How Christianity Arrived In Kerala Through Syrian Immigrants

Representational Image of Malabar Christians of the 19th century
In Kerala, Christianity is said to have arrived while Jesus Christ's apostles were still alive.

The story of the indigenous beginnings of Christianity in India is a tale of two Thomases. One, is St. Thomas, the ‘doubting’ disciple of Jesus Christ, who is believed to have visited India in 54 A.D. The other is Thomas of Cana, who led a migration of 72 Jewish-Christian families from Syria in 345 A.D. The descendants of these families are now called Knanaya.

That India was so connected to Jerusalem in those days was no coincidence. Indo-Roman trade peaked in the first century AD. The ancient trading port of Muziris – recently unearthed from historical ambiguity – is where St. Thomas is said to have landed.

The legendary journey of Jesus’ own disciple would make India among the first countries Christianity spread to – only decades after the death of Christ. St. Thomas’ journey is cited in the very beginning of the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, and mentions his initial reluctance to visit India, saying “I am a Hebrew man; how can I go among the Indians and preach the truth?” But every disciple had a region of the world to visit, and Thomas was consequently India-bound.

His route is believed to have taken him via boat from Palestine, down the Red Sea and across the Persian Fuld, until arriving at the port of Cranganore – Rome’s pepper-supplier in India.

St. Thomas is said to have met with an Indo-Parthian King Gundapphorus, who asked him to construct a palace. But as the story goes, Thomas distributed the materials he received to the poor. Thomas’ interactions with the king are filled with miracle and legend – and were seen as mere romantic tales for centuries. No evidence of such a king existed – until a British-adventurer named Charles Masson had a chance encounter in 1833. A deserter from the Bengal European Artillery, Masson was digging around in the Kabul Valley, when he unearthed a treasure of coins. It was a haul of many ancient coins, that brought back many supposedly dead kings of ancient Indian yore back to life – including King Gundopharnes (misspelt as Vindapharna).

Syrian Christians in India by John M Barton

The St. Thomas Christians, Syriac Christians, Syrian Catholics, or Nasrani, numbered around four million as of 2008. Within them is another sect; the followers of Thomas of Cana, known as Knanaya, who number around 300,000 as of the same year. Both are followers of different churches; broadly the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church for the Syrian Catholics and the Malankara Church for the Knanaya – although there are several more divisions.

The Knanaya maintain a largely oral history of their ancient roots. But you can also find documentation of their journey, such as in one memorial from Kondungallur:

To the memory of the Knanaya Jewish-Christian ancestors who immigrated in AD 345 from Babylonia to Kodungallur.

Their customs vary with region, such as this one recorded by Richard Michael Swiderski:

A Knanaya agricultural laborer explained to me that the children of the Syrian immigrants played with the dobi’s children and spoiled her washing ashes, thus earning her curse and the ash-carrying practice. Other Knanaya insisted that the ash-tieing was in memory of the departure from Syria. Thomas of Cana’s party burned all their houses and gathered the ash into their clothing to serve as a memento of the home country.

The Knanaya famously received a set of ‘high-caste privileges‘ from a local king, described as:

Seven kind of musical instruments and all the honours, and to travel in a palanquin and that at weddings the women should whistle with the finger in the mouth as do the women of kings, and he conferred the privilege of spreading carpets on the ground and to use sandals and to erect a pandal and to ride on elephant…

The king allocated them land in the South of Kerala, as the North is said to have already been occupied by the St. Thomas Christians – whose own journey to Kerala is the earliest case of Christianity reaching India. This is why they are called the Southists, while the St. Thomas Christians are known as Northists.

Curiously, the same king listed as having donated the land – Cheruman Perumal – is also the one who granted the Jews the right to stay in Kerala indefinitely around the same period.

The result of this historic migration is the survival of a language you would imagine to be unlikely, buried in the deep reaches of the South-West corner of India – Syriac. It’s a language spoken for at least 11 centuries before Christ and was the language Christ and his disciples spoke in. The churches of the Syrian-Christians and Knanaya alike utilize Syriac and Malayalam in equal measure.

St. Thomas’ journey also had an extremely significant consequence – resulting in the first recorded journey of an Englishman to India. Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Alfred sent a Bishop Sighelm from Sherborne to meet St. Thomas in India. The Bishop returned years later carrying precious stones and perfumes from the country. Could this have sparked the British thirst for India?

This, while the Jews of Cochin – not too far away from Kodumbalur – use Hebrew, and the Muslims recite from the Quran in Arabic. India’s oldest mosque – the Cheramanjuma Masjid – is also among the first to be built outside of the Arabian peninsula. Be it of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, all religions of the world found an all-embracing place in God’s Own Country – Kerala.

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