Saint Thomas Legend and Indian Christianity

An enquiry into the colonial and missionary interest.

Prof. C. I. Issac

An historical narrative of Indian Christianity would not be complete without the study of Christianity in Kerala. Christianity is believed to have reached the shores of Kerala in the first century of Common Era [C.E.], though this is not supported by documentary or authentic evidence. The emergence and spread of Christianity in Kerala is shrouded in such myths and legends. Kerala’s Christian past is essentially pivoting on the stories popularized by the Church on the fragile foundations of theology and belief. Therefore, historians encountered many problems in deconstructing its past. First is the question of the arrival of Saint [St.] Thomas and subsequent conversion of Hindu aristocracy [particularly the Namboothiris] to Christianity. Second is the date of the origin of Christianity in Kerala. Third one is the European interest behind popularization of generating aristocratic [savarna] feeling among the native Christians. Finally, how far these missionary activities mutilated the national life?

The centre of the pre-colonial phase of history is the question of savarna origin of Kerala Christianity and the role of Thomas, a disciple of Jesus. This savarna origin theory of Indian Christianity was firstly constructed and popularized in Kerala by Fringies [Portuguese Catholic Missionaries] in the sixteenth century for the fulfillment of their colonial ends1. It is true that before the arrival of Europeans in India, a nominal Christian presence was seen only in the Travancore and Cochin regions of Kerala. The antagonism that was generated amongst the Christians and Muslims due to the Crusades of 11th, 12th and 13th centuries prevented Christian proselytism enterprises from planting their roots in the Malabar region where Muslims got roots quite earlier. It is only during the British period that the Christian society came into being in the Malabar region. It is true that the Christians in Travancore and Cochin regions were only a marginal community confined to a few port towns before the arrival of Europeans. For that reason during this period the churches in Kerala were very few in numbers and could be counted on fingers. Hence, since the arrival of Portuguese till the early decades of the nineteenth century here in Kerala there were only less than three hundred Christian churches of all the denominations2. According to Ward and Conner, even after two centuries of the birth of Christianity, the number of Christians on the Malabar Coast shrank to eight families. The Christian population altogether in Travancore and Cochin during the early decades of the 19th century CE was 35,000 with 55 churches3. Thus the native Church’s claim of the story of St. Thomas and the early origins of Indian Christianity is not a universally accepted fact. In the year 1952 CE, the native Catholic Church approached the Papacy in Rome for Pontifical approval to celebrate 1900th year of proselytism of Kerala since the arrival of St. Thomas on its shores. The Papacy declined the request of the Kerala Catholics on the ground that the claim has no historicity. In spite of this denial, the Savarna Catholics, the Syrian descendants of those said to have received baptism from disciple Thomas, celebrated the 19th centenary of the arrival of Thomas with much pomp.

Behind the building of such a story of apostolic and savarna origin of Indian Christianity there was a willful plan of destabilizing the foundations of Hinduism through the conversion of higher castes of India. It means the total conversion of Hindus. Robert de’ Nobili, [hailing from Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy]4 was the brain behind the savarna origin theory of the early Indian [Kerala] Church. It was the part of his ambitious programme of converting the Brahmins to Christianity. Because of his zeal to convert the Hindu aristocracy to Christianity; he adopted their mode of life, mastered in Sanskrit and so had to cut himself off completely from intercourse with his fellow missionaries. He worked in Madurai, Mysore, and the Carnatic till old age and almost complete blindness compelled him to retire to Mylapore5. Through him the cultivation of savarna feeling amongst then wealthy sections of the Christian faith started. A section of the Church en-cashed this new feeling for their missionary ends. His labour in this direction may further encouraged building the story of Thomas’ christening of the Namboothiris of Kerala. Another derogatory step that follows from the missionary interest in India is the recasting of the traditional Hindu symbols to suit the Church’s purpose of conversion. The pioneer in this line was Robert De Nobili, an early seventeenth century Catholic Missionary of India, who lived in the attire of a Hindu hermit and established a monastery in Madurai to convert Brahmins. He attempted to place Christianity within the Vedic tradition which would appeal to the upper jatis. The old Nobilian legacy is still continuing. 6.

