This paper has been published as a chapter in the book The Way of Life.
M T Antony, Saint Thomas Cross: A Religio-Cultural Logo of Saint Thomas Christians, The Way of Life, a Festschrift in Honour of Prof. Dr Varghese Pathikulangara, CMI, pp. 237-270, Denha Services Publications 2011, ISBN 978-93-81207-00-0
Cross is a universal symbol of Christians all over the world.Primitive Christian groups used the image of fish as their symbol. Sign of cross was reported to be used by primitive Christians by Tertullian (b AD 160). Early in the third century, Clement of Alexandria mentions Cross as the symbol of the Lord.1 It was from the 4th century the cross was emerged as the public symbol of Christians. It is considered that Cross is a post Constantinian development after the “exaltation” of Holy Cross.2
Cross was an instrument of punishment before it became a sign of Christianity. Romans and Greeks executed people on crosses. Cross symbol was used by humans even from the Neolithic period. Swasthika was used by people of Indo Europen origin like Indians Persians Slavs, Celts and Greeks.3
There are different types of Christian crosses exist in the world used by different ethnic and cultural groups. Gaelic cross is such a religio- cultural symbol found among the Celtic people. Gaelic crosses are excavated in the places where Celtic people live.
St Thomas crosses are unique among St Thomas Christians only. These were named Crosses of Saint Thomas by the Portuguese missionaries as they found these crosses widespread in almost all of Saint Thomas Christian churches. Antonio De Gouvea and Duarte Barbosa give good account of the widespread use of these Crosses in South India.
This cross is the most ancient Christian emblem yet discovered in India.4
Cross in Thomasine Christian tradition
According to St Thomas Christian tradition, The Apostle Thomas planted crosses in the Christian communities he established. Acts of the Apostles doesn’t comment about any such acts by any Apostles despite the author of Acts of the Apostles, St Paul who himself being a champion of the power of Cross.(1 Cor.1:17, Gal.6:14)The early Roman catacombs have no symbolism of Cross.
The Syriac Christian tradition developed a rich symbolism and use of the Cross.5 ”Acts of Thomas describes the Apostle performing miracles with a simple sign of cross. This may be a retrojection of later developments to the apostolic times. The Cross occupies a prominent place in the East Syriac tradition, especially in liturgy. Since the Syriac word for cross, sliba means both the cross and the crucified, there is ample scope for compressing multi level meanings in hymns on the cross. The syriac liturgy of hours is particularly rich in this. The symbolism of cross gained prominence in the Syriac tradition earlier than it did in the other traditions”.6
East Syrian Church had a great veneration of the cross. They even considered the sign of the cross as one of the sacraments .7 As far back as in even AD 250, East Syrians erected crosses at their tombs.8 This shows that East Syrians venerated cross very early. St Helena was a Syriac Christian who discovered the wood of the true cross. This could have been due to the fact that her church venerated the cross.9
Mar Thoma Sliva- Saint Thomas’ Cross- A religio cultural symbol.
Saint Thomas’ Cross or Mar Thoma Sliva is the religio cultural symbol of Saint Thomas’ Christians. This cross was the only object venerated in the Churches of Saint Thomas Christians when the Portuguese missionaries arrived. The most popular and the most ancient model is that of the Cross found at Mylappore- the Mount Cross. This is an ancient cross discovered by the Portuguese in the ruins of the Church at Saint Thomas mount in AD 1547.
It is well documented that the Christians of St Thomas did not have anything other than their Cross in their churches. The only archaeological evidence left about the antiquity of St Thomas Christians is the number of Persian Crosses found scattered in South Asia. There are 6 such crosses found in Kerala. They are two in the Great Church of Kottayam- Kottayam Valiya palli of the Knanaya Diocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobite Church), one each in Ruha d’ Qudisha Forane Church at Muttuchira and Garvasis and Proctasis Church, Kothanalloor under the eparchy of Pala and Saint Mary’s Church Alengadu, under the eparchy of Ernakulam- Angamaly all are of the Syro Malabar Church, one at St George Church Kadamattom of the Syrian orthodox Church (Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church). The others in the region are found in Chennai- the Mount Cross found in the Saint Thomas Mount at Mylappore, Agasim in Goa and three such crosses found in Sri LanKa, one at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanca kept in the museum of Anuradhapura, one at Kotte and another at Gintumpitiya (Saint Thomas’ Town), Colombo, both are lost now.10
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This widespread distribution of similar crosses with lotus and dove in this region signify the common religio cultural heritage of the Saint Thomas Christians in the region.
