The spirit of Christianity can be explained with reference to cross. Cross is the most common symbol of Christianity, intended to represent the redeeming martyrdom of Jesus when he was crucified on the True Cross in the New Testament.
This article is an attempt to look Thomasine Christianity through St. Thomas cross with reference to early Christian writings, traditions of Nasranis, archeological evidences and interpretations of the inscriptions.
1. Cross in Early Christianity, 2. Cross in Early Thomasine Christianity , 3. St. Thomas Cross , 3.1 Tomb of St. Thomas, 3.2 Re-Discovery of St. Thomas Cross at Mylapore , 4. Antiquity of the cross & Interpretation of the Inscriptions, 4.1 Antiquity of the cross, 4.2 Interpretation of the Inscriptions,5.Symbolism in St. Thomas Cross, 6. General Observations , 6.1 Government of India Centenary Stamp, 6.2 Indian heresy a myth , 6.3 Influence on Indigenous art, 6.4 Link with the Apostle , 7. Locations of the Cross , 7.1 Locations, 8. Some Similarities , 9.Conclusion
1. Cross in Early Christianity
A sign stood above the Cross of Jesus, indicating “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19-20) in Greek, Latin (two international languages of the time) and in Hebrew (the language of the Chosen People).
In the beginning of Christianity cross may have appeared in Christian homes as an object of religious veneration, although there is no such monument of the earliest Christian art has been preserved. This is partly due to the persecution, Christianity had to face in the initial centuries. It appears with archeological proofs that Fish was another widely used secret symbol of Christianity during those haunted days. The initial letters of the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” forms the Greek word ICHTHUS, which means “fish.” This symbol was used by believers in the early days of persecution as a secret sign of their shared faith. The discovery of a beautiful third century church in the northern Israeli town of Megiddo, near the biblical Armageddon shows archeological proofs on usage of Fish as a symbol predating the cross. One mosaics inside the church has fish symbol engraved.The Church was built in third century, decades before Constantine legalized Christianity across the Byzantine Empire. It was ransacked during the persecution years and was excavated in 2005.Public display of Fish as a symbol of Christianity during persecution days definitely shows its wide usage. (( [http://www.armageddonchurch.com/] ))
The punishment on the cross remained in force throughout the Roman Empire until the first half of the fourth century. In the early part of the reign of Constantine, he continued to inflict the penalty on the cross to those guilty of denouncing their masters. Later on he abolished this infamous punishment, in memory and in honour of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
The discovery of True Cross, the physical remnants traditionally believed to be the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified influenced Cross becoming a widely used symbol of Christianity. (( [ The cross as a Christian symbol or “seal” came into use at least as early as the second century (see “Apost. Const.” iii. 17; Epistle of Barnabas, xi.-xii.; Justin, “Apologia,” i. 55-60; “Dial. cum Tryph.” 85-97); and the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons (Tertullian, “De Corona,” iii.; Cyprian, “Testimonies,” xi. 21-22; Lactantius, “Divinæ Institutiones,” iv. 27, and elsewhere).
Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross, as may be learned from Tertullian, “Apologia,” xii., xvii., and Minucius Felix, “Octavius,” xxix. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross (see Apocalypse of Mary, viii., in James, “Texts and Studies,” iii. 118).
Nevertheless Jewish teachers in the Middle Ages declared that Christians must be believed when swearing by the cross, as, in reality, they swear by the true God (Isaac of Corbeil quoted by Güdemann, “Gesch. d. Erz. u. Cultur in Italien,” 1880, i. 90).- Jewish Encyclopedia] ))
2. Cross in Early Thomasine Christianity
The early influence of Christianity in India is greater than it is generally supposed. India has been the scene in the past for rapid and sweeping changes. Buddhism itself once held supreme sway in India but now not many Buddhists are found between Himalayas and Cape Comorin. (( There are many archeological evidences to prove the existence of a very strong Buddhist community in ancient Kerala. On the contrary you can not find any surviving Buddhist communities in South India. ))
The Nasranis of Malabar may perhaps be only a remnant of what once was a much more widely extended influence. Sian Stele stone in China, Gondophares coins, Takht-i-Bahi to the north-east of Peshawur, Pahlavi writings at the cave near Bombay, multitude of Aramaic inscriptions in northern India, the Nasrani cross at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, the ancient Nasrani cross with Pahlavi inscription at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai, the Pahlavi cross at Goa, the St. Thomas crosses through out Malabar coast, the plates and privileges Nasranis hold in possession dating from unknown period till ( ca 800) , more than 30 Nasrani Sthambams through out Kerala provides sufficient and satisfactory evidence even to the most prejudiced mind about the wide early influence of Christianity in India. (( Till 1834, questions on St. Thomas mission were around the historical figure King Gondophares. Did a king of the name of Gondophares reign over any portion of India? Was he a contemporary of the Apostolic age? Where was his kingdom situated? Was it practicable for the Apostle Thomas to have had access to it?
In the succeeding two decades, less than thirty thousand coins bearing Greek and Indian legends, and extending over a period of more than three centuries, had been found in Afghanistan and the Punjab. A large, if not the greater, number belong to Greek princes who ruled over the country as inheritors of and successors to the conquests of Alexander the Great. Another portion bear the evidence of Scythian conquerors, confirmed also by other authorities, and of Parthian kings and rulers who had become masters of these territories.
