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Ancient Christians in India

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In southern India, in Kerala, there are millions of people known as St. Thomas Christians. Their ancestors, many believe, were converted by the Apostle Thomas in the first century. Portuguese missionaries later destroyed most of the ancient church writings, replacing them with their own. But now Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota are rediscovering the surviving texts. Fred de Sam Lazaro has a close-up view of all this. He is both our correspondent and journalist-in-residence at St. John’s University.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota may be best known in the world of biblical manuscripts for its illuminated, hand-written Bible.

Reverend COLUMBA STEWART, OSB (St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN, handing over manuscripts): Ethiopian manuscript, Latin manuscript.

DE SAM LAZARO: But also here, in the subterranean Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, is one of the most extensive records of sacred texts from around the world.

Reverend STEWART: This project of preserving manuscripts photographically was started out of our Benedictine tradition of being guardians of culture. The monasteries have been places where texts particularly have been treasured.

DE SAM LAZARO: Father Columba Stewart’s quest to record church history, to fill in its blanks, has taken him to the farthest trails of early Christianity — Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and, perhaps the least well-known destination, Kerala, a province in southwestern India where he recently brought a delegation of his museum’s benefactors.

Rev. STEWART: We got to India through the Middle East, and of course that’s how Christianity got to India in the first place. There’s an assumption that there were no Christians in India until the Western missionaries brought the Gospel to this land of pagans, and that’s not the truth at all.

DE SAM LAZARO: Long before it reached many parts of Europe, Christianity came across the Arabian Sea to Kerala along the thriving spice trade routes. Today about seven million people, a fifth of Kerala’s population, call themselves St. Thomas Christians after Jesus’ apostle, who many here believe arrived in India in 52 A.D. Even today, parts of some liturgies are sung in Syriac, close to the Aramaic language spoken by Christ.

Professor ISTVAN PERCZEL (Department of Medieval Studies, CEU): They claim to have been converted by St. Thomas the Apostle. This we cannot prove either or disprove. But from the, I don’t know, third, perhaps fourth century onwards we have testimony to their existence here.

DE SAM LAZARO: Professor Istvan Perczel, a  Hungarian scholar of medieval Christianity, has championed the effort to document Kerala’s church history, bringing together the Minnesota monastery and local Indian scholars

Prof. PERCZEL (looking at manuscript): Hmmm. We have never seen this.

DE SAM LAZARO: He’s spent months in Kerala scouring dusty church closets for old texts and records.

Prof. PERCZEL (pointing at page in manuscript): Can we come back to digitize this?

DE SAM LAZARO: Most of these go back only as far as the beginning of colonization around the 15th century, when the first European colonists — the Portuguese — arrived  to find both spices and the St. Thomas Christians who, they discovered, were a distant branch of Middle Eastern Orthodox churches

Rev. STEWART: By their lights, viewing it through the lens of the 15th- and 16th-century European perspective, these people were heretics. They were concerned that their liturgies and their other writings be purified and corrected on the basis of what a Portuguese Latin-Rite Roman Catholic would expect to be normative. So there is very, very little manuscript evidence from before the Portuguese era, because the Portuguese were very good at collecting these manuscripts that they’d already found, destroying them, and issuing corrected copies of them.

(speaking to Father Ignatius): So, Father Ignatius, this is your oldest Syriac manuscript?

Reverend IGNATIUS PAYYAPPILLY (Director, Catholic Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, India): This is the oldest Syriac manuscript which I have here in these archives. It is written in 1563.

Rev. STEWART: It’s a Syriac manuscript, but there’s a Latin note that this manuscript belonged to the Carmelites, and it’s interesting that they write it in Latin. It, again, tells you something about the religious situation.

DE SAM LAZARO: Latin or Roman Catholic were introduced or imposed on the St. Thomas Christians, though Syriac continued in use in their liturgies. But many outlawed rites survived, as did factions that resisted pledging loyalty to a Syriac patriarch instead of the pope. Scribes from Kerala were later sent to the Middle East to recover texts destroyed by the Portuguese. The only surviving copies of many are now in Kerala.

