Local folk tales and songs claiming ancient origins tell of Thomas's mission, but their age can only be guessed. For example, one priestly family that is caretaker of such an epic traces its line back more than sixty generations. Allowing twenty years for a generation, we would go back 1200 years, to about the eighth century. Another family regards an historical song, the "Thomas Rabban Pattu," as its birthright for at least forty-eight generations. The Thomas Christian tradition in Malabar depends heavily on oral transmission of these song-histories, sung by a special caste. Nothing was committed to writing until about three centuries ago.
An often-quoted piece of evidence for early evangelization of India comes from the first major church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (who, we will recall, wrote in the fourth century). According to him, Pantaenus, "one of the most eminent teachers of his day" and eventually head of the catechitical school in Alexandria late in the second century, had earlier in life been "appointed to preach the gospel of Christ to the peoples of the East, and traveled as far as India."
Eusebius, as we have noted, was not an entirely reliable chronicler, and he was writing at a time when the role of the apostles, in various mission fields around the known world, was being elaborated. But his report was picked up and repeated by many later writers. Probably few scholars who do not feel bound by tradition now believe that either Thomas or Pantanaeus went personally to any part of India.
Keralan tradition tells of a later arrival named Thomas. In the fourth century, it is said, the Metropolitan Bishop of Edessa had a vision in which the apostle asked him to help his Indian flock. Informed of this saintly appeal, the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, head of the Christian church in Mesopotamia and Persia, dispatched a colonizing group of some three hundred families from Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Nineveh. At their head was a merchant known as Thomas of Cana (Canaan).
The Edessan prelate whose vision is credited with inspiring the migration accompanied the colonists on their sea trip from the Persian Gulf. The newly-arrived Christians, according to the story, took presents to the local king, who greeted them warmly, gave them lands , and bestowed on them various privileges. They then busied themselves building a church and a new town.
Some accounts of this new missionary venture are precise about the date when the infusion of Christian blood took place -- the year 345. The Persian emperor Saphur II had begun persecuting Christians in his empire in the middle of the fourth century, and it is possible that a substantial group took flight to India, among other places, as Zoroastrian Parsees did centuries later when Muslims conquered Persia. Conceivably such immigrants to the Malabar Coast were the first substantial Christian community in India.
There is one interesting if not fully persuasive piece of evidence that Christians were to be found in southern India by the sixth century. Cosmas Indicopleustes, an East Syrian who traveled widely in the 520s, wrote an account of his voyages entitled Christian Topography . He tells of Persian Christians who had settled in Taprobane (Ceylon, modern Sri Lanka). They had established a church, and he adds: "[S]uch also is the case in the land called Male where the pepper grows," which is very likely a reference to the Malabar Coast. But Cosmas was repeating what he had heard from others; he did not himself visit the Malabar Coast.
One social division that is popularly dated from the supposed migration under the aegis of Thomas of Cana persisted into the twentieth century. It is said that the new arrivals settled north of the Periyar River near Cranganore, the place where Thomas was thought to have come ashore, and obtained a land grant from the local ruler. They are known as Northists. They said that the Southists, living south of the river, were descendants of Thomas of Cana by his concubine, an outcaste washer woman, whom Thomas arranged to be married to a low-caste youth. Seven daughters, the issue of this lowly union, were married to seven sons of southern colonists, and their descendants became the Southists. So say the Northists. The Southists reverse the story, claiming higher lineage than their rivals. The two groups worship together but do not intermarry.
Northists insist that their forbears at one time held inscribed copper plates, grants from the local rajah, giving them lands, servants, and privileges. A Portuguese friar claimed to have seen the metal plates in the sixteenth century, but somehow they got "lost" while in the "safekeeping" of the Portuguese authorities. A later set of plates survives. Some think they were delivered to a new set of Christian immigrants from the Middle East who arrived with a bishop named Thomas late in the eighth century. A few Persian crosses, still to be seen in Kerala and Madras, may come from that period. The Pahlevi script used in inscriptions indicates that the crosses can be dated to some time in the sixth to eighth centuries. This is the oldest epigraphic evidence of Christians in India.
It would have been entirely in accord with traditional practice for a rajah to set up a system of rights, privileges, and duties for a group of foreigners whose presence and services he found useful -- because, say, of channels of foreign trade they could open up and exploit. Thomas of Cana and his flock, or any group of immigrants with useful foreign connections, might well have been the beneficiaries of such a scheme. The higher ranks in the Keralan population of the time did not engage in sea trade, leaving it to Arabs, Jews, and other aliens.