The coins of Gondophares, the king with whom we are concerned, belong to the latter category – (AE Medlycott – India and the Apostle Thomas, has a detailed analysis)-
The Acts of Thomas describes him embarking on a sea voyage to India, thus connecting Thomas to the west coast of India and his martyrdom with a king in South. Though the Acts are usually considered to be moral entertainments of a legendary nature, the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a surviving roughly contemporary guide to the routes commonly being used for navigating the Arabian Sea. At the times the Acts were analysed, and until the discovery of his coins in the region of Kabul and the Punjab, there was no reason to suppose that a king named “Gondophares” had ever really existed.
The reign of Gondophares, is now an established archeological fact. The votive inscription of his 26th reginal year that was unknown until 1872. Now it is known that his regime commenced in 21 CE, so he was in fact reigning as late as 47 CE. ))
Given the evidences to demonstrate origin of Christianity in India, it is safe to conclude that Nasranis were never an isolated sect from Christendom. (( See different articles in NSC NETWORK ))
Although the archeological evidence to prove the wide usage of Cross as a symbol starts with St. Thomas Cross, which is dated from 6th or 7th century, prior usage which has been lost or still uncovered can not be excluded completely from purview.
Theophilos the Indian, (d. 364) originally from the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean gives as one of the earliest account with respect to Christian doctrine practiced in Malabar. He mentions that nothing relating to doctrine needs correction in Malabar coast. He was an Arian bishop sent by the Roman Emperor Constantius. He visited many parts of India and reformed many things relating to custom but nothing relating to doctrine.
Considering the given evidence for existences of Prelates originating from Mesapotomia, it is safe to conclude that the usage of Cross as an early symbol of Nasranis might have been synchronous with the developments in Christendom atleast till 7th century, where the ancient the trade routes flourished. (( [ Once the Gondophares mystery was solved, skeptics has started asking the question how was travel from Mesopotamia to Malabar coast possible during the begining of Christianity ?. Are their any evidence for trade relationships or travel during or before Apostolic times ?.
Muziris (Kodungallur) and Nelcyndis or Nelkanda (near Kollam) in South India, are mentioned as flourishing ports, in the writings of Pliny (23-79 AD). Pliny has given an accurate description of the route to India, the country of Cerebothra (the Cheras). Pliny has referred to the flourishing trade in spices, pearls, diamonds and silk between Rome and Southern India in the early centuries of the Christian era. Though the Cheras controlled Kodungallur port, Southern India belonged to the Pandyan Kingdom, that had sent embassies to the court of Augustus Caesar.
Sufficient archeological evidences have been discovered during the excavations in these ancient ports. Hoards of ancient Roman coins are being discovered through out Malabar coast in the last few centuries.))
It is not clear from which century onward this cross was in constant use in the Church of Saint Thomas Christians. According to J.Raulin, up to 16th Century, the Saint Thomas Christians didnot use any other image except the Mar Thoma Cross in their churches. (( Raulin ” Historia Ecclesiae Malabaricae cum Diamperitana Synodo,394)).
3. St. Thomas Cross
It is certain that till the Synod of Diamper ie, 1599, these Crosses were venerated in the Churches of Saint Thomas Christians. Antonio Gouvea in the Sixteenth century work, ” Jornada” states that the old churches of this community were full of crosses of the type discovered from S.Thome ( Mylapore). (( Antonio Gouvea- Jornada-Original work page-162 – )).
He also states that veneration of the cross is an old custom in Malabar. “Jornada” is the oldest known written document which calls the cross as St. Thomas Cross. The original word used is “ Cruz de Sam Thome “ meaning Cross of St. Thomas. Interestingly, Gouvea writes about the veneration of the Cross at Cranganore mentioning it as “Cross of Christians”. He also writes about the tradition that this “Cross of Christians” was placed at Cranganore by St. Thomas the Apostle. We do not have any trace of this “Cross of Cranganore”. There is a probability that the “Cross of Christians” at Cranganore acted as the archaic model for all the other crosses erected in different parts of India and outside. Nothing can be conclusively said for want of further evidences. Antonio Gouvea states that only the Prelates could bless the Cross. The inscription in the cross could be referring to the Prelates who consecrated or preserved or cut these crosses.
This would mean that these Crosses were abandoned only after the Syond of Diamper. The St. Thomas Cross discovered from Goa has a Portuguese inscription in the foot meaning “ that which belong to St. Thomas, 1642”, which shows that when the Portuguese got the cross in 1642, it was an important object of veneration.
It is probable that the Crosses were abandoned or destroyed against the background of heightened tensions between St. Thomas Christians and the Portuguese, which became acute by the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653. In the process of latinization, Crucifix, which has better visual impact began to take precedence over the Cross of St. Thomas, as the latter was considered as a remnant of the past links of heresy. These Crosses might have got destroyed in all other places except Mylapore, where it was specially revered as a miraculous Cross because of sweating of blood. Other Crosses of Malabar and other places , to which no such miraculous powers was attached were destroyed by passage of time. ((Dr. Pius Malekandathil, “ St. Thomas Christians and the Indian Ocean” )) Among the non Catholic faction of St. Thomas Christians, the Antiochene Cross took the place of St. Thomas cross.
