Early references about the Apostolate of Saint Thomas in India, Records about the Indian tradition, Saint Thomas Christians & Statements by Indian Statesmen
Tradition says that at the dispersal of the Apostles after Pentecost, Saint Thomas was sent to evangelize the Parthians, Medes, Persians and Indians; he ultimately reached South India, carrying the Faith to the Malabar coast, which still boasts a large native population calling themselves “Christians of St. Thomas.” The Apostle is believed to have speared to death in Mylapore (Madras). His feast day is July 3rd and is the patron of architects.
The earliest record about the apostolate of St. Thomas is the apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas, written in Syriac in Edessa. A number of fragmentary passages in other writings of the third, fourth and the following centuries speak about the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas. The Indian traditions of the Apostolate of Saint Thomas consist of a combined tradition of Kerala, Mylapore/ Coromandel, and the East-Syrian Church. The Portuguese in early sixteenth century has recorded the tradition.
This article examines, 1) Acts of Thomas, 2) Early references about the Apostolate of Saint Thomas in India, 3. Which India meant ? 4) About the Indian Tradition of Saint Thomas and Records of the tradition, 5) Further references about Saint Thomas Christians, 6) Statements of prominent Indian Statesmen, 7) Statements of Religious Leaders .
1. The Acts of Thomas
The earliest record about the apostolate of St. Thomas is the apocryphal Acts of Judas Thomas, written in Syriac in the Edessan circle (Edessa, today called Urfa, in eastern Turkey), about the turn of the third century A.D. Even though this work has been acknowledged as apocryphal, Gnostic in touch, and romantic in style, several scholars find in it a historical nucleus, which represents the second century tradition about the apostolate of St. Thomas in India.
The Syriac text is published by P. Bedjan, Vol. III (1892), W. Wright, (1871), A.F.J. Klijn (1962) gives an English text: A.E. Medlycott, (1905), pp. 221-25, indicates different versions and editions of the Acts, and pp. 213-97, provides a critical analysis of the same. J.Farquhar’s articles are also useful.
Act of Thomas Contents– King Gudnaper ( Gundapar) of India sent Haban to get an architect to build a palace. Habban took with him Thomas, who was sold to him by Christ. Both landed in Sandroqmaboza ( Andropolis in the greek version) . Thomas there converted the royal couple after performing a miracle. Both went to Gudnapar. Thomas got money to build the palace, but spent it for the poor. Thomas was imprisoned. Gudnapar’s brother Gad saw in heaven the palace built by Thomas. Thomas was released and the royal brothers baptized. Thomas went to the kingdom of Mazdai: baptized the queen: was imprisoned for having preached continence to the women of the palace. He died a martyr having been pierced through by the lances of the soldiers of Mazdai.
The Acts of Judas — Thomas, probably originated in a milieu of Upper-Mesopotamia, perhaps Edessa, and go back either to the last quarter of the second century A.D. or to the first years of the third. The author is a Syrian who is able to recognize the name ‘Thomas’ as a nickname derived from t’omo, which means twin; therefore he has preserved the real name, Judas, which, according to the old Syriac version of the Gospels, was the name of Thomas-Didynius. From this detail we can assumes that, in those days, the old version of the Gospels had not yet been replaced by the Peshitto.
According to the Acts, the Apostle St. Thomas preached the Gospel in the land of Gondaferes or Gundaphares. This prince is the Parthian King Guduphara, who was ruler of Afghanistan and the Punjab during the second quarter of the first century A.D. Most of the critics of the nineteenth century have refused to concede any historical value to the Acts of Judas—Thomas and nobody can deny that they are full of fabulous details.
It has recently been observed that it was unlikely for a writer of the third century to have invented the story contained in the document. It is remarkable that the sovereign’s name, which is a historical one, should have been preserved intact in a rather remote country, and all the more so as it has left no traces in any historical or legendary work of India, and has reappeared only in the nineteenth century on coins and on an inscription of Gandhara.
The Gudnapar ( Goundophoros in the greek version) could also be King Kandapa or Kandapar to whom the Coromandel traditions connects to Saint Thomas.
The highly documented study of A. E. Medlycott in 1905, the thesis of Fr. Dalhmann SJ in I912, and the articles of J. N. Farquhar in 1926, have effectively contributed towards lessening the suspicions of the critics about the Apostolate.
The presence of Saint Thomas in North West India doesnot exclude his South India mission. The Acts tells the departure of Saint Thomas from the court and kingdom of Gundaphares in order to continue preaching the Gospel in some other part of the India. This journey of the Apostle according to Farquhar, must have been connected with the Kushans invasion of the Indus valley, which occurred about AD 50.1
It is therefore quite possible that when driven away by the invaders, Habban, the kings merchant and his friend Saint Thomas chose as a place of safety one of those harbors of South India, Muziris for example, where there were many Jews, Syrians, Greeks etc.