. The only historical record pertaining to the arrival of Saint Thomas is the book ‘The Acts of Thomas’. But this book does not mention the Malabar Coast. “Acts of Saint Thomas is a historical romance written in Syriac towards the end of second or by the beginning of third centuries.”7 In the history of social formations of ancient Kerala, it is interesting to see that up to the fourth century CE this land was occupied by the pre-Vedic settlements only8. So Nambootiri as a Hindu jati was seen only after the fourth century of CE. The Terisapalli [St. Theresa Church] Copper Plate Grant [Terisapalli Cheppedu] executed in 849 CE by Ayyan Atikal Tiruvatikal of Venadu during the reign of Emperor Sthanu Ravi (844-855) is the available oldest historical documentation linking Christianity to Kerala. But this grant was obtained by the foreign Christian merchants9. The first Christians of the Kerala may be the merchant community hailing from the new faith who settled here temporarily or permanently for business purposes. The Persian Christian migration was the prime reason of the growth of Christianity in Kerala. In addition to it the threat posed by the religion of Islam in the Persian region since 7th century CE onwards through its Christian persecution caused the influx of Christian refugees to this land, supplemented to the Christian population of Kerala. Even after the Persian Christian migration the Christian population remained here as a marginal group/jati in this tiny region until the European occupation of this land. Several travelers’ accounts and British documents are referring to the emaciated conditions of the native Christianity. Only after the indiscriminate conversion of native jatis from sixteenth century CE onwards by the European Christian missionary bands resulted in the enhancement of the Christian population of Kerala to the present level10. Further more G. T. Mackenzie observes, Christians prior to the arrival of Portuguese, did not form the part of Travancore aristocracy. Pope Nicolas IV sent Monte Corvino, a missionary to convert India and China and he wrote to pope in 1306 that “There are very few Christians and Jews [in India] and they are of little weight”.11. Thus the earliest migrant Christian population was numerically a negligible section. The natives regarded Christianity as another path, as well as an upasana system12. Therefore it functioned here as an offshoot of Hinduism till the arrival of Portuguese. Even the names of the Christians were Hindu.13

After the arrival of the Portuguese, a large-scale aggressive proselytizing movement started in Kerala under the stewardship of a padre called Francis Xavier. His eight-year stay in South India changed the entire course of its history. In a short period, he was able to enhance the numerical strength of Kerala’s Christian population. He was no different from Mohammed Ghazini or Aurangazeb in the space of proselytizing enterprise. Francis Xavier was the man solely responsible for the establishment of the Inquisition Court in Goa in 1560, under which Hindu women were raped and burnt alive and Hindu temples were demolished14. The wrath of the Catholic Church that was started with Francis Xavier in Goa did not spare even innocent children of Hindu origin. This notorious religious court functioned in Goa till 1812. Francis Xavier once remarked, “I told the new Christians to demolish the shrines of the idols and saw to it that they crushed the images into dust. I could not express to you the consolation it gave me to watch the idols being destroyed by the very hands of those who so recently used to worship them”15. No doubt Francis Xavier was a mentally debased bigot. Thus the history of temple annihilation in Kerala starts with Francis Xavier in Travancore-Cochin. The first prey was the temple at Thevalakkara in Quilon district and Palluruthi near Cochin16. Another church demolished by the Christian fanaticism during the said period was the Church at Palayoor near Guruvayoor. Until the day of the collapse of the disputed structure at Ayodhya, the Palayoor Church authorities kept a board in front of the church which reads: “The church was constructed by St. Thomas after demolishing a temple”. [Now the board has been removed]. The last one of such demolitions took place in 1950, by setting fire to the famous Sastha Temple at Sabrimalai. In the Malabar region it continued unabatedly until the resistance movement organized in 1969 under the organizational umbrella of Kshetra Smrakshna Samiti by the renowned freedom fighter K. Kelappan [Kelappajee]. De Souza, the Portuguese governor, made a futile attempt to plunder the shrine at Thiruppathi is also to be remembered in this context. The Portuguese did not spare the Muslims of Malabar. The Sixteenth Century Muslim Arabic scholar of Kerala [Ponnani], Shaik Zainuddin, in his work Tuhafat-ul-Mujahiddin, mentions their plunder and destruction of mosques. They did not spare the Kerala’s Jews either: to escape the Portuguese persecution, in 1565 the Jews of Crangannoor escaped to places of Hindu dominancy such as Paravoor, Mala, Chennamangalam, Ernakulam, etc.

