Saint Thomas Christians
The Mar Thoma Sliva or Saint Thomas Cross (also known as the Nasrani Menorah), the symbol of the Nasrani people
|Regions with significant populations|
Vernacular: MalayalamLiturgical: Syriac (Aramaic)
|Related ethnic groups|
|Malabar Jews, Malayalis|
The Saint Thomas Christians, also called Syrian Christians or Nasrani, are an ancient community of Christians from Kerala, India, who trace their origins to the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. The community was historically united in leadership and liturgy, but since the 17th century have been split into several different church denominations and traditions.
Historically the Saint Thomas Christian community was part of the Church of the East, centred in Persia. They were organised as the Ecclesiastical Province of India in the 8th century, served by bishops and a hereditary Archdeacon. In the 16th century the overtures of the Portuguese padroado to bring the Saint Thomas Christians into the Catholic Church led to the first of several rifts in the community and the establishment of Syrian Catholic and Malankara Church factions. Since that time further splits have occurred, and the Saint Thomas Christians are now divided into several different Eastern Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, and independent bodies, each with their own liturgies and traditions.
The Saint Thomas Christians represent a single ethnic group. Saint Thomas Christian culture is largely developed from East Syrian influences blended with local customs and later elements derived from indigenous Indian and European colonial contacts. Their language is Malayalam, the local tongue of Kerala.
- 1 Terminology
- 2 History
- 3 Socio-cultural and religious identity
- 4 Church architecture
- 5 Nasrani symbol
- 6 Saint Thomas Christians today
- 7 Caste status
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The Saint Thomas Christians are so called due to their reverence for Saint Thomas the Apostle, who is said to have brought Christianity to India. The name dates to the period of Portuguese colonization. They are also known, especially locally, as the Nasrani or Nasrani Mappila. "Nasrani" is a term meaning "Christian"; it appears to be derived from Nazareth, the home town of Jesus. Mappila is an honorific applied to members of non-Indian faiths, including Muslims (Jonaka Mappila) and Jews (Yuda Mappila). Some Syrian Christians of Travancore continue to attach this honorific title to their names. The Indian government designates members of the community as "Syrian Christians", a term originating with the Dutch colonial authority distinguishing the Saint Thomas Christians, who used Syriac as their liturgical language, from newly evangelized Christians who followed the Latin liturgy. The term Syrian relates not to their ethnicity but to their historical, religious and liturgical connection to the Church of the East, or East Syrian Church.
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|Thoma of Villarvattom · Abraham Malpan · Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar · Kuriakose Elias Chavara · Varghese Payyappilly Palakkappilly · Gheevarghese Mar Gregorios of Parumala · Geevarghese Mar Ivanios · Saint Alphonsa|
The most commonly believed tradition of origin among Saint Thomas Christians relates to the evangelical activity of Thomas the Apostle, who is said to have come to India in the middle of the 1st century. There is no contemporary evidence for Thomas being in the subcontinent, though it was possible for a Roman Jew of the time to make such a trip. Groups such as the Cochin Jews and Bene Israel are known to have existed in India around that time. The earliest known source connecting the apostle to India is the Acts of Thomas, likely written in the early 3rd century, perhaps in Edessa. The text describes Thomas' adventures in bringing Christianity to India, a tradition later expanded upon in early Indian sources such as the "Thomma Parvam" ("Song of Thomas"). Generally he is described as arriving in or around Maliankara and founding Seven Churches, or Ezharapallikal: Kodungallur, Kollam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kokkamangalam, Kottakkayal (Paravoor), Palayoor (Chattukulangara) and Thiruvithamcode Arappally (a "half church"). A number of 3rd- and 4th-century Roman writers also mention Thomas' trip to India, including Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nazianzus, Jerome, and Ephrem the Syrian, while Eusebius of Caesarea records that his teacher Pantaenus visited a Christian community in India in the 2nd century.
An organised Christian presence in India dates to the arrival of East Syrian settlers and missionaries from Persia, members of the Church of the East or Nestorian Church, in around the 3rd century. Saint Thomas Christians trace the further growth of their community to the arrival of the Nestorian Thomas of Cana from the Middle East, which is said to have occurred sometime between the 4th and 8th century. The subgroup of the Saint Thomas Christians known as the Knanaya or Southists trace their lineage to Thomas of Cana, while the group known as the Northists claim descent from Thomas the Apostle's indigenous converts; some additionally assert ancestry from Thomas of Cana through a second, Indian wife.