3.1 Tomb of St. Thomas
The re discovery of St. Thomas cross at Mylapore is closely associated with the tomb of the Apostle at St. Thomas Mount. A close examination of the tomb of the Apostle, is helpful in building up understanding on the historicity of St. Thomas cross. ((Since lot of skepticism has been created around the tomb of Apostle, it is worthwhile to go through some of the books written on the topic, before we consider the historicity of the tomb of the Apostle.
The following passage from AE Medlycott “India and the Apostle Thomas – an enquiry with a critical analysis of Acta Thoma” clearly outlines the skepticism and their excuses.
“ On the broad fact that Saint Thomas the Apostle according to the evidence of antiquity had preached the gospel and sealed his teaching by his martyrdom in India, it should be taken for granted that if his tomb were to be discoverable anywhere it would naturally be found with in the limits of India proper. Yet, this which in itself is but an historical aphorism, has met with the strongest opposition ever since the Portuguese first announced the discovery of his tomb at Mylapoor. This opposition has come first and chiefly from quarters which might cause an impartial historian, who patiently investigates the whole history of case, to consider the same as being rather the outcome of ‘odium theologicum’ than arising from insufficient historical evidence.
A placible excuse for the general feeling of skepticism created by these writers was, in part of, offered by the want of previous historical knowledge shown by the Portuguese authorities and writers in India who claimed to have discovered the body or the entire remains of Apostle, coupled with uncritical details.
Once the opposition view arising from the doubt regarding the tomb, was taken and ruthlessly exploited, it was extended to the preaching of the Gospel by the Apostle with in the geographical limits of India and a widely extending prejudice was formed.
It is only in more recent times, when men indifferent to that ‘odium’ or guided by their familiarity with or their long researches in India approached the subject, that they came to gradually to admit Apostle mission to India and to consider the strong historical claim of Mylapoor to be the possible site of his martyrdom and burial are not unfounded.”
The Acts of Thomas narrates the adventures of the apostle Judas Thomas as he preaches Christianity on the way to and from India. (( The narratives in The Acts of Thomas’ tells us that the Apostle Thomas, much against his will and inclination, had to undertake the work of preaching the Gospel to the Indians. To induce him to obey the mandate he had received, our Lord appeared to him in person, and sold him to Habban, a minister of King Gondophares of the Indians, who had been sent to Syria in search of a competent builder, able to undertake the construction of a palace for his sovereign.
Thomas in the company of Habban left by sea for India, which was reached after a rapid passage. Both proceeded to the court, where Thomas was presented to the king, and undertook the erection of the building. Several other incidents are narrated regarding the Apostle, mixed up with much fabulous matter; these we pass over for the present.
In the second half of the story Thomas, is in the dominions of a South Indian king, named in the Syriac text Mazdai, in the Greek version MisdatoV, and in the Latin Misdeus.
It was in this country that he brought his apostolic labours to a close by receiving the martyr’s crown.
The major Syriac witnesses of the Acts of Thomas dates to 936 C.E. the earliest Syriac witnesses to the text, a fragmentary palimpset (Sinai 30), dates from the 5th or 6th century. The major Greek witnesses date to the 11th century, although there are partial Grek witnesses dating from the 10th. Some form of the work was clearly in circulation by the end of the 4th century when testimonies begin. ))
St. Ephrem, the Syrian has several hymns in honour of St. Thomas in which, he sings of the apostle’s preaching of the Gospel in India, of the bringing of his bones to Edessa, of the honour that the Edessene church got thereby, and of the miracles wrought at the shrine. ((In one of his fourth century Syriac hymns, he has included some allusions to Thomas’s mission,
“Lo, in India, are thy miracles, O Thomas,
and in our land is thy triumph,
and everywhere our festival”
“The sunburnt India thou has made fair. . . .
A tainted land of dark people thou hast purified. . . .
More than snow and white linen,
the dark bride of India thou has made fair. . .
(and) the cross of light has obliterated India’s darkened shades.”
Presumably St. Ephrem, the Doctor of all Syrian churches and Catholic Church was speaking metaphorically, about bringing Christian light to dark Indian souls. But perhaps he was also referring to the color of skin, which would better fit many Indians of the south than those of the northwest . Quite possibly he intended both meanings.
“Blessed art thou, Thomas, the Twin in thy deeds.
Twin is thy spiritual power;
nor one thy power, nor one thy name:…
Blessed art thou, O Thrice- Blessed city,
thou hast acquired, this pearl, none greater doth India yield;
Blessed art thou, worthy to possess the priceless gem.
Praise to thee, 0 Gracious Son, who thus thy adorers dost enrich.” ( A.E. Medlycott. India and the Apostle Thomas, pp.26-27 quoted by Firth p. 6 ) ))
Thomas bones have been transferred to Edessa from the site of his martyrdom by a merchant from “India” (ca. A.D. 371).
Records show that the city’s Monophysites were voicing complaints about Bishop Hiba to the Byzantine Governor in 449 averred that Edessa was glorious in faith.
