that at least from the beginning of the fourth century, the Persian church had a missionary relationship with India. However, the Persian missionaries were not the only people who spread the Gospel in India.
Several western and some Indian writers have stated that the Indian church had no missionary zeal and it was only later through the contact with European missionaries that evangelistic spirit was awakened in the church. Stephen Neill writes, "There is no clear evidence of attempts by the Indian Christian community to propogate its faith in the non-Christian society in the midst of which it had its existence." (Stephen Neill, A History of Christianity in India (1984), p. 47.) According to L.W. Brown,
The result of the honourable place given by the rajas to the Christians, and of their assimilation in social custom to their Hindu neighbours, was that they were accepted as a caste, and often thought of their community in this way. They ranked after the Brabmans and as equals of the Nayars. Many Christians would claim that there was Brahman convert blood in the community and that for this reason they were superior to Nayars.
It was in consequence of this position that the St. Thomas Christians. so far as our evidence goes, never attempted to bring their non-Christian neighbours to a knowledge of Christ, and so into the Christian church. The Portuguese Archbishop Menzes did his best to create a sense of evangelistic responsibility among the Indian Christians by preaching to the Hindus whenever he could, and the eighteenth-century Carmelites had a number of baptisms from the heathen every year, so much so that they had to defend their actions before the Raja of Travancore, but the Indian Church itself was not (L. W. Brown, op.cit., p. 173.) aroused to share this work.
George Moracs, an Indian historian, after pointing out that St. Thomas Christians became a closed corporation, like the fire temp1es of our times in Bombay, where there is no admission except for Parsis, says:
The result was that the Christians had only added one more caste to the multiplicity of the Indian caste system. It is because Christianity became a caste that it could offer no challenge to the Hindu mind, which would have otherwise tried to steal its thunder by first trying to understand its principles and then incorporate them into itself. (George M. Moraes, A History of Christianity in India from Early times to St. Francis Xavier: AD. 52-152. Bombay, 1964, p. 293. [see also Mundadan op.cit.. p. 496.])
Did the St. Thomas Christian community become a caste among the other castes and thus had no encounter with Indian society and culture? Was it true that St. Thomas Christians had no sense of responsibility of Christian witness ? The conclusions of Stephen Neill, L.W. Brown and George Moraes are sweeping generalizations and cannot be accepted as such. The Portuguese sources coming from the 16th century speak of Thomas Christians practicing ‘untouchability’ like caste Hindus. This might be true but it did not mean that the St. Thomas Christian community from the very beginning was a caste community and had not felt any missionary responsibility till the coming of the Portuguese. The majority of the St. Thomas Christians before the 16th century were found in Kerala and in all likelihood they were mostly Dravidians who had not yet developed the rigid caste structure which came to exist in South India in the medieval period. Though Aryans began to come to South India even before the Christian era, Aryanization of the south was a slow process. Before the thirteenth century there was much social mobility.
The St. Thomas Christian community was conscious of its missionary responsibility from an early date and they did not wait for the Portuguese Archbishop Menzes to teach them their evangelistic responsibility. In the second century they invited Pantaneus from Alexandria to preach the Gospel to Hindu philosophers and scholars. The Nestorian church with which the Indian church established ecclesiastical relationships since the fourth century was a great missionary church. It was a church on fire with great missionary zeal. One can only expect that the Indian church has caught something of the missionary spirit of the church. About the evangelistic efforts of the Indian church, E.R. Hambye observes:
For centuries, the Thomas Christians expanded, thanks to their zeal, though inspired also by the apostolic spirit of their East Syrian brethren. We know that some monks from India went to the Far East, if not to China and central Asia. Thomas Christians during the 10th-11th centuries tried to spread their faith in the Maladive Islands, and as late as the 15th century, Nairs in Kerala were joining their ranks.
There even existed among those Christians four prominent families of very ancient origin, whose own duty was to foster the integration of new members into the community. (H. C. Perumalil and E. R. Hambye, [ed] op.cit., p.37.)
H. Hosten mentions that in AD. 780 a ‘Nestorian missionary from India received an award from the Chinese superior. (Ibid., p. 321.)
Because St. Thomas Christians were socially integrated with the Indian society, one important way the Christian influence was exerted might have been through their daily social intercourse with caste Hindus. Several scholars of History of Religions have pointed out the probability of a significant missionary encounter that took place between Hinduism and Christianity in the early centuries of the medieval period. One important development in Hinduism in South India from the 7th century onwards was the development of the Bhakti Movement (theistic movement characterized by ecstatic piety) especially in Vaishnavism and Saivism.
George A. Grierson mentions the possibility of a Christian encounter with Hindu Bhakti tradition in North India in the sixth century. In his article on ‘Bhakti Marga,’ in Hastings’ Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he mentions that "in the year AD 639 the famous Indian king Siladitya of Kanauj, a patron of the Bhagavatas, received a party of Syrian Christians, headed by the missionary Alopen, at his court." Grierson is very emphatic about Christian Influence on Bhakti tradition in South India in the medieval period.
It was in south India that Christianity as a doctrine, exercised the greatest influence on Hinduism generally. Although the conceptions of the fatherhood of God and of bhakti were indigenous to India, they received an immense impetus owing to the belief of Christian communities reacting upon the medieval Bhagavata reformers of the South. With this leven their teaching swept over Hinduism, bringing balm and healing to a nation gasping in its death throes under the horrors of an alien invasion. It is not over stating the case to say that in this reformation India rediscovered faith and love; and the fact of this discovery accounts for the passionate enthusiasm of the contemporary religious writings. (George Grierson in James Hastings’ (ed), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Edinburgh, T&T Clark, l909, pp. 539-551.)
