Saint Thomas Christian crosses
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Saint Thomas Christian crosses are ancient crosses which belonged to the ancient community of Saint Thomas Christians of Indian sub continent who trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Saint Thomas in the 1st century thus making it one of the oldest Christian communities of the world. Saint Thomas Christian crosses are broadly classified as Mar Thoma Sliva (Saint Thomas Cross), Persian Cross and Nasrani Sthambam.
Mar Thoma Slivas are found at Kadamattom, Muttuchira, Kothanalloor, Kottayam and Alangad in the South Indian state of Kerala. Outside Kerala, they are found in Goa and Tamil Nadu in India, Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and Taxila in Pakistan. Flowery Persian Crosses found at Kottakkavu, Pallipuram and Niranam. The large open air rock crosses known as Nasrani Sthambams are found at the frontage of many Saint Thomas Christian churches in Kerala. It is recorded that before the arrival of Portuguese explorers there were more than 150 Syrian churches in Kerala.
Mar Thoma Sliva
Mar Thoma Sliva is a Syriac term which means 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"
Locations of Mar Thoma Sliva
The crosses are at the following locations,
- St. Thomas Mount, Tamil Nadu: The Cross is at Our Lady of Expectations Church under the Roman Catholic diocese of Chingelpet (Madras-Mylapore).
- Alangad, Kerala. This Cross is at St. Mary's Syro-Malabar Church under the Major Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly of the Syro-Malabar Church. 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 Ruha d' Kudsha Church under the eparchy 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 eparchy of Palai of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
- Agasaim, Goa. The Cross is now kept at Pilar Seminary Museum. This Cross is dated of 6th Century.
- Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The Anuradhapura cross is kept at Anuradhapura museum. It was found during excavations of Anuradhapura in 1912. This cross is considered as the oldest cross in Sri Lanka.
- 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 Mar Thoma Sliva
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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Kottakkavu Mar Thoma Syro-Malabar Pilgrim Church, North Paravur and St. Mary's Syro-Malabar Forane Church, Pallipuram under the Major Archeparchy 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 has ancient flowery Persian Cross.
Nasrani Sthambams are giant open air stone crosses. 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 to name a few. These crosses are found in Puthenchira, Parappukkara, Veliyanad, Kalpparambu, Angamaly, Kanjoor, Malayattoor, Udayamperoor, Kuravilangad, Uzhavoor, Chungam, Kaduthuruthy, Muthalakodam, Muttuchira, Kudamaloor, Niranam, Arakuzha, Kothamangalam, Chengannur, Thumpamon, Chathannur and many other places.
- The Encyclopedia of Christianity, Volume 5 by Erwin Fahlbusch. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing - 2008. p. 285. ISBN 978-0-8028-2417-2.
- The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities by Orpa Slapak. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 2003. p. 27. ISBN 965-278-179-7.
- 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