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As the community grew and immigration by East Syrians increased, the connection with the Church of the East, centred in the Persian capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, strengthened. From the early 4th century the Patriarch of the Church of the East provided India with clergy, holy texts, and ecclesiastical infrastructure, and around 650 Patriarch Ishoyahb III solidified the Church of the East's jurisdiction over the Saint Thomas Christian community. In the 8th century Patriarch Timothy I organised the community as the Ecclesiastical Province of India, one of the church's Provinces of the Exterior. After this point the Province of India was headed by a metropolitan bishop, dispatched from Persia, the "Metropolitan-Bishop of the Seat of Saint Thomas and the Whole Christian Church of India". His metropolitan see was probably in Cranganore, or (perhaps nominally) in Mylapore, where the shrine of Thomas was located. Under him were a varying number of bishops, as well as a native Archdeacon, who had authority over the clergy and who wielded a great amount of secular power.
Some contact and transmission of knowledge of the Saint Thomas Christians managed to reach the Christian West, even after the rise of the Islamic empires. Byzantine traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes wrote of East Syrian Christians he met in India and Sri Lanka in the 6th century. In 883 the English king Alfred the Great reportedly sent a mission and gifts to Saint Thomas' tomb in India. During the Crusades, distorted accounts of the Saint Thomas Christians and the Nestorian Church gave rise to the European legend of Prester John.
The great distances involved and the geopolitical turmoil of the period caused India to be cut off from the church's heartland in Mesopotamia at several points. In the 11th century the province was suppressed by the church entirely, as it had become impossible to reach, but effective relations were restored by 1301. However, following the collapse of the Church of the East's hierarchy in most of Asia later in the 14th century, India was effectively cut off from church, and formal contact was severed. By the late 15th century India had had no metropolitan for several generations, and the authority traditionally associated with him had been vested in the archdeacon.
In 1491 the archdeacon sent envoys to the Patriarch of the Church of the East, as well as to the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, requesting a new bishop for India. The Patriarch of the Church of the East Shemʿon IV Basidi responded by consecrating two bishops, Thoma and Yuhanon, and dispatching them to India. These bishops helped rebuild the ecclesiastical infrastructure and reestablish fraternal ties with the patriarchate, but the years of separation had greatly affected the structure of the Indian church. Though receiving utmost respect, the metropolitan was treated as a guest in his own diocese; the Archdeacon was firmly established as the real power in the Nasrani community.
The Saint Thomas Christians first encountered the Portuguese in 1498, during the expedition of Vasco da Gama. At the time the community was in a tenuous position: though thriving in the spice trade and protected by their own militia, the local political sphere was volatile and the Saint Thomas Christians found themselves under pressure from the rajas of Calicut and Cochin and other small kingdoms in the area. The Saint Thomas Christians and the Portuguese newcomers quickly formed an alliance.
The Portuguese had a keen interest in implanting themselves in the spice trade and in spreading their particularly bellicose version of Christianity, which had been forged during several centuries of warfare in the Reconquista. Facilitating their goals was the Padroado Real, a series of treaties and decrees in which the Pope conferred upon the Portuguese government certain authority in ecclesiastical matters in the foreign territories they conquered. They set up in Goa, forming a colonial government and a Latin church hierarchy under the Archbishop of Goa, and quickly set to bringing the Saint Thomas Christians under his authority.
The Portuguese subjection of the Saint Thomas Christians was relatively measured at first, but they became more aggressive after 1552, the year of the death of Metropolitan Mar Jacob and of a schism in the Church of the East, which resulted in there being two rival Patriarchs—one of whom entered communion with the Catholic Church. Both patriarchs sent bishops to India, but the Portuguese consistently managed to outmaneuver them, and effectively cut off the Saint Thomas Christians from their hierarchy in 1575, when the Padroado legislated that neither patriarch could send representatives to India without Portuguese approval.
By 1599 the last Metropolitan, Abraham, had died, and the Archbishop of Goa, Aleixo de Menezes, had secured the submission of the young Archdeacon George, the highest remaining representative of the native church hierarchy. The Archbishop convened the Synod of Diamper, which implemented various liturgical and structural reforms in the Indian church. The Synod brought the parishes directly under the Archbishop's purview; anathematised certain "superstitious" social customs characteristic of their Hindu neighbors, including untouchability and a caste hierarchy; and purged the indigenous liturgy, the Malabar Rite, of elements deemed unacceptable according to the Latin protocol. A number of texts were condemned and ordered burnt, including the Peshitta, the Syriac version of the Bible.[page needed] Some of the reforms, especially the elimination of caste status, reduced the Saint Thomas Christians' standing with their socially stratified Hindu neighbors. The Synod formally brought the Saint Thomas Christians into the Catholic Church; however, the actions of the Portuguese over the ensuing years fueled resentment in segments of the community, and ultimately led to open resistance to their power.
Division and defiance
Over the next several decades, tensions seethed between the Portuguese and the remaining native hierarchy, and after 1641 Archdeacon Thomas, the nephew and successor to Archdeacon George, was often at odds with the Latin prelates. In 1652, the escalating situation was further complicated by the appearance in Mylapore of a mysterious figure named Ahatallah, who claimed to have been sent by the Pope to serve as "Patriarch of the Whole of India and of China".