Rev. STEWART: Those are treasures, because we can find manuscripts that may have disappeared in Middle Eastern libraries, some collections of East Syrian canon law, for example, preserved in unique manuscripts in Kerala, which haven’t survived because of the later persecution of these Christians in the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries.

DE SAM LAZARO: The Kerala church, meanwhile, has seen schisms both between and within the Western and Eastern branches. But through it all the St. Thomas Christians have maintained a distinctly Indian — that is non-European — character.

Rev. PAYYAPILLY: We are Christians in faith, and we are Indian in citizenship, and we are Hindus in culture.

DE SAM LAZARO: Father Ignatius Payyapilly started this museum a few years ago, collecting relics and statues mostly from demolished church buildings.

Rev. PAYYAPILLY: See the halo of Jesus around his head, Jesus, and see the long ears and his hair. These are all typical resemblance of the statue of Buddha.

DE SAM LAZARO: Although the Western scholars first came in search of Syriac manuscripts, they’ve also discovered a rich local history inscribed on palm leaves and in Malayalam, the local language, and tongues that preceded it. Much of it is everyday church accounts and records. Valuable history to scholars — just clutter to most priests in the local churches

SUSAN THOMAS (Church Scholar): And most of these palm leaves were, you know, either put in somewhere where you have them exposed to termites and mice, or just put up with the logs and water wells or the waste material. Sometimes they burn it up.

DE SAM LAZARO: The palm leaves reveal a community that could serve as a model of interfaith harmony in a larger region that’s often seen sectarian violence. The churches employed Hindu scribes, for example, and bishops enjoyed warm relations with the local kings who reigned in the area

Rev. PAYYAPILLY: I have seen here in these archives a beautiful document written by the bishop — handwritten together with the printed one — requesting all the churches belonging to the Cochin Kingdom — they should celebrate the 60th birthday of the king.

DE SAM LAZARO: The king is Hindu?

Rev. PAYYAPILLY: Yes, the king is a Hindu…and they have to say special mass, solemn high mass for the longevity of this king.

DE SAM LAZARO: There’s still much to be analyzed, much to be discovered. All of it will be digitized — rescued from moisture, termites, and neglect and stored here for scholars and for posterity. There will also be back-up copies in an unlikely safe haven: a monastery in central Minnesota.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro.

  • Johnson Myalil

    A very interesting and informative article. I have heard that the Vatican archives also may have historical proof of existence of Christians in Kerala in the early centuries.

  • Chennaiite

    I’m from Chennai, Tamil Nadu, neighbouring state of Kerala. There is a St. Thomas church in Chennai. The church has a bone-shard of St. Thomas in the display. I think they also believe that he was buried there. Its a nice place, about 4 Km from the Chennai airport.

  • MEL

    At last a well-balenced, intelligent, in-depth look at Christian faith that shows respect for the histories of Latin and Orthodox Churches! The Vatican indeed has always maintained the oral tradition of Thomas the Apostle journeying to India, and even has parts of the so-called Gospel of Thomas from ancient times. To see the saturation of Hindu culture on Christianity over centuries is amazing. Good reporting.

  • Jesudas Athyal

    I am amused to read that the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala are now being “discovered” by the Western scholars. St. Thomas Christians have been part of the mainstream Indian society for the past several centuries. Several of them have also played their parts in the global Christian world including a lay person – M. M. Thomas – who served as the Moderator of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. Mathias Mundadan and several other Indian church historians have written extensively on the history of Christianity in India. The highly educated and mobile Indian Christians can today be seen around the globe. The St. Thomas Christians – of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant sections – have their well established dioceses and parishes all over North America. It is possible today, therefore, to experience worship according to the Syriac liturgy in New York or Baltimore or Washington D.C.

    - Jesudas Athyal (an Indian Christian)

  • R Paul

    The report fails to mention the seven churches St. Thomas established in the first century, thus, demonstrating archaeological evidence for the existence of an ancient church in Kerala prior to the fourth century.

  • Sherin Chandy


    The truth cannot be covered for long, It was the portughese missioneries who were tried to convert syrian christians to catholics, and destroyed the syriac manuscripts.

