Our bus departed from Ernakulam, the “new” city a ferry ride across the harbor from historic Cochin (in terms of geography, Cochin is San Francisco proper to Ernakulam’s Oakland); our destination, the city of Kottayam. The road from Ernakulam to Kottayam crosses over backwaters and the very first foothills of the Western Ghats, the scenery varying from palm trees crowding wide waterways to rubber trees planted in rows, healing from their harvest. The small towns we passed through however are notable not only for their picturesque scenery, but also for their places of worship–even for Kerala, where Christianity is well-known, there are countless churches in these towns, some new some old, seemingly far outnumbering Hindu temples or mosques. Schools tend to be named St. George, St. Anthony or St. Thomas, and even the occasional nun is sighted.
When one thinks of Christianity in India, the first thought is usually to the Catholic community in Goa, a remnant of the Portuguese empire in the East, but the actual history of Christianity in India goes much further back, all the way to apostolic times according to legend. According to the apochryphal Acts of Judas Thomas (apochryphal meaning that it is not one of the books generally recognized to be part of the Christian Bible), St. (Doubting) Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, traveled from the Holy Land to India, spreading the gospel and eventually achieving martyrdom. Legend has it that he established churches in the now Keralan coast and the legendary site of his martyrdom in Chennai is graced with a church.
The “Thomas Christians” of India maintained links with the Christians of the Near East. One of the most significant delegations, in the fourth century, consisted of seventy-two families, roughly four hundred strong, who traveled from what is now Syria to the Keralan coast, descendants of which group survive today (more on this later). Further spiritual support continued over the centuries from the Middle East through the Syrian Christian Church, giving these Christians of India the name “Syrian Christians.” The Christians were fruitful and multiplied, and formed a significant community (of around 30,000) by the time the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century.
The first major fissure in the Syrian Christian community of India happened as a result of Portuguese control, and the road from Ernakulam to Kottayam took us by the key site of Diamper. Initially the Portuguese looked favorably upon the fellow Christians (it is said that one goal of Portuguese explorations beyond the Cape of Good Hope was to search for a legendary eastern Christian kingdom), but then grew hostile as the Thomas Syrian Christians refused to pledge allegiance to the Pope in Rome and adhere to Roman Catholic doctrine. Finally, the Portuguese convened the Synod of Diamper in 1599 to cleanse the Thomas Syrian Christians of doctrinal impurities, which they saw as coming both from Nestorian heresies and from Hindu contamination. The Portuguese banned books, burned books and records and instituted other oppressive policies. When an emissary from Antioch was detained in now Chennai, some of the local Christians publicly revolted, taking the “Bent Cross Oath” at Mattancherry church (briefly described in my blog entry of March 3 and pictured below) in 1653. Others made peace with the Portuguese and the Roman Catholic church.
About two and a half hours after we left Ernakulam, our Kerala state bus arrived at Kottayam bus station, and we transferred into an autorickshaw to take us to some of Kerala’s oldest existing Syrian Christian churches.
In the northern part of Kottayam, a center of the Syrian Christian community in Kerala, different sects (resulting from further schisms) are represented by churches steps apart, and demonstrate some of the later history of the Syrian Christians of India. Heading from east to west on Kumarakom Road, we first passed St. Thomas Mar Thoma Church.
The Mar Thoma Church is the product of a schism in the Indian Syrian Christian Church that occurred under the relatively more gentle control under British rule. A 19th century prelate educated in the British missionary system determined that the local church should undergo reforms, a position not shared by all of his peers, and founded the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, which has since entered into communion with the Anglican churches in India, the Church of North India and the Church of South India.
Heading west, we arrived at Cheriapally, “Small Church” or St. Mary’s Orthodox Church. Founded in 1579, Cheriapally remains close to its original structure, featuring a porch similar to a Hindu temple, beautiful altar and murals and an impressive old baptismal font.
Cheriapally, as our church officer/guide explained to us, is an Orthodox Syrian Church, as opposed to a Jacobite Syrian Church. The 1912 schism defining these sects is perhaps the most significant and puzzling in the history of the Indian Syrian Christian Church. How did such an enduring, small and ancient community become divided yet again, this time less directly caused by outside colonial powers?
The history on this seems less certain, but it appears that the Syrian Christian Church hierarchy was damaged by a series of conflicts in the late 19th century, including a series of lawsuits brought over who had true authority over the church. The competing factions included those who believed that the Syrian Christian Church should adhere to existing indigenous dogma and practices, believed to be handed down from St. Thomas himself, against those who believed that the church should follow more closely the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch, the head of the Syrian Christians in the Near East. These differences were made more explicit in a synod called by the Patriarch of Antioch in 1876 to conform religious practice in India to that in the Near East. Finally, in 1912, the group favoring local authority invited the living “deposed” Patriarch of Antioch, Abdul Mesih, to India. It is not exactly clear why he was deposed, although some argue that the act was illegitimate because it was forced by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. Abdul Mesih in India established the so-called Orthodox Syrian Church, headed by a local Catholicate (based near Kottayam in a town called Devalokam), as a semiautonomous branch of the Syriac Orthodox Church. This move was not recognized by the “official” Patriarch at the time or his successors, or by the so-called Jacobite Syrian Christians, who favored the authority of the official Patriarch.
Less than a hundred yards west of Cheriapally, on a small hill, stands Valiapally, “Large Church” or St. Mary’s Knanaya Church, one of the oldest existing Christian churches in Kerala.
Originally built just prior to Cheriapally, although much of the building does not speak from that date, the prizes of the church’s collections include two ancient crosses carved in granite, one older and the other a replica, which contain inscriptions in Pahlavi and Syriac.
The church and its treasures belong to the Knanaya, who are descendants of the delegation that came to India from the Near East in the fourth century. The Knanaya have remained loyal to the Syriac Orthodox Church based in Damascus, and plaques and portraits inside Valiapally feature prominently the connection between the church and the mother church in the Near East.
Leaving Valiapally, I saw an elderly Indian lady, resplendent in sari and gold jewelry, step up to the hill on which the church sits, and cross herself. I did not know to which sect she belonged, and I suppose she may even have been Roman Catholic or Anglican, but through her gesture I imagined a continuity of almost two thousand years, from new Christians converted to a new and foreign God or descendants of voyagers from a distant land, taken root and somehow survived and even flourished despite great odds, even if now the trunk has borne many branches. And I wondered how this history would have played out in a different country, and whether India wasn’t particularly fertile soil for not only new native religions but also ancient and exotic foreign religions, from eastern Christian sects to Zoroastrianism.
I have read that Indian Syrian Christian churches have now been established all over the world, following the migrations of Indian communities. Perhaps, in the years to come, there will be other divisions, or old differences will be reconciled. But the continuity of the tradition seems assured.