It is important to consider the information available from the work of C. M. Augur, an English Missionary cum the Resident of Travancore, to pencil in a correct picture of the Christian intolerance from the days of Padre Francis Xavier. According to Augur in 1816 C.E there were, in the Travancore State [now the part of Kerala], 19,524 temples and 301 churches for all denominations. But in 1891, that is after 76 years, the number of temples had come down to 9,364 and the number of churches had burgeoned to 1,116. [17]. It really a testimony to understand the depth and extent of extermination of Hindu culture during the colonial phase. While the Portuguese used force to the spread of the ‘faith’ British moved with education and legislation. The British insisted several native kings to nationalize rich temples in order to enhance their revenue. This resulted in the withering away [mercy killing] of several temples having less income which was once supported by the nationalized temples.

In the place of every demolished temples churches were sprang up. One such famous church was established in 1938 was at Malayattoor, near Adi Sankara’s birthplace. It was earlier a Siva temple. The revenue records of the old princely state of Travancore admit this fact. The temple was known to the locality as “Kurinchimudi Temple” [hill peak temple]. After the Christian occupation the name of the place was slightly changed to “Kurissumudi” [Mount of cross]. During the Sangam period the entire South India was topographically divided into five regions. The regions contained hills and mountains were called “Kurinchi“. Really the temple name was associated with its topography was conveniently changed with the ’sign of faith’ by the Christians after their occupation of the temple site. Considering the geographical area, the number of the temples set ablaze or knocked down in Travancore was proportionately much higher than that of temples demolished by the Muslim rulers of Northern India.

The Portuguese’s over enthusiasm to generate a Christian population in India was not born out of their ecclesiastical interest but of their political ends. It is very clear from their Latin American experiences. To generate a section that supports their political interest in India was the need. Hence the early Christians of Kerala fell in their trap. Earlier they supported them and later clashed with them. Their objectives well reflected in the subsequent disguised reform measures.

1. It is to create the way smooth for the establishment of Portuguese domination over Hindustan.

2. To establish Roman ecclesiastical authority over Kerala’s Christianity;

3. To destroy all its Hindu practices, rituals and traditions that were retained by the native Christians;

4. To extend the Latin Christendom to the soil of the Hindus.

All this intended to de-Hinduize the Malabar [Kerala] Christianity resulted in the Synod of Damper [Udayamperoor], 1559, and it was the graveyard of Syrian Christian Hindu morphology18. Thus the native Christian community reacted against their villainous designs and it resulted in the Oath of Coonan Cross”19. It was a delayed response so it didn’t produced any desired results.

During the British period missionaries followed the policy of education and modernization of the natives. Missionaries and indologists together popularized the notion of ‘modernity’ and presented colonialism as the synonym of modernity. It was in the light of the history of this land. They realized the fact that to proselytize a Hindu is a quiet difficult task. To the Hindu, “every religion is a path that leads to God-realization. There is only one God which is called by various names and which is attainable to genuine seeker by sincerely following his own path. All the Hindu scriptures have upheld this view”.20. That is why to a Hindu the question of conversion is immaterial. The obsessive eyes of the English missionaries were always in search of the weaker aspects of the targeted society and people. This is an observable fact that operates from the first century to the present day with some morphological difference only.