Crosses in South East Asia
Similar Crosses are also found in South East Asia and China. All these show similar design with the empty eastern cross standing on lotus.11
Monasteries decorated with East Syrian crosses dated seventh century and a coin with east Syrian Church cross set in a ring of pearls found in Samarqand. East Turkestan , Turfan, Dunhuang, are also places where similar crosses were found.12
Crosses are found in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet also. In Shatschukul, a cross with Tibetan inscriptions and a figure of Dove and in Lhasa, a large iron corn measure decorated with a Nestorian cross was found.13
A copper cross on marble tablet was dug up in Malacca before AD 1613. It was found in the ruins of an underground house of bricks, like a hermitage, and it was of the shape of the crosses of the knights of Calatrava-a Greek cross in gules with fleur-de-lis at its ends. It was supposed to have belonged to some Christians of Mylappore who had come to Malacca with merchants of Coromandel. The Malacca cross, suggested to the Portuguese a comparison with the cross of about AD 650 on St Thomas Mount, Mylappore. Doubtless, it was a Persian cross as at Mylappore.14
In a cave at Kyanzittha, near pagan, Burma, in what is now a Buddhist shrine, there is a fresco with 9 crosses of a simple pattern: 8 crosses occupying the petals of an eight petalled lotus and the central cross lying in the cup.15
Taxilla cross is a cross pendant found in Taxilla in Pakistan but there are arguments that it is a pre Christian symbol.Several pre Christian coins are found in the region with similar cross embossed.16
Accounts of different authors
Gouvea – Cross of Saint Thomas
Antionio de Gouvea was an aide of Arch bishop Dom Alexis de Menesis. Menesis took notes of what he saw and heard during his visits to different Saint Thomas Christian communities. Compiling these notes, Antonio de Gouvea published a book in AD 1606 ‘Jornada of Dom Alexis De Menesis’ which contain a mine of information about sixteenth century Malabar. Gouvea was the first who named these crosses, ‘Crosses of Saint Thomas’.
Gouvea reports that the old churches of Saint Thomas Christians were built like the temples of the gentiles but all full of crosses like those of the miracles of Saint Thome ( Mylappore), which they call Cross of Saint Thomas.17 This is the most ancient account of Saint Thomas Crosses in Kerala. The original words used by Gouvea is “Cruz de Sam Thome”-meaning Cross of Saint Thomas.18
Duarte Barbosa was a Portuguse traveller who came to India with Cabral in 1501. When Cabaral left Malabar with Joseph the Indian and others, Barbosa started exploring the country. Barbosa has written a lot about Christians in Malabar. He reports “ they say mass on altars like ours with a cross in front of them. And he who says mass is in the middle of the altar, and those who assist him are at the sides”19 Again, Barbosa describes the ancient church at cape Comorin- “At this cape Comory there is ancient church of Christians, which was founded by the Armeninas, who still direct it, and perform in it the divine service of Christians and have crosses on the altars”20
These paragraphs clearly state the situation of Saint Thomas Christians just before the arrival of Portuguese. It is assumed that Barbosa completed his book by 1514-1517 period. He has clearly documented the crosses in our churches and our devotion to the cross. If you read this together with Gouvea, it is evident that these crosses are those of Mylappore. Barbosa also talks about the tradition of martyrdom of Apostle Thomas at Mylappore.
The narrations of Joseph the Indian
Joseph the Indian describes about the churches of Saint Thomas Christians in AD 1501 and reports that they have only crosses in their churches. The Latin text clearly states that there are no statues. Joseph also mentions about a big cross at the foundation of the churches- the open air rock cross.21
A M Mundadan describes that the Portuguese missionaries of the 16th century found that the Churches of the Saint Thomas Christians had no statues, but only crosses, without the figure of Jesus. They had it in Gold, silver, wood and granite stones. The Our lady of Mercy Church at Quilon, where Mar Sabor was buried, had three altars, each having a cross on it , a golden cross on the central altar and silver crosses on the side altars. One of these silver crosses was given to Captain Albuquerque as a gift to King Manuel of Portugal in AD 1503.22
Lotus, Dove and Cross
The salient feature of these crosses is lotus on the bottom and dove on the top on a decorative cross without the figure of Jesus. Crosses with the figure of Jesus- the crucifix became popular only by 12th century in the Latin Church.23 The ancient Christian communities used the cross as an emblem without the figure of Jesus.
The emblem of cross has been considered very important by the primitive Christian community. The cross has been considered the sign of Jesus. ‘And then the sign of Son of man will appear in the heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.( Matthew 24:30)
The East Syrian liturgy of hours says that the sliba will be held by Gabriel on the day of last judgement. The Latin church liturgy says the sign of cross appear in the sky on the day of second coming of Jesus. Mar Epharaim considered the sliba as a sign that appear before the second coming of Jesus. Luke says ‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”(Luke 24: 26) From these, we can see that the Cross is a sign of salvation in Mishiha. Cross reminds us about the victory of Jesus over death. It is the sign of eternal life. The whole theme of the Jesus’s incarnation was salvation- eternal life. It was the victory of Jesus and salvation- eternal life, not the death on cross was the central theme of the faith. That was the reason why crucifix was not used in the primitive church. Later, in Latin Church, by the influence of piety on the sufferings of Jesus, Crucifix was evolved.24 As all know, different statues and Crucifix came to India by Portuguese missionaries and they forcefully introduced these to Saint Thomas Christians replacing our religio cultural symbol, the Cross of Saint Thomas’ Christians. The proof for this is seen in the legitimate attempts of mutilation of many of the Saint Thomas Crosses.