In accordance with the tradition, the Apostle probably left the mouth of the Indus for Socotra, and from Socotra he must have reached Muziris, Cranganore.
Mazdai, in whose Kingdom the Apostle died could be the South Indian ruler of Pandya of the Coromandel coast who was Matsiadev , ie, King of the fish emblem as he was called. The name of the person seen in the Acts do not as a whole appear as Indian or South Indian might be due to the romantic nature of the Acts.
Medlycott believes that details given by the Acts on the life at Gundaphares’s court are better fitted to a Maharajah’s court than to the residence of a Parthian prince.2
Medlycott ( 1905), AC Perurnalil ( 1952), Vath ( 1925), Hambye ( 1952), Farquhar ( 1926), Dahlmann ( 1912) are some of the detailed studies published about this.
2. Early references about the Apostolate of Saint Thomas in India
Besides, a number of fragmentary passages in other writings of the third, fourth and the following centuries speak about the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas. From the fourth century onwards the major Churches are unanimous in their witnessing to the tradition.
The early references St. Thomas in India are chronologically: 3rd century: Syriac Acts of Thomas (C. 200), Clement of Alexandria, Syriac Doctrine of The Apostles. Origen (c. 2.41, quoted in Eusebius); 4th century: Amobius ( 305), Eusebius of Caesarea ( d.340), Ephrem ( d.373), Gregory of Nazianzus ( d.389), Cyrillonas ( 396), Ambrose ( d.397), De Transitu Mariae. 5th century: Gaudentius of Brescia ( d. after 406), Jerome ( d.420), Theodoret of Cyrus ( 427), Paulinus of Nola ( d.431), Martyrologium Hieronymianum, Balai ( c.460). 6th century; Jacob of Sarug (d. 521), Passjo Thomae (c.550), Gregory of Tours (d. 594);. 7th century; John of Saba (c. 630), Isodore of Seville (d. 636) etc.3
Following are these references arranged chronologically. All these testimonies are of a date prior to the commencement of the Malayalam or Kollam era, i.e. A. D. 825. Many of these belong to centuries immediately following the first Ecumenical Council of 325 AD.4
I.The Acts of Judas Thomas Century: 2nd/3rd (c. 180-230) Church represented: Syrian Sources.
Gist of Testimony : The Apostles cast lots as to where they should go, and to Thomas, twin brother of Jesus, fell India. Thomas was taken to king Gondophoros as an architect and carpenter by Habban. The journey to India is described in detail….After a long residence in the court he ordained leaders for the Church, and left in a chariot for the kingdom of Mazdei. There, after performing many miracles, he dies a martyr.
II. Clement of Alexandria Century: 3rd (d.c. 235) Church represented: Alexandrian/Greek Biographical Note : Greek Theologian, b. Athens, 150. After conversion, and touring Italy, Syria, and Palestine taught at the oldest centre of sacred science in Christian history viz. The Catechetical School of Alexandria where he succeeded his teacher Pantaenus. Defended orthodoxy against Gnosticism.
Gist of Testimony : Clement makes a passing reference to St. Thomas’ Apostolate in Parthia. This agrees with the testimony which Eusebius records about Pantaenus’ visit to India.
III . Doctrine of the Apostles Century: 3rd Church represented: Syrian Sources.It may be termed the primitive Manual of Catechism of the Church, representing its early usages, customs and belief.
Gist of testimony : “After the death of the Apostles there were Guides and Rulers in the Churches…..They again at their deaths also committed and delivered to their disciples after them everything which they had received from the Apostles;…(also what) Judas Thomas (had written) from India”.
“India and all its own countries, and those bordering on it, even to the farther sea, received the Apostle’s hand of Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the Church which he built and ministered there”. In what follows “the whole Persia of the Assyrians and Medes, and of the countries round about Babylon…. even to the borders of the Indians and even to the country of Gog and Magog” are said to have received the Apostles’ Hand of Priesthood from Aggaeus the disciple of Addaeus (Cureton, pp. 32, 33, 34).
IV. Origen Century: 3rd (185-254?) quoted in Eusebius, cf. infra Church represented: Alexandrian/ Greek Biographical Note : Christian Philosopher, b-Egypt, Origen taught with great acclaim in Alexandria and then in Caesarea. Edited the Bible in six parallel Hebrew and Greek versions (the Hexapla). Many other works including his theological De principis and his polemical Contra Celsum.
Gist of Testimony : He is the first known writer to record the casting of lots by the Apostles. Origen’s original work has been lost; but his statement about Parthia falling to Thomas has been preserved by Eusebius. “Origen, in the third chapter of his Commentary on Genesis, says that, according to tradition, Thomas’s allotted field of labour was Parthia”.