  • Steve K

    I am glad that the west is finding out that there is an Eastern Christianity that has always existed for the past 2,000 years. Out of all the religions in the Americas, whether Buddhist, Islam, Hindu, Sikh, etc., I believe it is Eastern Christianity that the Americas know least about.

    This is a great article.

  • Guillaume Cale Sands

    Saint Thomas Christians like the Gnostics were targetred by the “TRUE” church for purification? Oh well no surprise we have never heard of them.
    This is exactly the sort of thing that infuriates me about religion, instead of peacefully accepting someone has a different beliefs , Abrahamic religions and most other religions aren’t happy unless everyone believes exactly as they do. Its like the old Mark Twain quote”Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion–several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven….”During the Reformation devote Christians of opposing denominations took turn burning each other and each other’s churches,
    smashing beautiful statues and stained glass windows, to proove how much closer to god they were than the opposition, I don’t find religions disgusting, I don’t find people who peacefully practice their faith fools, but I am constantly reminded by history how little peace and piety most organized religions have created.

  • Arvind

    The Thomas story is a MYTH. The church near Chennai (Madras) is a 6th century Armenian church that was taken over by the Portuguese in the 15th century. The bones are fake. They won’t allow carbon dating and there is ANOTHER SET OF BONES for Thomas in Goa! Finally, if Thomas came to India and converted people to Christianity, they would be called “Indian Christians” and not “Syrian Christians” as they are called now. This is a bad program that perpetrates religious mythology as history.

  • barry

    @ aravind… St. thomas story true or not is a matter for historians..there are lot of other historical sources other than what the portugese destroyed….some are disputed for its authenticity. Some are not like the writings of the venetian traveller Fenucio who documents the “native churches” he sees…early on after the “discovery of india “. So the fact that there were christians in kerala before the colonial presence is undisputed historically. The church is called syrian christian because….if u know the history of the church there was always a western centered catholic church and an eastern orthodox one…a split which happened at the 3rd or 4th ecumenican council…around 400-500 AD. the influence and link was always from this eastern orthodox church.. which especially strengthened after the colonial powers (basically western catholic church) started persecuting the native christians. The original church if you research a bit is called “indian orthodox church”. The bones in Goa you are referring to are probably of St.francis xavier.. Im sure there are no bones of St. thomas in India. Thts a ridiculous claim even if made by christians. But I think all this misses the point……the beauty of it is how well integrated they were into the native kerala society – culturally, socially and even in terms of customs n beliefs….this is true for muslims in kerala also (which again spread thru trade even while prophet mohammed was alive). This is in contrast with north india….where islam spread by the sword a 1000 years later. This ancient secular heritage is so unique n so worth preserving. unfortunately all these communities are becoming very closed.

    also the presence of native christians is not in anyway a threat to the heritage of hinduism. It actually is an evidence of the beauty of hinduism which is unparalleled in its liberal attitude. And it in turn created a uniquely indian christianity ….which as the father said….is totally indian and hindu in culture.

  • thomas


  • Vinod

    The comment by Mr.Aravind is due to the lack of knowledge about the history of christians in India.The ancient christians were called as syrian christians because of the language used…

  • Michael

    Actually there are fragments of the relics of St. Thomas is three different places in the world – where St. Thomas was martyred was in India, Mylapore to be exact – part of his relics are there. Another part of St. Thomas’ relics were transferred to Edessa in the Middle East, as the Church in Edessa and the Church in India were connected historically. The third place were St. Thomas’ relic is found is in Ortona in Italy, as part of the relics were brought from Edessa to Chios, Greece and then to Italy in the 1200s.