“First because of the blessing with which it was blessed by the Creator of heaven and earth…, next because it was worthy of the treasure of the bones of the Apostle Thomas who was the first to acknowledge that our Saviour is the Lord God…” (( Edessa the Blessed City, Segal, Judah. 1970 ))
In fact, Edessa became known as “the City of Thomas” . It was a strange appellation indeed Jude Thaddaeus (Addai) were the original apostolic link of Edessa. Edessan’ s always honored the Church of St.Thomas Christians as “ See of St.Thomas”.
The unbroken reference to the tomb of St. Thomas in India and specifically in Mailapur can be seen from the writings and reference of St. Gregory of Tours ( AD 590), Visit of King Alfred Embassy to the shrine ( AD 883), visit by Marco Polo ( AD 1293), visit by Friar John of Monte Corvino ( AD 1293), mentioned by Blessed Oderic ( AD 1324), visit by Bishop John De Maringolli ( AD 1349), visit by Nicole de Conti ( CA 1430) and so many others before the Portuguese came to Malabar coast. (( India and the Apostle Thomas – an enquiry with a critical analysis of Acta Thoma by AE Medlycott ))
3.2 Re-Discovery of St. Thomas Cross at Mylapore
The Portuguese conducted careful research on finding out the tomb of the Apostle after their arrival in India. They disregarded the ancient Syriac writings on transfer of St Thomas relics to Edessa and send a commission to Mylapore to enquire and do excavations on the site of martyrdom.
In 1547 while repairing a hermitage the workmen came across a granite slab with a cross with an unknown inscription. Assuming that the cross dated from the time of Apostle itself, the Portuguese and the Christians there treated it with great reverence. (( A history of Christianity in India, S.Neill, p-47-48 ))
A Brahmin scholar gave an interpretation to the inscription relating it to the death of St Thomas and the cross forming from Apostle’s blood. This interpretation was in line with the local traditions in Malabar. This is the first recorded interpretation of the inscriptions found on the cross. (( The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms, Marco Polo, Henry Yule, Henri Cordier-, P-35 ))
It became later known as the ‘Bleeding Cross’, as it has started sweating stains resembling blood which reappear even after being scrubbed off.
It first bled publicly during Qurbana held in 1557. It is reported to have sweat at a most prodigious rate upon the day of our Ladies Expectation, which being the 18th of December, in the Year 1557 and continued to have always to sweat upon the same festivity until the Year 1566. (( A short history of the church of Malabar, M Geddes ))
The Synod of Udayamperoor gave so much credit to this and it dedicated 18th of December to this memory. (( Religious Communication in India, by John V. Vilanilam ))
Kircher also reports that at a Qurbana held on December 21 for Blessed Virgin this cross changed to various colors and drips much sweat and blood. (( Latin translations of Van Tuyl, P.P Godigney ( Jesuit rector of Cochin ) ))
The last record occasion when it bled public was in 1704. Fr. Guy Tachard, a Catholic priest has recorded about this as explained by then Vicar of the Church, Fr. Gasper Coelho. (( In the steps of St Thomas, Herman D’Souza, p-61-63 ))
The story speedily developed that this was the cross which had been embraced by the Apostle and its miraculous virtues soon got great fame. The sand from the tomb was also considers to have miraculous healing powers. The belief is a long-standing one, and it has been mentioned by Marco Polo in his travel records
It was eventually set up over an altar in the church of Madonna which was afterwards erected on great Mount and there it exists even today. The church is in Latin Catholic diocese of Chingelpet.
4. Antiquity of the cross & Interpretation of the Inscriptions
4.1 Antiquity of the cross
The language used in the inscriptions are Pahlavi and Syriac script. The inscription in the cross found at St. Thomas Mount is divided in to two unequal parts by a mark like “plus” sign or simple cross. The language used in the inscription is Pahlavi. The style of the letters are of thats used in the Persian empire during Sassanian dynasty.This same inscription is found at another cross found in Kottayam. In Kottayam there are two crosses. The other smaller cross in Kottayam has a part of the same inscription. The other part of the small cross in Kottayam has a quotation from Galatians (V.14). This quotation is written in Estrangelo Syriac and this second cross is attributed to tenth century.
The essential characteristics of Pahlavi are the use of an Aramaic-derived script (i.e. Pahlavi script) and the high incidence of Aramaic words which are used as logograms or ideograms. This middle Iranian language or admixture was in use as early as from 300 BC to the fall of the Sassanid empire and (with exceptions) extending to about 900 CE. The Sassanian dynasty ruled over 226- 650 AD.
Because of the convergence in form of many of the characters, there is a high degree of ambiguity in Pahlavi writing. Many common words were replaced by their Aramaic equivalents, which were used as ideograms. Important religious texts were sometimes transcribed into the Avestan alphabet, which was phonetically ambiguous. That causes problems in reading and transliteration and was the hindrance for the scholars in arriving on a consensus on the interpretations.