Lotus has been considered as a symbol of Budhism and it became the symbol of India itself due the influence of Budhism especially during the time of Ashoka.It symbolises purity also. We can see many Indian Gods standing on lotus in various art forms.
Lotus and Cross is the main theme of most of the ancient crosses found in the Chineese provinces.25 In one of the Chineese crosses, fire or a flame also seen on the top.
The dove depicts the Holy Spirit. Dove and cross is a popular design in the ancient church. A dove descending onto a cross is seen on the sarcophagus of Arch Bishop Theodore who died in AD 691, in Ravenna in Italy26. In the Apse mosaic of Saint John Lateran, Rome, show an empty cross with a dove descending beak first onto it.27 Professor Gensichen of Heidelberg suggests that the cross and dove iconographic tradition of south India conforms with the mainstream Christian tradition of that time.28 John F Butler discusses the cross and dove in his paper ‘Further thoughts on the South Indian Crosses’ he describes a 15th century orprey showing the father seated in a shrine within the top arm of the cross and a dove descending from his lap with the beak almost touching the INRI titulus which is immediately above the son’s head, in Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester. Another orprey shows a dove descending onto the titulus of the cross above the son’s head.kept in the At gallery of the Corporation of Burnley. These shows the dove as the Holy Spirit in the Trinity of Father, son and the dove.29
Symbolism and Inculturation in the Cross of Saint Thomas
The Cross of Saint Thomas is the best example of Inculturation. This is a Cross evolved in Indian culture.
Symbolism of various elements
The elements of the Cross of Saint Thomas Christians have been analysed by various scholars. Rev Dr Varghese Pathikulangara, describes the Mar Thoma Cross with his immense knowledge in East Syriac theology, as a dynamic symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the Indian context. It proclaims the theological, Christological, Pneumatological, Eschatological and ecclesiological specifications of Christian faith as the Thomas Christians practice in India. He considers this cross as an invaluable historical data of the living faith of authentic Saint Thomas Christians.
The empty cross in imitation of the empty tomb symbolises the resurrection of Jesus. The blooming buds at the ends of the four arms of this cross symbolises the new life that is restored to man in the resurrection of Jesus.
The descending dove symbolise the Holy Spirit. As Saint Paul teaches, Holy Spirit transforms Jesus’ flesh body into Spirit Body and thus vivifies the dead Jesus Christ. (Rom 8, 11)
The lotus on the bottom shows the Christian faith erected on Indian culture. The three steps on the bottom of the lotus signify the gogulta, the Calvary.30
Comparisons with Indian art
The Mount Cross shows two pillars on either side with a round arch on the top. Jyothi Sahi, a Christian artist observed that this arch belongs to the well known torana type, also found in Buddhist and Hindu art. This arch springs from the opened mouth of an aquatic monster known as makara. The proto type of the makara torana can be seen in famous Kailasanadha temple of Ellora. Here, in a pillared chamber, the three river goddesses Ganga, Saraswathi and Jamuna are exquisitely carved under a makara torana against the background of rich floral designs.31 In Ellora, the makara are sitting on the capitals while in Mount Cross, they sit on an abacus(plate)which is laid on the cushion. This type of Cushion capital with abacus can be seen in Mahabalipuram and at Vaikuntha Permal and Kailsanadha temples in Kanchipuram which are assigned to the middle of the eighth century , being built by the pallava dynasty.32 Thus, it is clear that the Saint Thomas Cross encircled by the makara torana is an early perhaps the earliest example of inculturated Christian art in India.33 This is clearly an inculturated Christian monument of authentic Thomasine Christians of South India.
Iconoclasm by the Portuguese missionaries
The Portuguese missionaries tried to get rid of this ancient monument and traditions of Saint Thomas Christians to replace it with the Western Christianity. Despite their force and might, the Church of Saint Thomas Christians was successful in keeping their apostolic experience of Christianity handed down from their forefathers. It is evident that the Portuguese missionaries destroyed or abandoned these crosses in our community deliberately to keep the Catholic Syriac community away from their memories of their ancient traditions to make them in conformity with the Latin rite after the Synod of Diamper and were replaced by the Crucifix introduced by the Portuguese missionaries. We can see that the Saint Thomas Crosses at Goa and Muttuchira are found mutilated. The cross at Kothanallor was made invisible by covering it by plaster, (but it became visible when the plaster started falling away from the granite cross). The cross at Alengadu was just abandoned in the ground and was found accidentally. Surprisingly, the original Cross found at Saint Thomas Mount was preserved by the Portuguese as it has sweat blood and played miracles. It has to be noted that there were no Saint Thomas Christian community at Mylappore at that time and hence, preserving it would not cause any consequences for their proselitysation efforts where as in Malabar, it will cause the community to go back to the old East Syriac heritage. The crosses at Kottayam were preserved well in the altar as the Church there was not under the control of the Portuguese missionaries.