V. Eusebius of Caesarea Century: 4th (d. 340) Church Represented: Alexandrian/Greek Biographical Note : Eusebius of Caesarea or Eusebius Pamphill, Greek historian, wrote Ecclesiastical History in 10 books.
Gist of Testimony : Quoting Origen, Eusebius says: “When the holy Apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over all the world, Thomas, so the tradition has it, obtained as his portion Parthia….”
VI. Ephrem Century: 4th Church Represented: Syrian.
Gist of Testimony : Many devotional hymns composed by St. Ephraem, bear witness to the Edessan Church’s strong conviction concerning St. Thomas’s Indian Apostolate. Some lines from St. Ephraem appear in Medlycott’s translation elsewhere in these pages. ,
There the devil speaks of St. Thomas as “the Apostle I slew in India”. Also “The merchant brought the bones” to Edessa. In another hymn apostrophising St. Thomas we read of “The bones the merchant hath brought”. “In his several journeyings to IndiaAnd thence on his return, All riches, which there he found, Dirt in his eyes he did repute when to thy sacred bones compared”. In yet another hymn Ephrem speaks of the mission of Thomas “The earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate”. “A land of people dark fell to thy lot”, “a tainted land Thomas has purified”; “India’s dark night” was “flooded with light” by Thomas.
VII. Gregory of Nazianzus Century:4th (d. 389) Church Represented: Alexandrian/Greek Biographical Note : Gregory was born A. D. 330, consecrated bishop by his friend St. Basil; in 372 his father, the Bishop of Nazianzus induced him to share his charge. In 379 the people of Constantinople called him to be their bishop. By the Greeks he is emphatically called “the theologian’.
Gist of Testimony : “What? were not the Apostles strangers amidst the many nations and countries over which they spread themselves?…Peter indeed may have belonged to Judea; but what had Paul in common with the gentiles, Luke with Achaia, Andrew with Epirus, John with Ephesus, Thomas with India, Mark with Italy?”
VIII. Ambrose of Milan Century:4th (d. 397) Church Represented: Western Biographical Note : St. Ambrose was thoroughly acquainted with the Greek and Latin Classics, and had a good deal of information on India and Indians. He speaks of the Gymnosophists of India, the Indian Ocean, the river Ganges etc. a number of times.
Gist of Testimony : “This admitted of the Apostles being sent without delay according to the saying of our Lord Jesus… Even those Kingdoms which were shut out by rugged mountains became accessible to them, as India to Thomas, Persia to Mathew..”
IX. St. Jerome (342- 420)
“He (Christ) dwelt in all places: with Thomas in India, Peter at Rome, with Paul in Illyricum.”
X. St. Gaudentius ( Bishop of Brescia, before 427)
“John at Sebastena, Thomas among the Indians, Andrew and Luke at the city of Patras are found to have closed their careers.”
XI. St. Paulinus of Nola (d. 431)
“Parthia receives Mathew, India Thomas, Libya Thaddeus, and Phrygia Philip”.
XII. St. Gregory of Tours (d. 594)
‘Thomas the Apostle, according to the narrative of his martyrdom is stated to have suffered in India. His holy remains (corpus), after a long interval of time, were removed to the city of Edessa in Syria and there interred. In that part of India where they first rested, stand a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed. This Theodore, who had been to the place, narrated to us.’
XIII. St. Isidore of Seville in Spain (d. c. 630)
“This Thomas preached the Gospel of Christ to the Parthians, the Medes, the Persians, the Hyrcanians and the Bactrians, and to the Indians of the Oriental region and penetrating the innermost regions and sealing his preaching by his passion he died transfixed with a lance at Calamina…a city of India, and there was buried with honour”.
XIV. St. Bede the Venerable (c. 673-735)
“Peter receives Rome, Andrew Achaia; James Spain; Thomas India; John Asia.
3. Which India meant ?
Several places such as Ethiopia, Arabia Felix etc once went by the name India. One can not exclude South India any way from this India. The South India in particular was known to the early Greek and Romans. Number of Roman coins, even those of the Republican period are occasionally discovered in Malabar and other parts of South India.5
Saint Jerome and Saint Ambrose had knowledge about the customs of the Brahmins who certainly were inhabitants of South India. Saint Ambrose, morever describing the journey of a Thebean says that he reached “ Muzirim totius Indiae citra Gangem emporium”. Muziris, was none other than Cranganore on the Malabar coast as is clear from early Roman and Tamil writings. The IXth century martyrology of Usuard ( Idibus Juli ) distinguishes the India of Bartholomew from the India of Thomas which latter, it says “ is on the confines of the wolrd” where “Thomas was pierced through”.