Paleographers are in agreement that the style used in lettering in the crosses found in St. Thomas Mount are of 6th century. Carbon dating ( C14) also proves that the oldest of these crosses in India, ie The Saint Thomas Cross at Mylapore is from a period of 6th or 7th century. The Cross at St. Thomas church at Mylapore seems to be the oldest, which is traced back to 650 AD by C14 dating test and may be this is as old as Anirudhapuram cross. ((Dr. Pius Malekandathil, “ St. Thomas Christians and the Indian Ocean” ))
The St. Thomas crosses at Kottyam, Kadamattam, Muttuchira, Kothanalloor and Alangad are said to be of postdate period between 6th-8th centuries. It is highly probable that the copies of the cross of Mylapore, which was an important center of trade and settlement for the migrating Christians, were later made and sent to the old churches of Malabar located in interior. These crosses are considered to be copies of the Mylapore cross on the basis of the fact all these crosses carry the same Pahlavi inscription as that of Mylapore and the churches where these crosses are found were built at a lter period after 8/9th centuries ( except the Muttuchira Church ) ((Dr. Pius Malekandathil, “ St. Thomas Christians and the Indian Ocean”- as quoted from Gerd Gropp, Die Pahlavi- Inschrift, P-267 ))
The Cross discovered from Goa is dated Seventh Century, the dating is based on the evidence of the Pahlavi inscription written on the stone in the form of an arch, which evidently speaks of an origin before the Islamisation of the Indian Ocean trade in the eight century. ((Dr. Pius Malekandathil, “ St. Thomas Christians and the Indian Ocean”))
4.2 Interpretation of the Inscriptions
Due to the high degree of ambiguity in Pahlavi writing, scholars have not yet reached on an agreement on the interpretations in St. Thomas Cross. Because of the convergence in form of many of the characters, vowel usage, the interpretations were read differently.
There has been attempts to decipher the inscriptions on the cross since 1561. A number of Scholars have interpreted the inscriptions differently.
4.2.1 Interpretation by Pingali Suranna
In 1561 Portuguese invited a reputed Brahmin scholar, Pingali Suranna from the Vijayanagara kingdom to decipher the inscription. He said that the inscriptions contained no less than 36 hieroglyphics, each of which was equivalent to a sentence. His versions was as follows,
“ That at the time of the sagamo Law, Thomas, a man of God, was sent by the son of God ( whose disciple, he was ) to these parts to bring the people of this nation to the knowledge of God: that he had built there a temple and done miracles; and that finally when he was praying on his knees before that cross he had been run through with a lance by a Brahmin and that the cross was tinged with the blood of the Saint in His everlasting memory” (( Dr. Pius Malekandathil, “ St. Thomas Christians and the Indian Ocean” ))
4.2.2 Interpretation by A.C. Burnell
A.C. Burnell, was the first European to attempt a translation of the inscription in 1873. Dr. Burnell translation of the inscriptions is as follows,
“In punishment by the cross (was) the suffering of this one:
He who is the true Christ, and God above and Guide ever pure.” (( A.C. Burnell, “ Pahlavi Inscriptions in South India” in Indian Antiqury, 3, November 1874, P -313 ))
Dr. Burnell translation’s of inscription in small cross in Kottayam is as follows,
” Let me not glory except in the cross of our Lourd Jesus Christ” ( Syriac translation )
“Who is the true Messiah, and God above, and Holy Ghost.” ( Pahlavi translation )
This translation makes good sense and appropriate but not all scholars were convinced that Dr. Burnell found the true solution. From 1874, there have been attempts by a number of scholars to give different translations but were not accepted by many.
4.2.3 Interpretation by Dr. Martin Haug
Dr. Martin Haug of Munich translates it as follows,
“He that believes in the Messiah and in God in the height and
also in the Holy Ghost is in the grace of him who suffered the pain of the cross.”
4.2.4 Interpretation by Dr. C. W. West
Dr. C. W. West provided another translation in two ways as follows,
(1) “What freed the true Messiah, the forgiving, the upbraiding, from hardship ?
The crucifixion from the tree and the anguish of this.”
(2) “ He whom the suffering of the self same Messiah, the forgiving and upraising has saved, is offering the plea whose origin was the agony of this “
4.2.5 Interpretation from two different centers
In 1908, two Professors located in two different centers transalated the inscription rather similairy except one word “ Through the cross ( suffering is the word given by one of the professors) the Messiah brought salvation to the world” (( Herman D’Souza, In the steps of St.Thomas,Madras,1983, pp 60-62 ))
4.2.5 Interpretation by Prof F C Burkitt and C.P.T. Winckworth
Prof FC Burkitt and C.P.T. Winckworth, the then reader of Assyriology in the University of Cambridge studied the inscriptions and produced a new version. This has been discussed at the International Congress of Orientalists held at Oxford in 1925. The interpretation is as follows,
“My Lord Christ, have mercy up on Afras son of Chaharbukht the Syrian, who cut this ( or, who caused this to be cut )” (( The Journal of Theological studies ( 1929), P-241, “ A new interpretation of the Pahlavi Cross Inscription of Southern India” in T K Joseph, Kerala Society Papers, Vol 1& II pp 161-164. ))
This met with wide acceptance at International Congress of Orientalists and has never been radically challenged.