Saint Thomas’ Christians’ Cross or Manichaen Cross ?
There has been deliberate attempts from a section in the Syro Malabar Church to portrait the Saint Thomas’ Cross as Manichaen cross. I think these were part of the group politics in the church in the 1990s.
Manichaen theory and Burnell
The Manichaen theory came into the arena from A C Burnell who was an archaeologist. Burnell studied about the Pahlavi inscriptions in India. Burnell proposes that the earliest Christian settlements in India were Persian, not Syrian as Pahlavi was the language in Persia until AD 650. He argues that it was Gnosticism and Manichaeism that was prevalent in Persia not Christianity and hence he proposes that the so called early Christians in Kerala were Manichaens. He has based his arguments on certain references about Manichaen missions to Hind and Sin from Manichaen epistles, witness of Cosmas Indecapleutes in AD 6th century about presence of Persian Christians and Persian Bishop, presence of Pahlavi language in different crosses and Copper plates. In a nutshell, Burnell’s argument is that as the early so called Christians were Persian, they should be Manichaens as Christianity in Perisan empire was vogue during the period of Sassaninas. Burnell Published his article in AD 1874 in Indian Antiquary. There was a series of discussions in Indian Antiquary with different arguments from Col H Yule-Indian Antiquary Jan 1875 p8-10, Richard Collins – Indian Antiquary May 1875 pp153-155, Burnell’s reply in June 1875 pp181-183, Collins again in Oct 1875 pp 311-314. From these articles, it seems that Burnell disagree with the St Thomas’s Apostolate in India and accuses that it was the Roman Catholic missionaries who supported the local legends about Saint Thomas, the Apostle to make it a history. He agrees that the inscriptions on these crosses are not Manichaen but Christian itself and argues that those were made to convert the Manichaens. He interprets the inscriptions as “who is the true messiah and God above and Holy Ghost”. Burnell wrote, ‘This statement appears intended to contradict the Manichaen doctrine that the crucified messiah was the son of a poor widow, and not Jesus. If these Pahlavi inscriptions were Manichaean, they would be in a different character. It seems to me, not unlikely, however, that relics of the manichaens may yet remain to be discovered on the west coast of the peninsula where they once were very numerous’.34
But even after 135 years, so far we have not seen any of those relics of Manichaeism yet. From these, Burnell agrees that these crosses were Christian crosses with Christian inscriptions meant to convert the earlier Manichaens to orthodoxy by the so called Nestorians who came later. He again argues that Nestorians would not have used Pahlavi language but the use here is meant for the earlier Manichaens!
Persian Christian monument- Collins
Collins argues against it and states that Burnell’s interpretation of the cross inscriptions itself are not Manichaen but Christian and they simply connect the Malabar Christians with Persia during some time in the Sassanian dynasty. There are Syrian documents which tell us that the Christians of Malabar were early connected to urrhoi or Edessa and those are enough to account for any amount of Persian antiquities now discoverable, without the supposition that the only Persian arrivals were manichaens. Collins also discusses about Burnells argument that manigramams were manichaens and declares that “there may indeed have been Manichaens in South India and in Ceylon; but I do not think we have found any certain trace of them at present, and we shall most certainly be mislead if we begin to look up all the word beginning with mani”. He concludes that the manichaen origin of Christianity in South India, then, is a thorough miserrimus dexter and we may safely shelve the subject till the ‘relics of manichaens’ actually do come to light.35 Burnells’s main argument for Manichaen theory was that, as Manichaens were stronger and Christians were very vogue in existence in the Sassanian kingdom during the period, the Persian settlers should be manichaen. Fr Jacob Kollamparambil comments that Burnell’s understanding of Persian Christianity and its history is defective.36 Fr Kollamparabil writes that Christianity in the Persian empire from the early centuries was much different from what Burnell wrote. Under the Sassanian rule from 3rd century to 8th century, the East Syrian Church had gathered considerable strength in Persia proper, Khuzistan, Babylonia, Adiabene, and Mesopotamia. Towards the end of the Sassanian rule, , before the Isalmic conquest, in the middle of the 7th century, the Metropolitan Province of Riwardushir alone in Persia had grown into a super province having 18 suffragan eparchies.37 Even though Manichaeism was favoured in Sassanian rule under Shapor I (AD 240-273), it had lost the favour and under Bahram-I (AD 274-277), Manichaens were persecuted and Mani was executed.