Ahatallah made a strong impression on the native clergy, but the Portuguese quickly decided he was an impostor, and put him on a ship bound for Europe by way of Goa. Archdeacon Thomas, desperate for a new ecclesiastical leader to free his people from the Padroado, travelled to Cochin and demanded to meet Ahatallah and examine his credentials. The Portuguese refused, stating the ship had already left for Goa. Ahatallah was never heard from in India again, inspiring rumours that the Portuguese had murdered him and inflaming anti-Portuguese sentiments even more.
This was the last straw for the Saint Thomas Christians, and in 1653 Thomas and community representatives met at the Church of Our Lady in Mattancherry to take bold action. In a great ceremony before a crucifix and lighted candles, they swore a solemn oath that they would never obey Garcia or the Portuguese again, and that they accepted only the Archdeacon as their shepherd. The Malankara Church and all its successor churches regard this declaration, known as the Coonan Cross Oath after the outdoor cross in the churchyard, as the moment when their church regained its independence. Shortly after, the leaders of this newly independent church decided Thomas should be elevated to bishop. Thomas was consecrated in a ceremony in which twelve priests laid hands on him, and he became the metropolitan of Malankara.
After the Coonan Cross Oath the Portuguese missionaries attempted for reconciliation with Saint Thomas Christians but was not successful. Later Pope Alexander VII sent the Syrian bishop Joseph Sebastiani at the head of a Carmelite delegation who succeeded in convincing majority of Saint Thomas Christians, including Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar and Kadavil Chandy Kathanar that the consecration of Archdeacon as metropolitan was not legitimate. Later Palliveettil Chandy Kathanar was consecrated as the bishop for the Syrian Catholics with the historic title 'The Metropolitan and the Gate of all India' which denotes a Quasi Patriarchal status with all India jurisdiction. This led to the first permanent split in the Saint Thomas Christian community. Thereafter, the faction affiliated with the Catholic Church under Parambil Mar Chandy was designated the Pazhayakuttukar, or "Old Party", while the branch affiliated with Mar Thoma was called the Puthankuttukar, or "New Party". These appellations have been somewhat controversial, as both groups considered themselves the true heirs to the Saint Thomas tradition, and saw the other as heretical.
After the Coonan Cross Oath, between 1661 and 1662, out of the 116 churches, the Syrian Catholics claimed eighty-four churches, and Archdeacon Mar Thoma I with thirty-two churches. The eighty-four churches and their congregations were the body from which the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Chaldean Syrian Church have descended. The other thirty-two churches and their congregations were the body from which the Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites & Orthodox), Thozhiyur (1772), Mar Thoma Syrians (1874), Syro-Malankara Catholic Church have originated.[full citation needed]
In 1665, Mar Gregorios Abdul Jaleel, a Bishop sent by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch arrived in India and the St.Thomas Christians belonging to the "New Party", under the leadership of the Archdeacon, welcomed him.[full citation needed] This visit resulted in the Mar Thoma faction claiming spiritual authority of the Antiochean Patriarchate and gradually introduced the West Syrian liturgy, customs and script to the Malabar Coast. Those who accepted the West Syrian theological and liturgical tradition of Mar Gregorios became known as Jacobites.
The "Old Party", who continued with East Syrian and Latin theological and liturgical tradition and stayed faithful to the Synod of Diamper and the Roman Catholic Church came to be formally known as the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church from the second half of the 19th century onward. Syro-Malabar Hierarchy was established on 21 December 1923 with the Metropolitan Mar Augustine Kandathil as the Head of their Church.
The foreign Jacobite prelate Mar Gregorios who came to Kerala in 1751 AD, consecrated Rev. Kurian Kattumangat as bishop Abraham Mar Koorilose in 1772 AD at Mattancherry church, Cochin. He was driven into exile from the states of Travancore and Cochin where the majority of St. Thomas Christians lived, to Anjoor in the state of Malabar. He spent his days in prayer and meditation in a hut. A few relatives and friends joined him there. This group was known as Thozhyoor Church later named as Malabar Independent Syrian Church, after a court verdict on 28 May 1863.
In 1795, the kings of Travancore and Cochin entered into tributary alliance with the British East Indian Company to repel the attacks from Tipu Sultan. The states soon became client regimes of the Company: both were forced to disband their military. The political order of the states also began to collapse. Saint Thomas Christians were hit hard by the loss of their privileged military role, their kalari network was dissolved and many families lost their livelihood. The trading class, as well as the office bearers, also suffered the set back and many Europeans who visited the states between 1801 and 1820 noted the poor and depressed condition of Saint Thomas Christians. Some partisan fund allocation for the churches by the British officials triggered a breakdown in the relationship between Saint Thomas Christians and prominent Hindu castes, at least temporarily. In 1815, the British Resident, Colonel John Munro, founded a seminary in Kottayam, for the theological education of Jacobite Christian priests and invited the Anglican missionaries to teach there. This could be regarded as the beginning of the relationship between the CMS and the Saint Thomas Christians.
