Apostolic origin


The Church of the St. Thomas Christians is an ancient Christian Church and an apostolic Church originated out of the evangelical endeavours can be utilized and analysed.
  1. The living community of St. Thomas Christians in south India and their traditions.
  2. The witness of the Tomb of St. Thomas at Mylapore and its traditions.
  3. The tradition of the East Syrian Christianity and the tradition of the Universal Christianity (Graeco-Roman).
  4. The testimony of Fathers.
  5. The Liturgical Traditions.
  6. Ancient writings and legends -Acta Thoma.
  7. The Portuguese witness of the 16th Century.
  8. Opinions of Historians.

The Church of St .Thomas Christians and their traditions about their origin

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.

The Liveliness of the St.Thomas 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.

The Tomb of St Thomas at Mylapur

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.

Various Testimonies to the Tomb

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 Tradition of the East Syrian and Meditteranean Christianities About the Apostolate of St.Thomas

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.

The Tradition of the East Syrian Church on St.Thomas and His Apostolate

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.

The Acts of Judas Thomas

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:

  1. It is the earliest available record and detailed account about St. Thomas mission in India from the side of the Syrian Christianity.
  2. The allegation that the book is unorthodox is not accepted by the modern scholarship. Their opinion is this book belonged to an authentic tradition, which had prevailed till 4th century within the Syrian Christianity.
  3. The Acts is a very imaginative reconstruction of the world of Judas Thomas in India. It is neither fiction nor history but it is both. It contains truth and fiction written in very lively narrative form to reflect both theology of the East Syrian Christianity and the history of the origins of Christianity in India.

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.

The Tradition of the Graeco-Roman Christianity

Among the non-East Syrian Fathers and writers, especially those belonging to the Graeco-Roman world, Gregory of Nzianzus, Ambrose, Jerome (4th Century AD) hold that St.Thomas preached in India and established Church there. Origen, Clementinc Recognition, Eusebius of Caesaria, Rufinus of Aquileia and Socrates say the Thomas worked in Parthia. Here we are not to see any contradiction as the Parthian empire extended up to north India at that time. By the end of the 4th Cent, the Western sources sre more or less unanimous that St.Thomas worked in India. Among these come to St.Thomas St.Gaudentius bishop of Brescia (AD 410-27), St.Paulines bishop of Nola (AD353-431) St. Bede the Venerable (673-735), Gregory of Tours (538-93), Isirdore of Seville (636), etc.Cosmos an Alexandrine traveller in the 6th century also states that there was Christianity in India which was definitely The Thomas Christians. In brief a number of fragmentary passages in the writings of Fathers and writers belonging from the 3rd Century speaks in unambiguous terms that St.Thomas is the apostle of India. From the 4th Century the major churches in the Graeco-Roman Christian world are unanimous in their witnessing to the above tradition. To state a few.
Eusebius of Caesaria
Quoting Origen he writes in his Ecclesiastical History thus:” When the Holy apostles of Our Saviour were scattered all over the world, Thomas, the tradition has it, obtained as his possession Parthia…”During this period Parthia was extended to the North West India. Persian tradition too claims Thomas as the apostle of Persia.
He writes about India, the route to India, its people especially the Brahmins. When he writes about Christian and the apostles, he mentions Thomas also: “He was indeed at one and the same time with the Apostles during the forty days…. He dwelt in all places; with Thomas in India, with Peter in Rome, with each apostolic man in each and all countries.”
Gregory of Naziansus
 Gregory says that even though the apostles were strangers to the places they went, they took real efforts to go to the respective places allotted to them. He wrote: What? Were not the Apostles Strangers amidst the many nations and countries over which they spread themselves, that the Gospel might penetrate into all Parts…? Peter indeed may have belonged to India…Thomas with Judea, Marks with Italy…
Ambrose of Milan
Ambrose had much informations about India, its geography and its people. He knew of Muzris(Cranganore) and the river Ganga. He also relates Thomas with India when he writes: “Even those kingdoms which were shut out by rugged mountains become accessible to them as India to Thomas…”
Gregory of Tours
Gregory says about the martyrdom of Thomas in India and of a monastery there. “Thomas the Apostle according to the history of his passion, is declared to have suffered in India. After a long time his blessed body was taken to a city which… called Edessa in Syria. In that Indian place where he first rested, there is a monastery and a church”.
Isidore of Saville
He had a good knowledge about India. He writes that the apostle Thomas preached the Gospel to Parthians and Indians. He also says that Thomas was martyred in Calamina and was buried there.
Cosmos the Alexandrine Traveller
Though Cosmos do not state about the St.Thomas’ Apostolate, he was the first reliable historical evidence of an Indian church on the West coast of India. In Ceylon, Malabar and Kalyan he saw Christians who were definitely out of the evangelistic labours of St.Thomas. Moreover, they had a bishop at Kalyan, who was appointed from Persia.
The Testimony of Liturgical Traditions of Ancient Churches
The unanimous testimony of the Fathers and writers of the early centuries, a few of which lited  earlier, confirm that the Indian Christianity was due to the apostolate of St.Thomas.
Since “liturgy is the official form of worship which celebrates the faith of the churches, it forms an essential part of the early traditions of churches” The Church universal values the early liturgical traditions of the Churches as authentic sources of the authentic Christian tradition. The major earlier liturgical traditions of the Eastern and western Churches confirm the tradition of the Indian apostolate of St.Thomas.
The East Syrian liturgical tradition, the common heritage of the churches founded by St.Thomas and his disciples, give great importance to the feasts of St.Thomas. July 3rd according to this tradition is the commemoration day of St.Thomas, which in the Indian Tradition known as the feast of DUKRANA. According to syraic manuscript of 1443, it has the following: “July 3… St.Thomas who was pierced with a lance in India. His body is at Urhai (Edessa) having been brought there by a merchant Khabin. A great festival”.
In the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar church for the feast of Dukrana there is a prayer:  “St.Thomas built a palace in heaven, beautified it richly, furnished it with all good things and invited the King and people of India to dwell in it and enjoy the bliss.” The liturgy of the Indian Orthodox church also confirms that St.Thomas was killed by an evil man while involved in preaching in South India on July 3rd and his mortal remains were carried away to Urhai and placed there by a devotee who came from there.
The Martyrology and liturgical calendar of the Roman Church too associate the Church in India with Apostle Thomas. According to the Roman martyrology known after the  St.George the martyrdom of St Thomas is commemorated on 21 st  December. It refers to the removal of his relics as well to Edessa.
According to the Roman Breviary Thomas was martyred at Calamina, pierced with lances.
The Byzantine liturgical tradition too refers the martyrdom by lance.
The Menologion of the Greek Church commemorates the martyrdom of St.Thomas in India on the 6th of October. It is stated that the apostle was led to a hillock where, he was killed with a lance by the Indians.
The Alexandrine tradition also follows the date of the Byzantine Calendar for the feast of St.Thomas and calls him the apostle of India.