After Burnell- Collins dispute in Indian Antiquary, the Manichaen theory was refuted and discredited and became dead among scholarly historians and many new articles were published from scholars the gave strong evidence of the presence of the Church of the East in Persia and its connections to India .38
Pahlavi- the language of Persian Christians
Church of Rewardashir of Fars was one of a definite stream of the East Syrian church with its own culture. The Indian church was under the Metropolitan of Fars until the time of Patriarch Timothy I . The Metropilitanate of Fars had some differences from the Patriarcate of Ctesiphon based on the usage of Pahlavi language, besides issues like ordination of Bishops and monasticism. The Church of Ctesiphon had Syriac as its liturgical language whereas Church of Fars (Persia) used Pahlavi as its liturgical language in the 5th century.39 The Bishop Ma’na of Rew Ardashir had made a Pahlavi Bible in contrast to the Peshitta Bible, in AD 420 and a copy of it had been excavated in 1966in Turfan in China. And is now kept in Berlin.40
Thus, even when the East Syrian Patriarcate was based at Ctesiphon after AD 420, Church at Fars developed into a parallel ecclesiastical centre and during the period 554- 790, Metropolitan of Fars separated his diocese from the Patriarch of Ctesiphone and himself ordained the Bishops for the six Bishoprics under him. The six towns of Bet Qatraye/ Bahraine- oman, Socotora and coastal south west India were also under the Bishopric of Pars.41 The Catholicose of East Syrian Church Isho Yab III (650-658) records that in his day, the Metropiolitan of Rew Ardashir was responsible not only for the dioceses Fars alone but also for India, a geographical concept in which he included the places between the maritime borders of the Sassanid kingdom to the country called Qal’ah in Malayan peninsula, covering a distance of 12300 parasangs.42
If Manichean, why only in India ?
Pius Malekkandathil also discusses the Manichean theory in his article Saint Thomas Christians;A historical analysis of their origin and development up to 9th century AD. He argues that it is true that some Manichaen texts speak of Manichaen missionaries travelling to India, if they were Manichaen crosses, it should have found in places, where Manichaen doctrines got wide acceptance. Since it had more lasting impact on the western church than on Indian church , these crosses should have been found more in Europe, but so far none is recovered from Europe or from the heartland of Manichaeism.43
Did Manicheans ever venerate a Cross?
Fr Jacob Kollamparambil asks, did Manichaens ever venerate a cross ? According to Manichaen principles, Jesus did not die on a cross but it was a substitute. Mani also did not die on a cross. Mani was imprisoned by Bahram I and died in the prison in chains. His corpse was pierced through with a buming torch and then mutilated. The severed head was hung up over the city gate of Bet- lapat. His remains were buries by his followers at Ctesiphon44 So, cross is nothing important to Manichaens and then why would Manichaens venerate a cross?
Religious Symbol of Saint Thomas Christians
Rev Dr George Nedungatt certifies that “The Saint Thomas’ Cross has been dubbed by some critics as manichaen, but there is no valid reason for doing so…Neither Apostolic nor Manichaen in origin, the Saint Thomas’ Cross is a beautiful and meaningful religious symbol of the Thomas Christian tradition.45
The Pahlavi inscribed Crosses found in the Indian subcontinent are grouped into two designs. Both the designs are displayed together at Kottayam valiya palli on the side altars for comparison. One with round upper border, well defined dove on the top and lotus on the bottom with pillars and arch encircling the cross where as the second group has pointed uppoer end, ill defined dove and lotus and no pillars and arch.
1 The Mount Cross- The Bleeding Cross
This is the first discovered Persian Cross. Mylappore has been considered as the site of martyrdom and the burial place of saint Thomas the Apostle . Saint Thomas’ Christians had a tradition of annual pilgrimage to Mylappore from ancient times.Marco Polo in AD 1293, wrote that the body of Saint Thomas the apostle lies in this province of maabar in a ‘little town’ , John of Monte Carvino AD 1292-1293 wrote that he stayed in the country of India wherein stands the church of Saint Thomas the Apostle for thirteen months and baptised people and buried his companion in the church of Saint Thomas. Yule’s Cathay reports Blessed Oderic (AD 1324-25) visiting Malabar,( he uses the term ‘Minibar’) and then another ten days journey to Mobaar where laid the body of Thomas Apostle. . And John De Marignolli in AD 1349 visiting Columbuim- Quilon and then proceeding to visit the shrine of the Apostle Thomas in Mirapolis . Nocola De Conti (AD 1425-1430) visited maritime city names Malepur situated in the second gulf of India- Bay of Bengal-where the body of Saint Thomas is honourably buried .46 Narrations of Joseph, the Indian (AD 1501)confirms that Saint Thomas’ Christians go to Mylappore on pilgrimage where the body of Saint Thomas is buried.47 Duarte Barbosa also reports the prevailing tradition in AD1514 that Mylappore was the site of martyrdom and the tomb of Saint Thomas the Apostle.48 This proves that the tradition about Mylappore was present even before Portuguese.