As a protest against the interference of the Anglican Church in the affairs of the Malankara Church, the Metropolitan, Cheppad Mar Dionysius, convened a Synod at Mavelikara on 16 January 1836. There it was declared that Malanakara Church would be subject to the Syrian traditions and Patriarch of Antioch. The declaration resulted in the separation of the CMS missionaries from the communion with the Malankara Church. However a minority from the Malankara Church, who were in favor of the reformed ideologies of the missionaries, stood along with them and joined the CMS. These Syrian Anglicans, were the first Reformed group from among the Saint Thomas Christians. They joined the missionaries in their evangelical activities among the non-Christians in the region and worked along with the missionaries in their reformative and educational activities. On 27 September 1947, the C.M.S Church united with other similar Churches and formed the CSI. Since then, the Syrian Anglicans have been members of the CSI; in which they practically stay ethnically distinct.
By June 1875, there were two factions in the Malankara Church (Oriental Orthodox): Jacobite Party(Bava) and Reform (Methran)Party. Mathews Mar Athanasius was the Malankara Metropolitan approved by the Governments of Travancore and of Cochin and the group with him was known as "Reform Party" since Mathews Mar Athanasius was supportive to the reformation of Jacobite church with evangelistic ideologies. The Syrian faction, under the leadership of Metropolitan Pulikkottil Joseph Mar Dionysious II, opposed the attempts to do away with age-old traditions of the church, which resulted in a stir in the community. Being invited by this faction, the Antiochene Patriarch Moran Mar Ignatius Peter III arrived in Kerala. On June 1876, at the synod of Mulanthuruthy, presided over by the Patriarch, the Syrian faction formally came under the Antiochene Patriarchate. The synod condemned Mathews Mar Athanasius for abstaining from it, but his followers stayed firm with him. His successor Thomas Mar Athanasius and the bishop’s faction lost the lawsuit to the Patriarchal faction in the Royal Court of Travancore on 12 July 1889. Nonetheless, the Reform Party continued as an independent, Malankara Church and thereafter a series of suits arose on the rights over churches and associated properties. Later they chose the name Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church.
In 1912, due to attempts by the Antiochean Patriarch to gain temporal powers over the Malankara Church, there was another split in the West Syrian community when a section declared itself an autocephalous church and announced the re-establishment of the ancient Catholicosate of the East in India. This was not accepted by those who remained loyal to the Patriarch, and this group, popularly known as Patriarch's Party recognized the temporal power of the Patriarch over the assets of their church, while the other side, known as Metropolitan Party, accepted the supremacy of Patriarch only over the spiritual matters. The two sides filed a series of lawsuits in the civil courts and some parallel attempts to reconcile both the parties also took place. In 1958, bishops of both the parties sealed their reconciliation and signed a treaty which in turn recognized the autonomy of reunited factions, with its own synod of bishops under the presidency of the Catholocos. The verdict of Supreme Court of India in 1959, legitimizing the autonomy of Kerala church, was also instrumental to keep this formal reconciliation between two sides. Nonetheless, in 1975, both the parties split again with the decision of Universal Syrian Synod, held in Damascus, to depose the Catholocos in Kerala. Today the East Syrian community is divided into Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (in Oriental Orthodox Communion, autocephalous), Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church (in Oriental Orthodox Communion, under Antioch).
In 1930 a section of the Malankara Church under the leadership of Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilus left the Church and came into communion with the Catholic Church. They are known as Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Since the later 20th century, neo-charismatic churches have attracted some St. Thomas Christians. These are typically churches with doctrines and practices similar to traditional Pentecostal or Charismatic churches but without a formal denominational tie. The neo-charismatic movement can be found both within established St. Thomas Christian churches, such as the Charismatic and gospel ministries of Syro-Malabar, Syro Malankara & Mar Thoma Syrian Church, and in newer independent denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, the Indian Pentecostal Church of God (IPC), the New Life Fellowship, and the Manna Full Gospel Churches.
Involvement in politics
Participation based on caste and community divisions and sympathies has been a feature of politics in the present day state of Kerala and its predecessor entities. Until the mid-20th century the primary cause of the divisions between the various communities was competition for rights and resources, rather than any dislike of each other, but in more recent times there has been a rise in violence and antagonism that has coincided with a promotion of Hindu politics.
