Thomas of Cana

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Thomas of Cana

Thomas of Cana (Malayalam: Knāy Thoma, Syriac: Knā'nāya Thoma) is a figure in the history and traditions of the Saint Thomas Christian communities of Kerala, India. He is said to have led a migration of Syriac Christians from the Middle East to India sometime between the 4th and the 9th century. This may reflect a historical migration that strengthened the ties between the Indian church and the Church of the East. The Thomas of Cana story also factors into traditions of the divide of the community into Northist and Southist factions; the Southists or Knanaya claim descent from Thomas of Cana and his followers.


Written accounts of Thomas of Cana date to the India's Portuguese period.[1] Different versions give different dates for the events; some place them in 345; others as late as the 9th century.[1][2] The meaning of the Cana epithet is unclear; it may refer to the town of Cana or the land of Canaan in the Bible,[3] or it may be a corruption of a Syriac term for merchant (Knāyil in Malayam).[4] However, scholar Richard M. Swiderski states that none of these etymologies are entirely sound.[3]

Knanaya priest and scholar Jacob Kollaparambil argues that the "Cana" form is a corruption introduced by European scholars in the 18th century based on the Malayalam form Knāy and its variants (Kynāi, Kināyi, Kinān) found in the folk tradition of the Knanaya and the common parlance and literature of the people of Malabar.[5] This may be a reference to the Christian community of Kynai, in Bét Aramayé in Persia.[6]

In most accounts, Thomas is said to have been a Syrian merchant, distinct from Thomas the Apostle, who preceded him in evangelizing in India. According to the traditions, Thomas of Cana led a group of 72 families, as well as clergymen, to the Malabar coast. There they met and supplemented the Saint Thomas Christians, who had been evangelized by Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. Copper plates referring to this story exist, but are of a substantially later date.[4]

Though some scholars doubt the veracity of the Thomas of Cana tradition, others suggest it may reflect a historical migration of East Syriac Christians to India. This may have been the era in which the region's relationship with the Church of the East developed. Stephen Neill suggests that East Syriac Christians may have come to India specifically because there was already an established Christian community, to whom they imparted East Syriac traditions.[7]

Northists and Southists[edit]

Knaithoma bhavan

The arrival of Thomas of Cana figures into traditions concerning the division of the Saint Thomas Christians into "Northist" and "Southist" factions. In these versions, the Southists or Knanaya are the direct descendants of Thomas of Cana and his followers, while the Northists descend from the pre-existing local Christian body converted by Thomas the Apostle.[8] In some versions, Thomas of Cana had two wives or partners, one the ancestor to the endogamous Southists, and the other (generally described as a Kerala native) the ancestor to the Northists.[8] All these stories are apocryphal, though both Southist and Northist groups use variants to claim superiority for their faction.[1]


  1. ^ a b c Baum & Winkler, p. 53.
  2. ^ Vadakkekara, p. 239.
  3. ^ a b Swiderski 1988b, pp. 55–56.
  4. ^ a b Neill, p. 42.
  5. ^ Kollaparambil 1992, pp. 1-20.
  6. ^ Kollaparambil 1992, pp. 1.
  7. ^ Neill, pp. 42–43.
  8. ^ a b Swiderski 1988a, pp. 76–80.


  • Baum, Wilhelm; Dietmar W. Winkler (2003). The Church of the East: A Concise History. Routledge. p. 52. ISBN 0-415-29770-2. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
  • Neill, Stephen (2004). A History of Christianity in India: The Beginnings to AD 1707. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-54885-3. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
  • Kollaparambil, Jacob (1992). The Babylonian origin of the Southists among the St. Thomas Christians. Pontifical Oriental Institute. ISBN 8872102898.
  • Swiderski, Richard Michael (1988). "Northists and Southists: A Folklore of Kerala Christians". Asian Folklore Studies. Nanzan University. 47 (1): 73–92. doi:10.2307/1178253. JSTOR 1178253.
  • Swiderski, Richard Michael (1988). Blood Weddings: The Knanaya Christians of Kerala. Madras: New Era. Retrieved 8 June 2012.
  • Vadakkekara, Benedict (2007). Origin of Christianity in India: A Historiographical Critique. Delhi: Media House.

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