When the first Portuguese arrived there, there was no building, only foundation walls that rose above the ground about 1 cubit, stretching east to west. The first Portuguese missionaries built a small oratory on this foundation in AD 1523.Later, in 1547, they decided to build a larger church and when they dug found another foundation, also east to west on the Tuesday 23/03/1547 which was unknown. They continued digging down and at 3 cubic, they found the ‘Holy Stone’. This stone was of the size of a mile stone with the cross engraved on it, facing down with fresh blood stains on it. This narration was taken by a Bishop from the elders of the area and from the writings of Nuno Luis and from others and publish49
The cross has raised edges and is round on the top. The Pahlavi inscriptions are on this round edge with a small cross in between two parts of the inscriptions. The cross inside is surrounded by two pillars and an arch surrounding it. The arch originates from the open mouth of something like an aquatic creature.
The cross has three steps on the bottom, three downward facing petals and upward facing floral petals looks like a lotus on which the cross is erected. The cross shows the arms ends in a bud pattern. The bottom arm a bit longer than the rest. A dove is seen facing downwards on the top arm. The entire structure is like a niche in which the cross and pillars are carved.
Kottayam Valiyapalli Crosses- 2 in number
Two similar crosses are found in Kottayam Valiya palli, on either side altars. The one on the south alter is exactly similar in design to the Mount cross but the one on the north alter is a bit different. These are the two different designs of Persian Crosses found in the Indian subcontinent.
2 Cross at north altar. (Left side)
This cross is smaller with a pointed border compared to the round upper border of the Mount cross. The pillars and arch are not seen.
The border around the cross is pointed, and the Pahlavi inscription is over the edge of the slab outside the border. The petals on the bottom of the cross is different from that of Mount Cross. They are mainly directed downwards with a small bud upwards on either ends. The arms of the cross are almost equal in length, but the ends show an additional button. The dove on the top is smaller, not very clear; it may be interpreted as a dove or even a flame.
This cross is considered to be the older one among the two.
3 Cross at the south altar.(Right side)
This is larger and the design is identical to the Mount cross. Four arms are almost equal in length but ends shows an additional tongue shaped structure besides the three button/bud design. In the centre where all the four arms meet, there is a circular floral design. The dove is well defined and clear. On the bottom, three steps are clear, the downward facing petals are more like concentric semicircles but the upward facing petals are similar to mount cross floral arrangement.
The Pahlavi inscriptions are on the raised round edges of the slab on the top. There is additional East Syriac inscriptions are also seen on the bottom raised edge of the slab. Below the syriac inscriptions, there are 5 or 6 floral design seen. Above this whole design, another small cross similar to mount cross with two peacocks kissing the ends of the side arms and a floral decocoration above it. This part is not well visible now as it is covered by the wooden decoration of the church altar but described by Joseph Vazhuthanappalli and other authors.50
4 Kothanalloor Cross.
This is found at the Gervasis and Prothasis church at Kothanalloor of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church. This church was believed to be founded by Persian Bishops Mar Sabour and Afroath in AD 826. Mar Sabour and Afroath were two twin brothers. This cross was found on the northern wall of the church covered with plaster on 14/09/1987.51 This seems to be a deliberate attempt to hide away the cross. Now, the cross is installed in a small chapel outside the church near the presbytery. It is believed that the original church was in Pallikkunnu and when they moved to the present site, the cross was installed on the side wall and probably someone deliberately wanted to cover it with plaster to remove the memories of Mar Sabour and Afroath. When the synod of Diamper declared Mar Sabor and Afroath as heretics and commanded all the churches dedicated to Sabour and Afroth should be rededicated to all saints. As the community was resilient to give up the twin saints popularly known as Kantheesangal, (syriac word kantheesangal means holy men) the missionaries found another twin saints from Milan – Saints Gervais and Prothasis who lived in AD 160-180 and were martyrs and renamed this church after them, but the name Kantheesangal continued. This seems that the people were tricked by installing a set of different twin saints in the same name Kantheesangal.
This cross is similar to the smaller cross at Kottayam Valiyapally with pointed upper border but no inscriptions. The three steps are seen, the petal arrangement below the cross is identical to the smaller Kottayam cross. Four arms are equal in length and ends show the additional bud on the three button arrangement which is projecting into the raised border. The dove on the top is not very clear, it is small and can be interpreted as a flame or fire.
5 Muttuchira Cross
This was found in Ruha’D Qudisha Forane Church, Muttuchira of the Syro Malabar Catholic church. The history and details of this cross is well described on a granite slab in vattezhuthu which is lying neglected on the surrounding of the church!
This cross is similar in design to the smaller cross at Kottyam Valiyapalli and Kothanalloor crosses, but the border is not pointed, but rounded. There is no pillar or arch, the Pahlavi inscriptions are seen on the round edge.These inscriptions are seen partially mutilated raising the suspicion that it was also subject to destruction by authorities.
The design of the cross is similar to the Kothanalloor cross- equal arms, design of the petal arrangements below the cross, and the dove is inconspicuous, like a flame or fire.
The Muttuchira rock inscriptions in vattezhuthu tell us about installation of this cross in AD 1580 by Mar Simon, a Chaldean Bishop. It is not clear whether it was a re-erection of an old cross.