Like other communities, Saint Thomas Christians have been involved in regional politics on a community basis. In 1888, Travancore became the first princely state in India to establish a Legislative Council, which was reformed as the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly in 1904. A few Saint Thomas Christian leaders were elected to the Legislative Council but there was resentment that their share of the available seats was proportionately less than that of other prominent castes. This resentment led to a series of campaigns for equal representation both in the legislature and in government positions. Newspapers such as Malayala Manorama and Nasrani Deepika disseminated the grievances.
In 1918, Saint Thomas Christians formed the League for Equal Civic Rights, which sought the opening of all branches of government service to Christians, Muslims and avarna Hindus, as well as an end to the practice of untouchability. Their demands were partially met in 1922 when the Revenue Department was separated from the Devaswom, a semi-government organization that managed the Hindu temples, thus removing the restriction on non-Hindus and avarnas in the executive service. In the 1920s, Saint Thomas Christian leaders such as George Joseph were advised by Mahatma Gandhi to detach from Vaikom Satyagraha, an agitation for the temple entry rights of avarna Hindus, as he considered the issue to be one of concern to Hindus alone.
With the institution in 1932 of a bicameral legislature in Travancore, four Saint Thomas Christians found a place in among the 24 seats of the lower house, but not comparable with other forward castes. The partisan and oppressive behaviour of Diwan Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer, especially towards the Saint Thomas Christians, further provoked the community members. Iyer reflected a concern among Hindus that the Christian population was rising and that there was a consequent danger of Travancore becoming a Christian state. The 1931 census recorded over 31 per cent of the population as being Christian, compared to around 4 per cent in 1820. Some restrictions were imposed on Saint Thomas Christian parishes to start new schools and later on the Diwan attempted to take over the schools owned by the community. In 1933, some prominent Saint Thomas Christians, including T. M. Varghese, worked to organize other communities on a common platform called the Joint Political Congress, which then decided to abstain from participation in the assembly elections, an action that has become known as the Abstention Movement. There followed a period of fierce confrontation between the Diwan and Saint Thomas Christians—many leaders were arrested, prominent news papers were banned and large banks owned by the community members were liquidated. But the agitations continued and to resolve the issue, government appointed a franchise and delimitation commissioner to solve the problem of representation in the legislator with special reference to backward communities. Though there was no definite assurance to Saint Thomas Christians, Joint Political Congress decided to withdraw the agitation. According to the recommendations of commissioner, franchise power was extended beyond the caste bars. In 1937, general elections were held and Joint Political Congress played a significant role to attain much better representation for allied communities. T.M. Varghese was elected as the Deputy President of the Assembly where Iyer was the ex officio President. But in 1938, he was ousted by Iyer for cooperating with rebels, which led to a worsening of relation between the Saint Thomas Christians and Iyer. On the collapse of Joint Political Congress due to internal conflicts, Saint Thomas Christian leaders allied with Nairs in a common platform- Travancore State Congress where they fought together for responsible government and also to oust Iyer. Many Saint Thomas Christian bishops like Mar James Kalaserry and Metropolitans Abraham Mar Thoma& Yuhanon Marthoma, supported the nationalistic movements in 1930s and 1940s.Abraham Marthoma mobilised Syrian Christians against divans move not to unite with free India. Following intense agitations by the Travancore State Congress, the Maharaja of Travancore announced plans to establish a responsible Government. As per the announcement on 4 September 1947, the new Assembly called the Representative Body was formed to function as a Constituent Assembly. The Assembly held its first sitting on 20 March 1948 with President A. J. John, Anaparambil, a Saint Thomas Christian leader in the chair. In the three-member Cabinet of Travancore formed after the first general elections in 1948, Varghese was a Cabinet Minister. However the first Saint Thomas Christian to become a minister in the central government of India was Padma Vibhushan John Mathai, who served as India's first Railway Minister and subsequently as India's Finance Minister, taking office shortly after the presentation of India's first Budget, in 1948.
On 1 November 1956, the state of Kerala was formed and the Communist Party formed the first government of the state in 1957 on winning the assembly elections. Though the government initiated the legislation process for reforming the land and the education sectors, they were considered as infringements over the rights by the school managements and landowners, who were predominantly Saint Thomas Christians and Nairs. The disagreements of the Saint Thomas Christians got further widened and they allied with Nair Service Society to mobilize against the government, which culminated in the form of a violent struggle, called Liberation Struggle, in 1958. The Communist government was dismissed on 31 July 1959 and the President's rule was imposed in the state under Article 356 of the constitution.
Socio-cultural and religious identity
St. Thomas Christians are a distinct community, both in terms of culture and religion. Though their liturgy and theology remained that of East-Syrian Christians of Persia, their life-style customs and traditions were basically Indian. It is oft-quoted: "Nazranis are Indian in culture, Christian in faith and Syrian in liturgy".