Grierson sees some influence of Islam (Sufism) also in Bhakti revival. Bhakti doctrine is pre-Christian in origin and not a product of Christian influence. But its development in South India in the early middle ages was qualitatively different from the Bhakti of earlier Hindu tradition. The chief emphasis of the new movement is on a relationship with a God who is personal, full of love and grace for his creation, and on the grace of God as the means of salvation. Salvation is achieved through Bhakti and Bhakti leads to union with the divine. But this unity is not to be conceived as an onthological unity in which all distinctions between the soul and the deity are done away. The new movement is often spoken of as a religion of Grace.
The two chief theologians of the movement were Ramanuja (11th century) and Madhva (13th century). There is no doubt that there is a close resemblance between Christianity and the new movement in Hinduism. Some, like Grierson, have seen Christian influence in this development, while others have not. For example, speaking of development of Bhakti in Saivism in Tamil Nadu, Stephen Neill says, "The sober verdict of historical judgement must be that any such Christian influence in Tamil literature is unlikely." (Stephen Neil. op.cit., p. 62.) However, there is much in the teaching of Madhva which is very similar to Christian teaching, so that a western historian of Indian culture, A.L. Basham observes, "The resemblance of Madhva’s system to Christianity is so striking that influence, perhaps, through the Syrian churches of Malabar, is almost certain." (A. L. Basham, The Wonder That was India, p. 333.) If this new development in Hinduism was influenced by Christianity then it shows that the Christian impact was being felt in Indian society through the witness of Indian Christians long before the arrival of western missionaries. In the missionary encounter, Christian witness cannot be measured only in terms of the number of converts made. A similar encounter took place between Christianity and Hinduism in the 19th century. Though it also did not result in many conversions of caste Hindus, it partly resulted in encouraging new religious and social movements within Hinduism itself.
The inherent missionary dynamism of the St. Thomas Christian community seemed to have diminished by the end of the 15th century due to several reasons. After the 13th century, south Indian social life was marked by a rigid caste system. Because of the social integration of St. Thomas Christians with the upper social group, caste consciousness also crept into the church. That might be the reason that the Portuguese sources coming from the 16th century speak of the St. Thomas Christians practicing ‘untouchability’ like the caste Hindus. It was this which prevented them from undertaking any missionary work among the ‘depressed classes’. But the more important reason for the diminishing of missionary dynamism was the coming of the Muslims into political power. In the territories under Muslim rule, conversion became difficult. Moreover, Hinduism under Muslim rule became self-defensive in the late Middle Ages, the consequence of which was that Hindu rulers prevented the conversion of Hindus to any other religion. Thomas Christians who were living in the territories of these Hindu rulers had to respect the wishes of these rulers. Even the Roman Catholic missionaries, with Portuguese political power behind them, had to confine themselves to work among the low caste people in Cochin and Travancore area. About this A. Meersman writes:
When the Portuguese first arrived in Cochin, its king welcomed them. With their aid he hoped at least to neutralize the preponderance of Calicut in Malabar affairs and enrich his kingdom through trade. However, as far as the spreading of the Gospel in his realm was concerned, he was not enthusiastic and he forbade the missionaries to approach the members of certain castes for the sake of conversion. They were permitted to seek catechuments from other castes or sections of the population, which they did. (A. Meersman, ‘Development of the Church under Padroado’, H. C. Perumalil and Hambye (ed), Christianity in India. p. 69.)
Moreover, due to the interference of the Portuguese missionaries in the life of the church, St. Thomas Christians were involved in internal dissentions and attempts at self-preservation. All these factors contributed to a loss of missionary dynamism in the church from the end of the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century. In the second half of the 19th century, their missionary zeal was again awakened by the contact with western missionaries and this time they also evangelized the depressed classes. (The statement of L. W. Brown that Archbishop Menzes tried to encourage a spirit of missionary responsibility among the Syrians to which they did not respond, is rather misleading. It was difficult even for western missionaries to evangelize the caste Hindus in the 16th century.)
Social Life of the Christian Community During the Early Period
The Gospel was first preached to the Jews and then to the Hindus. At first, the Jewish Christians might have been very small in number; but as time went on, the majority of the Christians were Hindu converts. The Indian tradition speaks of Christian converts from high caste Hindus. They continued the social organization and life they lived before conversion and thus there was no social dislocation between the Christians and the Hindu community. Christians shared with the Hindus very many of the social customs and practices. There were instances of intermarriage between Christians and the Nairs in Kerala. The coming of Christian immigrants from Persia did not seriously affect the social life of the Indian Christians, as the immigrants (except the Thomas of Cana group) intermarried with the Indians. From the very beginning, the Indian Christians were an indigenous community, having social and community life with the Indians. (It was not a question of adaptation as Mundadan suggests, but not rejecting the social milieu in which the Christian converts were born. They were not the product of foreign missionary enterprise. A. M. Mundadan, op.cit., vol.i, p. 154.)
Some trial excavations were done in Cranganore in AD 1945-46, though much more has yet to be done. From the result of those excavations, Nathan Katz and Ellen S. Goldberg conclude "From such scant remains, it is clear that religious harmony was the rule of the land." (Nathan and Ellen Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin, Columbia, University of South Carolina, 1993, p. 53.) There were Christian communities to either side of the palace, one the ‘Vadakkumbhagam’, or ‘Northists,’ and the other the ‘Thekkumbhagam,’ or ‘Southists’. Both claimed Jewish ancestory. (Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, The last Jews of Cochin, Columbia, University of South Carolina, 1993, p. 53.)
