India (East Syriac ecclesiastical province)

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Metropolitanate of India (Syriac: Beth Hindaye) was an East Syriac ecclesiastical province of the Church of the East, from the seventh to the sixteenth century. The Malabar Coast of India had long been home to a thriving Eastern Christian community, known as the St. Thomas Christians. The community traces its origins to the evangelical activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. The Christian communities in India were using the East Syriac Rite, the traditional liturgical rite of the Church of the East. They also adopted some aspects of Dyophysitism, in accordance with theology of the Church of the East. Initially, they belonged to the metropolitan province of Fars, but were detached from that province in the 7th century, and again in the 8th, and given their own metropolitan bishop.

Due to the distance between India and the seat of the Patriarch of the Church of the East, communication with the church's heartland was often spotty, and the province was frequently without a bishop. As such, the Indian church was largely autonomous in operation, though the authority of the Patriarch was always respected. In the 15th century, the Portuguese arrived in India. Initially, the relationship between native Indian Christians and the Portuguese were friendly. Christians who had lost the trade rights due to the Arabic invasion and decline of the Church in Middle East, found hope in the new traders who took monopoly of trade away from Arabs. But gradually, the ritual diversities widened and the relationship deteriorated. The Portuguese soon started unveiling their political ambitions to colonise Malabar and tried to bring the Christian community under the authority of the Portuguese Padroado Latin Catholics, promoting the use of the Latin Rite. The Christian community in India were already in ecclesiastical relationship with the Holy See at least since 1552. Mar Joseph Sulaqa and Mar Abraham, who were Metropolitans sent from the Catholic Patriarchate of Babylon, had received confirmation from the Bishop of Rome. But the Church was not subject to the Portuguese Padroado Archdiocese of Goa. Therefore the Portuguese started their efforts to cut off the Church in India from the jurisdiction of the Church of the East. The Portuguese ascendancy was formalised at the Synod of Diamper in 1599, which effectively suppressed the historic East Syriac metropolitan province of India. Angamaly, the former seat of the East Syriac metropolitans, was downgraded to a suffragan diocese of the Latin Archdiocese of Goa.

Both the sections of the Church of the East: the Nestorian and Chaldean churches intermittently attempted to regain their old influence in India. Between the 17th and 20th centuries several attempts, not always successful, were made by both churches to send bishops to the Malabar Christians. Among those, the most significant were the efforts made by the Chaldean Catholic Church by sending two Metropolitans, Mar Thoma Rokkos and Mar Elias Mellus. On occasion the Vatican supported the claims of Catholic bishops from the Chaldean Church, particularly during the period of the Portuguese ascendancy in India.


India, which boasted a thriving East Syriac community at least as early as the third century (the Saint Thomas Christians), was initially dependent on the East Syriac metropolitan province of Fars. It was raised to the status of a metropolitan province of the Church of the East in the seventh century by the patriarch Ishoʿyahb III. Communications between Mesopotamia and India were not always good, however, and in the eighth century the patriarch Timothy I again detached India from Fars and created a separate metropolitan province for India. Communications were again broken in the Seljuq period, and an eleventh-century reference states that the metropolitan province of India had been 'suppressed', due to communication difficulties. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Indian church was again dependent on the Church of the East.

Sassanian period[edit]

The bishop David of Maishan, who flourished c.285, during the reign of the bishop Papa of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (c.280–315), left his seat to evangelise India.[1]

The Nestorian monk Cosmas Indicopleustes, who visited the Christians of India around the middle of the 6th century, mentioned three distinct areas of Christian settlement in India: in northwest India, around the trading port of Calliana near Mumbai, from which brass, sisam logs and cloth were exported; along the Malabar coast in southern India 'in the land called Male, where the pepper grows'; and in the island of Ceylon (Sielediva). By the end of the Sassanian period the Christians of India had accepted the leadership of the church of Fars, which also claimed Saint Thomas as its founder. Cosmas noted that the Christians of Calliana had a bishop appointed from Fars, while the Christians of the Malabar coast and Ceylon had priests and deacons but not bishops. The connection with Fars went back at least as far as the late 5th century, when the metropolitan Maʿna of Rev Ardashir sent copies of his Syriac translations of Greek devotional works to India for the use of the Indian clergy.

