Posted by: cochinblogger | November 22, 2012

The Syrian Christians of Kerala: Their Origin

It is a curious historical fact that Christianity came to the shores of Kerala very early (at about the same time that it reached Europe, thanks to Paul’s missionary efforts in Greece), not later than a few centuries CE. This Christian community came to be known as Syrian Christians; the appellation “Syrian” has to do with liturgy and not ethnic origin. It is interesting to read how an outsider like Louise Owerkerk viewed the Syrian Christians. Bear in mind that Louise is no historian; in the absence of solid evidence, historians will tend to be skeptical of this tradition regarding the origin of the Syrian Christians. Also, I wonder how many Syrian Christians know what the word “Syrian” in the term “Syrian Christian” signifies. I myself came to know this fairly recently, and Louise’s explanation is characteristically clear. This is what she writes in No Elephants for the Maharaja:

There is one, and only one, tradition of their origin. The old Syrian families claim that their ancestors were Nambudiri Brahmins who were converted by St. Thomas the Apostle, who arrived in Kerala in 52 AD. There is a strong tradition that he built seven churches on lands given to him by Nambudiri converts; the sites of these churches are identifiable. (There is a chapel at Niranom , next to the family house of the Elanjikal family, which they claim is on the original site given to St. Thomas by their Nambudiri ancestors.) There are no written records of this early missionary effort; but as there is no other account of their origin, and as it is known that there was a Christian community in Kerala by the second century AD, there is a high degree of probability that the story is true. It is not inherently improbable; there had been trade relations between the west coast of India and the Middle East for a thousand years previously and there was considerable trade with Rome in the first century of the Christian era. The community was reinforced in the fourth century AD by a group of Christians under a Thomas of Cana; and it was this group that introduced Syriac as the language of the liturgy. It is from this connection that the name “Syrian Christian” derives.

Update: I’m thankful to the commenter below who notes that Christianity arrived in Kerala at about the same time that (and not “well before,” as I’d written earlier) it arrived in Greece (which is in Europe). I’ve corrected the first sentence accordingly.

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed the information about the origins of the Christian community in India (something I was vaguely aware of). However, a bit of a nitpick. Greece is in Europe. Paul’s second missionary journey was in approximately 50-52 AD, so it would have been about the same time as the earliest (and likely accurate) estimate of when Christianity arrived in Kerala. It is still interesting that Christianity arrived in India at about the same time it arrived in Europe (rather than “well before” as you wrote).

    • Thank you! I’ve made the correction.

  2. The history and legends of <a href="St Thomas“>St Thomas in Kerala are also beginning to intrigue mainstream Europeans..

    • How appropriate that it was none other than the original doubting Thomas who preached to the cynical Malayalee! 🙂


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