6 Alengadu Cross
This is found near Saint Mary’s Forane Church at Alengadu, of the Syro Malabar Catholic church. This cross was abandoned and was lying like a mile stone. It was identified only in AD 1931 and is installed in a roadside chapel near the church.
This cross is similar to the smaller cross of Koottayam valiyapally. There is no arch and pillars. The border is pointed and there are Pahlavi inscription on the border. The dove is small and inconspicuous seen like a flame or fire.
7 Kadamattom Cross
This cross is found on the south wall of the altar of the Syrian Orthodox Church at Kadamattom. This cross is in a niche with two pillars and arch surrounding the cross. Pahlavi inscriptions are on the raised edge of the niche as in Mount Cross. The four arms are equal in length. The dove does not show definite anatomy of a bird, it could be a fire. The petal arrangement on the bottom of the cross is similar to Mount cross. The steps are clear. On the bottom of the niche, where we see the syriac inscriptions in Kottayam valiyapalli cross, there are five vertical lines seen as five small pillars. There is an oblique grove connecting the second and third lines making it like N, make it read as INRI, but the R is not clear. If it is INRI, it may be a later addition after the arrival of Portuguese.
8 Goa cross- Agassim cross
This was discovered by Fr Cosme Costa SFX, an archaeologist cum historian of the Pilar Society of Goa accidentally on 27th of April 2001. This was found in a mound of Rock in a thicket in the premises of Saint Peter’s chapel at Dandiin Agaism at the fag end of the old port of Gopakapattana. This was actually the base of granite cross of Latin design- plain cross- which had crumbled down around 1995 on a cyclonic storm and was neglected since then. This Persian cross was hidden inside the mound and had come out and was about to fall into the sea. This was a granite slab with a Persian cross similar to the Mount cross- the two pillars and the arch encircling the Persian cross in a niche carved in granite. The round edge of the upper part shows the same Pahlavi inscriptions. The cross is similar to mount cross with dove above, three steps and the petal arrangement as in mount cross, equal armed cross with ends like a bud.
There was a Portuguese inscription on the bottom of the niche. This cross was broken and only 4/5th of the cross were found. Hence half of the Pahlavi inscriptions are lost. The Portuguese inscriptions runs like this- ‘…A DE s.TOME…..DO R….ILEZ VS…..642…..’which has been interpreted as ‘A deS (Sao) Tome…do R(Regiao?) Ilez (Ilhas?) vs (Vizinhas?)…642(1642)’ It could be roughly translated as That which belongs to Saint Thomas’ (Christians?) from the region of (the neighbouring) islands (Tiswadi) 1642’ .
This cross is unique in that we can see the evidence that this Persian cross was destroyed and put in the mound and erected a Latin cross instead o the same site.52
8 Kaduthuruthy cross
Ths is seen on the baptismal font at Kaduthurythy valiyapalli. It is of 9th century AD. I have not seen this cross personally. The information is from Fr Jacob Kollamparambil’s article in the Christian orient.
There are two crosses found at Changanacherry valiyapalli.
One at the open air rock cross and the other inside the oldest church, on the left side of the new church. The cross has four steps on the bottom, There is no figure of Jesus, and there is a dove on the top as descending down and on either sides, there are two doves kissing the ends of the cross.53 There is a similar cross at Kottayam Cheriya palli also, on the front of the church, above the archdoor that opens into the portico. Here, instead of two doves on either side, we can see two peacocks on either side.
Above the larger cross of Kottayam valiyapalli also, we can see a similar design, with two peacocks on either side, but that is now hidden in the decorative wood work of the altar.
The story told by these Pahlavi crosses
On detailed analysis, we can see that these Pahlavi crosses reveal a mine of very interesting information. It tells us the tradition of saint Thomas Christians and their veneration of Cross. It gives a hint that these crosses were present in the past and revived 6-7 th centuries by putting the Pahlavi inscriptions around it and made copies everywhere. It also tell us the story of Iconoclasm by the Portuguese.
The Pahlavi crosses at Mylappore and Kottyam were kept and venerated in the church. The Pahlavi crosses in Syro Malabar churches all were seen neglected or damaged- Kothanalloor hidden in the wall covered with plaster, Muttuchira seen mutilated, Alengadu seen neglected and thrown away and found on the wayside. Only those churches which after 1663, remained with the Jacobite Syrians or under Dutch or British control like that of Mylappore could preserve the Pahlavi crosses intact.54
It is evident that all these Pahlavi crosses in South India bear same inscriptions and there are evidences that these inscriptions are unintelligent copies. CPT Winkworth has done extensive research on these Pahlavi inscriptions and concludes that the Mount cross is the original one and the rest must be copies of it.55
He found that all these crosses bear Pahlavi inscriptions but with minor differences in the letters and on careful study, found that these are unintelligent copies. He argues that a series of rubbings on paper arranged in the order to reproduce the inscriptions and while doing so, many characters were not reproduced correctly as the sculpture was illiterate in Pahlavi and many characters were mirror images as he used the reverse side of the paper or medium used for rubbings At one part, the letter was upside down. By his studies, he argues that the smaller Kottayam cross was a reasonably intelligent copy of the Mount cross, from which the larger Kottayam cross was copied and the Kadamattom cross was a very unintelligent copy of the Kottayam larger cross. This shows that by 8-9 centuries, our leaders tried to copy this cross and spread over to the whole community.
