Europeans knew little about Christians in India until Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) founded the Societas Peregrinantium pro Christo (Society of Wanderers for Christ). Medieval missionaries then began passing through the subcontinent. One visitor was John of Monte Corvino, a Franciscan sent to China to become prelate of Peking about the year l307. He reported in a letter that he had spent more than a year in India, "wherein stands the church of St. Thomas the Apostle," and that he there baptized in different places about l00 persons. "There are a very few Christians, and Jews, and they are of little weight," he said, adding that "the people persecute much the Christians, and all who bear Christian names."
Father Jordanus, a Dominican, followed in l321-22. He reported to Rome, apparently from somewhere on the west coast of India, that he had given Christian burial to four martyred monks who had been killed by the local people. He said he had baptized many people in one town and another thirty-five nearby and urged his superiors to send friars, "for there are three places I know where they might reap a great harvest."
Later he wrote that in India "there is a scattered people, one here, one there, who call themselves Christians but are not so, nor have they baptism nor do they know anything about the faith. Nay, they believe St. Thomas to be as great as Christ." He reported that he had "brought into the faith about 300 souls of whom many were idolaters and Saracens." And there was, contrary to some other reports, good news for missionaries: no one "from among the idolaters [is] hindered from being baptized throughout all the East, whether they be Tartars or Indians or what not."
In his old age another monk, Odoric of Udine, recalled a visit he had made in about l322, and said he had found the place where Thomas was buried, in a region called "Mobar" (the Arabic Ma'abar, for the region around present-day Madras, is easily confused with Malabar on the other side of India): "His church is filled with idols and beside it are fifteen houses of the Nestorians, that is to say Christians, but vile and pestilential heretics." There were visits by other medieval Christian clerics.
The fullest medieval report came, not from a missionary Wanderer, but from the adventurous Venetian merchant-traveller, Marco Polo. He was in India at some time between l292 and l295, on his way back from China. He had been in Ceylon and crossed to the Coromandel Coast which he, like Odoric, called Ma'abar. Polo said that the name, meaning "passage" or "ferry" in Arabic, was bestowed by Muslims with reference to the chain of islands in the strait between Ceylon and India.
Polo wrote that he found the tomb of St. Thomas there, "at a certain little town having no great population" -- a rather inaccessible place, he said, of little interest to traders. But, he went on, "both Christians and Saracens greatly frequent it in pilgrimage." Christians, he said, took red earth from the place where the apostle was killed and gave it to anyone sick of a fever, "and by the power of God and of St. Thomas" the sick were cured. (The use of earth from the apostle's tomb in the cathedral to work cures was reported as a continuing practice late in the nineteenth century.)
The Venetian traveler heard an account of the apostle's martyrdom from "the Christian brethren who keep the church." Thomas was saying his prayers one day in a wood outside his hermitage when an "idolater" from the low caste of Govis was out hunting peacocks, which abounded in this area. He let fly an arrow that accidentally hit the apostle in the right side, wounding him so severely that he died, "sweetly addressing himself to his Creator."
Nowadays, as the Indian Airlines plane rolls to the end of the runway in Madras, a barren hill topped by a small church appears at one side. Probably few passengers realize that they are seeing the place where the apostle Thomas is said to have been martyred. The hill is called St. Thomas's Mount. An interested traveler might take a taxi -- as I did one day in the 1980s -- to the foot of the Mount and climb a flight of steps (134, by my count) to the top. And about half way up a visitor can see the very place where, it is said, Thomas was killed.
A large carved stone, with a cross and Persian lettering incised, is embedded behind the altar of the little church atop the Mount. When the Portuguese dominated the southwestern coast of India in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, inveterate relic-finders and inventors of pious myths held that Thomas himself did the carving and died on this very stone, and that every year it bled on December 18th, the day of his martyrdom. (It stopped seeping in the year 1700, when the British had won control of this area.)
