Ancient crosses of India
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Two types of the stone crosses are broadly classified as Saint Thomas Crosses and Nasrani Sthambams. Nasrani Sthambams crosses are sometimes called Persian Crosses because the original Christian migrants are thought to have come from Persia.
The Saint Thomas Crosses are smaller in size and are found inside the Kerala churches at Kadamattom, Muttuchira, Kothanalloor, Kottayam and Alengad. Outside Kerala, they are at St. Thomas Mount, Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu, Pilar Seminary Museum, Goa, Anuradhapura [2 nos.] in Sri Lanka and Taxila in Pakistan.
The large crosses known as Nasrani Sthambams are found at the frontage of many churches in Kerala. There are also other flowery ancient Persian Crosses found in Kerala Churches.
These crosses represent resurrection through its various symbolisms.
Kerala has many ancient churches. It is recorded that before the arrival of Portuguese explorers there were more than 150 ancient churches in Kerala.
Saint Thomas Cross
Antonio Gouvea in the sixteenth century work, "Jornada" states that the old churches of Saint Thomas Christians were full of crosses of the type discovered from S. Thome (Mylapore). 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"
Location of the Saint Thomas Crosses
The crosses are at the following locations,
- 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.
- Kadamattam, Kerala. This Cross is at Kadamattom Church of the Oriental Orthodox Church.
- Muttuchira, Kerala. This Cross is at Holy Ghost Church under the diocese of Palai of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
- Kottayam, Kerala. This Cross is at Kottayam Valiapally (St.Mary's Knananya Church). One cross is considered of late origin (Ca 10th century).
- Kothanalloor, Kerala. This Cross is at St.Gervasis and Prothasis Church under the diocese of Palai of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
- Alangad, Kerala. This Cross is at St. Mary's Church under the diocese of Ernakulam- Angamaly of the Syro Malabar Church.
- Agasaim, Goa. The Cross is now kept at Pilar Seminary Museum. This Cross is dated of 6th Century.
- Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The cross is kept at Anuradhapura museum. It was found during excavations in 1912 Anuradhapura [2 nos]. This Cross is considered as the oldest Cross.
- Taxila, Pakistan. The cross is kept at the Cathedral Church of the Resurrection, Lahore.
Interpretation of the inscriptions
Arthur Coke Burnell, archeologist, in 1873, translated the inscriptions 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."
Prof. F. C. Burkitt and C. P. T. Winckworth, the then reader of Assyriology in the University of Cambridge studied the inscriptions and produced a translation. 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 upon Afras son of Chaharbukht the Syrian, who cut this (or, who caused this to be cut)."
On the large cross, there is this additional sentence in Estrangelo Syriac. (Galatians 6:14)
- ”May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The inscription at Kadamattom church when translated is,
- ”I, the beautiful bird of Nineveh has come to this land. Written by me Shapper, who was saved by the Holy Messiah from misery.”
Symbolism of the St. Thomas Cross
Unlike crosses in other traditions, the St. Thomas Cross does not carry the effigy of the Christ. In addition to this unique quality, each of its elements carry symbolic meanings. Generally the Cross symbolizes life rather than death and suffering.
- Lacking the effigy of Jesus, the St. Thomas Cross presages the discovery of the empty tomb, glorifying the Resurrection of Jesus
- The four edges of the cross are floral in shape, symbolizing fruition and life.
- The lotus flower beneath the cross is a symbol of Buddhism and India. A cultural adaptation of local imagery, the lotus is the national flower of India and the cross fixed on the lotus would symbolize Christianity in India in the first century. The lotus is also a Puranic holy flower, an offering to God in the Hindu tradition; anything offered on the leaves of lotus is considered to be auspicious.
- The three steps below the Cross represent Golgotha, symbolically referring to the death of Jesus
- Finally, the dove above the cross represents the Holy Spirit, the third aspect of the Holy Trinity according to the Christian tradition. It is this spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and bestows gifts upon the Church's faithful.
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The other type is a giant open air stone cross. These are called Nasrani Sthambams.
The plinth of these crosses represents lotus petals and lotus flowers and has a square base. It also has a variety of iconographic motifs, including elephants, peacocks and various other animals, depictions of the Holy Family and of the Crucifixion, to name a few. The stone cross in front of St.Mary's Forane Church, Puthenchira is more than 12 meters high.
These crosses are found in Puthenchira, Parappukkara, Veliyanad, Kalpparambu, Angamaly, Kanjoor, Malayattoor, Udayamperur, Kuravilangad, Uzhavoor, Chungam, Kaduthuruthy, Muthalakodam, Muttuchira, Kudamaloor, Niranam, Muvattupuzha, Kothamangalam, Chengannur, Thumpamon, Chathannur and many other places.
Other Persian Crosses
The Saint Thomas Kottakkavu Church at North Paravur under the diocese of Ernakulam-Ankamaly of the Syro Malabar Church and the St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Niranam under the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has ancient flowery Persian Cross.
- Vazhuthanapally, ”Archaeology of Mar Sliba”.
- "Analogical review on Saint Thomas Cross - The symbol of Nasranis-Interpretation of the Inscriptions". Nasrani.net.
- "Stone Crosses of Kerala". Nasrani.net. January 16, 2007.
- Malabar Manual by William Logan - 1996 published by Asian Educational Services
- Antonio Gouvea," Jornada of Dom Alexis de Menezes"
- On some Pahlavī inscriptions in South India (1873) by Arthur Coke Burnell, page 11
- The Journal of Theological studies (1929), P-241, NSC Network (2007)
- "St Thomas Cross". Thenazrani.org.
- Rock Crosses of Kerala, Article by George Menachery, 2000