The religious harmony and toleration that existed in South India was remarkable till the Middle Ages. The Church in north Parur near Cranganore is called Kottakavu which was built in 1308 on the site of another old church which was originally a temple converted into a church. It is said to be the site where St. Thomas converted several Nambudiri Brahmins. There is a Hindu temple just across the lane and to this day Christian processions make their first stop at that temple to pay respect to Hindus, and Hindu processions make a similar stop at the church. This interreligious aspect of procession rituals in South India is not confined to North Parur. (Achan P. Anujan, "A Trial Excavation at Cranganur", Bulletin of Rama Varma Research Institute, 13 [July 1946] pp. 40-42 quoted by Katz and Goldberg. Ibid.. p. 53.) Susan Bayly in her study of Christians and Muslims in South India also speaks of the inter religious co-operation and harmony that existed in South India.
In many parts of Malabar, Nayars accepted Syrians as participants and donors in local temple rites and took part in turn in Syrian church festivals. The acknowledgement of the Syrians’ right to share Hindu sacred space’ was expressed in some centres by the construction of Syrian churches on sites virtually adjoining Hindu temples... Christians used Hindu-style torches, umbrellas and banners in their Cattam festivals, and in some localities actually had a single collection of processional regalia which was shared between both Church and Hindu temple. At least one Hindu temple regularly lent Out its temple elephants to Syrian worshippers for use in their festival processions. (Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses and Kings. Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700-1900. Cambridge University Press. 1989, p. 253. see also Katz and Goldberg, op.cit., p. 54)
From the grants given by the local Rajas to the immigrant Christians, we can infer that the Christians had a position of privilege in society and shared certain honorific titles (most of which they shared with the Nayars) such as Tharakan, Muthalali, Menon and Panickar. The commonest name of the Christians was Nasrani Mappila. L.W. Brown observes:
The Christians shared many other things beside names with the Nayars. They occasionally took wives from the community, and their children often went to school with Nayar children. They joined in many of the ordinary celebrations of the country such as Onam and Vishu or New Year’s Day. (L. W. Brown, op.cit.. p. 171.)
Christians observed many of the ceremonies connected with birth, adolescence and marriage and death like Hindus. In their day to day life the Christians differed very little from the higher castes of the Hindu society.
According to Monserrate:
In their dress they do not much differ from the nairs except for this that they do not cut their hair around the head as the nairs do, but grow it fully and tie up and arrange it in such manner that it is very beautiful and serves for a hat or a cap. The old people, however, shave their heads and use hats. Another matter in which the men differed from the nairs was that when they come to battlefield, they do not smear their heads nor do they paint their bodies with the ashes of cow-dung blessed by the cursed jogues.ie, the yogis or the Hindu priests, which the nairs make very much of. (Quoted in A. M. Mundadan, op.cit., vol.1. p.158.)
Monserrate says that the Christian women were much more modestly dressed than the Nayar women. On the streets and when they went to Church, they covered themselves with some white cloth which made them look very modest.
St. Thomas Christians were employed in agriculture and trade and military service. From the Portuguese sources we gather that the Christians were predominantly agriculturists and pepper-growing was their sole monopoly. The St. Thomas Christians were also engaged in trade. But by the 16th century, they had lost most of their trade to the Muslims who controlled the main trade between the countries of west Asia and the East. But still some Christians were engaged in overseas trade. Vasco da Gama, on his first voyage to India is reported to have met on the East African coast some ships of the Christians of Malabar. (Ibid., p. 156.) Just like the Nayars, St. Thomas Christians were good soldiers and the local rulers highly valued their service in the army.
The Christians in South India lived under many local rulers, chief among them being the Cochin Raja. There is a tradition of a Christian king of the Villar Vattam family as the temporal ruler of St. Thomas Christians. When the family ceased to exist, the Christians came under the protection of the king of Cochin.
Ecclesiastical Life of St. Thomas Christians
The growth of the ecclesiastical organization -- the clerical order as well as other institutional structures and practices of the church was a slow process in the early period of Christian history. To begin with, the Christian church did not uphold a particular form of structure, ministry and liturgy. We do not find any one particular ecclesiology and ministry developed in the New Testament. Jesus did not teach any model of the church or ministry to be followed by those who believed in Him. St. Paul used a number of different metaphors and images to denote the Christian community life. The primary responsibility of the apostles was to be evangelists and missionaries, travelling through the countries and not to govern a community. They lived as those who expected the end of the world in their own life time. Therefore, the setting up of a permanent and uniform pattern of ministry or church structure would hardly have seemed a high priority for them. As the church approached the second century, there was no uniform development in structure, theology and practice among different Christian groups. This was true with regard to Christian ministry also. The Christians have often tended to read back into the past the later development that took place in the church. According to the first Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, a permanent constitution of the church had been conferred upon it by the Lord Himself. (T. V. Philip, Ecumenism in Asia, ISPCK & CSS, 1994, pp. 73-74.) In the case of the Persian Church there is little evidence to show that there were bishops much before AD 300. (S. H. Moffett, op.cit.. p.118.) The Christian congregations there, to begin with, were independent of one another and only in the fifth century a national ecclesiastical body was established.
Because of the lack of documentary evidence, it is very difficult to speak about the ecclesiastical organization of the St. Thomas Christian community in the first few centuries. What we know of the community came from a later period, some from the writings of the Portuguese as they saw them in the 16th century.