  • KJ Samuel

    Rev. PAYYAPILLY summed it up so beautifully: “We are Christians in faith, and we are Indian in citizenship, and we are Hindus in culture.”… thats the beauty of co-existence in Kerala

  • Jesudas Athyal

    Barry, you are right in saying that the St. Thomas Christians were well integrated in the Kerala society – culturally and socially. It, however, needs to be noted that this is their strength as well as weakness. The historically entrenched harmonious relationship between the Hindus, Muslims and Christians in Kerala is undisputed. What is overlooked in such an assessment, however, is the caste factor – the organizing principle of the Indian society. The St. Thomas Christians (without any historical evidence) have assumed to be the descendants of converts from the Brahminical sections and as such, have enjoyed cultural and social communion with the upper caste Hindus of the area. The credit for working among the lower castes and outcasts go to the Western missionaries who came on the scene only in recent centuries. To this day, there is little social or cultural communion between the “upper caste” Christians and these new Christians. Your statement that “the presence of native Christians is not in anyway a threat to the heritage of hinduism”, therefore, is a loaded one. Both the upper caste Hindus and those Christians who claim to be of Brahminical descend, are averse to the idea of reaching out to the socially and economically outcast sections. This factor might also account for the “religious conflicts” in North India where the Hindu elite is still distinctly upper caste whereas most of the Christians are from the outcast sections.

  • Varghese

    The findings of article is true.If we connect and read the history about diampher synod, “Kuunen Cruz oath in Mattancherry” and the history related to Menesis Methran(Bishop).

  • Mike Gray

    I understand that in Kerala before the portuguese arrived that the Thomas churches used a syriac text of the gospels called the gospel of the nasari. Does anyone know if this text or portions of it survives in any form in india today?

  • Thomas

    For a Western region its hard to believe christanity started long before in India than it started in Europe.The split of Syrian chrisians in kerala occured after the Kuunen cross oath..and the now groups formed like Syro Malabar christians,Orthodox Christians,Malankara Orthodox,Jacobites,Marthoma etc..
    Ths as per my understandng…somebody correct if am wrng..

  • Abraham

    Wrong,Thomas. The split occurred when Portugese tried to convert the Nasranis (native christians) into catholicism. Cunen cross oath was one which resulted in 95% of Nazranis back to the old tradition. But a severe campaigning by the latins on late 17th Century brought many again to Catholicism. To satisfy them, Rome allowed them to continue the Syriac liturgy and created Syro Malabar Rite.

  • Jason Goff

    This is heart warming that ancient texts are being preserved. I only wish the hidden texts throughtout the world would be preserved as well.
    Especially the practical books/papers, not just the spiritual.
    Ancient libraries around the world hold vast amounts of knowledge.

  • K J Samuel

    Arvind’s contention that the whole thing is a myth is wrong. Of course there are grey areas, because these were not documented correctly. The reason why the Christians are called Syrian Christians is because the religion took shape only after Kanaa Thoma arrived in Kerala a couple of centuries later, and the crystallisation of Christianity happened then. Kanaa Thoma came from Syria, and hence the term Syrian Christians. In fact till a couple of decades ago, all our services were in the Syrian language (Suriyaani) .. as we term it.

  • Blesson

    hai friends there is a one church named Assyerian Church of the east or Chaldean syrian church of the east. Knowing the history of this church u can connect indian church history from begining.Still this church keep its identity .as a ancient church in the world . you can see old syriac and tradition following this church ,

  • Hindu

    If you are changing ur religion that is not the solution live. u have work and earn money. Belive ur self first. Do’t convert any one more

  • hindu

    There are so many temple was thr from long in india. U can not convert all u know. We belive our god. So u go to heven. I wl also go haven with my god.

  • Anoop

    The topic here is not about conversion.Its about how a community evolved.And also it helps actually verifying myths for their factuality

  • John Mathew

    K. J. Samuel’s contention that the term Syrian Christian originates from Thomas of Cana is wrong.

    First of all, there is no evidence of who Thomas of Cana was, when he came, and where he came from. So to claim that the Syrian Christians of Kerala somehow owe their name to him is ridiculous, and based on something without factual basis.

    The term Syrian Christian has a quite simple origin: the rites used by the Kerala Christians are of one of the two Syriac rites: either the (more ancient) East Syriac rite or the (relatively recent) West Syriac rite.

    There is no ethnic connotation whatsoever behind the term “Syrian” or “Syriac” Christian: it is a reference to *rite* not race. For example, Greek rite Christians are Orthodox or Catholics who follow the Byzantine rite — and they are of a variety of ethnicities. Ditto for the term “Latin rite”.

