The Syrian Christians of Kerala form a caste that is as distinctive as any other in India. Within this caste, there are many sects. Syrian Christians may be Syrian Catholics or Jacobites or Orthodox or Marthomites or even Anglican Christians. Syrian Catholics owe allegiance to the Pope in Rome, the Jacobites to the Patriarch (or Bava) based in Antioch (modern day Turkey), the Orthodox Syrian Christians to a Catholicos based at Devalokam in Kottayam, Kerala, the Marthomites to a Metropolitan based at Thiruvalla in Kerala and the Anglicans to the Archbishop at Canterbury.
Most (but not all) Syrian Christians, irrespective of their sect, have two pet beliefs. One is that each and every Syrian Christian is descended from a Namboodiri or Keralite Brahmin convert to Christianity. The other belief is that their ancestors were converted by St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who reached Kerala in the year 52 A.D.
I use the word ‘belief’ for the notions I have mentioned above, because that’s just what they are.
The first belief, that all Syrian Christians have a Brahmin heritage, was never taken too seriously by historians or other experts. I remember reading a book by Sheila Chandra many years ago (I can’t lay hands on this book now) which explains in detail why this is a ridiculous idea.
Recently Varkey Cardinal Vidayathil, the senior most Catholic clergy man in Kerala and one of the cardinals in the Papal conclave which elected Pope Benedict XVI, was interviewed by author Shinie Antony for a Rupa anthology on Kerala titled ‘Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary’ (which by the way has one of my short stories titled ‘A Matter of Faith’). Cardinal Vidayathil’s interview is published in this anthology in the form of an article titled ‘Stone the Sin, Not the Sinner.’ In this piece, the Cardinal says that the theories about the Brahminical origin of Syrian Christians are baseless and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The second belief is that St. Thomas visited the land, which is now called Kerala, and converted a number of Namboodiris (Brahmins of Kerala) to Christianity. According to this belief, St. Thomas did not seek or make converts from any other caste. Anyone with a basic idea of either Indian history or Christian ethos will realise why this sounds very ridiculous. If at all St. Thomas visited India, he is unlikely to have been casteist and would not have focussed only on the upper castes. After all, wasn’t Christ’s mission all about helping the poor and the down-trodden?
Unlike other disciples like Peter or Mathew or Luke, not much is known about the early life of St. Thomas, that is, his life before he became a disciple of Jesus. In fact, it is not even clear if ‘Thomas’ was his real name. ‘Thomas’ means ‘twin’ in Aramaic and it was most probably just a nickname. It is well known that Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen and that Mathew was a tax collector. If St. Peter were to have visited India, you can be sure that he would have had a special message for fisher folk, though he is very unlikely to have interacted only with the fisher folk. If St. Thomas had been the son of a rabbi, he might have found it easier to converse with the learned Namboodiris, but he is very unlikely to have focussed only on them.
Secondly, if you subscribe to the Aryan migration/invasion theory, which I do, the migrant Namboodiris made their way to Kerala only by around the 7th century. If there were no Namboodiris in Kerala two thousand years ago, St. Thomas is unlikely to have converted them to Christianity.
It is also a matter for debate whether St. Thomas visited Kerala in the first place. Even though Syrian Christian tradition fervently believes that St. Thomas did visit Kerala, Christian scholars and western historians are yet to agree on this. A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI created a controversy when, while addressing a vast crowd at the St Peter’s square, he stated that “Thomas first evanglised Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India from where Christianity reached also south India”. In other words, according to Pope Benedict XVI, St. Thomas never visited or evangelised Kerala, but only visited the land which is now Pakistan and if at all Christianity spread to Kerala, it was from north India.
Pope Benedict VI’s statement caused a furore in Kerala. George Nedungatt, a Keralite scholar based in Rome, declared that the Pope’s statement was tantamount to declaring that St. Thomas was the 'Apostle of Pakistan', rather than that of India. George Nedungatt is a faculty member of the Oriental Pontifical Institute, Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI, despite various shortcomings, is a scholar and a theologian. He is the first Pope to seriously question the belief that St. Thomas visited and evangelised Kerala. Prior to that most Popes had towed the populist line without actually affirming that St. Thomas was in Kerala. For example, in 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote that the Syro-Malabar church of Kerala "as the constant tradition holds, owed its origin to the preaching of Apostle St Thomas."