The Portuguese Witness of the 16th Century

When the Portuguese arrived in South India they met in Kerala the so called St.Thomas Christians. With them, thereafter they had deep contacts for more than one and a centuries. Moreover entirely due to their efforts that the Thomas Christian were forcefully brought under the Roman Church through an arbitrary meeting which met at Udayamperoor in 1599. Therefore, the Portuguese information about the Thomas Christians, their traditions, the tomb of St.Thomas at Mylapur etc. are of immense importance for assessing the origin of Christianity in India.(For Portuguese sources see A M Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol.1, Banglore:TPI, 1984,4-5,377).
As the Thomas Christians came in closer contacts with the Portuguese, these Indian Christian told to the Portuguese their oral traditions about their origin. Making ample use of these and similar other sources the inquisitive Portuguese wrote down their accounts in the form of letters, reports, depositions, and well-composed histories. These are today the richest, and perhaps the earliest written sources of the Indian tradition on the apostolate of St. Thomas and his tomb.
The Portuguese also went to Mylapur and settled there from 1517 and collected all informations about the tomb of St. Thomas not only from the Christians but also from the natives. Today all these are a wealth of information in various Portuguese documents.
According to the Portuguese What one can have about the origin of Christianity in India could be summarized under these three points:
  1. That St. Thomas is the apostle of India.  2. That out of his labour the socalled church of St. Thomas Christians had its origin in India; and; 3. That the apostle met a martyr’s death at Mylapur where also he was entombed at a place which they excavated in 152.

Opinions of Historians

The general consensus of opinion among scholars about the origin of Christianity in India is that the foundations of it in India were laid by St. Thomas, the apostle. Almost all serious historians do not subscribe to the view that Christianity in India had its origin out of the missionary works of the East Syrian church or of the Roman Catholic Church. Because these church themselves never had made any such unique claim. Instead what they always had said was that it was due to the apostolic labours of St. Thomas. Two evidences to this are : 1. The living church of the St. Thomas Christians with their tradition, and ; 2. The presence of the tomb of St. Thomas at Mylapur and its witnessesOther evidences which support these are two:
  1. There were frequent trade contacts between India and Middle East, Greek and Rome even before the time of Christ. So it was possible for St. Thomas Thomas to come to India.
  2. The presence of the Jewish settlements in South India even before the Christian era has proven without doubt. There prevailed the presence of an active trade relation between Jews in Israel and South India. Cranganore, Palur, Paravoor etc where St Thomas established Christian Communities were also Jewish settlements and were great trading centres. It was the presence of the Jews invited Thomas to those places, where he as the result of his labours established Christianity.


Therefore “The age-old Consciousness of the church of St.Thomas Christians-that their origin as Christians is from the mission of St.Thomas the apostle in India- Stands sufficiently justified”.
Hereafter we move on to trace how the orthodox Thomas Christians after 1653  moved as an independent church encountering  all oppositions which came before them from the Roman Catholics. How did they come in contact with the West Syrian Christianity?