The presence of Jews among the early Malabar Nasrani Christians had significant effects on the liturgy and traditions of the entire community. The community maintained some of the original rituals of the early Jewish Christians, such as covering their heads while in worship. Their ritual services were and still are called the Qurbana (also spelled Kurbana), which is derived from the Aramaic and Hebrew term korban (קרבן), meaning "sacrifice".. The Nasrani Qurbana used to be held in Syriac.
Saint Thomas Christians typically followed the social customs of their Hindu neighbors, and the vestiges of Hindu symbolism could be seen in their devotional practices. Social sins like Untouchability entered their practices and the Synod of Diamper abolished it. The rituals related to birth, Vidyarambham, marriage, pregnancy, death etc. were also similar in both communities. Now also, tying Thaali, a Hindu symbol of marriage is the most important rite in the Christian marriages too. They used to learn temple arts like Kathakali, Kooth and Thullal and their own art forms like Margam Kali and Parichmuttu Kali have some resemblance to Yathra kali Pattu of Brahmins in Kerala. In 1519, a Portuguese traveler Duarte Barbosa on his visit to Malabar commented on the practice of Saint Thomas Christian priests using Kudumi similar to that of Hindus, in his manuscript "Book of Duarte Barbosa".
In the social stratification of medieval Malabar, Saint Thomas Christians succeeded in relating their social status with that of upper-caste Hindus on account of their numerical strength and influence and observance of many Brahmin customs. In 13th and 14th century, many Saint Thomas Christians were involved in the pepper trade for the local rulers and many were appointed as port revenue officers. The local rulers rewarded them with grants of land and many other privileges. With growing numerical strength, a large number of Saint Thomas Christians settled in the inland pepper-growing regions. They had the right to recruit and train soldiers and Christian trainers were given with the honorary title "Panikkar" like their Nair counterparts. They were also entitled with the privilege to collect the tax, and the tax-collectors were honored with the title "Tharakan". Like Brahmins they had the right to sit before the Kings and also to ride on horse or elephant, like the royals. They were protectors of seventeen underprivileged castes and communities and hence they were called Lords of Seventeen Castes. They did not allow the lower-castes to join their community for fear that it could imperil their upper-caste status. Between the 9th and 15th centuries, Saint Thomas Christians had a small kingdom of their own, viz. Villarvattom, but this regal period ended when the community fell under the power of the Rajas of Cochin and Travancore. They owned a large number of Kalaripayattu training centers and the Rajas of Travancore and Cochin, including the renowned Marthanda Varma, recruited trained Christian warriors to defend their kingdom. The upper-caste Hindus and Saint Thomas Christians took part in one another's festival celebrations and in some places in Kerala, the Hindu Temples and Saint Thomas Christian Churches were built on adjoining sites by the Hindu Kings. Until the 19th century, Saint Thomas Christians had the right of access to Hindu temples and some leading Saint Thomas Christians held the status of sponsors at Hindu shrines and temple festivals. But in the 19th century, Saint Thomas Christian integration with the Hindu caste system was disrupted: their clean-caste status was questioned in some localities and they were denied access to many Hindu temples. They tried to retaliate by denouncing Hindu festivals as heathen idolatry. Clashes between upper-caste Hindus and Saint Thomas Christians occurred from the late 1880s, especially when festivals coincided. Internecine violence among various Saint Thomas Christian denominations aggravated their problems.
The earliest documentary evidence is Tharisapally Copper Plate, which refers to the construction of the church of Tharisapally in Quilon between 823 and 849 CE. Antonio Gouvea, Portuguese envoy to Malabar, mentions in his 16th-century work Jornada that almost all the churches of Saint Thomas Christians followed the models of Hindu temples of that period, but were distinguished by the huge granite cross in the front yard of the church. Despite the external similarity with temples, the structuring of the interior space of the church always followed the East Syrian architectural theology. Thus the contemporary style is formed as an amalgamation of Indian architecture and Chaldean liturgical concepts. The church is arranged east-to-west, with the interior structured into three levels: the madbaha (sanctuary), the qestroma (choir) and the haykla (nave).
The madbaha, arranged in the topmost platform at the eastern side of the building, represents Heaven. The primary altar is attached to the eastern wall. To the north of the madbaha is the diaqonikon (sacristry); to the south is the baptistery. The madbaha is protected with rails and is veiled by a red curtain most of the time; this is opened during the Holy Qurbana (Eucharist). An oil lamp within the sanctuary is kept glowing at all times to represent the presence of God. The madbaha is connected to the qestroma and haykla by a low-walled path called the sqaqona. The qestroma contains seats for the choir and lower clergy. The haykla contains an elevated platform or bema, which includes an altar, two lecterns for reading, and chairs for higher clergy. Worshipers stand before the altar, with separate seating for men and women. The main entrance is on the western side of the building; a vestibule, pillars, pilasters, and other architectural ornaments adorn the front end, and a flag mast stands in the front yard. One or two bells are installed in the back yard to signal the timing of ritual services, the death of a church member, or to inform the public of calamities.