Where did the earliest Christians meet for worship? Did they meet in Christian homes; or as the first Christians were converts from Judaism, did they organize themselves into synagogues led by elders? We do not know for sure when the threefold ministry of bishop, presbyters and deacons came to be accepted in India. There was a Persian bishop among the immigrants who came with Thomas of Cana in AD 345. It is probable that this immigration of a large number of Christians. from Persia was the beginning of East Syrian influence on the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of the church in India. Was it also the beginning of the threefold ministry in the Indian church? In the fifth century when the Indian church came under the jurisdiction of the metropolitan of Riwardashir, were there bishops stationed in India? Where there any Indians among them? When, in the seventh century a metropolitan was appointed for India, was he an Indian and where was he placed? According to Mingana, with the appointment of a metropolitan, between six and twelve suffragan bishops were also consecrated for India. "We infer that there was a considerable number of bishops and priests in India, whose sees and parishes were apparently scattered in that vast country to the distance of one thousand and two hundred parsangas." (Mingana, op cit., p. 464) Were there some Indians among these bishops and priests? In the absence of adequate answers to such questions, it is difficult to accept the statement of A.M. Mundadan that " tradition is unanimous in asserting that the prelates of St. Thomas Christians came from Babylon (Persia) for many centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese in India." (Mundadan, op.cit.. p. 174.)
While the arrival of immigrants was the beginning of Persian influence on the life of the Indian Church, it was not a wholesale acceptance of Persian traditions. From the very beginning, the church was taking roots in India and there was the growth of indigenous traditions, practices and leadership. Western church historians mention that Emperor Constantine sent a Christian embassy in AD 354 to certain countries bordering the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea under the leadership of an Asian Christian Theophilus, the Indian, who appears to have been a native of Maladive Islands. During this journey, he visited India also where, it is reported, he "reformed many things which were not rightly done among them; for they heard the reading of the Gospel in a sitting posture, and did other things which were repugnant to the divine law; and having reformed everything according to holy usage, as was not acceptable to God, he also confirmed the dogma of the Church." (Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity in India. pp. 26-28. A.E. Medlycott points out that the value of the report of Theophilus is its evidence that by the middle of the fourth century India or its adjacent territories had indigenous, worshipping congregations ministered to by local clergy, with customs such as sitting for the Gospel, that were well adapted to the Indian culture though divergent from accepted western practice. (A. E. Medlycott, India and the Apostle Thomas (1905). pp. 188-202.) Both in western and Syrian traditions, the congregation stood for the reading of the Gospel during the Eucharist. He writes "if there be any doubt as to whether the congregation be indigenous or foreign, such doubts ought to be set aside by the peculiar customs found among them." In the Didascalia Apostolorum. (Margaret Dunlop Gibson [tra], The Didascalia Apostolorum in English. London: C. J. Cloy & Sons, 1903, p.19.) of the Syrian Church, it is said "The Apostles have also decreed that at the end of all the scriptures, the Gospel shall be read as the seal of all the scriptures, the people rising to their feet to hear it; because it is the salvation of all men." It is important to note Medlycott’s observation that Lie worshipping congregation at this time were ministered to by local clergy. It seems very unlikely that there were no Indian bishops among the clergy by this time. All this shows that the Indian Church was not simply a copy of the Syrian or Persian church and that there was the growth of air independent indigenous Christian tradition in India.
In the controversy between the clergy of Fars and Timothy I in the 8th century, we have seen that the bishops of the province of Fars, contrary to the practice in the rest of Persia, were wearing white garments like secular priests, were eating meat and marrying. Was the Indian Church following the practice in Fars when it was under the jurisdiction of Riwardashir from the 5th to the 7th century? However, as time went on the Persian influence was felt more and more in matters of ministry and liturgical practices. In addition to the three fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, there also came Choreepiscopas and archdeacons. Mundadan writes "It is beyond any doubt that from very early times the St. Thomas Christians had an arch deacon to serve their church and community. The documents which are available today, though not many, are clear about it." (Mundadan. op.cit., p. 180.) This office was received from the East Syrian Church and there is a tradition that the first archdeacon in India was from the family of Pakolomattam. He was the chief assistant to the bishop in the administration of the diocese.
There were monks and monasteries in India. It is very difficult to say when exactly the monastic tradition came into existence in the Indian church. Did the Hindu and the Buddhist ascetic and monastic traditions influence Indian Christianity? If so, monastic tradition began to develop in the Indian church much earlier than the Persian connection in the fourth century. We have noted earlier that even the asceticism in Persia was affected by Indian ascetic tradition. If it were a borrowing from the Persian church, it began to develop only after the 4th century. In a passage in Jerome (late 4th century or early 5th) he tells that he was visited in Palestine every day by monks from India, Persia and Ethiopia. Mingana could not think of daily crowds of monks from India visiting Jerome and he interprets India to mean South Arabia. It is surprising that wherever India is mentioned, Mingana sees it referring to some other place and we can hardly accept his views in this matter. We have seen that monasteries were a great missionary and educational instrument in the life of the Persian church and wherever the Persian influence spread, the monasteries sprang up. This was so in China and in Arabia, and Mingana points Out that in the fourth century "the way to India was not only strewn with bishoprics, but also with monasteries." (Mingana, op.cit.. p. 438.) Naturally, one could expect a rapid development of the monastic movement in India after the Persian connection. Monks from Persia also used to come to India. In one of his letters Patriarch Timothy (9th c) mentions that "many monks voyage to India and China with only a stick and a purse." (See Mundadan, op.cit,., p. 101.)