Saint Ephrem, Saint Gregory Nazianzus, Saint Ambrose, Gaudentius, Saint Jerome, Paulinus of Nola, several ecclesiasticl calenders, martyrologies and other works explicity connects Saint Thomas with India so much so that Dr. Mingana says for the Syrian and the Christian Arab writers, India and Thomas are synonyms.6
4. About the Indian Tradition of Saint Thomas and Records of the tradition.
The Indian traditions of the Apostolate of Saint Thomas consist of a combined tradition of Kerala, Mylapore/ Coromandel, and the East-Syrian Church. Some details of this combined tradition may be found in a few songs (e.g. the Rabban Song and other such songs), which now exist in written records. These records in the present form cannot be traced farther back than the eighteenth or the seventeenth century. The people of Kerala undoubtedly possessed a rich oral tradition, which was reflected fully or partially in their folk songs and even in written records. And all these various vehicles of tradition were available in the sixteenth century to the inquisitive Portuguese. They made ample use of these sources to put down their accounts in the form of letters, depositions, and well-composed histories. Such accounts went on accumulating during the whole of the sixteenth and well into the seventeenth centuries. They are today the richest, and perhaps the earliest written sources of Indian tradition on the mission of Apostle Thomas in India, his death, burial and tomb in Mylapore.7
The Portuguese accounts are more comprehensive and they drew freely on the oral tradition, folk songs, accounts and Syriac books, which the community possessed at that time. Almost all the local accounts, especially the Syriac books, were burnt by the Portuguese authorities during and after the Synod of Diamper.
The Portuguese gathered almost exhaustively the local traditions about St. Thomas and his Christians. From the time of their discovery of the tomb in Mylapore (1517) they were extremely careful to record whatever they heard from the people of the place. In 1533, at the order of the Portuguese king, an official inquiry was conducted which brought to light most of the local traditions. The Portuguese put these on record. Today there exist a wealth of information in various documents of which the following are of primary importance:8
A letter written by Manuel Gomes, one of the visitors to the tomb in 1517: which he penned it from Mylapore itself. The report of the inquiry of 1533. A letter from the citizens of Mylapore (called by the Portuguese as Sao Tome at the time of the composition of the letter). A few letters of Miguel Vas and of Francis Xavier are some of them.
These information from these primary sources may be supplemented with the descriptions given by such writers as Barbosa (1918-21), Barros (1777-78), Calado (1957), Castanheda (1551), Correa (1560-63), Gomes (1926), Gonçalves, D. (1955), Goncalves, S. (1957-62), Andrada (1540), Osorius (1571), Dionysio (1578), Monserrate (c. 1579), Valignano (1583), Maffei (1747), Andre de Santa Maria (1598-99 and 1601), Lucena (1600), Ros (1601 and 1604 and 1586/Hausherr (1928), Gouvea (1606), Couto (1603-11), Ramusio (1550). There are also a few other documents, like the gift deed donating the Little Mount to a certain religious order, letters of Ruy Vicente (1581), D. Leitao (1581), and A. Boves (1599). Also writings of later missionaries like Montforte (1751), Soledade (1705), Paulo de Trindade (1962-67), Sebastiani, Paulinus etc.
Many of these documents are published by J. Wicki ( 1948) and Silva-Rego ( 1947). Studies based on these are published in English by Schurhamrner (1957) and Mundadan.( 1970).
In general these documents are faithful records of what the Portuguese saw and heard. Still they are not free from some preconceived ideas of the writers and their own interpretation of the actual findings, and so we find it difficult at times to distinguish this biased interpretation from fact.9
Several attempts have been made to convert the oral tradition into writing. Bernard’s Malayalam history of the St. Thomas Christians contains a good deal of the oral tradition. L.W. Brown and Card. Tisserant reproduce some of it. Hambye, Placid explored this sources more systematically.
5. Further references about Saint Thomas Christians
The Chronicle of Seert states that in 300, Bishop David of Basra visited India, traveled the country and won converts. The Council of Nicea had an attendance of 318 Bishops and out of this one was from India. At the Council of Nicea during the writing of the Nicene Creed in 325 AD, Mar John, Archbishop of India In his signature to the decrees of the Council, gave his title as “Prelate of Metropolitan of Persia and the Bishop of Great India.”
In 340-360 AD ( 7th century ?) Thazhekad sasanam granted special privileges to the Nasranis. The edict was written on stone and provides proof of the early existence of Nasranis in Kerala.
Theophilus (surnamed the Indian), an Arian, sent by Emperor Constantius (about 354) on a mission to Arabia Felix and Abyssinia is another earliest account which draws attention to the Christians of Malabar coast. He had been sent when very young a hostage a Divoeis, by the inhabitants of the Maldives, to the Romans in the reign of Constantine the Great. His travels are recorded by Philostorgius, an Arian Greek Church historian, who relates that Theophilus, after fulfilling his mission to the Homerites, sailed to his island home. He visited other parts of India, reforming many things — for the Christians of the place heard the reading of the Gospel in a sitting, etc. The people referred to were the Christians known as a body who had their liturgy in the Syriac language and inhabited the west coast of India, i.e. Malabar.
