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Legacy of the Apostle Thomas in South India.

The ancient port of present-day Cochin and its hinterland in Southwest India has held a fascination for me, not only because that was my birthplace, but more importantly, because of its 2000-year history of maritime trade with ancient Palestine and its neighbors. In fact, its connection with Palestine predates the Common Era, going back to the time of King Solomon from the Old Testament. (1)

The state of Kerala on the southwest tip of India is known for its lagoons, backwaters, black wooden canoes plying rivers in a languid fashion while children swim alongside, fishing boats, tall, swaying palm trees and a devout, thriving Christian community, thanks, tradition says, to the Apostle Thomas (Thomas Didymus). (2)

Trade between South India and the West transferred goods to the Middle East as early as the third millennium B.C.E. But the discovery of the monsoon winds by Greek sailors around 45 C.E. made it possible for ships serving Rome to sail from the Horn of Africa to Kerala's Malabar Coast in only 40 days. Positioned between Rome and China, Kerala thrived as an international meeting place. Merchants from India and Malaya collected silk and cinnamon from China and pearls and precious stones from Indonesia and brought them to the Malabar Coast to be loaded onto Greek and Arab ships. (3)

According to the census report of 2001, Kerala's total population was about 32 million. Almost 91% of the populace is literate, and about 10.3 million i.e.32.3 percent are employed in some occupation or other. Almost 7.2 percent of the population is employed in cultivation, 16 percent as agricultural laborers, 3.5 percent in household industries and the majority of 73.2 percent in other industries. A steep rise in the literacy has led to a rise in those employed in highly technical fields such as engineering, medicine, IT etc. (4)

The religious admixture of Kerala consists of 56.1% Hindus, 24.7% Muslim and 20% Christians living happily within its periphery. Kerala is one of the most crowded rural spots on the planet, stretching 580 kilometers (360 miles) along the Malabar Coast, it squeezes a population larger than California's into a tenth of the space. Most of its residents live along the coast, laced by 41 rivers and more than a thousand canals. (5)

The climate is characterized by extreme heat and humidity, a marked contrast from the dry Mediterranean climate of the Middle East, with its fig and olive trees, its crisp, arid, limestone-dotted scenery. By 7:30 in the morning, temperatures in Kerala reach upwards of 90 degrees with humidity which you can almost cut with a knife. The air is still, devoid of any breeze, unless you happen to live along the coastline. Nothing short of a will of steel could propel the tourist to forge ahead on a sight-seeing trip, given the heavy air that almost sits on you, rendering you immobile. Further inland, tapioca plantations cover miles of soft, dark brown soil enriched by the rains. The only time the air cools in the summer is during the monsoons, which brings torrential rain pelting the ground, treetops, and red-tile or thatched roofs like massive silver bullets. A thunderous sound keeps up for about an hour or so, and, just as suddenly, the pounding stops, cooling the air and the ground. If the sunshine returns, it does so with full force, heating the atmosphere, and the cycle starts all over again.

My earliest recollection of the Syrian Orthodox church, the faith into which I was born, was the liturgy chanted in Syriac, an ancient tongue akin to Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Vestiges of Aramaic still remain today and is spoken in a village in Syria. Thus the word for "holy spirit" in the liturgy is "ruah," the original Aramaic term, often used in the chant, while the priest assisting the bishop, or the "Metropolitan," swings an ornate brass incense holder during the service, which lasts two hours as the congregation stands during the entire length of it. The Metropolitan sports an elaborate red silk robe tied at the waist with a thick, silk cord, and his head is covered with a black hood. Clergy assisting in the services, called the "cattanar," is attired in a white cotton robe tied at the waist with a thick, black cord. The aroma of the frankincense burning in the holder is heady, and thick smoke permeates the altar area. (6)

The Caste System in Ancient India

In antiquity, although the rulers of Kerala were Nayars, a warrior class, and Nambudiris formed the arrogant priestly class, both communities lived on cordial terms. While the Nambudiris lived on rent, the Nayars constituted the body of regular fighters, generals, and civil servants. The artisan castes were untouchables to the Nayars and unapproachable by twenty-five paces to the Nambudiris. The aborigines were unapproachable by ten paces too, the artisans, by twenty paces to the Nayars, and by sixty paces to the Nambudiris. This was the patina of the social structure of the region when the first settlers came from the Mediterranean. (7)

