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Malabar Christians

The “Syrian” or “Saint Thomas” Christians of SW India,* the word “Malabar” here being broadly equivalent to the present state of Kerala. There are now three main groups of them: Roman Catholics (who are in two separate blocs); the Syrian Orthodox Church; and the Mar Thoma Church. All trace a common origin to early Christian centuries and generally hold the tradition that Thomas* landed at Cranganore in a.d. 52 and founded churches in seven places in Kerala. A separate tradition concerns immigration of Syrian Christians at Cranganore in 345, after the king and the bishop of Edessa had resolved to reinforce the churches in Kerala. The leader was Thomas of Cana. A section of the Syrian Christians today, known as Southists, comprises those said to be descended from the Cranganore colonists. In the Roman Catholic Church the diocese of Kottyam is explicitly for Southists. The earliest account of the detailed tradition about Thomas in Kerala comes from the Portuguese writer, Antonio de Gouveau.

A subsequent immigration of Syrians, at Quilon, is traditionally dated 823. Five copper plates exist, recording grants of lands and privileges to the Tarisa Church, but are of uncertain date. Five carved stone crosses, with inscriptions in Pahlavi (language of the Sassanid Persian Empire), exist, one at the supposed St. Thomas shrine in Mylapore (Madras) and four in Kerala. They are of the seventh or eighth centuries. The Alexandrian writer Cosmas (c.525) had found Christians in Malabar and some at Kalliana, with a bishop appointed from Persia. Not much is known about the Syrian Christians in the Middle Ages, but the general picture is clear: an established church in Kerala with an outpost at Mylapore; a church dependent on the church of the Persian Empire; and consequently a church with a Syriac liturgy and ultimately with a creed reflecting Nestorianism.*

Roman Catholic influence began with Franciscans calling en route to China in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, by which time the Syrians' link with the mother church in Mesopotamia was weakened by the circumstances of the Muslim era. In 1330 a French Dominican, Jourdain de Severac, became bishop of Quilon, the initial papal claim to jurisdiction in India. In 1503 the Nestorians were reinforced by five bishops of their own, but simultaneously the Portuguese had come to India, and Jesuit pressure proved too much. The Syrians' metropolitan submitted to Rome, and finally the Synod of Diamper* (1599) severed the Syrian Church from its past and from its Mesopotamian patriarch. Syriac continued to be used in the Romanized liturgy. Resentment at Jesuit rule, however, boiled over in a revolt at the Coonen Cross* in 1653. For a time it seemed that most of the Syrians had seceded from Rome, but within a decade Rome had won back much of the lost ground, using Carmelites instead of Jesuits and appointing one of them as titular bishop in Malabar, thus bypassing the Portuguese hierarchy.

The Syrians who did not return to Rome were free to look abroad for a bishop, especially when Dutch power replaced Portuguese in Kerala and the foreign Roman clergy were cleared out. But the bishop who came to them in 1665 was not from the Nestorian patriarch, but from the Jacobite one at Antioch-hence the subsequent description of the Syrians as “Jacobite.” The Syrians were now in two groups: Roman Catholic and Jacobite. Through the initiative of the British authorities in South India, and partly because of the findings of Claudius Buchanan,* work among the Syrians was begun by the Church Missionary Society in 1816. The purpose was not to make Anglicans of the Syrians, but to seek the renewal of the ancient church. Unhappily, after two decades the mission was unacceptable to the Syrian authorities, and the missionaries turned to other work in Kerala. Some of the Syrians at this point seceded and became Anglicans; the outcome is the Central Travancore diocese of the Church of South India* today.

Others remained within the Syrian Church as a reform party. One of its leaders, Abraham Malpan, was excommunicated because of his reforms, but sought to change things at the top by having his nephew sent to the patriarch of Antioch. The nephew returned to India as Bishop Mar Athanasios and with a claim to be made metropolitan of the Syrian Church. After lengthy legal battles, the reform party lost all claim to property and in 1889 had to begin separate existence as the Mar Thoma Church, which proved to have an evangelistic concern.

The Jacobite Church had to endure continued legal struggles in the twentieth century until a 1958 decision of the supreme court of India led to reconciliation between parties of the metropolitan (catholicos) and of the patriarch of Antioch. The title “Orthodox Church” was now preferred to “Jacobite.” The Roman Catholics were the largest single group of Syrians, most of them belonging to the Syro-Malabar Rite, but a smaller number to the Syro-Malankara Rite which owes its origin to an accession of Jacobites in 1930. There are, in addition, Roman Catholics of the Latin Rite in Kerala, but fewer in number than the Syrians. There are other smaller groups, including a Nestorian Church which derives from a split from the Roman Catholic Syrians.

See C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History (1961), and D.P. Matthew and M.M. Thomas, The Indian Churches of Saint Thomas (1967).