Mingana mentions the biography of hermit Yonan, the archimandrite of the Monastery of St. Thomas in India written by the end of the fourth century. The monastery was situated on the borders of an island called ‘the black Island’, south of the coast of Baith Katraye. The island was in the vicinity of a town called ‘Milon’, the inhabitants of which fished for pearls. Mingana comments "The existence in about AD 390 in the shores of the Arabian sea of a monastery under the name of Thomas is highly interesting, and constitutes the weightiest proof of all those which have so far been addressed to bolster up the historicity of the mission of Thomas. Interesting also in the story is the narrative dealing with the inner life of the two hundred monks of the monastery in that far off period. Some of the proper names of the monks of the monastery imply a country like Baith Katraye, because they have an undoubted Arabian origin." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 307.) There is considerable difference of opinion about the location of the island. Some have identified the ‘black island’ with Ceylon, some others locate it on the Coromandel coast. while Mingana thinks that the island is on the Arabian side of the Persian gulf and is between Oman and Baharin. However, Mingana admits that the tradition about the existence of a monastery of St. Thomas in India, is very old. Mingana himself asks: Would it be possible to assume that there were, in the fourth century two monasteries of St. Thomas, one on the coast of Oman, and the other on the Coromandel coast? Gregory of Tours who died in AD 594 speaks of a monastery of St. Thomas in India. In AD 883, King Alfred of England sent to the Pope the alms which the king had vowed to send to Rome and also to India to St. Thomas and Bartholomew. (Ibid. p. 307.) As in other instances, in this case also Mingana says that the mention of Bartholomew renders almost certain that King Alfred’s India was not India at all, but south Arabia and Abyssinia. On the contrary, we have pointed out earlier that St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew were missionaries to India and that it confirms that King Alfred’s India was our India and a monastery of St. Thomas existed in India from ancient times. The existence of a St. Thomas shrine and church is also attested by medieval visitors to India, such as Marco Polo (1223), John of Monte Corvino (1293), Friar Odoric (1325). John de Marignolli (1349) and Nicolo Conti (1440). Early in the 16th century, writing to the Patriarch, three Nestorian bishops in India mention in their letters a monastery of St. Thomas. They wrote "As to the monastery of St. Thomas the Apostle, some Christian men have gone into it, have inhabited it, and are now busy restoring it; it is distant about twenty-five days from the above mentioned Christians; it is on the shores of the sea in a town called Mailapore, in the country of Silan, one of the Indian countries. (Mingana, op.cit., p.471.)
With a very close relationship established between the Indian Church and the East Syrian Church from the fourth century onwards, East Syrian influence was strongly felt in the liturgical practice. It was as a result of this relationship that in due course of time, Syriac came to be used as the liturgical language. Also St. Thomas Christians came to be referred to as Syrian Christians. It is very puzzling for the historian that the Nestorian missionaries who were eager to create alphabets for Central Asian people and who helped the growth of indigenous theology among the Chinese Christians did not encourage translation of the Bible into Arabic or the Syriac liturgy into the language of the people in India. It is not very easy to find an adequate answer to this problem.
Mingana mentions that the Indian Church never had a definite ecclesiastical language except Syriac till the arrival of western missionaries. He says "The fact proves first of all, that not one of the scores of dialects spoken by India in the first century has been found fit to be raised to the dignity of a sacred language in which the message of the Gospel could be expressed with dignity and aptitude; it proves also that the Indian Christians were satisfied for the upkeep of their spiritual life with the use of a language which their esteemed migrants had made familiar to them." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 295.) Mingana’s suggestion that any of the Indian languages was not fit to convey the Christian gospel is made out of his ignorance of the Indian languages. Moreover, Christianity in India before the 16th century was very widespread and our knowledge of different Christian groups is very scanty. It is very difficult to say that the worship of the Christians was not held in their native tongues. But as we have noted earlier, from the fourth century onwards the Persian influence was felt more and more in the liturgical life of St. Thomas Christians.
The East Syrians had a love for Aramaic or Syriac. Aramaic was the language spoken in Palestine around the first century, and the Jews wrote it in Hebrew characters. The Assyrians wrote it in cuneiform, from which developed the Kharishti script of India and the Pehlavi script of Iran. According to Arthur Christensen, Aramaic was the lingua franca from eastern Persia to western India until the seventh century. "Aramaic with a christianized vocabulary is known as Syriac. (See Katz and Goldberg, op.cit., pp. 301-302.) Their love for Syriac was not because of nationalism or cultural insensitivity to other cultures. If it were because of nationalism, the Persian Christians would have insisted on the use of Persian or Pehlavi. In China, at the request of the Nestorian Christians the Chinese government in AD 745 changed their name Persian to Syrian religion. No official reason was given except that "the Persian scriptural religion began in Syria." For the Nestorian Christians, Syrian Christianity meant one which is nearer to the source of Christianity. Jesus Christ spoke and taught in Aramaic. The Nestorian Christians had a special love for the Syriac (Aramaic) because it was the language of Jesus Christ and Syrian Christianity meant original Christianity. Among the Jews there was a prejudice against committing the Scriptures to writing in any other than the sacred tongue. The day on which the Old Testament was translated into Greek was said to be as evil as that on which the golden calf was made. The early Syrian Christians, being converts from Jews, might also have had a similar love for Aramaic (Syriac). This could also be said of the St. Thomas Christians in India. Moreover, Syriac was not an unknown language in India in the early centuries. As has been stated, Aramaic was the lingua franca for eastern Persia to western India till the seventh century. Katz and Goldberg point out that according to Cochin Jewish tradition, the Jews in Cranganore spoke Aramaic. (Ibid., p. 302.)
Christian Theology in India
We know very little about the theology in the Indian Church during the early period. As to the times of Nestorian contact, Robin Boyd writes "We shall leave aside the question of the theology of the Indian Church in Nestorian times, as no recordings are available, noting merely that there is still a small Nestorian church in South India and that India has never ceased to be conscious of the ancient Nestorian associations." (R. H. S. Boyd, An Introduction to Indian Christian Theology Madras, CLS, 1969, p. 9.) Whatever records were available were destroyed by the Roman Catholic missionaries during the Portuguese period. About this Mundadan says:
Today there is no written pre-16th century record of the doctrinal theological position of St. Thomas Christians prior to their contact with the West in the 16th century. Even those books which the Portuguese writers of the 16th century examined and used for drawing their conclusions are not available today. Since the Portuguese suspected the presence of errors in the books, they all became casualties in the auto-da-fe programme launched by the Portuguese padroado authorities at the close of the 16th century and later. This leaves us without sufficient data to verify whether the Indian Christians had evolved a theology of their own. Recourse then has to be made to other sources of information, namely, ‘ the life, experience and tradition’, to form some idea of the pre-16th century views on Christianity in India. In other words, we have to find out what theology is reflected in the general outlook and religious mentality of the community, in their life, customs and traditions. (A. M. Mundadan, op.cit., pp. 492-93.)