While most of Christ's disciples confined their activities to the Mediterranean region, the Apostle Thomas chose the distant and little-known East with its mysterious peoples and deities. He first preached the Good News (Gospel) that the kingdom of God was at hand in Parthia, present-day North-Western Iran, then moved to North-Western India. Finally he arrived by boat at the Malabar coast, better known today as Kerala. Finally he is said to have settled in Muziris, the ancient name for the region near Cochin before being martyred about 20 years later in Mylapore, a coastal area of Chennai, in South-Eastern India. The spot has been named after him as St. Thomas Mount. (8)

The Mount is dotted with trees and exhibits an unforgiving rocky terrain. A small chapel built on a rock marks the spot and has all the hallmarks of a reliquary bringing solace to the faithful. There is a rudimentary orphanage, or was, when I visited the spot, some years ago. Again, one wonders what inner strength drove the Apostle to spread his message in an alien climate, despite the hospitality of its residents. Somewhere in Mylapore, in what is now Chennai, he encountered resistance twenty years into his missionary work and was martyred. He had achieved much, however, having established seven churches along the Malabar Coast.

The apostle's remains were interred at the chapel on St. Thomas Mount for a time before being removed to Edessa, the locus of activity of the ancient Christian community in Syria. Still some bones were said to have been discovered where he had originally been buried. (9)

The Message of the Messiah

The Apostle's initial intention was to spread the message of the long-awaited Messiah to the Jewish population, which had been thriving since before the Common Era, but he extended his message to the people of Malabar, who responded with astonishing interest, and accepted the new message. One wonders at the phenomenal success that met the Apostle's labors in South India when the earliest converts were the elitist priestly classes. Perhaps Christ's message transcended all caste barriers and found root on the Malabar Coast. (10)

Another tradition exists, and this holds that the Syrian Christians of Kerala are descended from families brought here by a merchant of Syria, Thomas of Cana (Canaan), in the fourth century, although this does not exclude the possibility that a Christian community already existed in Kerala. This implies that the Syrians were immigrants to Kerala like the Jews of Cochin.

The Thomas of Cana legend suggests a direct link between Syria and the Syrian Christians of Kerala as demonstrated by the use of Syriac in the liturgy. Canai Thoma, as he was called, possessed great trade and commercial acumen and was known for his influence over the ruler of Kerala at the time. He received a royal welcome and was treated with deference. During the exodus to South India in 345 C.E., Canai Thoma brought with him seventy-two families consisting of about 400 members, including a bishop and several priests. These were respected by the high born Malabar Christians as the countrymen of Mar Iso (Lord Jesus) and Mar Thoma (Lord Thomas), and as such, worthy of the greatest honor and respect. The Syrians and Malabar Christians soon intermarried and merged into a single community, Canai Thoma himself having married a Malabar Christian. (11)

However the Syrian Christian community originated, it was an established fact that there was a flourishing Christian community in Kerala for many centuries before the arrival of the first European on the Malabar Coast. Marco polo brought the news to Europe after he visited India in the thirteenth century. (12)

The earliest Syrian Christians in antiquity had considerable grants, immunities, and properties conferred on them by the native princes and rajas of ancient Kerala. When first discovered by the Portuguese who landed on the Malabar Coast in the 16th century, the Syrian Christians distinguished themselves by their moral fabric and independence of character, and were considered the chief strength of the princes by whom they were protected and supported. (13)

Ancient Aramaic

Aramaic has the longest-attested membership to the NW Semitic subfamily of languages, which also includes Hebrew and Phoenician. Although only a small proportion of biblical texts are preserved in the Aramaic original (short verses from Dan, Ezra, Jeremiah, and Genesis) it was the primary international language of literature and communication throughout the Near East from 600 B.C.E. to 700 C.E. Aramaic was the spoken language of Palestine, Syrian, and Mesopotamia in the formative periods of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. (14)

Christ and his disciples spoke Aramaic, according to the Gospel stories, and many parts of the New Testaments texts preserve Aramaic words and expressions in their original form, as in talitha cumi meaning "maiden, awake."

