Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Saint Thomas Christians

St. Thomas Christians (called Nasrani--Nazarenes--in Hindu) are groups of Christians in India whose roots go to the Malabar coast (now Kerala) in the first century CE and the seven churches that are believed to have been established by St. Thomas.


The lure of spices attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports - Calicut, Cranganore, Cochin, Alleppey and Quilon - long before the time of Christ. And it was on a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Cranganore in 52 AD.

There he began preaching the Gospel. His teachings were accepted not only by those who chose to become Christians but also by those who chose to remain Hindus. The teachings eventually got integrated into the beliefs and traditions of the local communities, into their family history, into their songs and dances. St. Thomas established seven Christian communities or churches in Kerala. They are in Cranganore, Paravur(Kottakavu), Palayoor, Kokkamangalam, Malayattoor, Niranam, Chayal (Nilackal) and Kollam (Quilon).

In the 4th century CE, a settlement of Jewish Christians was founded in Kottayam by Thomas Kynai at the behest of the Catholicos of the East. They became known as the Knanaya. Currently, there are no independent Knanaya religious organizations but look either to the Pope of Rome or the Syrian Orthodox Church for ecclesiastic legitimacy. Nevertheless, this community has rigidly maintained its distinct ethnic identity to the present day, vehemently prohibiting intermarriage with non-Knanaya even within their own religious jurisdiction while freely permitting Knanaya marriage between Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

Place in Indian Culture

Throughout Kerala, one can find Christian families that are proud to claim descent from ancestors who were baptized by Apostle Thomas. Some details of this combined tradition may be found in songs - the "Rabban Pattu", the "Veeradyan Pattu", the "Margam Kali Pattu" and others that now exist in written records.

St. Thomas Christians were considered high caste, along the Hindu tradition, with special privileges granted by the kings. The archdeacon was the head of the Church, and Palliyogams (Parish Councils) were in charge of temporal affairs. They had a liturgy-centered life with days of fasting and abstinence. Their devotion to the St. Thomas Cross was absolute. Their churches were modelled after Hindu temples.

In short, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala had blended well the ecclesiastical world of the East Syrian Church with the socio-cultural environment of their homeland. Thus, the East Syrian Church was Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and Syro-Oriental in worship. While the last trait may vary greatly in the present day among different heirs to the Nasrani tradition, their cultural identity as Hindu has not been lost.

Contact with Western Christianity

In 1498, when the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama landed on the Malabar coast, there were an estimated two million Christians across the land, and they had 1,500 churches under the jurisdiction of a single Metropolitan who lived in Angamale. The arrival of Vasco da Gama, however, marked the start of a turning point and heralded a new struggle for the East Syrian Church. Because the Portuguese, who later established trading posts in Goa, Daman and Diu north of Kerala, moved against the East Syrian Church leading to tragic, ecclesiastical incidents.

According to Joas de Castro, the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa in 1548, the sword of the Portuguese was wielded "mainly against the centuries-old Christians of Kerala". This was because only in Kerala did the laity stand steadfast against Western colonization, and maybe the Portuguese, who were under the Roman Church, considered everything outside Roman as heretic.

The move against the Syrian Church was followed by Western Church establishing a European diocese in Goa in 1534. In 1557, Pope Paul IV declared Goa an archdiocese with its supremacy extending from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa to China, and all Christians, including the East Syrian Church, brought under its jurisdiction. The East Syrian Archdiocese of Angamali then became a dependent of Goa.

This Europeanization process led to divisions in the Church, as there was considerable resistance against Western domination. The Christian communities then split into many groups - East Syrian Roman Catholics, West Syrian Roman Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite Syrian Orthodox, Mar Thoma (those who accepted the Anglican Church and other Protestant bodies), Church of the East (those who accepted the Nestorian Patriarch), and the Latin-Rite Roman Catholic Church.

In America

Nasrani Religious Jurisdictions

(in alphabetical order by Communion)