On the other hand it is easy to make a Hindu a non-committed Hindu through his schooling. Missionary enterprises through ages moved in this direction. Educational vision of the missionaries in pagan lands not only confined to modernization of its social fabric but to “get acquainted with the person of Jesus Christ and His Gospel” by the youths outside the Christian faith21. This is nothing different from the ‘Pauline’ strategy of the first century that successfully experimented in Athens. It can be made clearer by quoting St. Paul, “For I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which is written, ‘To an Unknown God’. That, which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you”22.

The colonial and subsequent missionary activities are not finishing with mere change of faith but its far reaching consequences are still confronting by the Hindu populations particularly of Kerala and North Western regions. No doubt, the history teaches that any small change in the demographic pattern will be a threat to the national integrity. The number of Muslim population in India in 1901 was 2,91,02,000, but thereafter in 1941 this population got a growth of 68.24 percent and reached it at 4,26,45,000. So they demanded an exclusive state for the Muslims. In 1940s Muslims has only 13.38 percent share in the Indian population but it established that it was sufficient to demand a separate state for them. Regions like the Northeast secured an upper hand to the Christian population in the 1960s [1961 Christian population: 52.97 % & in 2001: 85%], hence demands their severance. Like wise any slight regional imbalance due to the changes in the religious equilibrium will endanger the nation.

Before the political and economic strength of the organized religions of Kerala the divided Hindu is subjected to the extinction syndrome. Even though Hindus are numerically predominant, the vote bank politics kick them out of the political processes of Kerala. Religious minorities vote is very decisive to all political parties of the state and are very particular to sacrifice the Hindu interest before the religious minorities vested interest. From much applauded land reforms to the educational reforms the Hindu interest were sabotaged. Now the 55 percent of the Hindus population of Kerala controls 11.11 % of the total bank deposits. On the other hand 19 % Christian community commands 33.33% and 25% Muslim population retain 55.55 percent.

Non Resident Keralite [NRK] remittances as well as the income from commercial crops cultivation are the main source of the income of the state. The number of the NRKs during the period 2005-06 was 3, 65,293. Of which, the 82.5% are in the Gulf countries. Of the total Gulf country workforce during the reported period, 49.5% were Muslims and 31.5% were Christians. The Hindu share in this sector is only 19% only23. 60.5% of the total NRK remittance is the contribution of the minority communities24. Again the total NRK remittance is 184.65 billion rupees and it is equivalent to seven times of the state government receipts as centre budgetary support or fifteen times of the earning from the cashew export or nineteen times of the states marine export. The annual average remittance per house hold is also shown wide imbalances. A Marthomma Christian share is Rs.26, 098/-, a Muslim is Rs.24, 000/-, a Hindu is Rs.6, 134/- and a Hindu SC is Rs725/ [25]. On the other hand the average land holding of a Christian family of Kerala is 126.4 cents and of Hindus and Muslims are 69.1 and 77.1 cents respectively26.

In the industrial sector 30% and 35% are under the control of the Muslims and Christians respectively. In the agriculture sector Muslims holds 23% and the Christians hold is 40%. The trade and commerce sector Muslims and Christians correspondingly holds 40% and 36%. Conversely the whole jatis of Hindu’s hold in the segments such as industrial is 28%, in agriculture is 24%, and trade-commerce is 22%. Don’t forget the fact that certain weakest Hindu jatis shares in the above sectors may be zero27. The Hindu population of Kerala as per the 2001 census is 56.2%. Of them 5.5% are farmers and 18.3% are farm labours. The Muslim population as per the latest census is 24.7% and among them 6.1% is farmers, 11.8% is farm labourers and one among the three families has an overseas employed person. The 19.1% Christians are the most blessed and 12.8% of them are farmers and 11.2% agricultural labourers. The numbers of BPLs are too high in Hindu jatis. It is 39.3 lakhs amongst the Hindus. On the other hand it is 24.7 lakhs and 8.2 lakhs respectively amongst the Muslims and Christians28.

Before the growing strength of Semitic religions the Hindu identity itself is in danger at certain parts of the country. This situation further advances to several new states by taking advantage of the changed political situation of India. Under the shield of certain constitutional rights the minority religions labouring to enhance its numerical strength by ignoring the fact that all other sections has the right to protect their religions, faith and cultural identity. If this trend continues unabatedly for another half a century the Hindu nation may shrink to be a concept of the past.