Winckworth has later revised his readings and interpretation as follows,
“ My Lord Christ, have mercy upon Afras, son of Chaharbukht, the Syrian, who preserved this ( cross)” (( Revised Interpretation of the Pahlavi Cross Inscription of Southern India, T K Joseph Kerala Society Papers, Vol I & II pp 267-269))
4.2.6 Interpretation by Gerd Gropp
In 1970, Gerd Gropp translated the inscriptions as follows,
“ Our Lord Messiah may show mercy on Gabriel, the son of Chaharbokht ( literally meaning having four sons), the grandson of Durzad ( literally meaning born in distant land ), who made this ( cross) “ (( Gerd Gropp, Die Pahlavi – Inschrift auf dem Thomaskreuz in Madras” in Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, Neue Folge Band 3, 1970, pp 267-271 ))
In 1997, he changed his translation as follows: “ Our Lord Messiah may show mercy over Gabriel, son of Chaharbokht. Long life may be for him who made this ( cross) “ (( Gerd Gropp, “ Christian Maritime Trade of Sasanian Age in the Persian Gulf”, in International Archaeologie, 6, 1997, p-86 ))
5.Symbolism in St. Thomas Cross
Four main elements in St. Thomas Cross are 1) Three steps at the bottom 2) the lotus ( leaf) shaped covering the steps 3) the Cross with out the figure of Jesus with fruit like appearance / projection at the four ends 4) the descending position of the dove at the summit of the cross touching it gently. (( Vazhuthanapally, Archaeology of Mar Thoma Sliba))
The symbolic meaning of the cross as given by Dr.Puthiakunnel, Dr.Pathikulangara, Dr.Mannooramparampil are,
The Cross with out the figure of Jesus and with flowery arms symbolizing joy points to the resurrection theology of St. Paul, the Holy Spirit on the top shows that Christ was risen through the work of the Spirit. The lotus symbolizing Buddhism and the Cross over it shows that Christianity was established in the land of Buddha. The 3 steps indicate Calvary and the rivulets, channels of grace flowing from the Cross. ((Dr. Geo Thadikkatt, ” Liturgical Identity of the Mar Toma Nazrani Church “- Pathikulangara, ” Liturgy- Experiances” ))
Varying degree of Indian Symbolism can be find in St. Thomas Cross. The cross rises from a lotus blossom which forms its base. Lotus is the national flower of India and it represents the ancient civilization symbolizing purity and spontaneous generation. It also symbolize divine birth. At the bottom of the cross there are three steps representing God the Father. The cross itself represents God the Son, and a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, is at the top of the cross. The lotus represents a natural inculturation with Indian civilization symbolizing divine birth. Some critiques has pointed out a Buddhist influence, as lotus is a widely used symbol of divinity in Buddhism. Some of the St.Thomas crosses in Kerala, has leaves which are downward pointing. This is indigenous. This symbolism and tradition are not find in Persian or Middle East or even in Byzantine art.
6. General Observations
6.1 Government of India Centenary Stamp
In 3rd July 1973, Government of India released picture of St.Thomas cross as a postal stamp.
6.2 Indian heresy a myth
For centuries heresy maniacs have been trying hard to give evidence to support theories of heresy among the Indian Christians in earlier century. In fact the presence of an apostolic body of Christians in the coast of Malabar was not acceptable to a large section of western historians. Since the arrival of Portuguese, many latin and protestant writers wrote volemic articles accusing the Church of St. Thomas Christians as heretics. With out any evidential support they claimed that with in the limits of the Church surrounded all hands by Heathenism, there exist Indian Nestorianism’s and many other things.
St. Thomas cross as an ancient heritage which is of a period when Heathenism was strong in other churches, clearly point that there are not even simple evidences not even to point any slight deviations from the main stream teaching of Christology. ((With out any evidences some section of Catholic priests from Ernakulam, tried linking St. Thomas cross with heresies last decade. It was done to support westernization of one faction of Nasranis by advocating for hybridization. It was a pathetic effort to use the ignorance of Nasrani’s to score mileage on power politics. A hybridization process can help to sustain and advocate for further westernization. Similar to some western writers, they accused the Church of St. Thomas Chrsitians had Manichean influence. Sadly this was being done in very un ethical manner causing anger among the entire Nasrani community against these proponents ))
One of the accusations on Church of St. Thomas Christians in early western writings was deviation from teachings on person characteristic of Christ. On a quick look at the translations of Dr. Burnell proves that nothing can be inferred from the order in which persons of the trinity are named. It is absolutely same as that of Christian apostolic benediction. Other accusations (which were of late origin in 1990’s) were related to Manichaeism. PV Mathew published five books relating St. Thomas Cross and Manichaeism. PK Mathew triggered off a controversy in 1991 by an article published in “Assisi” saying that St. Thomas cross is not Christian but Manichean and all the old crosses are Manichean crosses.These arguments basically used misinterpretations and misrepresentations of some of the statements by AC Burnell in order to make them look scholarly. These arguments kept on changing as Scholars refuted the mis represenations. These were circulated through media using periodicals, articles and leaflets. Many leaflets and articles were published on this subject by “Liturgical Action Committee” ( LAC, Ernakulam), “Vachanadhara” and “Shalom Times” along with others. In the mean time many scholars have come up with detailed scholarly studies which disproved the arguments involved ending the controversy.
In fact, Dr. AC Burnell himself in “ On some Pahlavi Inscriptions in South India” writes that “ This statement the (inscription) appears to be intended to contradict the Manichean doctrine that the crucified Messiah was the son of a poor widow, and not Jesus. If the Pahlavi inscriptions were Manichean, they would be in a different character”. (( “ Liturgical Identity of the Mar Toma Nazrani Church’ by Dr. Geo Thadikkatt. – The various arguments over the connection of Manichaeism with the St. Thomas Cross as summarized by Dr. Geo Thadikkat are under the following titles,
All of these are misrepresetations.Very detailed discussion of the invalidity of the arguments can be read in the same book.