    To be sure, the Syrian Christians of Kerala likely have a variety of genetic influences as Persian Christians and Christians from West Asia (Assyrians, Arameans, and perhaps Jewish converts) and Central Asia settled in Kerala (for a variety of reasons), and intermarried with native Indians. But the term Syrian Christian has nothing to do with this at all.

    There are some, though, who wish to advance a faulty claim (a meme) that the so-called Knanaya (i.e., that minority in Kerala who were historically known as “Southists”) brought the Syriac rite to Kerala. This has no basis in reality whatsoever, as the stories of the “Knanaya” are very recent in origin, starting with various politically-minded bishops of the last two centuries (catholic and orthodox). It is telling that the Knanaya stories themselves are of various flavors: they are either Jews, Syriacs, or Persians, depending on which story one consults.

  • Fr. Mathew Chacko

    Christ is born, Glorify Him! He came for all! He is God’s gift to humanity. Receive Him and you will be blessed! Christianity came to India by the preaching of the Thomas, one of the twelve disciples and Apostles of Jesus, the Christ. Division came when the Portuguese came. Until then there was one Church. It is well for Christians of India, specially Kerala to get their unity back. Scholars like Dr. K. M. George and like-minded leaders of the Indian Church are working on it. I wish them God’s speed.

  • joshin

    praise the lord, it is belived that christianity came to india through st. thomas the deciple of jesus he laned in malinkara, kerala and people there are known as malinkara christians. Christians in kerala has a long history of more than 2000 yeaars.

  • Philips

    It been centuries we all holding the truth st thomas came to malabar and converted people to chritianity. This is not seems to a recent claim and it been had that since ancient times. It believed that ancient trades in malabar area which was tamil area. There were many aramic jewish people heard st thomas and accepted yeshu as messiah. Then there were many middleastern christian migration to malabar because of persecutions there. There were syrian missionaries convert many and married them.Many of these either they locally married, had mixed marriage to some namboothris or royal families converted to margam. thus it populated.Now many of the syrian chruches members are belong to these kind of ancestery and these could be the reason syric still survive in syrian churches. More than that it seems more like a semitic christiantiy by observing pessiah, fasting, and our suryani worship.There is immigration record s of thomas of cana,Bar Yeshu a small syrian immigraion, Mar sabor iso and Mar proth immigration of Qulion, Information of armenian chrisitans, chaldeans , nestorians all among the crowd. Many catholics convert plenty of locals to their parish which is also true.

  • irfan shaikh

    Because in kerala was the orthodox christianity prevailed, this latin who were following the roman catholic version of christianity didn’t approve of it. Also the original bible would also was lost that is why vatican is mum as they could not digest the fact.

  • Geev

    christianity in india orginated much before the coming of portugeus. Belived to be converted first by st.Thomas. The church florished by the migration of syriacs and arrival of a number of syrian orthodox bishops and missonaryes like mor shabor , mor Afroth etc. But the oriental orthodox identity of the church was sevierly prosicuted by the portugeus who tried to convert syrian christians to roman catholisam. But syrian christians resisted this and the grivence broke out when portugues killed the bishop Ahathulla sent by the syrian patriarc and ultimately resulted in the koonan curiz oath

  • Anesh

    Christianity in India is much ancient than many of the European countries. Christianity came to this land through the Apostle of Lord Jesus Christ St. Thomas. India before 2000 years ago was very much connected to Arabia and Persian countries. There were trade relations between India and the western countries like Rome, Greece, Egypt etc.. Many scholars concluded that India was unknown to many of the Western countries . This is complete nonsense conclusion because before the birth of Jesus christ. Many Ambassadors from the Western countries came to India and wrote books about India and it’s rich traditions. Alexander the Great Invaded India before the birth of Jesus christ. Due to this India was known to the western countries. After Alexander the Great India became the province of Seleucus Nikator one of the General of Alexander the Great. Ptolemy another general of Alexander sent many scholars and ambassadors to India. Trade relations continued between India and the Western world. Still many Roman and Greek coins found and excavated from many southern parts of India in Kerala(Malabar) and Tamil Nadu.