The "certain little town" where Polo and others found Thomas's tomb is Mylapore, now a strongly Brahmin quarter engulfed by the huge city of Madras. The origin of the name is not certain. Medieval writers referred to the town where Thomas was thought to be buried as Mahlpuh, Mirapolis, Mirapor, Meliapor, with other variations. The name may originally have been. Malaippuram, meaning Mount Town, because of the hill (malai) But for centuries most people have thought it was derived from the Tamil word for peacock--mayil . And the peacock came to be the apostle's sign. His image in the apse of the Cathedral of San Thoma in Madras is flanked by two of the birds.
Of the outcaste Govis, Marco Polo has this to add: "I should tell you that nothing on earth would induce them to enter the place where Messer St. Thomas is. . . . Indeed, were even twenty or thirty men to lay hold of one of these Govis and to try to hold him in the place where the Body of the Blessed Apostle of Jesus Christ lies buried, they could not do it!" Govis were so fearful, he says, because someone of their caste had killed the saint. (A nineteenth-century British Orientalist, Sir Henry Yule, reported that later travelers described descendants of Thomas's murderers as marked by having one leg of enormous size-- elephantiasis; the Portuguese called the disease Pejo de Santo Tomas, or St.Thomas's Foot.)
The traditional song-histories of Indian Thomas Christians, as we have noted, have given other reasons for the king's execution of Thomas. But whatever the story, the Indian versions of the martyrdom do not repeat the one that comes from early forms of the Acts of Judas Thomas -- that the king ordered the apostle killed because he had been persuading wives to forsake their marriage beds. Although the Indian Thomasites took the AJT as a firm basis for their claim to personal evangelizing by Thomas, they did not embrace the message of sexual asceticism.
"If there were not merchants who go to seek for earthly treasures in the East and West Indies, who would transport thither the preachers who take heavenly treasures? The preachers take the Gospel and the merchants take the preachers." So wrote a Portuguese Jesuit missionary to the Malabar Coast. And the Portuguese venture in India involved the familiar triad of European imperialism: man of war, man of commerce, and man of the cloth.
The first of the Portuguese seafarers to reach the land of pepper, Vasco da Gama, arrived in l498 after his pioneering voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. Four years later he returned. By this time, Muslim Indians had become dominant in the northern districts of what is now Kerala and controlled the sea-trade of the region with the Persian Gulf. It was they the Portuguese had primarily to displace. The Portuguese began establishing forts and trading posts on the sea in front of the Serra, as they came to call the mountainous region of the Malabar Coast. By l5l5 they had set up forts both in Goa on the western coast of India and in Ormuz on the coast of Persia, thereby controlling sea trade between India and the Persian Gulf.
Of the condition of the Thomas Christian community on the Malabar Coast early in the sixteenth century , we have the testimony of bishops who had recently arrived from Mesopotamia . They reported back to the Patriarch of Babylon that there were about thirty thousand families of Christians, who were building new churches and prospering.
During the first half of the sixteenth century the Portuguese and Thomas Christians got along quite well. Amity, or at least a mutual tolerance, was good for the pepper trade, in which both were involved. Thomasites tending their pepper plantations in the hills were far enough removed from the Portuguese forts and trading stations to feel unthreatened. In the major ports the Thomas Christians, as important traders, had more contact with the European intruders but there apparently were no substantial conflicts.
The local rulers of various principalities along the Malabar Coast -- Hindus in the south, Muslims in the north -- depended for their revenue largely on taxes on trade, especially the lucrative commerce in pepper. They welcomed stability. Relatively few western missionaries had arrived. Thomasites could continue in their accustomed ways of worship, in their accustomed allegiance to St. Thomas, without serious interference from those who regarded St. Peter as the founder of the universal and only true church.