1. The Persian Cross was adorned by Manicheans
2.What is seen under the Cross is not the lotus
2.Mani died on the Cross
3.The dove on the top of the Cross is the symbol of Mani
4.The Pahlavi langauge seen in the cross is a strong indication that the Cross is Manichean
5.The Cross was found under earth
6.Manichaeism had many followers in India, especially in South
7.The Manicheans of Kerala lived in Manigrams. ))
6.3 Influence on Indigenous art
The remarkable influence of Mar Thoma Cross
6.4 Link with the Apostle
The widely accepted interpretations are of Dr. Burnell, C.P.T. Winckworth and Gerd Gropp. “Afras son of Chaharbukht the Syrian”, as interpreted from the inscription by Gerd Gropp may be the Prelate Mar Piruz (Prodh, 8thcentury, also written as Aproito in sixteenth century writings ) . There is a tradition of associating a granite stone with St. Thomas martyrdom. Tradition is that the cross was formed on the stone by Thomas own blood. It might be that people kept the stone sacred and later on the cross was engraved on this stone. It might have happened during Mar Piruz (Prodh) time or earlier.
The sixteenth century “Jornada” is the oldest known written document which calls these cross as “St. Thomas Cross”. It seems that these crosses were known as Saint Thomas Cross during the sixteenth century. The wide usage and the finding of this cross in various ancient sites of Christians remarkably shows the reverence and veneration, this cross had in ancient time and its link the Apostle either directly or indirectly.
7. Locations of the Cross
Saint Thomas crosses were excavated from Mylapore ( Madras- Saint Thomas Mount) in Tamil Nadu, Agassaim in Goa, multiple locations in Kerala, Anuradhapura [ 2 nos ] in Sri Lanka and from Taxila at Pakistan.
In Kerala it has been excavated through out the state from, Kadamattam, Muttuchira, Kothanalloor,Kottayam [ 2 nos ] and Alangad.
The crosses are at the following locations,
1. St. Thomas Mount, Tamil Nadu– The Cross is at Our Lady of Expectations Church under the Latin Catholic diocese of Chingelpet ( Madras-Mylapore). This Cross is considered as the oldest cross in India.
2. Kadamattam, Kerala. This Cross is at St. George Syrian Church of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. This Cross was found at the southern wall of the Madbaha. The Cross is dated between 6-8th Century.
3. Muttuchira, Kerala. This Cross is at Holy Ghost Church under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church. This Cross was discovered this century during church renovation. The Cross is dated between 6-8th Century.
4. Kottayam, Kerala. This Cross is at St. Mary’s Church under the Southist diocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church. One cross is considered of late origin ( Ca 10th century) and the other dated between 6-8th century.
5. Kothanalloor, Kerala. This Cross is at St.Gervasis and Prothasis church under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church. The Cross was discovered during renovation at 1895. This Cross is dated between 6-8th century.
6. Alangad, Kerala. This Cross is at St. Mary’s church under the diocese of Ernakulam- Angamaly of the Syro Malabar Church. This is discovered in recent years by late Panjikaran.
7. Agasaim, Goa. The Cross is now kept at Pilar Seminary Museum. This Cross is dated of 6th Century. The cross has been discovered by Fr. Cosme Costa S.F.X near River Zuari at Agasaim in 2001.
8. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The cross is kept at Anuradhapura museum. It was found during excavations in 1912 Anuradhapura [ 2 nos ]. Anuradhapura, was one-time capital of Sri Lanka. Based on the available studies on this cross, it seems to be identical to Indian crosses. There is also a baptismal fonts dating 5th century discovered from Anuradhapura. This Cross is considered as the oldest Cross.
9. Taxila, Pakistan. The cross is kept at Anglican cathedral at Lahore. It was found in 1935 in a field near the site of the ancient city of Sirkap. The Taxila cross is similar in shape with a common characteristic that they are more or less equilateral. Some Pakistani scholars have pointed out similarity between Taxila cross which are dated ( ca 2-6 century) and St. Thomas cross.
8. Some Similarities
8.1 Some scholars has suggested that letters are said to resemble the letters on the Sian Stele stone in China erected in the year 781 to
8.2 The cross has similarities with different crosses used by Eastern Christians such as Si-ngan-fou-China Cross, Ravenna Italy Cross, East and West Syrian Crosses, Armenian Orthodox, Khachkar crosses. Etc ((Please read the discussion. Many thanks to John Mathew, M Thomas Antonoy and Alphy ))
8.3 These crosses also has similarity with other ancient Persian Crosses found in the Kottakkavu ( Parur) Saint Thomas Church under the diocese of Ernakulam-Ankamaly of the Syro Malabar Church and St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Niranam under the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
8.4 Nilakkal Cross- There was an ancient cross found from Nilakkal. A part of which is said to be at Kuvappalli. This came from the ruined Christian settlement of Nilakkal. It is said that it has an inscription in Roman or Greek capitals, but that is so illegible to read. The other portion of this cross left at Nilakkal was not found by Fr. Hosten when he visited the site again in 1924. ((The Author doesnot know of any studies about this Cross.It is not known if this cross has similarities or exactly same as Mar Thoma Cross ))
The Saint Thomas Cross is an expression of natural belief, heritage and simple piety of Nasranis. They were revered by Saint Thomas Christians because these Crosses were the expression of their ancient Christian faith. All the translations done by renowned authorities in Archaeology and Assyriology have discounted its relation with any profound theology or Nestorianism or Manichaeism or anything else.
