The traditions current among the St.Thomas Christian of India is this with regard to their origin. St. Thomas one among the 12 apostles of Christ after visiting Socotra came to Muzris (Kondungallore/Cranganore) on the Periyar estuary, north of Cochin in about AD 52. He preached to the Jewish colony and made converts. He converted natives of sound social and religious standings and established Christian communities at seven places namely: Maliankara (Kodungallore), Palayur, Paravur(Kottakavu), Gokamangalam(Kokamangalam ie at present Pallipuram in Cherthala taluk of Alappuzha district in Kerala), Niranam(Trippaleswaram), Chayal (Nilackal) and Kollam(Quilon).
He also appointed leaders from the leading families from whom he had converts to look after and lead the church. Those families were Kalli, Kaliankal, Shankarapuri and Pakalomattam.From Kerala St.Thomas proceeded to the eastern parts of south India where also he had converts and then on he moved as far as to Malacca and China. Later returning to India he was martyred and buried at Mylapur (near Madras) in AD 72. His mortal remains are entombed at Mylapur now known as St. Thomas Mount (This was well-known from 3rd cent AD onwards on the basis of written evidences as the burial place of the apostle). This above said is the substance of the tradition presented and transmitted by the living community of the St.Thomas Christian of India about their apostolic origin. Details of this can be found in a few folk songs like Ramban Pattu, Veeradiyan Pattu, Margam Kali Pattu etc. These they used to sing during festival occasions and these songs now exist in written records. The Portuguese, who were present among them in the 16th cent have clearly attested to the tomb of the apostle at Mylapore. Moreover the tradition of the East Syrian Christianity, with whom the St.Thomas Christians, had very close relationship till 16th century, and Christianity in the Graeco Roman world was that, St. Thomas was the martyred in India. The non-Christian neighbours of the Thomas Christians also testify to the truth of this tradition.
A few important aspects of this tradition which draws our serious attention are these: The Seven places where St. Thomas had established Christian communities are even now seeable and locatable. In almost all these place there are strong presence of St. Thomas Christian communities with their tradition, apart from the stories how they were subsequently diffused into other and surrounding localities. Similarly the port where the apostle landed in Kerala, the places where he preached and did miracles and made coverts the leading families whom he baptized and appointed as caretaker of his communities, the site where he met martyrdom are traceable, lively and important. So all these are still lively parts of the ancient tradition. Those places where St.Thomas established churches again attract our attention. Because all those places lay located not only in or near the former Jewish colonies but also in important trading centres near the sea or on back lagoons or river shores (eg, Kodungallur, Niranam, Palayur, Gakamangalam,Kollam etc). The leading families from whom the apostle had coverts and appointment as leaders exist even now with their hereditary claims from generations. Therefore all the local, physical and circumstantial evidences are in favour of the tradition witnessed by the St. Thomas Christians. It is important to note that there is no rival tradition in the church of the Thomas Christians in Kerala with regard to its origin and there to no other country in the world which claims that St. Thomas is their apostle and died there.
In the absence of such claims and due to the presence of the living community of the Thomas Christians in Kerala along with the presence of the burial place of the apostle at Mylapur from centuries, it is just to admit the prevailing claim that out of the evangelical works of St. Thomas the church of the St. Thomas Christians in India had its origin. The St. Thomas Christians holds their apostolic origin as an article of their church.
This is another unquestionable and strong witness to the Indian apostoliate of St.Thomas than any other in that respect. Moreover to the vestige of the Thomas tradition this is an evidence of unique importance. In almost all every century (Commencing from the 3rd century till 16th) we have one or more testimonies to the existence of the St.Thomas tomb in India. According to all the early documents St.Thomas worked and died in India. From the 7th century the place in India was identified as Calamina or Qalimaya. In the 12-14 centuries it is in Calamina or Myluph or in Meilan. From that time onwards undoubtedly it was identified as the present Mylapur.
According to all traditions (Indian, East Syrian, Graeco-Roman, Mylapur etc.) St. Thomas met a martyr’s death and that event according to the traditions found within the St.Thomas Christians of India and Mylapur was at Mylapur in the Pandiyan kingdom. The Thomas Christians used to go on pilgrimage to this tomb from time immemorial. Other testimonies from the 3rd century are these:
The 3rd century Syrian writing the Acts of Apostle Judas Thomas (Acta Thoma), says that the apostle worked in India and met death on the top of a hill in the kingdom of Mazdai. It was from there a part of the bones was taken to Edessa by a Syrian merchant called Khabin and a church was built in Edessa in the name of the Apostle. St Ephrem testifies to this fact and he has composed a lot of hymns on St. Thomas on his mission in India, martyrdom and removal of bones to Edessa etc, in the 4th century.