    After Jesus Resurrection St. Thomas the Apostle went to Persia(Present Iraq and Iran) and converted many to christianity and then he travelled to Eastern Part(Northern India) and converted King Gondophorus to christianity. Then he came to Malabar(Chera Kingdom ,Kodungallor) in 52 A.D. Before the arrival of St. Thomas many Jews settled in Malabar. He converted many of the Jewish, Brahmins and Pagans to christianity. He established Seven churches and also a small church named Arapally means Arasan Pally. In Malayalam language Arasan means King and Pally means Church. The Seven churches are Niranam, Palayoor, Nilackal, kokkamangalam, Kollam, Maliankara(Kodungallur) and atlast Thiruvithamcode(Arasan Pally) near Kanya Kumari district. He converted many pagans heals the sick, and did many miracles. He appointed Priests and Bishops. then he travelled and came to mylapore (Chennai , Tamil Nadu) Suffered Martyrdom. He was buried there. After St. Thomas many Bishops and priests came from persia. The Persian church adopted the Syrian liturgy.
    The Arab and persian countries was easily accessible to southern India because of Trade between the two regions. So the church of India asked the help of Patriarch of Antioch(Jacobite Orthodox Syrian) and Patriarch of Alexandria(Coptic Orthodox) to send delegates and bishops to India. They accepted and sent many Bishops and delegates to India. Naturally India Church(St. Thomas Christians) adopted the Syrian Liturgy and came under the Patriarch of Antioch and Became Jacobites. Before the arrival of Portuguese in 16th century the Indian church practiced this tradition. After their arrival they tortured the Syrian christians and they were greedy and forced them to convert to Latin catholics under Pope (Patriarch of Rome) and asked them to worship the Idols. so they didn’t accept their rites and traditions which resulted in coonen cross oath. and came back to their family back(Syrian tradition) and later the Jesuits and carmelites brainwashed many and they again converted as Roman Catholics. Now many St. Thomas Christians were under the christian denominations Malankara Orthodox church,Jacobite Church, Roman Catholic, Syro Malabar…..

  • irfan shaikh

    if one would say that jesus pbuh was alive and was present and in refugee status in north india during the time when St. thomas was sent along with St. bartholomew to the south indian coast when it was famous for spice trading and traders who were mostly children of israels and were famous for the area where they were staying. that’s why they came to preach the extention of judaism and to confirm the promised messiah to the children of israel has come and to follow the commandment thenafter in the form of gospel. Go and find the right truth.

  • arindam

    The above artcles deal with St Thomas , can I know about the priests / bishops appointed by Him .

  • Xavier Abraham

    There was no “Middle Eastern Orthodox church” in Kerala when Portuguese missionaries arrived. The Oriental Orthodox churches reached Indian shores in the seventeenth century.

  • fazal ahmad

    I believe this true that St.Thomos,s traces are found in Karalla.

  • Maria la Ygorota

    Wow…your disccussions here just answered my final exams… Thank loads to all the intellectual people who shared thier views. cheers! =)

  • AJK

    Very informative article and comments, much of which coincides with the history I’ve heard growing up.
    My family are Syrian Orthodox Christians from Kerala.
    The history we’ve documented is that most recently we are the family of a Syrian bishop who came to Kerala in the 1600′s to reinforce against the Portuguese.
    Prior to that, the story is that we were part of the original familiies who immigrated with Thomas of Canaan or at least around the same time.
    After DNA testing, it was revealed that our haplogroups are Syrian and Armenian, not a trace of native Hindu though we’ve been in India for at least 1000 years.
    This helps to support the history documented in our family as to where we came from, and per the article.

  • Bob freeman

    I have spent considerable time studying the early christian church. I found this article, and especially the comments that followed to be very enlightening. I will save a copy of the comments and investigate them as I have the time. Thanks to all of you.

  • ftv

    no more details available about the leaders before 15th century, because Portuguese missionaries demolished all the documents by using their power…..