End notes

1. V. Balakrishnan, History of Syrian Christians of Kerala, Trissur, 1999, pp 75, 76

2. C. M. Augur, The Church History of Travancore, 1902, Kottayam, pp 7, 8, 9.

3 Ward [Lieut.] and Connor, The Survey of Travancore and Cochin States, Trivandrum, 1863, pp 146, 147

4. Catholic Encyclopedia on CD-ROM,

5. Ibid

6 Titus George, Why must it be Vedic identity? The New Indian Express, Kochi, 25 September 2000.

7. The date of the journey of Saint Thomas is not mentioned in this book. The book tells us that Thomas started from Jerusalem spent a few time in Syria and reached Afghanistan. Its ruler was Gondophernes. Thomas converted the ruler and his brother. Thereafter his journey was to Mazda where there he became martyr. See The Saint Thomas Christian Encyclopedia of India, Vol. 2, Trissur, 1973, p 3. Three fragments of the Gospel of Thomas in Greek, dated about 200 CE, were found in Oxyrhyncnus, Egypt, at about the turn of the last century and a full text in Coptic, dated 350 CE, was found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. See New Theories in Bible Research, John Dart, Indian Express, dated 9th April 1978.

8 P. K. Gopalakrishnan, Kerala Samskarika Caritram, 1991, Trivandrum, pp 206 –211

9. This Copper Plate contains a land grant to Christian community of Quilon for the construction of Teresa Church. A. Sreedharamenon, Survey of Kerala History, Kottayam, 1970, p100.

10. C. M. Agur, Church History of Travancore, Kottayam, 1902, pp 7-9

11. G.T. Mackenzine, Christianity in Travancore, Trivandrum, 1901, p 8

12.P.K.Balakrishnan, Jati Vyavstituoum Kerala Charitravoum, Kottayam, 1983,

p 345 ff

13. See Thazhakadu Church Inscription of Chera King Rajasimha, [1028-1043 C.E]

14.Kanayalal. M.Talreja, Holy Vedas and Holy Bible, New Delhi, 2000, p 170.

15. Francis Xavier in a letter to the Church authorities in Portugal explains his joy and consolation while Hindu idols were destroyed. See V. Balakrishnan, op cit, p 105 & Kanayalal M. Talrej, op cit, p 18.

16.T. K. Velupillai, The Travancore State Manual, Vol. II, [1940] Trivandrum, rpt. 1996, pp 174,175 & A. Sreedharamenon, op cit, pp 228, 229.

17. C. M. Augur, Church History of Travancore, Kottayam, 1902, pp 7, 8, 9.

18. P. Cheriyan, op cit, p 68 & Missionary Register from 1818 to 1817, pp 101-115

19. It is because of the pull caused through the coir rope the Cross curved down. In Malayalam Coonan mean curved or bent. The meaning is “Oath of Bent Cross”.

20. Rg Vedic messages of “eakam sat vipra bahutavatanthi” the centre of Hindu religious approach. See, P. Parameswaran, Hindutva Ideology – Unique and Universal, Chennai, 2000, p 7.

21. “Education is an integral part of our mission to proclaim the Good News to every creature”. See C.M.I Vision of Education, [A policy statement published by Carmelite of Mary Immaculate] Cochin, 1991, pp 1, 6.

22. Paul, the Apostle of Christ, The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament, Chapter XVII, Aphorism: 22.

23. See Economic Times, 19 May 2003

24. See K.C. Zachariah & others, Study, report published in ‘The new Indian Express’, Kochi, 22 July 2003.

25. K. C. Zachria & S. Irudayarajan, CDS Study, New Indian Express, Kochi, 16th July 2004

26. Kerala Padanam, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, Kozhikode, 2006, p 54. [Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad is a Marxist party organization.].

27. K. C. Zachariah, CDS Study, report: The New Indian Express, Cochin, 16th July 2004.

28. Kerala Padanam, op cit, p 54