CPT Winkworth’s interpretation of the inscriptions suggest that the Mount Cross was re erected by the inscriber. His interpreted the inscriptions like this:-56
(a)‘ My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chaharbukht, the Syrian who cut this’
(b) My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chahrbukht, the Syrian who preserved this’
(c )My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of chahrbukht, the Syrian who put this around’
The interpretation (b) and (c) are amendments of (a) after studying the inscriptions on all replicas of these crosses well, analysing more clear pictures and discussing with other scholars in an international meeting which included scholars from Iran also.
On analysing the inscription itself, we can assume that these inscriptions were entered by Afras, son of Chaharbukht, the Syrian. It also says, Afras has preserved this/put it around. That means, the cross without any inscriptions was already there, and Afras found it and preserved it- put it up. Putting an inscription around a cross is not a meritorious act, but setting up a cross or preserving a neglected cross is definitely a meritorious act.57 This raises the possibility that the Mount cross was found by Afras and he preserved it in AD 650 period.
Famous Malabar Historian T K Joseph argues that ‘it may justify the supposition that the cross without inscriptions had been in existence on the Coromandel coast prior to the time of Mar Sabour Afroath who arrived in AD 825. We may also presume that on his visit from Quilon to the Mailappore tomb of Saint Thomas and the mount church or its ruins, Afras found the cross in a neglected condition and preserved it’.58 Then he or the Christians of Malabar made copies of it in Malabar and that became our tradition from AD 825 onwards until the Portuguese found and witnessed the ‘Cross of saint Thomas’ in our churches.
Several scholars have interpreted the Pahlavi inscriptions on these crosses. Burnell was the first scholar who interpreted the inscriptions.
A C Burnell– ‘In punishment by the cross (was) the sufferings of this one. Who is the true Christ and God above and guide ever pure.’
Martin Haug– ‘He who believes in the messiah and in God on high and also in the Holy Ghost is in the grace of Him who bore the pain of the cross’
E M West– (a) ‘what freed the true Messiah, the forgiving, the upraising from hardships
(b)He whom the sufferings of the self same messiah, the forgiving and upraising, has saved is offering the plea whose origin was the agony of this’
Harlez– ‘He who is the true messiah the reconciler, the resuscitator, for ever punished by virtue of the crucifixion’
Sanjana– (a) Such was the affliction of the wounding and spearing of him on the cross who was the faithful messiah is forgiver of superior dignity , the descendant of Chaharbukt’
(b) Messiah the merciful one, the descendant of the Great Abraham who was the descendant of Chahar bukht’
(c ) ‘He , of whom the faithful messiah was a foregiver was highly exalted. He was redeemed frommthe four regions of hell. This was due to the afflictions of the spearing and wounding of the messiah on the cross’
(d) ‘This was the affliction on the cross even of the messiah of jehova’
Modi– ‘ I, a beautiful bird from Nineveh, have come to this country . Written Mar Shapor I whom the Holy messiah the forgiver freed from the thorn’
CPT Winkworth– (a)‘ My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chaharbukht, the Syrian who cut this’
(b) My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chahrbukht, the Syrian who preserved this’
(c )My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of chahrbukht, the Syrian who put this around’
Gerd Gropp– ‘may our Lord the messiah have mercy on Gabriel, son of Chaharbukht, grandson of Durzad, who made this’60
May our Lord, the messiah have mercy on Sabriso, son of Caharboxt the deft, who sculpted this’61
Saint Thomas Crosses are really inculturated Crosses of Saint Thomas Christians of Malabar and is the Religio cultural logo of the authentic Saint Thomas Christians. This glorious Cross is the living sign of Jesus’ victory over death, sin and sufferings. It is a symbol of risen Jesus. It denotes the tree of life, stem of Jesse, staff of comfort(Holy Spirit), Ark of Noah(Church), sign of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and that of Christian perfection- sum total of old and new testaments.
It is not a statue. It is a symbol of our tradition. Let us pray our Lord to guide us to keep the Apostolic experience of Christ received in our cultural milieu to pass over to our future generations and to become the authentic witness of our Apostolic heritage and the catholicity of the universal Church.62
Photograph of Agassim cross is taken from the book ‘Apostolic Christianity in Goa and in the west coast’ . Thanks to Rev. Fr. Cosme Jose Costa for permission to use the image in this article.
The Title picture of Saint Thomas Cross and illustrations of lotus, cross and dove are taken from Mar Thoma Sliba wall calendar published by Denha Services. Thanks to Rev. Dr. Varghese Pathikulangara for permission to use those images in the article.
Author M Thomas Antony can be reached by email at – m dot Thomas dot antony at live.co.uk.
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