“And thence he journey to other parts of India and did much to improve the church practises there- ie, in external customs: for example the custom of congregation to remain seated during the reading of the Gospel lessons and similar points in ritual. But with respect to doctrine he found nothing needs correction “
Ephrem the Syrian ( ca. 306 – 373) who is venerated by Christians especially among Syriac Christians throughout the world writes many hymns, poems and homilies about St. Thomas mission in India.
“‘Blessed art thou, like unto the solar ray from the great orb; thy grateful dawn India’s painful darkness doth dispel.
‘Thou the great lamp, one among the Twelve, with oil from the Cross replenished, India’s dark night floodest with light.”10
The facts relating to the Apostle St. Thomas evangelization of India are not attested only by the one individual, Ephrem the Syrian, but carry with them the assent of a whole Syrian Church, that of Edessa. A long public tradition in the church at Edessa honoring Thomas as the Apostle of India resulted in several surviving hymns that are attributed to Ephrem, copied in codices of the 8th and 9th centuries. References in the hymns preserve the tradition that Thomas’ bones were brought from India to Edessa by a merchant, and that the relics worked miracles both in India and at Edessa. A pontiff assigned his feast day and a king erected his shrine.
Moreover, as these hymns in great part became incorporated in the Liturgy of the Syrian Church, and were sung in that Church, first at Edessa, they have received the most emphatic support a Christian people can give to facts, the knowledge of which regards them in some special manner. The Thomas traditions became embodied in Syriac liturgy, thus they were universally credited by the entire Eastern Christian community there.11
The Early Church Fathers Clement, Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Rufinus wrote of the deeds of St. Thomas and support the traditions of the Mesopotamians and Christians of St. Thomas. Those who refer to Thomas in India include St. Ephraim, St. Gregory of Nazainzus, St. Gaudentius, Jerome, St. Paulinus of Nola, and St. Gregory of Tours.12
Cosmas Indicopleustes [Indicopleustes is Latin for ‘Indian Navigator’], who traveled to south India between 520 and 525 AD. He wrote about his experiences in 535. Cosmas documents the existence of large Christian communities in southern India, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Socotra. He states:
“Even in the island of Taprobane in Inner India where the Indian Sea is, there is a church of Christians, with clergy and a congregation of believers… And such is also the case in the land called Male where the pepper grows. And in the place called Kalliana there is a bishop appointed from Persia, as well as in the Island of Socotra in the same Indian Sea.13
The Bishop of Tours in his In Gloria Martyrum, a work which he revised in 590, writes ‘Thomas the Apostle, according to the narrative of his martyrdom, is stated to have suffered in India. His holy Remains (corpus), after a long interval of time, were removed to the city of Edessa in Syria and there interred. In that part of India where they first rested, stand a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed”14
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, relating the events of the early history of England, mentions that the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings who ruled over Southern England also venerated the memory of the Apostle of India and showed himself grateful for benefits received by his intercession. While King Alfred was defending the city of London, besieged by the heathen Danes, he made a vow to send gifts to Rome and to Apostle shrine in India. It was in fulfilment of this vow that King Alfred sent an Embassy with gifts to Rome, and to India to the Shrine of the Apostle:
‘The year 883. In this year the army went up the Scheldt to condé, and they sat down one year. And Marinus, the Pope, then sent lignum Domini [a relic of the Cross] to King Alfred. And in the same year Sighelm and Aethâlstan conveyed to Rome the alms which the king had vowed [to send] thither, and also to India to Saint Thomas and Saint Bartholomew, when they sat down against the army at London; and there, God be thanked, their prayer was very successful, after that vow.’
The embassy of Alfred in 833 CE described the Syrian Christians as being prosperous and enjoying high status in the Malabar coast.