About the shrine and church of St.Thomas at Edessa there is information from Egeria’s pilgrimage diary in the end of the 4th century.
St. John Chrysostum merely says that the site of St.Thomas tomb is as much known as the sites of the tomb of St. Peter, St.Paul and St.John, although he does not give definite indication of its location.
Gregory of Tours (AD 594) gives an account of the monastery of St.Thomas in India based on the report he had heard from a monk called Theodore who had visited that monastery.
In 841 Suleiman a Muslim traveller mentions Bethuma (House of Thomas), which can be reached in 10 days from Quilon.
Pseudo-Sophronins (AD 7th Century) seems do be the first to indicate the place name ‘Calamina’ where St. Thomas was martyred and buried.
Isidore of Seville (AD 636) and many others following him echo this tradition and all of them definitely say that Calamina is a city in India.
Ishoyahb bishop of Saba (ie. Nisibis) (AD 1187-1222) attests that the body of St. Thomas the apostle is in India. While Solomon his contemporary specifies the place as Mayluph- a city in the land of the Indians. At the end of the cent. Marcopolo, the Venitian traveller visited India and wrote (AD 1293): “It is in this province of (Maabar) which is styled the greater India at the gulf between Ceylon and the mainland that the body of Messer St. Thomas lies at a certain town having no great population”.
The Arab Christian historian Amr Ibn Matte wrote in 1340: “Thomas’ tomb is on the island of Meilan in India, on the right hand of the alter in his monastery”John Marignolli (AD1349) John of Monte Corvino(1291), Oderick(1325), Nicolo Conti(1440) all refer to the church of St. Thomas at Mylapur and to the presence of his tomb.
In 1504 four East – Syrian bishops who arrived in Kerala while writing a letter to their patriarch clearly say that Mylapur was the house of the holy Apostle Thomas and their letter clearly shows that they knew where Mylapur is:” in the province of Silan which is one of the province of India”.
When the Portuguese reached India in 1498 the St. Thomas Christians of that country were unanimous on the point that the apostle St. Thomas suffered martyrdom and buried at Mylapur. The same the Portuguese also admitted since 1517, when during their investigation interviewed many natives around Mylapur who were mostly non-christians. The People conveyed to the Portuguese their common belief that St.Thomas had been buried there and that Christian settlements existed in the vicinity.
Thus all the above evidences confirm the time-honoured tradition of the Thomas Christians of India which by all means undeniable evidences do the apostolate of St. Thomas in India.
The Portuguese arrived in South India met the Thomas Christians who maintained very close contact with the East Syrian Christianity from time immemorial. Now what was the attitude of this Christianity with regard to the origin of Christianity in India? Before the arrival of the Portuguese there had prevailed a view about the apostolate of St.Thomas within the ancient Christian world which was around the Meditteranean Sea which could be named in another way as the Greek-Roman Christian worlds. Here we analyse these two views.
Similar to the Indian tradition it is the strong tradition of the Eastern Christianity especially that of the East Syrian Church that St.Thomas was the apostle of Christianity in India. From the 3rd Cent onwards their writings are full with this information. Mingana’s observation in this regard is quite interestive and worth noting here. He writes, “It is the constant tradition of the Eastern Church that the Apostle Thomas evangelized India; and there is no historian, no poet, no breviary, no liturgy, and no writer of anykind who having the opportunity of speaking of Thomas does not associate his name with India. Some writer’s mention also Parthia and Persia among the lands evangelized by him, but all of them are unanimous in the matter of India”. “For them” Mingana continues that “India means St.Thomas and St.Thomas means India and, they are in such a way synonymous”. Moreover, he is emphatic, that for the East Syrians India is well-known and while they refer to it, it is always our modern India.
The earliest available record and a detailed account of St.Thomas’ travel and missionary work in India from the side of Syrian Christianity is the book: The Acts of Judas Thomas written in Syriac by an Edessan Syrian Christian around AD 200. The account is a lively one and it ends with this note. “The Acts of Judas Thomas are completed which he wrought in the land of the Indians fulfilling the Command of Him(Jesus), to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen”.