According to Antony Mookenthottam, it is probable that the ancient church in India had developed some theology of its own and this theology is not written down in books but it is implicit in the life, experience and traditions of the community. (Ibid., p. 492.) Though no written records are available, yet, we might be able to infer something of the theological thinking in the Indian Church from other sources and circumstantial evidences.
The first Christian converts in India were Jews and it was with the Jewish Christian community in East Syria that the Indian church entered into an ecclesiastical relationship in the subsequent period. So it is not wrong for us to assume that the church in India in the first few centuries shared in the general characteristics of Judeo-Christianity. The first Gospel they possessed was the Gospel of the Nazarenes believed to have been brought to India by St. Bartholomew. The language of Judeo Christians in Jerusalem was Aramaic (Syriac) and wherever Judeo Christianity spread, Syriac had a permanent place in the liturgy of the church.
The Indian church because of its ecclesiastical relationship with the East Syrian church was also influenced by the theology of that church. Ephrem and Aphrahat were great theologians of that church in the fifth century. From the fifth century onwards, the writings of the Antiochene theologians, especially that of Theodore of Mopsuestia (392-428) became the chief resources for the study of theology in the East Syrian church. Narsai, the great teacher of Nisibis was a follower of Theodore. Theodore, for the East Syrian church, was the doctor of doctors and the great exegete and interpreter of the Bible, whose sober and literal interpretation was always the Nestorian model. The works of Antiochene theologians were translated into Syriac. It is only logical for us to infer that the theological thinking in the East Syriac church, namely of Ephrem and Aphrahat and later Theodore of Mopsuestia, had some influence on the Indian church. After noting that the epistle to the Romans was translated from Greek into Syriac by Mar Komai with the help of Daniel the priest, the Indian, Mingana says:
This union of the Church of India with that of Mesopotamia and Persia is rendered more evident by another scholar of the school of Edessa, Ma’na, bishop of Riwardhashir, who, in about AD 470, wrote in Persian (i.e., Pahlawi) religious discourses, cantacles and hymns, and translated from Greek into Syriac the works of Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and sent them all to India. And he dispatched to the islands of the sea (Baharin), and to India, all the books he had translated. (Mingana, op.cit., p. 314.)
This is a very strong evidence to show that from the fifth century onwards, the works of Antiochene theologians, especially those of Diodore and Theodore were known in India and had some influence on the theological thinking of the Indian church. By AD 470, the Indian church was under the episcopal supervision of the bishop of Riwardashir and it was only natural on the part of the bishop to feel strongly about his episcopal responsibility for the theological education of the Indian church. Not only the theology of Diodore and Theodore, but also of Ephrem and Aphrahat might have had some influence on the Indian church. As we stated earlier, Theodore and his colleagues had a real appreciation for the human life of Jesus without minimizing his divinity. Jesus Christ represented humanity at its highest and fullest. Salvation is not divinization but the life of a community with God. The Christian life for them is the imitation of Christ and to be in the service of Christ. That means leading the life of unrelenting warfare against the forces of evil. The doctrine of free will of human beings, by which he or she controls all passions and guides his/her actions, is an essential aspect of the East Syrian theology. The East Syrian theologians did not locate sin in human nature. In their theology they preserved the freedom of the human being to make choices and a certain degree of self-reliance, though they accepted the need for Grace. Theirs was a theology which was a strong critic of the Augustinian position on Sin and Grace, and on human nature, which was imposed on the Indian Church later by the Latin missionaries. Arising out of their Christology and anthropology was also the East Syrian Church’s theology of universal mission.
There are Indian writers who maintain that the Indian church was not aware of the theological developments in the Persian church and was thus not influenced by it. They point out that the Indian church had a relationship with the Persian church before it became Nestorian and maintained that relationship ever after the Persian church became Nestorian without really realizing the difference. Such a view cannot be accepted as it implies that the Indian church in the early centuries was theologically ignorant or indifferent. in fact, the church was fully aware of its theological position as it came to realize the sharp distinction between the Law of Peter and the Law of Thomas. The conflict at the Udayamperoor Synod in AD 1599 was between the Church of St. Thomas and the Church of St. Peter. Act III, Decree 7 of the synod reads:
The Synod is painfully aware of the heresy and perverse error which is being disseminated in this diocese by the schismatics to the great detriment of souls: There is one Law of St. Thomas and another of St. Peter; the Church founded by the one is distinct and different from the Church founded by the other; each is immediately from Christ; one has nothing to do with the other; neither the prelate of one owes obedience to the prelate of the other; those who belong to the law of Peter endeavoured to destroy the law of St. Thomas; for this they had been punished by him…( Quoted in Mundadan op.cit.. pp. 494-495. Mundadan says that the words used by the synodical decree are too sharp to be taken literally. He seems to suggest that the conflict was only on the ‘form of Christianity’ and on different forms and customs. It was much more than that. It was about the identity and independence of the Indian church. The Indian church repudiated the juridical claims of the Roman Catholic church.)
