The Early Christians of India

See first: The Apostle Thomas in India

Tradition has it that the Apostle Thomas ordained two bishops, Kepha and Paul, respectively for Malabar ( presently known as Kerala ) and Coromandal (Mylapore). This is supposed to mark the beginnings of the first hierarchy in India. The Christians were called Thomas Christians. The Church of the Thomas Christians was one of the four great "Thomite Churches" of the East. The three others were the Edessan, the Chaldean (of Mesopotamia or Iraq) with Seleucia-Ctesiphon as its center, and the Persian (of Persia proper or Iran). These four Churches were "Thomite" in the sense that they looked to St. Thomas as to their direct or indirect Apostle. Among these Churches the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon emerged as the organizational centre, mainly owing to the political importance of this place as the capital of the Persian Empire. The Indian Church had close contact with these Churches. A connection to the East Syrian Church (Chaldean) was established after the arrival of another Thomas (Knai Thomman) and several families from Cana in the year 345 A.D. This infused new blood to the sagging old church established by St. Thomas. Later, we cannot say when but certainly in or before 7th century, it became hierarchically subordinated to the Chaldean Church, and the succession of indigenous prelates came to an end. In their place the East Syrian prelates started to rule. The apostolic Church of India was thus reduced to a dependent status. This dependence, which lasted until the end of the 16th century, prevented it from developing an Indian theology and liturgy with an Indian culture. During this long period, not a single indigenous bishop ruled over the Thomas Christians.

Until the rise of Islam, Aramaic (Syriac) was the commercial language throughout the East, including India. The Jews who spoke this language were very powerful in India. Aramaic (language of Jesus) was also the vehicle of evangelization. It came to be called Syriac, after Syrus who ruled over Mesopotamia, and became the official language of the Persian Empire around 550 B.C. When the East-Syrian Church began to exercise control over the Indian Christians, the Malabar Church became Syrian in rite with Syriac as the ecclesiastical language.

It is to be noted that even though the Persian prelates headed the Thomas Christians in India more than a millennium, their contribution to the ecclesial and cultural growth of the Malabar community seems to be insignificant; nevertheless, by its contact with the Western Church from the 16th century the Thomas Christian community was enriched by Western theological thinking and mission spirit which helped the ancient Christians of India to enter into a meaningful communication with the world of Christianity. Even today, there are some who dream about restoring the Chaldean "golden age!" For them, the Latin Church is foreign, but the Chaldean Church is indigenous to Indian Christians!

Socio-political Status of the Early Christians in India

The Thomas Christians had accepted the social structure which was built on the network of castes and subcastes. One's position in society was determined by the social customs one followed. The rulers of the country considered the Thomas Christians as high-caste and granted them great privileges and honours in written documents in the form of copper plates which became the Magna Carta of the Thomas Christians.

These Christians were respectfully addressed as "Nazarani mappilas", "sons of kings" or "first kings". They were of high rank and greatly reputed, well formed and of good behavior. According to Antony de Gouvea, no other caste was of similar value and esteem among the Malabarians as these Syrian Christians. A. Ayyar asserts that they were almost on a par with their sovereigns and were even allowed to have a military force of their own, using this military power to safeguard their special privileges. They were also protectors of certain low-castes and were called "Lords of seventeen castes". They could try all the cases of their subjects and even inflict capital punishment on them. Gouvea says that the Christians supplied the Raja (king) of Cochin with an army of fifty thousand gunmen, and the success of the king in war often depended on the number of his Thomas Christian subjects. This led non-Christian kings to build churches and endow them with tax-free lands. Many Christians served the kings as ministers and councilors. Rulings of kings that went contrary to their religion or privileges were not obeyed. Indeed, they would all, as a "Christian Republic", join together to protect their rights.

The characteristic note of the social life of the early Christians of India was that though Christian in faith, they remained strictly attached to the Hindu way of life. They have been described as "Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and Oriental in worship", a formula which was an adaptation and amplification of a slogan launched by Catholic lay leaders, urging Catholic involvement in India's struggle for independence.

Towards the middle of the 16th century, one of the priests assumed the role of a leader of the whole community of Malabar, and he was called the "Archdeacon". Etymologically, the term means "chief minister", and it gradually began to be used for the chief assistant of the bishop in the administration of the diocese. Though the bishop was sent from Persian Church, he was only the spiritual head who administered only the sacraments. Administration was in the hands of the archdeacon, and he was "the Prince", the civil head, of all the Christians of St. Thomas. He had great influence over kings, and was accorded the same status as the military political chiefs of the country. According to custom, he was the one to crown the king in order that the latter might indeed be recognized as such.

The life of the Christians was centered on the church. A good many of them settled around the church in rows of houses called angaties (bazaars) which later became business centers. Around the year 1600 there were some 64 churches, 168 Christian villages and 80,000 families. The administration of the Church was carried on by the assembly of the Thomas Christians called yogam (a sort of blend between a synod and a pastoral council, and also a significant expression of ecclesial communion and co-responsibility.) of which there were 3 kinds: the parish assembly, regional assembly and general assembly.

The parish assembly looked after the temporalities of the church, as well as the whole Christian life of the local community. This assembly decided cases of public scandal, inflicting punishments which sometimes amounted to excommunication. The assembly exercised ample powers in administering justice, in punishing delinquents, etc. Priests were ordained for a parish church. The assembly presented to the prelate, candidates for ordination with the implicit promise that it would maintain them. The assembly formed a structure similar to both the assembly of the caste Hindus (local or regional) and the assembly of temple administrators called ooralma which means "administration by the people of the place."

Matters that concerned more than one church of a region were dealt with by the representatives of those churches. Regional yogam was often constituted for the administration of justice. Thomas Paremmakal says, "According to the ancient custom of the Malabar Church, no punishment could be inflicted unless the crime was proved before the representatives of four churches." Matters of a general interest of the whole Church or community (social, political and religious) were decided by general assembly of the representatives of all the churches, wherein the Archdeacon played a special role. They were practically supreme, and in fact no higher ecclesiastical authority questioned their decisions.

The Christian way of life brought by the Apostle Thomas was called "Law of Thomas" and in the vernacular Thoma Marga. The term marga means "way", and has been used to denote the Christian way of life. Christianity as a "Way" (hodos) is also a biblical expression. It was originally a Buddhist term meaning "Buddhism as a way of life - the way of salvation or nirvana". When Christianity was introduced to South India, where Buddhism and Jainism were then the prevalent religions, it was considered to be the new "way" or marga. Christians were called margakkar or margavasi (those of the way). In recent times this word is often used to designate "the newly converted" and has a bad connotation in the background of the caste system. When people of low castes were converted to Christianity, those of the high caste began to look down on them - the new converts - with contempt. The Thoma Marga was the sum total of the Christian life and heritage, a mixture of Dravidic, Buddhist, Jainist, Jewish, Persian and Hindu influences.

Were these Christians Catholic? Click here to see


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