Two saints highly venerated by the Thomas Christians, especially in the city of Quilon where they had served as bishops, date from the ninth century. And their tombs were to be found in the commercial center of Quilon, established in that century. Interestingly, they bore names related to Persia: Sapor and Prodh, from Sapur and Firoz. The only available archaeological evidence, the old stone crosses revered by the Thomasites, bear epigraphs in Iranian languages.
What precise groups of settlers arrived, and at what precise times, remain matters of doubt in the case of the Thomas Christians. We are told that the Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon reproved the bishop of Rawarishir, in the southwestern Persian province of Fars, for neglecting his duties, which included oversight of churches in India and other places on the Arabian Sea. Such troubles took place in the seventh and eighth centuries. Quite probably Indian churches had been established at about that time.
What is beyond any doubt is that over the course of centuries, before the arrival of the Portuguese, Thomas Christians attached great importance to rajah-granted privileges and attained high status. Royal grants were, in effect, their charters for a place, and a high place at that, in the caste system of south India, a system more intricate in that region than in any other.
A small number of Brahmins, roughly two percent of the population, had established themselves as the dominant caste by about the eighth century. Shankaracharya, the founder of the monist Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, the dominant Brahminical philosophy for many Indians, was an eighth-century Keralan. He is credited with having displaced Buddhism and Jainism from their earlier dominance in the southwestern corner of India. The Thomas Christians' legends of the apostle's mission among them emphasize Thomas's conversion of Nambudiri Brahmins, but this caste only reached ascendancy many centuries after Thomas lived.
Next in rank were the Nayars, or Nairs, famous as warriors, from whose numbers the rajahs came. Below them was a complicated hierarchy. At the bottom were untouchable outcastes, some of whom were considered so degraded in status that the very sight of one of their unfortunate members would pollute a Brahmin. Such were required to shout their group name when walking on the road, to allow caste Hindus to take cover.
In the course of time, Thomas Christians won a place for themselves at least as high as that of the Nairs. And like that warrior caste, they were highly prized for their martial skills in the local rajahs' armies. The two communities took part in each other's processions, visited each other's holy places. The Thomasites' claims of status akin to that of Brahmins would come later, in the days of the British Raj, when clumsy British policy (as we shall soon see) broke their links with Nayars.
The historical folk songs that describe the apostle's mission put great emphasis on the his conversion of Brahmins. The literature of Thomas Christians came to emphasize the customs and rituals they share with Brahmins: for example, bestowal of a sacred thread (with cross added) on infants, adornment of children with gilded mongoose teeth and panther toes, similar marriage rites, descent of property through a patriarchal line (unlike Nairs, who have a matriarchal system), wearing a long tuft of hair on the head. In marriage processions a Christian bridegroom, like a prince of the land, could ride an elephant, the bridal party could be sheltered by a canopy, and members of the procession could carry silk umbrellas.
Many of the Christians' rites -- in ceremonies celebrating birth, coming of age, marriage -- closely followed those of high-caste Hindus. "Mappila," an honorific in the Malayalam tongue, became a common appendage to Christian names. Nasrani Mappila (Respected Nazarene) became a frequent appellation. An old Malayalam proverb says that "Flies, cats, dogs, and Nasranis have no pollution" -- a saying with an edge, perhaps, but one recognizing that to touch a Thomas Christian is not polluting for high-caste Hindus. Thomas Christians were given right of access to Hindu temples. They themselves observed untouchability. In later centuries, when proselytizing European missionaries began converting low-caste Indians, Thomas Christians still banned social intercourse with converts of base degree. They were not themselves proselytizers. Like a caste Hindu, a Christian was born to his status.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Thomas Christians had become, in effect, a closed caste within the Indian social structure. They received their bishops and liturgy, and Syriac as the liturgical language, from a foreign church. Few parishioners knew much of the language in which they worshipped. There was no bible in Malayalam, the local language, until the nineteenth century.
But the bishops supplied from Mesopotamia did not assert detailed control over Indian churches. An Indian archdeacon was the administrative head of the church on the Malabar Coast. Thomas Christians could claim to be as Indian as any Hindu. Had not Brahmins been among the apostle's original converts? St. Thomas Christians had achieved honor, respect, and prosperity.
As for the accounts of evangelization by Thomas, Stephen Neill (who has done one of the most thorough and balanced investigations into the matter) has summed them up in these words: "Millions of Christians in South India are certain that the founder of their church was none other than the apostle Thomas himself. The historian cannot prove to them that they are mistaken in their belief. He may feel it right to warn them that historical research cannot pronounce on the matter with a confidence equal to that which they entertain by faith."
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.