We shall detail the account of this book under the proceeding subtitle in this same chapter. What we, want to notice here is this. So far, this book was considered non-canonical or unorthodox production. But modern scholarship has denied such allegations telling that this book was Orthodox and of historical value. For them this book belonged to an authentic tradition of the Syrian Christianity till 4th Century. What is represented in this book as the acts of St.Thomas is a very imaginative reconstruction of the world of Thomas, his travels and works in India. But these are not mere imagination. There are truths in it and are of historical value reflecting the history of the origin of Christianity in India. If so, this is the first and a detailed account about the origin of Christianity in India according to Syrian Christianity.
Another example of the evidence from the Syrian Christianity for the Indian apostolate of Thomas is “Teaching of the Apostles”, a Syriac book written on AD 250, which underlines the prevailed tradition in this way: “India and all its countries and those bordering on it, even to the farthest Sea, received the Apostle’s Hand of Priesthood from Judas Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the Church which he built and ministered there”.
Among the East Syrian writers the most important is St.Ephrem (4th C.AD), who lived in Edessa, the centre of Syrian Christianity, for sometime and was a great hymn writer. While Ephrem was in Edessa, it was the resting place of the bones of St.Thomas, which was brought from India by a Syrian merchant and an annual festival on July 3rd was celebrated there Commemorating the martyrdom of St.Thomas. Ephrem has composed several hymns in honour of St Thomas with the themes of his preaching of the Gospel in India, his martyrdom there, bringing of his bones to Edessa, the honour that the church in Edessa got due to the depositing of the apostle’s bones, the miracles brought at the shrine etc.
What Ephrem in his hymns had attested are not his mere personal imaginations purely as a poet but these are the assent and tradition of the whole Syrian Christianity especially at Edessa. Most of these hymns were sung thereafter in the liturgy of this church for which undoubtedly its Christian people had given most emphatic support with due consideration that those were facts with reference to St.Thomas.
From the above observation what is clear in the Syrian church’s position with regard to the origin of Indian Christianity: 1. That the tradition of the Syrian Christianity especially East Syrian was always that St. Thomas was the founder of Christianity in India he was martyred there, buried there and a part of his mortal remains were later carried on to Edessa; and 2. that their tradition was never that the Indian Christianity was founded by the missionary efforts of the East Syrian church. Because some modern writers like Brown, Firth etc have ventured ignoring this fact, to state that the Indian Christianity was founded by the East Syrian Christianity and their missionaries or thorough immigration of their people into India.
It is told above this as the earliest available record and a detailed account of St.Thomas travel and missionary works in India from the side of the Syrian Christianity. In 13 chapters it is narrated.
According to this book to the portion of Judas Thomas India fell as the field of his mission which Thomas refused all along saying to Christ: Lord! Send me anywhere but not to India. As the result Thomas was sold to a merchant called Abban from India, who was looking for a carpenter for his king Gundaphorous to build him a palace. They travelled and reached at Andrapolis and then India. Having met the king, Thomas undertook to build the palace for the king and received money. But Thomas instead of building the palace distributed the money on the poor. King knowing this made enquiries for which Thomas answers were that he had built the palace in heaven which the king will not be able to see now but only after death. Thereupon the infuriated king caught both Thomas and Abban and imprisoned. The king’s brother Gad died at this time and went to heaven, where angels took him to a beautiful palace which he desired to have. But the angels told, that is built by Thomas for his brother Gundaphorous. Now Gad with permission from angels returned to Gundaphorous to buy for him the place and as Gundaphorous came to know about such a beautifully built palace for him by Thomas he became very sad for imprisoning him and immediately released both those at his order. Not only that, the king became Christian along with his relatives and people. Thomas continued his mission and converted many not only in this kingdom but also in another kingdom that of Mazdai in another part of India. Here the apostle met a martyr’s death and entombed
The Acts describes the miraculous activities of Thomas in India before and after his death. The intention of the book is that St. Thomas, according to the command of his master-Lord Jesus Christ- had fulfilled his mission of proclaiming the gospel to the Indians. Who is the author of this Acts and to what purpose this was wrote etc, were disputes so far among scholars. But now the modern scholarship has admitted these facts:
Now the historians have accepted that the King Gundaphorous mentioned in the Acts was a historical figure an Indo-Parthian King, because of availability of coins with his name. According to this account Thomas mission was a genuine Indian mission and the book is sufficient enough to prove the fact that the Indian Christianity had its origin out of the labours of St. Thomas and he was martyred and entombed there. So he is the Apostle of India.