This is a very valuable evidence. It shows that the pre-16th century Indian church was fully aware of its identity and independence. It is founded by St. Thomas and they follow the Law of Thomas. For the Indian Christians the church founded by Peter and the Law of Peter are distinct and different from theirs. They have nothing to do with the Roman Church and their bishops do not owe obedience to Roman bishops. They strongly repudiated the papal claims to universal supremacy as the authority of each bishop is immediately from Christ. They vehemently protested against the interference of the Roman church in their affairs and the attempts of the Roman church to destroy the law of Thomas. The Indian Christians knew the distinction and difference between the Church of St. Thomas and the Church of St. Peter, both ecclesiastically and theologically. The St. Thomas Christians used to stage a drama in their churches telling the story of a fight between St. Peter and St. Thomas where Thomas defeated Peter at the end of the fight.
While the Indian church was aware of and influenced by the theological developments in the East Syrian church, it was not a whole sale acceptance. There were also indigenous theological developments within the Indian church. The Nestorian church wherever it went encouraged the growth of indigenous theology. In the case of China, the Nestorian church there took seriously the Chinese classics. As we said earlier about Adam, a Nestorian missionary in China, that he knew Chinese classics and had studied the writings of Taoist mystics, and he was skilful in choosing illustrations from them. He was able to talk with the Buddhists in terms of their philosophy and was accustomed to borrow from them both background and terms to expound his Christian themes. Not only he endeavoured to make China Christian but also tried to make Christianity, in a worthy sense, ‘Chinese’. Buddhists regarded Adam as a dangerous man, not because he was making Christianity too Buddhist but he was trying to make Buddhism too Christian. There existed a Christian literature in Chinese.
In India, the Christian community, from the beginning, was an indigenous community with social and cultural roots in Indian tradition, sharing a social and community life with the Hindus. Anthony Mookenthottam is right when he writes "their identification with their socio-cultural milieu was so thorough ... This oneness with their socio-cultural milieu implies an implicit incarnational theology lived, an awareness that Christ in becoming man assumed everything human and redeemed all social and cultural values." (A. Mookenthottam, "Indian Theological Tendencies", 1978. p. 23 quoted by Mundadan, op.cit., p. 493.)
In the second century. when the Indian Christians invited Pantaneus to preach to the Hindu philosophers and religious leaders, they were aware of their missionary responsibility to Indian culture as a whole. The Alexandrian theologians, especially Clement and Origen in the second and third centuries, had a positive attitude to Greek culture. Clement, a distinguished student and successor of Pantaneus believed that the idea of God is implanted in all people at creation. There is a spark of nobility in every soul, an upward inclination which is kindled by the divine logos. Philosophy is of divine origin. For Clement, all wisdom is summed up in Christ. All history is one, because all truth is one. ‘There is one river of truth, but many streams fall into it from this side and that." (Stromata. 1:5) Perhaps the Indian church had developed a positive attitude to Indian philosophy and culture through their contacts with Pantaneus and other Alexandrian Christians.
In the Synod of Udayamperoor in AD 1599, the Latin missionaries condemned the Indian Church’s opinion that each one can be saved in one’s own law and all laws are right and forbade a number of customs and practices to continue in the Indian church because they were pagan (Hindu). In Act III, Decree 4 of the Synod it reads:
Each one can be saved in his own law, all laws are right: This is fully erroneous and a most shameful heresy: There is no law in which we may be saved except the law of Christ our Saviour.... [ and the footnote says]: This is a perverse dogma of politicians and those tolerant...Consequently being indifferent they wander very far away from the truth". (Mundadan, op.cit., p. 493.)
Commenting on the decisions of the Synod, Mundadan observes, "These prohibitions and restrictions imposed by the Synod are a witness to the communal harmony and cordial relations that existed between the Christians and the Hindus. This communal harmony and spirit of tolerance should be considered a typical Indian contribution to the Christian vision." (Ibid.)
The Hindus and the Christians lived as one community for many centuries in South India. They accepted each other and there was co-operation between the two communities not only in social matters but also in religious. This communal harmony was undergirded by a theological perception which the Udayamperoor Synod condemned as heresy. According to Mundadan, the Latin missionaries had no life experience of non-Christian religions and they narrowly interpreted the dictum, "Outside the Church there is no salvation".
It is to be noted that the synod attributes this ‘error’ to contact with pagans. What is really involved here is the understanding of the doctrine ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ (outside the Church there is no salvation) by the Portuguese and St. Thomas Christians, respectively. The Portuguese came from the West where a rigid interpretation of the dictum had prevailed for a long time and had become acute in the 16th century in the context of the anti-Protestant Counter Reformation spirit. They sensed danger in the more liberal attitude of the Indian Christians towards Hindus and Hindu religion.... It would be centuries before the Europeans would acquire a life-experience of non-Christian religions, before a theology of the religions of the world would emerge which would give due respect to the positive elements in those religions and their providential salvific role for millions of people. But the Indian Christians had already been living for centuries in a positive encounter with the high caste Hindus and had developed a theological vision of Hindu religion which was more positive and liberal. (Mundadan. op.cit., pp. 493-494.)
The Latin church had a very narrow view of the church, and the Latins interpreted Christ and salvation in Christ, in the light of their doctrine of the church; so much so that pope Bonifice VIII in the Middle Ages could assert that outside the church there is no salvation nor remission of sins and that submission to the Roman pontiff, for every human being is an utter necessity for salvation. This was the law of Peter which the Latin missionaries tried to propagate in India. It was contrary to the law of Thomas and hence the clash at Udayamperoor Synod. St. Thomas Christians were able to have a positive view of Hinduism not only because of their life-experience of living among the Hindus, but also because of their theology. At the heart of Antiochene theology which influenced the St. Thomas Christians in the pre-sixteenth century period was the emphasis on the full humanity of Jesus Christ. The reality of Jesus’ humanity and its kinship with the rest of humankind is of utmost importance in their theology. Contrary to the Augustinian teaching on original sin, and human nature, they emphasized human freedom and the responsibilities and obligations of Christian faith. They did not locate sin in human nature and thus preserved human freedom and a certain degree of self-reliance. It is possible for such a theology to develop a positive attitude to other religions and cultures. An emphasis on the full humanity of Jesus Christ, an appreciation of human freedom and responsibility, a positive attitude to other religions and cultures and a strong affirmation of the independence and freedom of the Indian church were some of the salient features of the Indian Christian theology and ecclesiology in the early period. This is what the Latin missionaries found to be heretical and what the present day historians of Indian Christian theology failed to notice.
