Christianity in Kerala

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Christianity is the third-most practiced religion in Kerala, accounting for 20% of the population according to the Indian census.[1] Although a minority, the Christian population of Kerala is proportionally much larger than that of India as a whole. A significant portion of the Indian Christian population resides in the state,.[2][3] The Christians of Kerala are divided into Syrian, Latin and New Christian groupings, which may be regarded as castes. There were Christians in Kerala for many years before the arrival of the first European on the Malabar Coast. Marco Polo initially brought news of them to Europe. He visited India at the end of the thirteenth century. The first emissary from Rome, John of Monte Corvino, sent by Pope Innocent III, is thought to have stayed in Kerala in 1291 and he was followed by various other priests and travellers from Europe. Saint Thomas Christians (also known as Syrian Christians or Nasrani) include the Syro-Malabar Catholic, Malankara Orthodox, Jacobite, Marthoma, Syro-Malankara Catholic and Syrian Anglicans in the Church of South India. Latin Catholics owe their origin to the missionary activities involving western missionaries in India especially Kerala. Most of the people who were converted by the western missionaries belonged to the most poor and deprived sections of the Hindu Society. It is no surprise that the bulk of new converts belonged to the coastal community of Kerala. The bulk of Catholics in the rest of India belong to the Latin Rite. Latin Christians in Ernakulam, Alleppy, Quilon, Trivandrum district mainly converted from Araya (fishermen) community. Roman Catholics in Thrissur and Kottayam district mainly converted from Ezhava, Pulaya, Paraya, and lower class Nair communities. They faced extreme persecution in their adopted land during the Goan Inquisition during St Francis Xavier's time. The Portuguese wanted a more Roman Catholic oriented community and considered the native Christians as pagan. The reason being the earlier Christians continued Hindu practices of worshipping idols. Women continued sporting a bindi. This was considered pagan enough to warrant the inquisition. At least 100,000 people were tortured to death in the space of 1 year.


Early history and tradition[edit] The tradition of origin among Saint Thomas Christians relates to the arrival of Saint Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus at the ancient seaport of Muziris ( present day Kodungallur, Kerala) in AD 52.

The Saint Thomas Christian tradition has historically been, as recorded by scholars, that Thomas converted 12, in some accounts 32, Brahmin families/clans including Pakalomattom, Sankarapuri, Kaliyankal, Kalli, Kalikay, Kottakali, Kayakkam, Madeipur, Muttal, Nedumpally, and Panakkamattam, from which many Saint Thomas Christians, particularly those from prominent families, have traditionally claimed descent.[9][10][11][12]

The four families Sankarapuri, Pakalomattam, Kalli, and Kaliyankal were considered particularly preeminent, and historically the most aristocratic Syrian Christian families tended to claim descent from these families.[12]

There is no contemporary evidence showing that Thomas had been in the subcontinent, but it was possible for a Roman Jew of the time to make such a trip. The Cochin Jews are known to have existed in India around that time.[13][14][15] The earliest known source connecting the apostle to India is the Acts of Thomas, likely written in the early 3rd century, perhaps in Edessa.[16][17][18]

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").[19][20] Generally he is described as arriving in or around Maliankara and founding Seven Churches, or Ezharapallikal: Kodungallur, Kollam, Niranam, Nilackal (Chayal), Kokkamangalam, Kottakkavu, Palayoor (Chattukulangara) and Thiruvithamcode Arappally (a "half church").[21][22][23] 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.[24][25]

While some historians have contended that there was no significant Brahmin presence in Kerala in the first century A.D. and have disputed the historicity of the Brahmin conversion tradition, there is evidence that some St Thomas Christians observed Brahmin customs and were granted privileges usually reserved for Brahmins in the Middle Ages, i.e. after the 9th century A.D., including the wearing of the sacred thread and having a kudumi.[26][27]

The medieval historian Pius Malekandathil believes these were customs adopted and privileges won during the beginning of the Brahmin dominance of medieval Kerala. He argues that the St Thomas Christians, integrated with Persian Christian migrant merchants in the 9th century, had become a powerful trading community by this time and were granted the privileges by the Brahmins and the Hindu rulers to promote revenue generation and to undermine Buddhist and Jain traders who rivaled the Hindus for religious and political hegemony in Kerala at the time.[28]

Some writers believe that the original converts would have included the Jews already present in Kerala at that time.[29] Indeed, a version of the Songs of Thomas or Thomma Parvam, written in 1601 believed to be a summary of a larger and older work, narrate the conversion of 40 Jews along with the Brahmins and the local King at Kodungallur by St Thomas, - the Hindus converted it claims numbered around 3000.[11][16][30] The Thomma Parvam further narrates St Thomas's mission in South India and states that before his martyrdom at Mylapore in present day Chennai, Tamil Nadu, he had converted 6,850 Brahmans, 2,800 Kshatriyas, 3,750 Vaishiyas, and 4,250 Shudras.[31]

The tradition of the coming of a foreigner by the name 'Thoman' who debated with the Brahmins and converted many 'prominent people' including a King is part of Nambudiri Brahmin folklore and is found in the important Nambudiri Brahmin 17 century tract the Keralolpathi. However, in this Brahmin version of the legend, the 'Thoman' referred to is Thomas of Cana.[11]

The Knanaya sub-group of the Saint Thomas Christian community, it should be noted claim middle-eastern origin from a group of Christian migrants led by the merchant Thomas of Cana in the 4th or 9th century A.D, and don't claim to be the descendants of the converts of St Thomas.

An organised Christian presence in India dates to the arrival of East Syrian settlers and missionaries from Persia, members of what would become the Church of the East, in around the 3rd century.[32] Saint Thomas Christians trace the further growth of their community to the arrival of the 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.[25][33]


Anglican Rite[edit]

East Syrian Rite[edit]

Protestant denominations[edit]

Roman Rite[edit]

West Syrian Rite[edit]

Pilgrimage sites[edit]


  1. ^ "Census of India". Retrieved 2009-04-12. 
  2. ^ "Christianity in India". Retrieved 2013-12-16. 
  3. ^ Compiled by Robert Eric Frykenberg (2005-07-01). "Timeline". Retrieved 2013-12-16. 
  4. ^ World Christian Encyclopedia , Second edition, 2001 Volume 1, p. 368-371
  5. ^ "Malankara Orthodox Church - Kottayam Seminary". Retrieved 2013-12-16. 
  6. ^ "Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar". Retrieved 2013-12-16. 

Further reading[edit]

  • George K.M.,`Christianity in India Through the Centuries`,Authentic Books, Secunderabad,2007,2009.(ISBN 978-81-7362-786-6).
  • Benedict Vadakkekara,`Origin of Christianity in India`,Media House, Delhi,2007.ISBN 81-7495-258-6.
  • Agur C.M.,`Church History of Travancore`,Madras,1903 Reprint:Asian Educational Services, New Delhi,1990. (ISBN 81-206-0594-2).
  • Visvanathan Susan,`The Christians of Kerala`,Oxford University Press, Delhi1993,1999.(ISBN 0195647998)
  • George Menachery,`The St. Thomas Christian Encyclopaedia of India`,SARAS,Ed.Prof. George Menachery, Ollur,Vol.I 1982, Vol.II 1973, Vol. III 2009.
  • George Menachery,`Indian Church History Classics`,SARAS,Ed.Prof. George Menachery, Ollur,Vol.I The Nazranies 1998.