Saint Thomas Cross has been venerated by all St Thomas Christians from ancient times and were treated as particularly sacred. Ancient Saint Thomas Cross through out modern Kerala attest the importance this Cross had in earlier centuries in the Saint Thomas Christian community. May be because of the link with The Apostle, this has been considered very sacred and were kept inside the Madhbaha of the Church. Jornada of sixteenth century is the earliest surviving written document which name this cross as Saint Thomas Cross.
It appears that indigenous versions of Mar Thoma Cross has been widely replicated in different forms in Nazraney Sthambams (Giant open air free standing rock crosses) and influenced in wooden sculptures and painting in old churches of Kerala. The Cross has many similarities with Crosses used by Eastern Christians and other ancient Persian Crosses found in Kerala
These crosses were originally set up by visionary forefathers, to be a witness for the churches of Malabar, Mylapore, Goa, Sri Lanka and modern Pakistan, which are separated by the breadth of a great Indian peninsula, so that in the times to come, if circumstances alienate them or annihilate either, there might remain some visible token that they are of same stock and be a beacon for the future generations.
This is the history as our forefathers desired it, splendid, magical and specific. The Saint Thomas Cross continues to be rightly venerated by all the Christians of India as it is the most ancient Christian emblem yet discovered in India. The efforts of some sections with in the Nasrani community for manipulative presentation of the history and heritage of Christianity in India need to be abandoned. ((The Mylapoor Nasranis moved to Malabar coast over the years. ( A good account can be seen in “Origin of Christianity in India by Father Benedict Vadakkekara” ) Mumbai or Kalyan is also supposed to be another ancient center with not much historical trace remaining. Modern Parkistan and Afgahnistan is another center which is not existing per see. There is also no trace of ancient Christians in Sri Linka. So far one cross has been found at Mylapoor, Six at modern Kerala, One at Goa, One at Taxila and Two at Sri Lanka.
What mysteries of the universe future unlocks is not known. Given the evidences it is safe to make a statement that their would be many Mar Thoma crosses hiding in the mud expecting an enthusiastic explorer.))
1] St. Thomas cross at St. Thomas Mount- Our Lady of Expectations Church under the Latin Catholic diocese of Chingelpet.
2] Cross at Kottayam- St. Mary’s Church under the Southist diocese of Kottayam of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
3] Old picture of St. Thomas Mount
4] Cross at Kadamattam-St. George Syrian Church of the Malankara Orthodox Church
5] Cross discovered from Goa -Pilar Seminary Museum, Goa
6] Cross at Muttuchira-Holy Ghost Church under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church
7] Cross at Kothanalloor- St.Gervasis and Prothasis church under the diocese of Palai of the Syro Malabar Church
8] St. Thomas cross Stamp
9] Floral pattern in giant crosses
10] Kottayam small cross
11) Persian Cross at Saint Thomas Church, North Paravur under the diocese of Ernakulam-Ankamaly of the Syro Malabar Church.
1.Vazhuthanapally-”Archaeology of Mar Sliba”
2.Thadikkatt-” The Cross in different traditions”
3.A E Burnell- ” Some Pahlavi Inscriptions in South India”- Kottayam Cross
4.A Mingana-” The Early spread of Christianity in India”- Muttuchira Cross
5.ASR Ayyar-” A New Persian Cross from Travancore”- Kadamattam Cross
6.T K Joseph-” Another Persian Cross in Travancore”- Kadamattam Cross
7.T K Joseph-” A Pahlavi inscription around the Cross”- Kadamattam Cross
8. Varghese Pathikulangara-”Mar Toma Sliba, Saint Thomas Cross, Short Explanation, historical and Symbolical
9.Varghese Pathikulangara- “St.Thomas Cross – The Flowery Cross”
10.E W West-” Inscription around Crosses in South India”
11.CPT Winckworth-” A New Interpretation of the Pahlavi Cross- Inscriptions of South India”
12.George Menachery- “Ancient Kerala Christian Art”
13.Geo Thadikkatt-” Liturgical Identity of Mar Toma Nazrani Church”
14. Ken Parry -“Stone crosses of Kerala”
15.George Menachery- “Rock Crosses of Kerala”
16.Gerd Gropp-”Die Pahlavi Inschrift auf dem Thomaskreuz in Madras”- Mylapore Cross
17.Herman D’Souza- ” In the steps of Saint Thomas”
Many thanks to Sandeep Thomas ( Cross at Muttuchira) , Amool Joby, John Mathew ( Cross at Goa), M Thomas Antony ( Cross at Kothanalloor) for the pictures .Many thanks to Sungeo and Angus Joseph for the suggestions.
Author can be reached on admin at nasrani dot net,
Last revised- 08/03/2009.