The history of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Infancy Gospels has an old reference about the Apostate in India,
“And the apostle Thomas, after he had taught the Indians, and the Chinese, and the Cushites, and [ the people of ] all the islands near and far, having crossed the sea in his [ journeys to ] preach, was one day preaching in India, when the Spirit revealed Himself in his heart saying, “O Thomas, rise up and go unto Jerusalem, and see the Virgin before she departeth from the world …”15
Indian Christians have also left us important accounts of southern India and its Christians. John the Indian ( also called as the Archbishop of India ) arrived in Europe in 1122 and told of miracles associated with St. Thomas that occurred in the land of India.16
In 1167, Rabbi Benjamin of Toledo unintentionally retraced the steps of St. Thomas in a voyage across Assyria and Babylonia on his way to India. He wrote of his quest to visit the Jews of the eastern lands. He describes southern India and the Jews that reside there as being “black.”17
John of Montecorvino, an Italian traveled from Persia they moved down by sea to India, in 1291, to the Madras region or “Country of St. Thomas” where he preached for thirteen months and baptized about one hundred persons; his companion Nicholas died. From there Monte Corvino wrote home, in December 1291 (or 1292), the earliest noteworthy account of the Coromandel coast furnished by any Western European. Traveling by sea from Meliapur, he reached China in 1294, appearing in the capital “Cambaliech” (now Beijing)18
Marco Polo also visited southern India and the Saint Thomas Christians. Marco Polo repeats the Saint Thomas’ visit to India, and also mentions visiting the place where he was buried in India in his writings Il Milione. Marco Polo traveled throughout India and the Far East from 1271 until 1292. He may have visited India in the year 1288 AD. Concerning the tomb of Saint Thomas, Marco Polo says, “The body of Saint Thomas lies in the province of Malabar in a little town. There are few inhabitants, and merchants do not visit the place for there is nothing in the way of merchandise that could be got from it, and it is a very out – of – the-way spot. But it is a very great place of pilgrimage both for Christians and Saracens [Moslems]. For I assure you that the Saracens of this country have great faith in him and declare that he was…a great prophet and call him Aariun, that is to say ‘Holy Man’ “
The houses as well of Saint Thomas the Apostle have commenced to be occupied by some Christians who are looking after the repairs; they are situated at a distance from our aforesaid Christians (of Malabar) of about twenty-five days,57 and stand in a city on the sea named Meliapor, in the province of Silan, which is one of the provinces of India.’19
Marco Polo also recounts the veneration of Saint Thomas in south India and miracles ascribed to him by the Mar Thoma people. He recounts another version of the death of Saint Thomas, which is very similar to the death of Krishna who while meditating in the forest is struck dead by the stray arrow of a hunter. Marco Polo states Thomas was accidentally killed by a Hindu in such a manner.20
A Syriac codex preserved in the Vatican archives, written in Cranganore in 1301 AD, refers to the Apostle Thomas as the founder of the Indian Church.
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. He also maintained that there are Christians and Jews scattered around and there is persecution against them by heathens.21
Friar Odoric of Udine who arrived in India in 1321 witnessed these Christians of St.Thomas. He visited Malabar, touching at Pandarani (20 m. north of Calicut), at Cranganore, and at Kulam or Quilon, proceeding thence, apparently, to Ceylon and to the shrine of St Thomas at Maylapur near Madras. He writes he had found the place where Thomas was buried. He mentions that beside the tomb of St.Thomas, there are fifteen houses of the Christians .22
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.23
Jordan Catalani a French Dominican missionary and explorer in Asia known for his “Mirabilia” describing the marvels of the East. In 1329, he furnished the best account of Indian regions and the Christians , the products, climate, manners, customs, fauna and flori given by any European in the Middle Ages – superior even to Marco Polo’s.24
In 1347, Giovanni de’ Marignolli visited the shrine of St Thomas near the modern Madras, and then proceeded to what he calls the kingdom of Saba, and identifies with the Sheba of Scripture, but which seems from various particulars to have been Java. Taking ship again for Malabar on his way to Europe, he encountered great storms.25
Another prominent Indian traveler was Joseph, priest over Cranganore. He journeyed to Babylon in 1490 and then sailed to Europe and visited Portugal, Rome, and Venice before returning to India. He helped to write a book about his travels titled The Travels of Joseph the Indian which was widely disseminated across Europe26
Nicolò de’ Conti is another Venetian merchant and explorer who traveled to India. He visited “Pacamuria”, “Helly” and Vijayanagar and capital of the Deccan before 1555. It was in India that he coined the phrase ‘Italian of the East’ to refer to the Telugu language, which he found had words ending with vowels, similar to Italian. He went to “Maliapur” on the east coast of India (modern-day Mylapore, in Chennai), where he visited the tomb of St. Thomas, who in Christian tradition is recorded to have founded a Christian community there. In his writing in 1469, he describes the tomb of St.Thomas as, “The body of St. Thomas lies honorably buried in a very large and beautiful church; it is worshiped by Christians and inhabit this city [Mylapore] to a number of a thousand. These Christians are scattered over all India, in like manner as are the Jews among us”
Ludovico di Varthema, is another Italian traveler and writer who visited Malabar in 1504, he describes the society, manners and customs of Christians of Malabar, as well as the topography and trade of the city, the court and government of its sovereign (the Zamorin), its justice, religion, navigation and military organization.27
“ In this city [Quilon] we found some Christians of those of St. Thomas, some of whom are merchants and believe in Christ, as we do. They say that every three years a priest comes there to baptize and that he comes from Babylon.”28
An Italian letter written from India at the same time continues to praise the devotion of Christians of Malabar Coast “In this kingdom [Cochin] there are many Christians converted by St. Thomas, whose apostolic life their priests follow with great devotion and strictness. They have churches where there is only the cross….From these people our men learned that the body of St.Thomas lies 150 leagues from Cochin, on the seacoast, in a city of small population called Mylapore.”29
Portuguese trader Duarte Barbosa in 1513 visited Malabar coast and his Portuguese transcript give a varid account of the Chrisitans in this coast.30
Several non-European accounts of India have been preserved written by Jews, Muslims. Arab and Jewish travelers to India lived among the St. Thomas Christians and wrote about their experiences. Accounts in Arabic travel narratives, like the one by Ibn Battuta (who lived in Malabar from 1342 till 1348), Amr ibn Matta (AD 1340) and Mafazzal ibn Abil Fazail (AD 1358), testify to the early traditions of the missionary journeys of Saint Thomas and the presence of a strong Christian community in India.31
The legends of Prester John of the Indies, popular in Europe from the 12th through the 17th centuries, told of a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient. Written accounts of this kingdom are variegated collections of medieval popular fantasy. Reportedly a descendant of one of the Three Magi, Prester John was said to be a generous ruler and a virtuous man, presiding over a realm full of riches and strange creatures, in which the Patriarch of Saint Thomas resided. He was immortal, wealthy and powerful and also eager to join with Europe to fight a crusade against the Muslims. The legend of Prester John had three historical sources; the Saint Thomas Christians of India, the Christian Empire of the Ethiopian Coptic Christians, and the Nestorians of Mongolia and Central Asia and these attracted the Europeans to India.