Christianity in India at the End of the Fifteenth Century
Christianity which came to India with the apostolic activity of St. Thomas had established contacts with the churches in Alexandria and Persia. When Pantaneus from Alexandria came to India by about AD 180, he found a Gospel of the Nazarenes with the Christians there, brought to them by St. Bartholomew. The Indian church entered into an ecclesiastical relationship with the church in Basra probably by the beginning of the fourth century. There were at least two immigrations of Persian Christians to India, one in the fourth and the other in the ninth century which influenced the liturgical and religious life of the Christians.
The Indian Christians were socially and culturally very much integrated into the wider Hindu community; and they kept on many of the Hindu social customs and practices. From the grants given by the local rulers to the immigrant Christians, we can infer that the Christians in South India had a position of privilege in Indian society.
The St. Thomas Christians were engaged in missionary work both inside and outside the country and there were communities of Christians scattered throughout the country.
We have very little information about the state of affairs of Christians from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. From the thirteenth century onwards, there were European travelers -- especially Marco Polo and a number of Roman Catholic missionaries -- who visited India and wrote of their visits. One thing which came to be known from the writings of these medieval travelers is that there was a considerable Nestorian dispersion all over India in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The rise of Muslim political power in north India seems to have been the beginning of the decline of Christianity in the north. The Christians suffered several disadvantages under the Muslim rule and many of them were converted to Islam.
The medieval Roman Catholic travelers in India were a source of tension within the Indian Christian community and some of them tried to latinize the St. Thomas Christians. It was only the beginning of what was to come later under the Portuguese Padroado.
The majority of the St. Thomas Christians were in South India. The Christians in the south were living in the territory of Hindu rulers and were not very much affected by the rise of Muslim political power in the north. From the Syriac sources mentioned by Mingana, we learn that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Indian church did not have enough bishops and priests for the spiritual ministrations in the church. We do not know the reason for the development of such situations. In AD 1490, a deputation of two Indian Christians, George and Joseph, came to the Patriarch of the East asking him to send bishops to India, which had been without bishops for a long time." (Mingana, op.cit., p. 469.) The Patriarch ordained George and Joseph as priests and consecrated two monks from the monastery of St. Eugenius as bishops and sent them to India. In AD 1503, Patriarch Elias consecrated three more bishops -- Mar Yahb Alaha, Mar Jacob and Mar Dinha, -- for India.
All Christians of this side were greatly pleased with us. ... There are here about thirty thousand families of Christians, our co-religionists, and they implore the Lord to grant thee a long life. They have begun to build churches, and are prosperous in every respect, and living in peace and security As to the monastery of the St. Thomas the Apostle, some Christian men have gone into it, and are now busy restoring it. ... The countries of India are very numerous and powerful, and their distance is about six months journey. Each country has a special name by which it is known, and our country in which Christians are found is called Malabar. It has about twenty towns out of which three are renowned and powerful: Karangol, Pallur and Kullam, with others which are near them. They contain Christians and churches, and are in the vicinity of the large and powerful city of Calicut, the inhabitants of which are idol-worshipping pagans. (Mingana, op.cit., pp. 470-71.)
As to the general state of St. Thomas Christians at the close of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century as the Portuguese found it, we have the following description.
The authority of the Syrian bishop extends to all temporal and spiritual matters. They are natural judges of all civil and ecclesiastical cases within their diocese. The pagan princes and judges have no concern with them, excepting only in criminal cases. ... Men walk armed, some with fusees of which they know perfectly the use, others with spears; but the greatest numbers carry only a naked sword in the right hand and a shield in the left. They are carefully instructed in the use of arms from their eighth to their twenty-fifth years, and are excellent hunters and warriors. The more Christians a pagan prince has in his dominion, the more he is feared and esteemed. It is on this account as well as on that of their fidelity and strict attachment to truth in everything, that the princes cherish and countenance them so much. They are second in rank only to Brahmins. The Christians, pursuant to the laws of the country, are the protectors of silversmiths, brassfounders, carpenters and smiths. The pagans who cultivate the palm trees form a militia under the Christians. If a pagan of any of these classes should receive an insult, he has immediate recourse to the Christians, who procure a suitable satisfaction. The Christians depend directly on the prince or his minister and not on the provincial governors. If anything is demanded from them contrary to their privileges, the whole unite immediately for general defense. If a pagan strikes one of the Christians, he is put to death on the spot or forced himself to bear to the church of the place an offering of a gold or silver hand according to the quality of the person affronted. In order to preserve their nobility, the Christians never touch a person of inferior caste, not even a Nair. ..... They are authorized to ride and travel on elephants. They sit in the presence of the king and his ministers, even on the same carpet -- a privilege granted to ambassadors only. The king of Paroor having wished during the last century to extend this privilege to the Nairs, the Christians declared war against him and obliged him to restore affairs to their former state. (C. B. Firth comments that this is a remarkable picture quoted from E. M. Philip, The Indian Church of St. Thomas,. Nagercoil, L.M.S. Press, 1950, pp 421-23, by C. B. Firth, op. cit., p. 47.)
C.B. Firth comments that this is a remarkable picture of a strong and well organized community, commanding respect among its Hindu neighbours, managing its own affairs and able to assert its rights.