After the Muslim conquest, Arabic gradually displaced Aramaic as the literary and colloquial language of the Near East, but isolated pockets of modern Aramaic still remain today. As mentioned earlier, its derivative, Syriac, is still used in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. (15)

In a conversation, Reverend K. Skaria, parish priest of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church in Chennai on the South East coast of India, endorsed the similarities between Aramaic and Syriac. A student of ancient linguistics might find these parallels of great interest, as it does for me. The sounds of these languages spoken now after millennia serve to help historians and linguists to trace the development of modern language nuances from ancient ones. (16)

Mel Gibson's blockbuster film The Passion of The Christ, released across India in May 2004, has sparked new interest in Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke. Kerala is perhaps one of the few places in the world where the study of the Syriac dialect has been kept alive, along with Sanskrit and Arabic, over the centuries, largely due to the existence of the Syrian Christian community and its churches. (17)

Mar Aprem, Metropolitan of the Chaldean Syrian Church of the East, heads one of the smallest but most ancient Christian Communities in India. He is the author of the book Teach Yourself Aramaic and believes that the release of the film The Passion of the Christ could be a reason for the increased demand for learning the language. Mar Aprem's doctoral thesis, "History of the Assyrian Church," saw a jump in the sale of his book after the release of the film. (18)

According to him, about 1.5 million people around the world know Aramaic, the present variants of which are slightly different from the tongue used by Christ. He says Aramaic is not a difficult language to learn grammatically, though more difficult than English or Malayalam, the language spoken by the residents of Kerala. Aramaic has only 22 letters in the alphabet beginning with "alap." Being a Semitic language, it is written from right to left. Metropolitan Aprem maintains that his church has about 100 works in Aramaic in its library, including a 16th century hand-written prayer book written by a native of Kerala, and a text on Canon Law believed to be compiled by Mar Abdisho in the 13th century. (19)

In an informal poll I conducted of members of the Syrian Christian community in India and the U.S., comments and reactions to the movie The Passion ranged from "horrific," to "too violent," to "those were violent times," to "preferred not to see it," to "hearing Aramaic spoken gave me goose bumps." My own interest centers on the cadence of the spoken language, and certain words bore similarities (to me) with Hindustani, an older version of the Indian language, Hindi.

Artifacts Discovered from Ancient Ports

About 25 kilometers north of Cochin lies Pattanam the present name for Muziris, the ancient trading port of merchants. It was here that Apostle Thomas established the first church. This church has undergone some changes in that it was later built along the model of St.Peter's Basilica in Rome. Muziris, (Pattanam) possesses none of the splendor of its ancient harbor. It has its share of lagoons and canals, but is prone to flooding in the rainy season. None of its structures can be dated back to more than six centuries, and because the sea has receded in recent times, the site of the ancient harbor is hard to locate. (20)

Other sites were initially thought to be Muzirs, the Roman name for the port, but excavations at these places did not yield any evidence years of attempt to identify the spot. In 2005 excavations at Pattanam produced pottery shards, including that of a Roman amphora, early Chera dynasty coins, (the ruling dynasty around the year 1and beyond of the Common Era),glazed turquoise pottery, and cameo blanks, (cameos were popular jewelry in ancient Rome). These attest to the existence of active trading antecedents between South India and the Near East. (21)

In Berenike, near the bank of the Red Sea, archaeologists found seven and a half kilos of pepper in an earthenware pot, preserved from the early first century. The pot was made in Muziris. A more dramatic find in Muziris was a jetty with a boat loaded with pepper, mango, gooseberry, frankincense, and dry coconut shell. The cargo was mummified in the mud, and the wood of the boat has been carbon-dated to 2500 years. (22)

In our age, it is intriguing to hark back to the past in studies such as archaeology and history to envision how these cultural interactions must have taken place as a basis of trade, and how it finally resulted in an exchange of religious belief, a form of cross-pollination. It also depicts how open the residents of ancient India were to these ideas and exchanges.