Since the arrival of Portuguese we have a number of records as mentioned above in the form of letters, reports and short histories. These are more comprehensive and drew freely on the oral tradition, folk songs, accounts and Syriac books, which the community possessed at that time.
6. Statements of prominent Indian Statesmen
“You may be surprised to learn that Christianity came to India long before it went to England or Western Europe, and when even in Rome it was a despised and proscribed sect. Within 100 years or so of the death of Jesus, Christian Missionaries came to South India by sea. They were received courteously and permitted to preach their new faith. They converted a large number of people, and their descendants have lived there, with varying fortune, to this day. Most of them belong to old Christian sects which have ceased to exist in Europe.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India (1947 – 1964) in the book “Glimpses of World History” (1934)
“Remember, Saint Thomas came to India when many of the countries of Europe had not yet become Christian, and so those Indians, who trace their Christianity to him have a longer history and a higher ancestry than that of Christians of many of the European countries. And it is really a matter of pride to us that it so happened.”
Dr. S. Rajendra Prasad, President of India ( 1952-62), from his speech at the Saint Thomas Day Celebrations in New Delhi on 18 December 1955.
“Christianity has flourished in India from the beginning of the Christian era. The Syrian Christians of Malabar believe that their form of Christianity is Apostolic derived directly from the Apostle Thomas. They contend that their version of the Christian faith is distinctive and independent of the forms established by St.Peter and St.Paul in the west. What is obvious is that there have been Christians in the West Coast of Indian from very early time. They were treated with great respect by the Hindus, whose princes built for them churches.”
“Christianity has been with us from the Second Century AD. It has not merely the rights of a guest but the rights of a native “
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, President of India (1962-67) in “East and West in Religion” ( 1958)
“Christianity in India dates back to the days of Saint Thomas, one of the original disciples of Lord Jesus. Since then, it has flourished here and added a new dimension to India’s rich cultural heritage. With deep root in the soil, Indian Christianity has developed an independent personality of its own- Christian in religion, Oriental in worship and Indian in culture. This local character has been sustained, and enriched over the last many centuries”
Giani Zail Singh, President of India (1982 – 1987) , from his speech on October 26, 1983, inaugurating the Paurastya Vidyapitham, Vadavathoor, Kottayam.
7. Statements of Religious Leaders
“This is a Church of most ancient Oriental Rite, which according to ancient tradition, goes back to the preaching of the Apostle Thomas: and in fact the Malabar faithful are even today designated by the title “Christians of Saint Thomas”
Pope John Paul II, on August 31, 1980
“It is an honor and special grace for me to come to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Thomas the Apostle here in Madras. As so many pilgrims before me have done, I too come to venerate the Tomb of the Apostle to India. This holy place speaks of the history of the Church in this beloved land. It calls to mind, not only Saint Thomas and his martyrdom, but all the others after him who have dedicated their lives to the preaching of the Gospel, all those who have borne witness to Christ both in word and in deed.”
Pope John Paul II on his vist to India in 1986, at the Thomas Shrine, Madras – 5 February 1986.