Umayyad period[edit]

The patriarch Ishoʿyahb III (649–59) raised India to the status of a metropolitan province, probably because of the unsatisfactory oversight of the metropolitan Shemʿon of Fars. A number of letters from Ishoʿyahb to Shemʿon have survived, in one of which Ishoʿyahb complained that Shemʿon had refused to consecrate a bishop for 'Kalnah' (the 'Calliana' of Cosmas Indicopleustes), because the Indian Christians had offended him in some way.

According to the fourteenth-century writer ʿAbdishoʿ of Nisibis, the patriarch Sliba-zkha (714–28) created metropolitan provinces for Herat, Samarqand, India and China. If ʿAbdishoʿ is right, India's status as a metropolitan province must have lapsed shortly after it was created by Ishoʿyahb III. An alternative, and perhaps more likely, possibility, is that Sliba-zkha consecrated a metropolitan for India, perhaps in response to an appeal from the Indian Christians, to fill the place of the bishop sent there by Ishoʿyahb half a century earlier.

Abbasid period[edit]

After several centuries of intermittent dependence on the Persian-speaking metropolitans of Fars, who also boasted of their descent from the apostle Thomas, the Saint Thomas Christians of India were again brought under the authority of the patriarchs of Seleucia-Ctesiphon towards the end of the eighth century. The patriarch Timothy I, who was determined to break the power of the bishops of Rev Ardashir, definitively detached India from the province of Fars and made it a separate metropolitan province. There is also a tradition in the Indian church that two 'Syrian' bishops, Shapur and Peroz, were sent to Quilon from Mesopotamia in 823, the year of Timothy's death. They were accompanied by 'the famous man Sabrishoʿ', perhaps a metropolitan consecrated by Timothy for India. This tradition was recorded by Mattai Veticutel in the following words:

In the year 823, East Syriac fathers again came, Mar Shapur and Mar Peroz, accompanied by the famous man Sabrishoʿ. They came to the town of Quilon, went to the king Shakirbirti, and asked for lands. The king gave them as much land as they wished. So they too built a church and town in the country of Quilon. Thereafter East Syriac bishops and metropolitans came more often by order of the catholicus, who used to send them.[2]

A few decades later, according to the sixteenth-century Portuguese writer Diogo do Couto, the Malabar church sent a delegation to Mesopotamia to ask for new bishops to be sent out to them. Their old bishops (perhaps Shapur and Peroz) were dead, and their church had now only one deacon surviving. The catholicus thereupon consecrated a metropolitan named Yohannan for India, and two suffragan bishops, one of whom, 'Mar Dua', was appointed to the island of Soqotra, and the other, Thomas, to 'Masin', traditionally identified with southern China. Yohannan fixed his metropolitan seat at Cranganore. These events seem to have taken place around 880, perhaps during the patriarchate of Enosh.[3]

Neither India (Beth Hindaye) nor China (Beth Sinaye) are listed as metropolitan provinces of the Church of the East in the detailed list of metropolitan provinces and dioceses drawn up in 893 by Eliya of Damascus.[4] Eliya's list contains very few errors, and it is possible that neither province had a metropolitan at this period. This is certainly likely in the case of China, in the wake of the expulsion of Christians from the capital Chang'an by the emperor Wuzong in 845, though perhaps less so in the case of India.

Seljuq period[edit]

According to the eleventh-century Mukhtasar, a detailed list in Arabic of ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses of the Church of the East, the metropolitan province of India had been suppressed 'because it has become impossible to reach it'.[5]

Mongol period[edit]

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Indian church was again dependent upon the Church of the East. The dating formula in the colophon to a manuscript copied in June 1301 in the church of Mar Quriaqos in Cranganore mentions the patriarch Yahballaha III (whom it curiously describes as Yahballaha V), and the metropolitan Yaʿqob of India. Cranganore, described in this manuscript as 'the royal city', was doubtless the metropolitan seat for India at this time.[6]

In the 1320s the anonymous biographer of the patriarch Yahballaha III and his friend Rabban Bar Sauma praised the achievement of the Church of the East in converting 'the Indians, Chinese and Turks'.[7]

India was listed as one of the Church of the East's 'provinces of the exterior' by the historian ʿAmr in 1348.[8]

Appointment of Nestorian bishops for India, 1490–1503[edit]