The Saint Thomas Cross is widely perceived as the symbol of Saint Thomas Christians. It is also known as Nasrani Menorah or Mar Thoma Sliba. There are several interpretations for the Nasrani Symbol. The interpretation based on Christian Jewish tradition assumes that its design was based on Jewish menorah, an ancient symbol of the Hebrews, which consists of seven branched lamp stand (candelabra).
The interpretation based on local culture states that the Cross without the figure of Jesus and with flowery arms symbolizing "joyfulness" points to the resurrection theology of St. Paul, the Holy Spirit on the top represents the role of Holy Spirit in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 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.
Note that the Christian cross was not adopted as a symbol by Mediterranean and European Christianity until several centuries had passed.
Saint Thomas Christians today
Writing in 2010, Devika and Varghese noted that "[The St. Thomas Christians] are at present a substantial minority, a powerful presence in all fields of life in Kerala."
Even though the Saint Thomas Christians had to compromise their social and religious privileges in the aftermath of Portuguese subjugation, they started reemerging as a powerful community from the 19th century onward. They played a pioneering role in many spheres such as Banking, Commerce, Cash crops etc. Among Saint Thomas Christians, 17.4% of the adult population are self-employed - the highest rate statistically among all the communities in the state of Kerala. Saint Thomas Christians lead all others with respect to per capita ownership of land, with many of them owning large estates. With changing conditions, they have shifted from the agriculture of rice and coconut to plantation based agriculture and the trading of rubber, spices and cash crops. They also take a prominent role in the educational institutions of Kerala and throughout India. They were quick to understand the benefits of academic education and in their educational achievements Saint Thomas Christians stand second to none. The educational accomplishments of the community have helped its members to attain a good proportion of the Central and State Government jobs. With their level of education and limited employment opportunities within the state of Kerala, they became the community with the highest rate of migration. Their resultant foreign remittances have also helped the socioeconomic progress of the community. According to the Kerala Migration Survey (1998) by the Center for Developmental Studies, Kerala, Saint Thomas Christians top all other communities in Kerala with respect to the Socioeconomic Development Index which is based on parameters such as the possession of land,housing & consumer durables, education and employment status.
Saint Thomas Christians still retain many of their ancient traditions and rituals, both in their social and religious life. Saint Thomas Christian services have many unique characteristics compared to others. Until the 1970s the Nasrani Qurbana was sung in Syriac. Many of the tunes of the Saint Thomas Christian worship in Kerala are remnants of ancient Syriac tunes of antiquity. The Baptism is still known by the Aramaic term Mamodisa among Saint Thomas Christians and follows many of the ancient rituals of the ceremony. It is referred to in Malayalam as Njana Snanam ("Bath of Wisdom").
- Saint Thomas Christians observe Holy Thursday with high reverence. This day is referred to as Pesaha, a Malayalam word derived from the Aramaic or Hebrew word for Passover—Pasha or Pesah—commemorating the Last Supper of Jesus Christ during Passover in Jerusalem. The tradition of consuming Pesaha Appam after the church service is observed by the entire community under the leadership of the head of the family. Special long services followed by the Holy Qurbana are conducted during the Pesaha eve in the churches.
- The community observes Lent, locally called the fifty days' fast, from Clean Monday to the day before Easter, abjuring all meat, fish and egg. They also traditionally observe the 25 days' fast which ends on the day of Christmas.
- Generally, footwear is removed before entering the church and women cover their heads during worship.
- The ritual service (liturgy) is called the Holy Qurbana, which is derived from the Hebrew Korban (קרבן), meaning "sacrifice".
- The Holy Qurbana is mostly conducted and prayers recited in Malayalam. However, some parts of the Holy Qurbana are sung in Syriac. During the 20th century, the 'Qurbana-kramam' i.e. the 'book containing the order of worship', was translated into English, for the benefit of worshipers who lived outside Kerala, and did not know to read or write Malayalam.
- Another surviving tradition is the use of muthukoda (ornamental umbrella) for church celebrations, marriages and other festivals. Traditional drums, arch decorations and ornamental umbrellas are part of the church celebrations. Their use has become popular all over Kerala.
- The rituals and ceremonies of Saint Thomas Christians related to house building, astrology, birth and marriage have close similarity with those of Hindus in Kerala. Death rituals express Christian canonical themes very distantly and the influence of Hindu culture is quite noticeable. Much stress is given to ideas concerning life after death and the anticipation of final judgment.
- Saint Thomas Christians do not marry close relatives. The rule is that the bride and groom must not be related for at least five generations.