According to Philip Jenkins, historian and scholar, much of what we today call the Islamic world was once Christian. The faith originated and took shape in Palestine and Syria, and in Egypt. These countries continued to have major Christian communities long after the Arab conquests. As late as the eleventh century, Asia was still home to at least a third of the world's Christians, and a tenth of all Christians lived in Africa. (23)

When they think about Christian history, Jenkins claims, most Westerners follow the book of Acts when tracking the church's expansion west, through Greece and the Mediterranean, and then to Rome. But while some early Christians were moving west, others journeyed through eastern land routes to what is today Iraq and Iran where they built splendid churches. (24)

Iraq and Syria were the bases for two great churches built by the Nestorians and Jacobites (Eastern Orthodox Church). Well into the Middle Ages, Christian strongholds included currently newsworthy Iraqi cities of Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk, while Tikrit was a thriving Christian center several centuries after the coming of Islam. (25)

What a few devout followers of The Way started in Syria where they formed a base to escape persecution, took root and fanned out into the Near and Far East, the earliest on record--the missionary foray of the Apostle Thomas into South India --is the most intriguing to date.

Author's Notes

(1.) "Kerala, Jewel of India's Malabar Coast," by Peter Miller, p.601, National Geographic Magazine, VOL. 173, NO 5, May 1988

(2.) "Kerala, Jewel of India's Malabar Coast," by Peter Miller, p.601, National Geographic Magazine, VOL. 173, NO 5, May 1988

(3.) "Kerala, Jewel of India's Malabar Coast," by Peter Miller, p.601, National Geographic Magazine, VOL. 173, NO 5, May 1988



(6.) Syrian Village Clings to Aramaic Language December 2007

(7.) Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan, by P. Thomas, Tinling and Company, 1954 p. 12.

(8.) Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan, by P. Thomas, Tinling and Company, 1954 p. 12.

(9.) Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan, by P. Thomas, Tinling and Company, 1954 p. 12.

(10.) Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan, by P. Thomas, Tinling and Company, 1954 p. 12.

(11.) Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan, by P. Thomas, Tinling and Company, 1954 p. 13.

(12.) Kerala Christians and the Caste System, by C.J.Fuller.Man, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar. 1976) pp. 53-70, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. [Retrieved 23/11/2010]

(13.) Memoir of the Primitive Church of Malayala, or of the Syrian Christians of the Apostle Thomas, by Charles Swanston, Journal of the royal Asiatic Society of Greta Britain and Ireland, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1835), pp234-247, [Retrieved 23/11/2010]

(14.) Article, "Languages (Aramaic)," by Stephen Kaufman. Source: The Aramaic Language by Beyer K. 1986

(15.) Article, "Languages (Aramaic)," by Stephen Kaufman. Source: The Aramaic Language by Beyer K. 1986

(16.) Interview with Reverend K. Skaria, Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox Church, Chennai, S.India, June 22, 2011

(17.) "The Passion of the Christ," Asia,

(18.) "The Passion of the Christ," Asia,

(19.) "The Passion of the Christ," Asia,

(20.) "Ancient Muziris," by Legaleagleabe, Feb. 11, 2008,

(21.) "More Evidence Unearthed at Ancient Port of Muziris," by A. Srivasthan, The Hindu, March, 14, 2010,

(22.) "More Evidence Unearthed at Ancient Port of Muziris," by A. Srivasthan, The Hindu, March, 14, 2010,

(23.) "More Evidence Unearthed at Ancient Port of Muziris," by A. Srivasthan, The Hindu, March, 14, 2010,

(24.) The Lost History of Christianity, the Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia by Philip Jenkins, HarperCollins Publishers, pp. 6-7

(25.) The Lost History of Christianity, the Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia by Philip Jenkins, HarperCollins Publishers, pp. 6-7

Rekha Ambardar teaches marketing, international marketing, advertising, and business communication at Finlandia University in Upper Michigan. She has published two novels and over eighty articles and short stories.
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Title Annotation:MODERN THOUGHT
Author:Ambardar, Rekha
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Geographic overview
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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