At the end of the fifteenth century the Church of the East responded to a request by the Saint Thomas Christians for bishops to be sent out to them. In 1490 (or more probably, as has been suggested by Heleen Murre-van den Berg, 1499), two Christians from Malabar arrived in Gazarta to petition the Nestorian patriarch to consecrate a bishop for their church. Two monks of the monastery of Mar Awgin were consecrated bishops and were sent to India. The patriarch Eliya V (1503–4) consecrated three more bishops for India in April 1503. These bishops sent a report to the patriarch from India in 1504, describing the condition of the Nestorian church in India and reporting the recent arrival of the Portuguese. Eliya had already died by the time this letter arrived in Mesopotamia, and it was received by his successor, Shemʿon VI (1504–38).[9]

Clashes with the Portuguese, 1503–99[edit]

Tomb of Francis Roz, first Jesuit Metropolitan of Kodungalloor Archeparchy, inside Mar Thoma Syro-Malabar Church, Kottakkavu.

One of the bishops consecrated in 1503, Mar Yaʿqob, worked alongside the Portuguese ecclesiastical hierarchy in India until his death in 1553.

Eighteenth-century Nestorian and Chaldean missions to India[edit]

Since 1665 most of the Syriac Rite communities along the Malabar coast of India have belonged either to the Catholic Church or the Malankara Church. Nevertheless, sporadic attempts were made from time to time to restore the traditional ties between the Saint Thomas Christians and the Church of the East.

The mission of Shemʿon of Ada, 1701–20[edit]

The Chaldean metropolitan Shemʿon of ʿAda, who had been consecrated by the Amid patriarch Joseph I for the Catholics of the Urmia plain, travelled from Rome to India in 1700, with the approval of the Vatican authorities, to minister to the Chaldeans of Malabar. According to his own account, preserved in a letter to the Sacred Congregation written in March/April 1701 from Surat, he travelled through Spain to Portugal, and took ship from Lisbon to Goa and Surat. In Surat he met the Capuchin Francesco Maria, who had been his confessor years earlier in Amid, and received a letter signed by 30 priests and 10 deacons of the Malabar Chaldeans, imploring him to come to them and offering to pay his travelling expenses. The end of the letter is lost, and in the final paragraph to survive he mentioned that the Capuchins had wished to send him to the French territory of Pondicherry, but he had finally persuaded them to send Father Francesco with him to Malabar. Shemʿon went on to play an important part in the struggle between the Vatican and the Portuguese authorities over ecclesiastical privilege in India. On 22 May 1701 he consecrated the superior of the Chaldean seminary of Verapoly, the Carmelite Ange-François de Sainte-Thérèse, apostolic vicar of the Chaldeans of Malabar. The Latin bishops had refused to consecrate him, and it may have been specifically with this aim in mind that the Sacred Congregation had sent Shemʿon to India. Shemʿon appears to have remained in India for several years, and died on 16 August 1720.[10]

The mission of Gabriel of Ardishai, 1704–39[edit]

The Mosul patriarchs also attempted to reassert their control over the Syriac Christians of India around the beginning of the eighteenth century. The metropolitan Gabriel of the Urmia diocese of Ardishai was sent to India in 1704 by the Nestorian patriarch Eliya XI Marogin (1700–22). Doubtless appreciating the difficulties he was likely to encounter as a Nestorian, Gabriel made a Catholic profession of faith in the presence of the Chaldean patriarch Joseph I at Amid before he set off on his journey. When he arrived in India he was obliged to make a further profession of faith and to swear a solemn pledge of allegiance to the Portuguese ecclesiastical authorities. Ignoring these undertakings, Gabriel proceeded to offer a lively opposition to the Jacobite metropolitan Thomas IV. Forty-two churches came over to him, leaving the Jacobites with only twenty-five. Thomas appealed to the Jacobite patriarch at Antioch for help, but without response. The Jacobites only fully recovered their hold on the Malabar church after Gabriel's death in 1739.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chronicle of Seert (ed. Scher), i. 26
  2. ^ Le Quien, OC, ii. 1275
  3. ^ Le Quien, OC, ii. 1275–6
  4. ^ Assemani, BO, ii. 485–9
  5. ^ Fiey, POCN, 96
  6. ^ MS Vat Syr 22; Wilmshurst, EOCE, 343 and 391
  7. ^ Wallis Budge, The Monks of Kublai Khan, 122–3
  8. ^ Wilmshurst, EOCE, 343
  9. ^ MSS Vat Syr 204a and Paris BN Syr 25
  10. ^ Samir, K., 'La Relation du Voyage en Inde en 1701 du Métropolite chaldéen Simon (†16 Août 1720)', Parole de l’Orient, 9 (1979/80), 277–303.


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