Pictures 1] Clement of Alexandria 2] Origen 3] Eusebius of Caesarea 4] Ephrem 5] Gregory of Nazianzus 6] Ambrose of Milan 7] St. Jerome 8] St. Isidore of Seville
Note – The studies published on the different texts and passages about the Apostolate of Saint Thomas in India are, Medlycott – “ India and the Apostle Saint Thomas ( An enquiry, with a critical analysis of the Acta Thomae” ( 1905), AC Perurnalil SJ- “ The Apostles in India, Fact or Fiction” ( 1952), Vath SJ – “Der Hl Thomas Der Apostle Indiens. Ein Untersuchung uber den historishen Gehalt der Thomas- Legende” ( 1925), Hambye SJ- “Saint Thomas and India“ ( 1952), J N Farquhar – “The Apostle Thomas in North India“, “The Apostle Thomas in South India“, J Dahlmann SJ – “ Die Thomas- Legende und die altesten historischen Beziehungen de Christentums zum fernen Osten” ( 1912).
The Portuguese accounts published from Portuguese archives about the Indian tradition and records of the Indian tradition are – Dr. Silva Rego “ Antonio da, Historia das Missoes do padroado Portugues do Oriente, India Vol I ( 1500-1542)” “ Anonio da, Documentacao para a Historia da Missoes do Padroado Portugues do Oriente”, India 12 Volumes ( 1947) , Wicki Joseph SJ- “ Documenta Indica “ 7 Volumes, Rome ( 1948) , Schurhammer SJ “ Franz Xaver, Sein Leben und seine Zeit” “ Die Zeitgenesischen Quellen zur Geschichte “ “ Epistolae S Francisci Xaverii” “ Historia seraphica da Ordem dos Frades Menores des “.
Mundadan “ Traditions of Saint Thomas Christians” ( 1970) The arrival of Portuguese in India and Saint Thomas Christians under Mar Jacob 1498-1552” ( 1967) and Schurhammer SJ “ The Malabar Church and Rome during the early Portuguese period and before” ( 1934), “ The mission work of the Jesutis in Muthedath and Porakad in 16th and 17th centuries” ( 1957) are some of the studies based mainly on these documents.
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Last Update July 17th 2009
- J N Farquhar, “ The Apostle Thomas in South India” [↩]
- A E Medlycott “ India and the Apostle Thomas “ [↩]
- Mundadan- “Sources for the history of the St. Thomas Christian church in the pre-diamper period by Mathias [↩]
- George Menachery – “The St.Thomas Christian Encyclopedia” [↩]
- In 1947, 80 Gold and Silver Roman coins were obtained from Eyyal, a village near Cranganore. These are now at Government Museum Thrichur [↩]
- Placid- “ Thomas Christians” [↩]
- Mundadan, – “Sources for the history of the St. Thomas Christian church in the pre-diamper period” [↩]
- Mundadan, – “Sources for the history of the St. Thomas Christian church in the pre-diamper period” [↩]
- Sources for the history of the St. Thomas Christian church in the pre-diamper period by Mathias Mundadan [↩]
- Hymns on paradise: St. Ephrem the Syrian, Breviary Clement David [↩]
- India and the Apostle Thomas- A.E. Medlycott [↩]
- The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India and Articles – Prof George Menachery [↩]
- The Indian Christians of St. Thomas,Leslie Brown, P- 68. [↩]
- In Gloria Martyrum, Bishop of Tours [↩]
- The history of the Blessed Virgin Mary, P-105 [↩]
- The Quest for Eastern Christians, 117-121 and Neill, A History of Christian Missions, Rogers,P- 122 [↩]
- Christians in Asia Before 1500, Gillman and Klimkiet, P- 164 [↩]
- The Mongols and the West, Jackson, Peter (2005 [↩]
- The Travels of Marco Polo (New York: Penguin Books, 1958), Marco Polo and Rusticello of Pisa, P- 274 [↩]
- The Travels of Marco Polo, Marco Polo and Rusticello of Pisa P- 276. [↩]
- Odoric of Pordenone (Nendeen, Liechenstein, 1967), Henry Yule, trans. Cathy and the Way Thither vol. II ,P-142. [↩]
- Odoric of Pordenone (Nendeen, Liechenstein, 1967), Henry Yule, trans. Cathy and the Way Thither vol. II. [↩]
- Dawn of Modern Geography, iii, C. R. Beazley,215-235 [↩]
- Dawn of Modern Geography, iii, C. R. Beazley,215-235 [↩]
- Historia Tartarorum ecclesiastica, part i., Mosheim p. 115 [↩]
- The Quest for Eastern Christians, Rogers, P- 117-121 and Neill, A History of Christian Missions, Neill , P-122. [↩]
- Historia Tartarorum ecclesiastica, part i., Mosheim p. 115 [↩]
- Christians in Asia Before 1500, Gillman and Klimkiet P-175 [↩]
- The Quest for Eastern Christians: Travels and Rumor in the Age of Discovery (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, Francis M. Rogers, (1962), P-122. [↩]
- The Book of Duarte Barbosa by M. Longworth Dames [↩]
- Christians in Asia Before 1500, Gillman and Klimkiet,, P-164. [↩]