One long-lived bishop sent by the Patriarch of Babylon , Mar Jacob, was a moderating influence. He kept an uneasy peace among the foreign overlords, local rulers, and adherents of the two competing versions of Christianity. He withdrew into retirement in a Franciscan monastery. In l549 the Jesuit leader Francis Xavier, then in Goa, urged the king of Portugal to write a friendly letter to Jacob, in appreciation for his seeing to it that the pepper trade could thrive. That year Jacob died.
The second half of the sixteenth century was much more troubled. Tensions mounted between the Keralans on the one hand and their Portuguese rulers and western missionaries on the other. Both Lisbon and Rome began to take a harder line. The Council of Trent, in the middle of the century, organized the Roman Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, giving new vigor to missionary activity. Jesuits began to arrive in Goa in l542.
Thomas Christians, it will be remembered, did not try to make converts among other Keralans and observed the strict caste barriers of the region. Jesuits, however, and later the Dominicans, were zealous proselytizers. They not only made converts among the poorest and lowest castes and untouchables -- "rice Christians," as some have called them -- but tried to persuade Thomas Christians to switch their allegiance to Rome. The Portuguese rulers and European missionaries together began using strong-arm methods. Hindu temples in Goa were burned as early as l540. Hindus were forbidden to worship their own gods and many who flouted the ban were arrested and imprisoned.
A Portuguese official complained to the government in Lisbon that Jesuits "forcibly shaved many [of the Indians' sacred topknots], and compelled them to eat the flesh of cows and to sin against other of their superstitious and idolatrous rites; for which reason the majority of them have fled" from the service of the Europeans. Jesuit missionaries regarded themselves as simply applying "the rigor of mercy." Orphaned children were one target, often taken from relatives and committed to the care of a priest known as Pai dos Christos, or Father of the Christians.
Conversion of low-caste Hindus was troubling enough to the local Christians, but when Thomas Christians themselves became the target of serious missionary efforts, they resisted stubbornly. Mar Joseph, one of two rival bishops, was sent to Lisbon for instruction and was eventually approved by Rome. The other, Mar Abraham, was sent out from the Nestorian church in Mesopotamia. He was the last Metropolitan of an undivided Thomasite church in Malabar. In l539 Goa, north of the Malabar Coast, had been made a bishopric by Rome, and in l558 it became the metropolitan See of the East, which stretched from the western coast of India to China. There was immediate trouble with the Thomasite clergy.
Dominican priests were determined not to allow two metropolitans sent from Mesopotamia to establish themselves among the Thomas Christians or even to visit them. The Goan Inquisition kept the two under what amounted to house arrest for a year and a half, meanwhile teaching them the Latin rites of the Mass. The western clerics enjoyed a minor victory on Easter Sunday l557 when the two celebrated the Latin rite. Friars began to go to churches in the hills, sometimes forcing them open in order to celebrate Mass in Latin, accusing the locals of being Nestorian heretics. The Portuguese set up a seminary to train young priests in the Latin rite, to replace the kattanars (as Thomasites called their priests, in the Malayalam tongue) but parishes refused to accept them.
The kattanars' only income came from fees charged to parishioners for their religious services. A fanam (a fraction of a rupee), for example, was paid by each person partaking of the eucharist. Other fees were collected for baptisms and weddings, supplemented by gifts made at religious festivals. The Europeans considered these practices to be simony and they tried, without much success, to persuade the kattanars to accept a regular income in place of such charges.
Through history, the Syriac-speaking bishops coming from Syria-Mesopotamia-Persia did not even know much Malayalam, the language of the Malabar Coast, and were restricted largely to ritual duties in the churches of Thomas Christians. As noted earlier, the administrative head of the church, holding a position of power in the community and polity, was the archdeacon, always an Indian. And it was a vigorous young Archdeacon George who would head the fight against a vigorous young prelate arriving from Portugal toward the end of the sixteenth century -- Dom Frey Alexis de Menezes, Archbishop of Goa, Primate of the Indies Both men were in their thirties.
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.