It is a fact that when the Portuguese arrived in India, they found Christianity already in existence in Kerala. It was an Indianised form of Christianity, barely differentiable from Hinduism. Jesus was yet another God in the Indian pantheon of Gods. The Portuguese didn’t like what they saw, especially the fact that the Christians owed allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church which had its head quarters and a bishop in Antioch (then a part of the Ottoman empire, now in modern day Turkey) and that the mass was recited in Syriac or Aramaic (hence the name Syrian Christians). The Portuguese, using a mix of force and persuasion, managed to convert many of the Syrian Christians to Catholicism. Those converts became Syrian Catholics and switched allegiance from the Patriarch in Antioch to the Pope in Rome, though their mass continued to be in Syriac. Till 1965 when the Second Vatican Council decided to allow mass in the vernacular, Syrian Catholics continued to have their mass in Syriac, while other converts to Catholicism used Latin. Since almost all those converted from Hinduism to Christianity by the Portuguese were lower castes, in Kerala, Latin Christians came to be classified as a backward class, which Syrian Christians, supposedly the descendants of Namboodiris, were treated as upper castes.
Syrian Christians have always occupied a very high position in Keralite society. Those who believe in a Brahminical lineage would say that this status is because all Syrian Christians are Namboodiri converts. However, it is very likely that the initial converts to Christianity came from a variety of backgrounds, but because of their ties with the traders who converted them, were much more commercial and hence prosperous and respected. Over a period of time, before the arrival of the Portuguese, they must have coalesced into a monolithic community.
Despite pressure to switch to the Catholic faith and the Pope in Rome, many Syrian Christians refused to tow the Portuguese line and continued to owe allegiance to the Patriarch in Antioch. In 1653, a number of them took a public oath at a place called Koonan Cross or Koonan Kurisu to defy the Portuguese and to persist with the Syrian rites and liturgy. This section, now called the Jacobites, have seen various splits in their ranks in the last two hundred years.
In 1836, a reformist movement arose within the Jacobite Church, which sought autonomy from the Patriarch at Antioch. This movement eventually led to the formation of what is now called the Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church. As mentioned above, the Marthomite church is headed by a Metropolitan based at Thiruvalla in Kerala.
In 1879, missionaries from Church Mission Society of London (part of the Anglican Church) established a branch of the Church of England in Kerala. Many Jacobites and a few Syrian Catholics joined this Church which is now called the Church of South India (CSI). However, most members of the CSI Church are direct converts from Hinduism.
In 1911, Bishop Wattessril Mor Dionysius led a group of Jacobites, mainly from southern Kerala, who broke off from the Jacobite church and formed the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church which doesn’t have any ties to the patriarch at Antioch. Instead, they report to a Catholicos of the East based at Devalokam in Kottayam, Kerala,
On 20 September 1930, Bishop Mar Ivanios broke off from the Jacobites and joined the Catholic Church. The Jacobites who thus became Catholics form the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which can be described as a semi-autonomous church within the Catholic Church.
Apologies for having digressed, but to get back to the issue as to whether St. Thomas did visit Kerala, the answer is, ‘we don’t know for sure’. However, we do know that Christianity has been in existence in India, especially in Kerala, much before the arrival of the Portuguese. In all probability, Christianity arrived in Kerala along with the spice trade that has been going on for many millennia. It is an accepted fact that a bunch of Christians from Syria came to Kerala in the 4th century and settled there. This community which is called the Knanaya (meaning “of Canaan”) community, did not co-mingle or blend with the native population, whether or not there were any Christians in Kerala at that time. It practised and still practices purity laws akin to that of the Parsis whereby anyone who marries outside the community is ostracised.
Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, the Syrian Christians of Kerala, not only owed allegiance to the Patriarch at Antioch, they also had pretty good cultural exchanges with other Syrian Christians elsewhere in Asia Minor.
None of this however can prove or disprove whether St. Thomas did visit Kerala.
It is understandable that many Syrian Christians were upset by Pope Benedict’s statement that St. Thomas never visited Kerala. I would like to see Syrian Christians take the view that it doesn’t matter whether St. Thomas visited Kerala or not. Christianity is supposed to be an egalitarian religion. One converted by St. Thomas can’t be superior to one converted by a common trader from Asia Minor or someone else. However, as a matter of curiosity, I would like to see historians establish the truth one way or the other, in my lifetime that is.