- Saint Thomas Christians generally prefer arranged marriages and the prospective partners see each other in the Pennukanal (Bride Viewing) ceremony at bride’s home.
- Saint Thomas Christians did not use any iconography or statues of Jesus or the saints in their churches until after the arrival of the Portuguese, prior to which time the use of such symbols was deemed idolatrous.
- Saint Thomas Christians widely use Nilavilakku (a lighted metal lamp) in their houses and churches.
- Saint Thomas Christians use terms like "Eashoa" (Jesus' name in Aramaic), "Yeshu" (Hebrew name Yeshua) to denote Jesus Christ.
- The traditional dress of a Saint Thomas Christian woman is the Chatta and Mundu, a seamless white garment, which is now limited to older female adherents. Following the general trend, the Sari and Churidar have become predominant among the younger generations.
Kunniparampil Zachariah notes that the 20th century was period of significant transition for the Saint Thomas Christians in terms of its demographic and socioeconomic status. Around 1900, the community was concentrated in a few areas, was geographically static and "... was characterised by very high death rate, very high birth rate, very early age at marriage, and 10 to 12 children per married woman". The population had increased eight-fold during the preceding century, from a base figure of about 100,000, and comprised nearly 50 per cent children. But, the population growth of Saint Thomas Christians came down drastically after 1960s, with the lowest birth rate, highest age at marriage, highest family planning user rate, and lowest fertility rate compared to other communities in Kerala. The proportion of children has come down to less than 25%. The absolute and relative size of the community is in a diminishing trend and it's approaching a Zero Population Growth regime.
As of 2001[update], in Kerala, more than 85 per cent of the Saint Thomas Christian population live in the six central districts of the state - Pathanamthitta, Alapuzha, Kottayam, Idukki, Ernakulam and Trissur. They have also migrated to other cities in India like Ooty, Mangalore, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Delhi, Mumbai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Migration steeply increased in the post-independence period and major destinations were United States of America, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and the Middle East. According to a rough estimate, 20–25% of the Saint Thomas Christians live outside the state of Kerala.
Christopher Fuller believes that Saint Thomas Christians, along with the Latin Christians and New Christians of the region, "may sensibly regarded as castes" but notes that "The word 'sensibly' is cautiously used for only as an ideal type can 'caste' be defined." He considers them to be "part of the total segmentary caste structure and [...] ranked with respect to each other and to the Hindu castes". George Mathew, writing of the practice of untouchability in Kerala, makes a similar distinction in saying that "Technically, the Christians were outside [the] caste hierarchy, but in practice a system of inclusion and exclusion was developed ...". Duncan Forrester observes that "... Nowhere else in India is there a large and ancient Christian community which has in time immemorial been accorded a high status in the caste hierarchy. [...] [Saint Thomas Christian] community operates very much as a caste and is properly regarded as a caste or at least a very caste like group." Anand Amaladass also follows this view saying that "The Syrian Christians had inserted themselves within the Indian caste society for centuries and were regarded by the Hindus as a caste occupying a high place within their caste hierarchy." Saint Thomas Christians followed the same rules of caste and pollution as that of Hindus and sometimes they were even considered as pollution neutralizers. They tend to be endogamous, and tend not to intermarry even with other Christian groupings. Saint Thomas Christians derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they were elites, who were evangelized by St. Thomas.
Internal division of Saint Thomas Christians into Northists and Southists and also into a number of sects based on the ecclesiastical orientation makes the pattern of segmentation an exceedingly complex one. Fuller believes that the caste hierarchy among these Christian groupings in Kerala is more polarized than the Hindu system of gradation and ascribes this relatively high polar nature to the limited number of castes among Christians while innumerable castes and sub castes are arranged in the Hindu hierarchical order. Forrester suggests that the Northist-Southist division forms two groups within the Saint Thomas Christian community which are closely analogous to sub-castes. At the same time, different Saint Thomas Christian denominations like Catholic, Jacobite, Mar Thomite, etc. are better regarded as sects, rather than sub-castes, since the recruitment to these sects cannot be strictly ascribed to birth. Also, internal mobility is allowed among these Saint Thomas Christian sects and the caste status is kept even if the sect allegiance is switched (for example, from Syrian Orthodox to Syrian Catholic). That is, despite the sectarian differences, Saint Thomas Christians share a common social status within the Caste system of Kerala and is considered as Forward Caste.
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- Jacobite Syrian Christian Church
- The Syro Malabar Church
- Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Indian Orthodox Church)
- Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church
- Christians of Kerala
- Population of Christians in India and Kerala based on 2001 report of Indian census
- Syrian christians are in a class of their own South Indian newspaper 31 August 2001
- The Nasrani Syrian Christian Network
- Project for preserving the manuscripts of the Syrian Christians of Kerala